Jack Dowling: Painter, Writer

John (Jack) Dowling was a “country” boy from New Jersey when he moved to New York City to attend Cooper Union, where he studied with Robert Gwathmey and Morris Kantor. Following his graduation in the late fifties, he lived in Europe for a few years, during which time he was an artist-in-residence and a teacher at the Positano Art Workshop. Jack’s early work as a painter was in abstraction, but his artwork later took a new direction, with compositions inspired by photos of family and friends.

Jack Dowling in his studio, 1967.

He achieved recognition by the mid-sixties, selling and exhibiting his work in both group and solo shows. A highlight was “The Dominant Woman” show at the Finch College Museum of Art (Dec. ’68/Jan. ’69), which included artists Claes Oldenburg, Willem de Kooning, and Jim Dine, among others. Then in 1970, Jack was homeless after losing a battle to save his East Side loft from being leveled. He soon found a new home, however, at Westbeth, where he has lived ever since. In the nineties, Jack turned to writing for creative expression. His stories have been published in the Hamilton Stone Review, the Barcelona Review, A&U magazine, American Writing, and CreamDrops. For a record fourteen consecutive years, Jack served on the Westbeth Artists Residents Council as the visual arts chair. Terry Stoller spoke with Jack Dowling in March 2013 about his painting, his writing, and his tenure as director of the Westbeth gallery.

Terry Stoller: You went to Cooper Union in 1953.

Jack Dowling: I went from ’53 to ’57.

What was it like there?

I have to tell you honestly, the first time I went, in 1951, I found myself in a group of students mostly from New York City, who had spent their life in art. Their parents had taken them to museums. They had been exposed to all kinds of artistic, New York City sophisticated things and had attended the High School of Music & Art—and I was this kid from the country. I lasted about six weeks and realized I was not going to be able to cut it because I didn’t know what they were talking about.

You hadn’t been to museums as a boy?

Not really. I’d been to New York, but when I came in when I was younger, it didn’t occur to me to go to museums. I wasn’t focused that much on art at the time. But I had the scholarship. So I dropped out, and they managed to allow me to come back in 1953.

What made you even want a scholarship for an art school?

I was very, very good at drawing and very good at marginal painting, if I can call it that—what you do in high school, not serious or professional. My art teacher, Mr. Holland, was impressed with my work and suggested I apply to Cooper Union for an art scholarship. At that point in my life, I had no idea what I wanted to do, and since I had this technique, a facility and ability and some interest, I applied and was accepted. Then the next year I went and discovered I was in deep water, so I asked if I could drop out and come back, which I was surprised they let me do.

What did you do in those two years to educate yourself about art?

I didn’t particularly educate myself about art so much. New York City fascinated me. It absolutely fascinated me from very young childhood. I came here on my bicycle when I was 12. I really had to get to know the city itself. I think that’s what was feeding me in terms of whatever creative abilities I was going to eventually have. That was coming not just from going to museums and looking at pictures; it was coming from living in the city and becoming exposed to the whole of the city, people living in the city, activities in the city. I think they all influenced what eventually turned me on to begin to create. I assumed at the time drawing and then painting to be the route I should take. It wasn’t that I had a driving force within me to become a painter.

And were you painting in those two years before you went back to school?

I was doing a lot of drawing. I wasn’t doing much painting. In fact, I had never done very much painting. I did mostly drawings all through high school and afterwards, traveling in the city. It was mostly pen-and-ink drawings or pencil drawings. I had done that ever since I was in grade school.

What were you sketching?

I started out in the beginning, maybe like Roy Lichtenstein, sketching from comic books, sketching from newspaper things, and making little drawings that related to that. And then I began to sketch classmates. I didn’t do much in the way of landscapes.

I’m asking because you go on to do abstract painting, so I was wondering if you had been sketching in that vein.

No, that was something that happened once I started at Cooper Union and began to learn how to handle paints and began to realize that I wasn’t interested in painting still lifes or landscapes or particular figures—although I did have to do some figure painting in class. I became excited about the freedom of painting abstractly and just creating an image that seemed to come out of myself somehow. Also at the same time developing some kind of intellectual understanding of composition in an abstract sense, color in an abstract sense, the use of paints abstractly.

