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'Real Exact': Freeze-Frame L.A.

Remembering James Doolin and the luminous quality of his life and work

July 28, 2002|PETER CAREY | Peter Carey is the author of several novels, including "True History of the Kelly Gang," "Jack Maggs" and "Oscar and Lucinda."

When the painter James Doolin died last week, suddenly at 70, I lost not only a friend but also an important teacher. By this I do not simply mean that he taught me, an inward-looking writer, to peer outward at, say, a window frame or a Corot, or that he persuaded me that the freeways of Los Angeles were the most important sculptures of our time or that he could introduce me (in a painting like "Interchange") to a wild sort of ecstasy, a soaring of the spirit that might seem at first at variance with his often-stated desire to makes things "real exact."

It may be difficult to see how a painter might teach a writer. He did have some tough things to say about my earliest, blessedly unpublished, work, and his points were good ones, but his most important teaching was the intensely moral example of his life. This was a man who would continue in the face of misunderstanding and dull provincial criticism, who would never do anything expedient, who would continue a path that took him well beyond the boulevards of fashion, and if no one noticed what he was doing in the alleyway, well, that was what his life would be.

Artists of course are meant to be like this, but in fact such individuals are rare, and sometimes, watching Jim, it was hard not to wish he might become more "reasonable." I had known him for two years in Melbourne, Australia, but in 1967 he returned to the States, to Los Angeles. From here he wrote me a series of letters, each one more pessimistic than the last. Of L.A., he wrote in an almost apocalyptic tone: If the world was going to end, at least he had a ringside seat.

The work he had produced in Australia had been entirely abstract, and he is still known and celebrated there for the influence he had on an entire generation of painters.

In Los Angeles, he suddenly threw abstraction away. He spent three (some say four) years working on a huge conceptualized painting of a Santa Monica shopping center. In describing this painting to me, he never made it sound anything other than "real exact." A shopping center? It seemed like self-destructive madness to me. So it was with some surprise that I discovered, years later, a work of breathtaking beauty. Why had I not been ready for this, how could I have been so slow to understand that my friend was making hymns to life?

Naturally I have my excuses. Jim's refusal to compromise could make him stern and judgmental. Sometimes, when he had criticized my life in a letter, I thought he was like Savonarola, sternly consigning the vanities to the flames. Certainly when he painted those ecstatic freeways, he was also recording structures that he saw most clearly as ruins, as what remained after the Fire Next Time. Visiting the Mohave Desert with him, I saw that a great deal of its appeal was the evidence, everywhere, of its triumph over human dreams and vanities.

Yet even at his most iconoclastic, one could never doubt his kindness, his enormous generosity, his complexity. It is not surprising that he had been a passionate admirer of Ad Reinhardt's black paintings, but as a teenager, he ran for election in high school with a drawing of Donald Duck and the slogan "If Jim Doolin Can Do This For Me, Just Think What He Could Do For You." These influences are still alive in many of his masterworks: In his paintings of L.A.'s Skid Row and in the bulbous pant-suited figures of his nightmare Las Vegas, you can see both Walt Disney and Savonarola struggling on the mat.

Jim made a small and rather private portrait of his mother and father. I don't really know the history of his conflicts with his dad, only that Jim had run away from home to pursue his life in art. Typically, this portrait is distinguished by the artist's refusal to lie about a single thing, neither the aging father's grim New England profile, nor the mother's worn and worried, beaten eyes, and yet the whole glows with a quality that I can only call love, not love earned easily or sentimentally, but love that glows all the more strongly because it has been fought for. There is something in this luminous quality that reminds me of the freeways, a radiant, rapturous life-force which we have a right to expect from someone who was always concerned to be "real exact."

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