Over the last 30 years, at dozens of shows, a lot of smart, art-savvy people have written about the work of Dorothy Arnold.
I’m not going to quote them. But I am going to quote something Dorothy told me on almost every occasion I visited her magnificent Cambridge studio to talk about the possibility of a show and later when I was selecting work for this show. She whispered it to me when I considered just how I might present her paintings, she said it when I marveled over a disappearing contour line in a drawing or the perfect lunch served al fresco in the courtyard outside the studio door last month, when the bees swarmed our perfect tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches, like little, black striped ink spots.
What she said is: “Less is more.” Spare and sharp, reserved and quiet, the artist, herself, seemed, physically and emotionally, to represent that credo. The work, to which I was so drawn, epitomized it as well. Lines so deft they took my breath away got darker and wider as they approached and ever more slender and lighter as they departed and then, in a kind of visual legerdemain, disappeared altogether, but somehow kept up the illusion of form – and weight – beyond the line.
Oh, it was a balancing act to be sure, a conjurer’s trick. But, a trick that only could have been performed by someone who had mastered anatomy and drawing a long time ago and who could then spread her wings in triumphal, imaginative play. Less really was more. Dorothy Arnold didn’t need everything and I, as viewer, confident in her mastery, given the turn of a toe, the arc of an arm the tilt of a head, the stiletto heel of a shoe, found that I didn’t need more either.
I could hang my credulity on the anatomical hooks she had provided and then take a leap into the rarified air of ‘missing’ limbs, white spaces, left paper, sometimes propelled by a wash of color.
Through it all were confident contours and rhythms that delineated form and gesture and, through gesture, personality, giving me the gift of an intimate glimpse into the sitter, improvised or not. All this delighted me.
Looking at the work, I naturally found myself thinking of Matisse and Dufy and Lautrec and Rodin, but just for a moment, because the work itself is pure Dorothy and not derivative. The joy, the sly humor and wit, the extraordinary strength, style and visual chic are pure Dorothy as well.
These are bravura works of great intimacy and charm. There is an urgency here that makes it seem as if some of the paints have been squeezed out of a tube directly onto the paper – like skating with paints. There is life pulsing and vibrating here. There is no hesitation or turning back. No second-guessing. There is simplicity and truth and an informing reverence for the body.
When I asked for the large drawings to be included in this show, Dorothy didn’t hesitate to have them taken down from their high perches on the studio walls and framed. The watercolors I chose, carefully kept in archival filing cabinets, hadn’t seen the light of day for thirty years. I am so pleased to be able to share them with you.
Now, we can all be the bees at her banquet.