With your abstract work, were you following certain artists or theories?

I was just fascinated by the ability to put color paint on canvas, experimenting with color. It was almost as if I regressed to childhood, and here I was playing around with color. It had that kind of feeling with it. It didn’t have a profound intellectual or philosophical impulse. I became aware of the very famous abstract painters because this was the fifties when they were all bursting on the scene, and I was interested in it, but I was not connected to any particular movement.

How long did you work in abstraction?

After I graduated from Cooper Union, I went to Europe. I continued painting abstractly, particularly in Italy. The visuals in Italy were so different from New York. New York City was all vertical, and Italy was all horizontal. So my painting became more horizontal than vertical. It became more earthbound, and Italian paints were more earthy than the paints I was using here. There’s a difference; it’s subtle. Yellow ochre in Winsor & Newton is slightly different than yellow ochre out of an Italian company.

Would that change the nature of your work?

In a way, yes, because I began to work with much warmer colors, and the atmosphere of Italy, the feeling of Italy, the natural colors of the landscapes were quite different from here. They’re warmer. The green of olive trees is so much different from the green of an elm tree. An olive-tree green has got that wonderful seaside kind of gray green. So I got fascinated by that and began to use colors that I picked up and could see in the Italian landscape.

When you came back from Italy, were you still working in abstraction?

I was definitely working abstractly. I brought fifty or sixty paintings back with me from Italy—I was there for two years, then I came back here, and then I went back for a year, and I taught in an art school in Positano. I shipped back these paintings, and unfortunately they were all crushed in the shipment. They had initially been put in a fiberglass tube, and somebody had decided they wanted the tube and put them in a cardboard tube, which got flattened. So that was a real blow. But I picked up from there and continued working abstractly. But I was beginning to lose my enthusiasm for it because I didn’t know where it was going to go.

Wedding Day. 1964. Oil on canvas, 25 x 36 inches. Collection Peter Dowling.

One day I was in the studio, and I had the canvas, and I was thinking what I was going to do with it. I had already done the basic priming, and I thought I’d start experimenting with something else entirely. I took a photograph of my parents on their wedding day, and I started painting that, copying it in a sense. It wasn’t a copy. I wasn’t a realist. It was a photograph taken in 1929, so it wasn’t sharp. It had an interesting light-and-shadow kind of quality, which those old photographs have. And that fascinated me. The light and shadow. I set the painting at night (it had been photographed during the day); I put an automobile in there and had light coming out of the house onto the porch—none of this was in the photograph. But I began to combine other elements with the two figures standing.

Could you call this a form of abstraction?

It wasn’t abstraction. It was more working with light and shadow, composition. I think what caught me, once I finished that painting, was that there were two people in it—there was an intensity to my painting at that point, I realized. That painting eventually was picked by Ivan Karp, who was at the Leo Castelli Gallery, to go on an American Federation of Arts (AFA) tour, and it was the cover of the catalog.

I can tell you how I got to Ivan Karp. This is the way things could happen in 1964. I was at a party, and Betty Parsons was there. She knew I was a painter (my host had told her), and she talked to me for a while and suggested I bring her some work. And so the next week I did. I brought the work up on the appointed day, and she turned out not to be there. And these were two paintings done much in the style I just described. Her assistant came out and looked at the paintings and said to me, he didn’t think Miss Parsons would be interested in them. So I rewrapped them, and I went back out to 57th Street, and I was standing there with these two big paintings, and I thought, I’m either going to go home with the tail between my legs, or I’m going to do something outrageous. So I called Castelli Gallery, and I said, Do you ever look at the work of people who just walk in off the street? And Ivan Karp happened to be on the phone, and he said, Sure, come by. So I brought the two paintings in, and he looked at them, and he said, OK, great, send me some slides. And then when I got home, of course, like anybody else, I dawdled and didn’t do anything, but I told everybody what happened. Finally my friends insisted I send him some slides.

In the meanwhile, I got a note from him in the mail, telling me that he liked my work “extraordinarily.” As I said, he put that painting that I just described of my parents in the AFA show and also put me in other shows. He was very clear that he didn’t think I was right for or ready for Castelli. Eventually, Elayne Varian, a director at the Finch College Museum of Art, on Ivan’s recommendation, selected Ladies in America for “The Dominant Woman” exhibit. And, too, Marcia Tucker, who was a friend of mine and a curator at the Whitney, included me in a benefit that she curated at Max’s Kansas City, a popular artists’ hangout. Things were going pretty nicely in the sixties.

Ladies in America. 1967. Oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches.

Can you talk about your Ladies in America painting?

This was my grandmother, my aunt, and my mother all sitting together. The original photograph had them, but I changed the background. I changed what they were wearing. I put stripes on my aunt’s blouse. I put stars in it. And they are pretty powerful characters in this painting, powerful women. And it seemed to fit right in with the theme of the show, “The Dominant Woman.”

What was the impetus for changing their clothes?

It had a lot to do with composition. Certainly when I did the painting, I had no idea there was a show coming up. So I wasn’t thinking about presenting these women as dominant women, but they certainly were. I think it had to do with that knowledge of them, and the emotional part of my reaction to doing this painting, the sense that my mother, particularly, and my aunt, too, really tried to present themselves as all American, even though their parents were foreign born. My mother’s father was born in Vienna—he was an Austrian Jew—and her mother was born in Finland, and they met in Hoboken. So I found myself putting in these elements of Americana, and that’s how it came in. And when you’re painting something like that, you’re not always totally conscious of the full meaning of what you’ve just put down. And then you look at it later, and you suddenly see things you hadn’t realized were happening there.

And that was also a play with light and shadow.

Very much so.

What inspired you to use photographs as your starting off point?

That first painting, the painting of my parents on their wedding day, I began scrambling through a lot of old photographs that I had, thinking this might be an interesting direction to go. I had very mixed and difficult relationships in some ways within my family, and I had aunts and uncles who I felt more as parents to me than my own parents, for some reason, so I began to broaden it out into other members of the family, and then to my grandmother, whom I was very close to. So I did a number of paintings from photographs of her life. As this progressed, I began to bring in some friends from snapshots, and then I began to even do completely made-up paintings that could have been from snapshots but weren’t.

Decoration Day, 1917, 1. 1964; Decoration Day, 1917, 2. 1965. Both: Oil on canvas, 40 x 40 inches. Collection Martin Duberman.

But you didn’t want to paint from a live model. Can you explain that?

The first painting I ever did and ever sold, I did in Cooper Union, and it was two figures in the class. And it was almost in a kind of Larry Rivers style, which I didn’t realize until later. If I were to do a painting of you, let’s say, the first thing I’d have to do is make sketches of you, and then I would have to decide what kind of colors I would use for you. And if I were going to do it in a realistic way, then I would have to figure out your personal coloration and how I would deal with that. This was not a process I was particularly interested in. I was more interested in the composition, certainly in the impact of the images. But I could get inside somebody’s head perhaps with the image that I laid on the canvas that might suggest something I suspected or recognized that might not necessarily have been how that person felt about themselves.

You also wrote that your work was very monochromatic.

I was fascinated by light and shadow in the work, and how you would get depth into a painting without much color, because color has its own mobility. Certain colors come forward; certain colors recede. So when you’re working particularly with a landscape and you want distance, your color palette would change in order to get the depth that you want. This was hard to do in what was essentially a two-dimensional kind of layout—black and white and variations on it. It wasn’t all black and white. Some of them looked like they were black and white, but actually they were very deep colors. Very blackish green, blackish brown. The shading came out of the browns and the greens.

Crossing Over. 1967. Oil on canvas, 40 x 40 inches. Collection Mr. and Mrs. Henry Tang.

I was interested in having everything right up front. They were very hard paintings to hang. There’s one hanging in the hall there, which I could never hang in this room [the living room], because it would just sit there and stare at you. I did sell a number of them, but I realized after a while it was the ones that were a little bit softer in the image that sold, such as a painting of two friends of mine that I hated to part with. It’s called Crossing Over, and it’s just two figures, two faces. And it was a boat crossing to one of the islands in Maine, but you don’t know that when you look at the painting.

And that was done from a photograph?

From a snapshot I had taken. So for some of the stuff, as I moved on, I started using photographs that were my own. And they were never photographs that I took with the idea that I was going to make a painting out of it. It was more coincidental, accidental—I liked that idea of an interesting spark by something I saw visually that I didn’t plan.

The one-man show at Banfer Gallery [on East 67th Street off Madison Avenue] was in autumn 1969. Did that come out of the Finch College Museum show?

No. I was approached by Tom Ferdinand, who ran the Banfer Gallery. He had seen some of my work through mutual friends. He was trying to bring his gallery into a little bit more of a contemporary look. He had wonderful painters, but they were more traditional. I showed about thirty paintings. They were all of the kind we’re talking about. Not some of the earlier ones. The earlier ones such as my parents on their wedding day—that was already gone. I had been selling a lot of work out of my studio.

I was disappointed in the show. I was disappointed in not having the reaction I thought I should have had. I probably made a mistake by going to Banfer. I probably made a mistake by trying to follow his need to move the gallery into a more contemporary look, which meant that people still had the image of Banfer as a different kind of gallery. There were some good reviews. Carter Ratcliff wrote a very good review in ARTnews, and the critic in the Wall Street Journal wrote some very nice things. Around the same time, I was also published in The Painter and the Photograph: From Delacroix to Warhol by Van Deren Coke.

You stopped painting in the early seventies, after you lost your loft. Then later on, you joined a writing group.

I joined the writing group in the early nineties. It was a workshop run by a man named Sanford Friedman.

I’m wondering what made you think, enough painting. I’m going to be a writer now.

That never really happened. I had pretty much concluded that I was finished with the painting. I have a painting up in the loft space, which is called The Last Painting, and it’s half done. And I’ve never finished it because everybody loves it as the last painting. I like it too. I got into that painting. I realized where it was going to go, and I liked the idea of where it was going to go, but I also decided I didn’t want to paint anymore.

You wrote me that you had always been writing down observations and one-liners.

I had notes. I had worked at one point, when I was going to Cooper Union, on the docks for Cunard Line. I had notes then about the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary and conversations between the mainland people and the people on the boats. I had other notes about that and reflections on things. And I began looking at that one day, and I took something out of there, and I wrote a little piece, maybe one page, and I thought, This is interesting, but you really have a grammar problem, which I always had and still have. And then I heard about the workshop.

It was there that you worked on the craft of writing.

I worked really hard because in the beginning I couldn’t write anything more than a big paragraph.

I’ve read only a few of your pieces, but as I wrote to you, they felt very much like an extension of portraiture. You can see what the people look like. You’re following the journey of a certain character. Do you see them that way?

I think so. Most of the stories are about a specific person and their life and their surroundings and their movement.

Are you working on anything at present?

I’m working on three things at once. I’m heavily editing something that’s very long. I don’t know what I’ll do with that. I have a couple of stories that I’m ready to send out. I have one that’s already out there that might be published by Hamilton Stone. They published two of my pieces. At this point in my life—it’s not like if I were younger, and this was my burning ambition, I would feel like the world was coming to an end if I wasn’t getting published. It’s something I truly love to do.

That’s wonderful that you have three—coming up with the idea for one is hard enough.

There are things sometimes in your life that sit in your craw for a while, and they just tickle at you. And then one day you say, I know what that’s all about, and you start writing. I wrote a murder mystery; never in my mind would I ever think I’d write a murder mystery. It’s called “The Knife”—it’s all invented. It comes from a headline. The knife travels all through the various invented characters until it ends up with the person who actually did the murder. And the murder was of a girl I had gone to high school with. I saw the headline on Eighth Street coming from school. This has been in my head all my life. And the headline in the Daily Mirror said: “Nurse Stabbed in New Jersey.” And I knew it was Mary Ann. I just knew. I stood there, and I looked across the street, and I went and picked up the paper, and it was. That was enough of a shock that I put it away. I went to her funeral and so on, but it never occurred to me to write, but it kept sitting there—that I had seen this paper and knew who it was. And so finally I constructed a story around it.

I’m going to move on to your time as visual arts chair and director of the Westbeth gallery. You wrote me that one of the things you saw for the gallery was that it “kept older artists engaged with their creative selves. They knew that even if they no longer had gallery representation, their work would still be seen.” I’m going to guess that some people would not agree that’s what the gallery is for.

This was not my sole focus. I should clarify that. I wanted to be sure that the gallery did not become something exclusive, where somebody—not myself, but anybody—would decide what could be shown and what could not be shown. I felt the gallery had to be democratic and transparent, particularly transparent. I never refused anybody’s work. I did have the feeling it was important for some of the older artists in Westbeth, many of whom had had galleries, had had careers, were still respected as fine artists—but without the idea of being able to show your work somewhere, you don’t have a goal. I just felt it was important to let them know the holiday show was coming up, which was a group show—and the summer shows, which were group shows, and they were only in-house shows and gave anybody in the building an opportunity to show something. I can’t deny the fact that sometimes there were pieces that came down that were maybe not quite up to par. There were times when I suggested somebody bring something else down because I knew their work, and I would do that mostly for the artist. But it was not like it was just all the older artists. We had new people coming in all the time, so there was always a big mix.

You said you felt a strength of yours was that you could advise artists.

After I had been doing it for a while, I began to get to know the artists and their work. And I did begin to feel that I understood where their strengths lie and where sometimes their weaknesses lie. It’s something we all deal with. We don’t always know exactly what’s our best thing. So sometimes somebody would bring something down that they were all excited about, and I’d seen their other work and realized that maybe that piece is not going to serve them well, that there might be another piece that would serve them better. I had that happen with one artist who brought down three paintings. Two of them were very much alike and not terribly interesting, and the third one was terrific. I said, I really can’t take the three. And she said, Then put those two in because they’re my favorites. And I said, No, we’re going to put this one in because that’s the best. That represents your work better than the other two do. And she said, Really? I said, Yes. When the show opened, she came to me and said, I’m so glad you picked that painting because everybody is coming up to me and telling me what a marvelous painting it is. So I’ve done that a few times, but not with any kind of heavy hand.

I worked really hard on the holiday shows to make them work in some cohesive way. My theory or whatever you call it was, I kept thinking about a person coming in—a complete stranger—to the gallery, and how do you lead them through and how do you encourage them to continue moving and how do you get them to be engaged with what they’re seeing visually and how do you get them to move from one painting to the next in a smooth kind of way so that they are not suddenly stopped by something that’s completely out of the message that’s going along. So that eventually you get a comfort zone in the way the installation has gone. There are certain spots in the gallery that are what I call the hot spots. That’s where you place things that are seen from a long distance that really work well. I tried to make sure that each painting had its own space. I worked hard at making it feel that you were really experiencing something that was rewarding. Maybe learning something more about the artists themselves. With photographers, I didn’t like putting just one photograph in. I don’t think for photographers one photograph is enough. You get a lot of information from a painter from one painting, but a photographer, usually you should have at least two so that you get a sense of where their head’s at. Often with drawings, too. A single drawing is just a single drawing, but if you see three, then you have a sense of what that person is all about. So that was my philosophy.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

In the fourteen years of working in the gallery, I learned more about myself and about other people in the building than I ever expected to at Westbeth. I met more people. I became socialized. I was not very well socialized in this building until I got involved in the gallery and began to have to deal with all kinds of personalities. Learn how to deal with the fact that I had somewhat of a short fuse. I had to watch my tendency to get annoyed. I learned a lot, so it was a wonderful experience. I’m very happy to have done it.

Jack Dowling passed away in February 2021 at age 89.

Photographs by Michael Katz. Courtesy of Jack Dowling.

Profiles in Art, Copyright 2013 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council

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