“I don’t think I really saw it until I was about 14,” Emmy-winning TV writer Eli Attie says of his mother Dotty Attie’s art. “But there was a point where I was staring at a painting I had probably seen every day for years and realized, ‘Oh, wow, that’s actually very provocative.'”
For the younger Attie, it was a revelation to discover the connection between the “sedate and mild-mannered” mother of his daily life and the “more than a little subversive and edgy” painter whose pieces filled his childhood home. Dotty’s work hinges on unexpected intersections: between the familiar imagery of the Old Master paintings she painstakingly reproduces in bits and pieces, and the postmodern wryness of the text she mashes up with them; between an obvious interest in gender and depictions of the body and a reticence to create work that announces its politics too loudly.
“It didn’t seem like my mom, because she’s not like that as a person,” Eli explained, when we get him on the phone with his mother on the occasion of the opening of her new exhibition, “The Lone Ranger,” at P.P.O.W Gallery. “I didn’t feel like I was living in a household with wild-eyed, heroin-injecting crazy. Yet, my mother’s work is right on the edge, and I think it showed me another side of her that you can’t ever get by having a meal with her. She’s lovely, chatty—my friends all adore her—she’s just the most sociable, smart, interesting person…”
“Thank you, Eli!” Dotty broke in sweetly, affirming her son’s description in an instant.
With “The Lone Ranger,” Dotty probes American masculinity and midcentury values, re-imagining the vigilante hero by placing his famous mask on the faces of a variety of unexpected characters, sourced and painted from found photographs. Their through-line is more based in psychology, she explains, than in homage. “I would have to say this is sort of about the secret life of the Lone Ranger,” Dotty says. “My work is really more about my own fantasy life, and not so much about the actual Lone Ranger.”
Once they started chatting about the work, Eli couldn’t resist asking his mother whether she was one of the rather select group of people who saw the Lone Ranger reboot starring Johnny Depp this summer. “I wanted to see it initially, but then it got such horrible reviews—I decided to forgo it,” she laughed. —Alexandria Symonds
ELI ATTIE: Hi, Mom.
DOTTY ATTIE: Hi, honey.
ELI ATTIE: Maybe this is an annoying question for any artist, because obviously you create the art to be your statement, but how would you describe your work to someone who hasn’t seen it?
DOTTY ATTIE: Well, people often ask me, “What is your work like?” And it is kind of hard for me to describe it, but I will definitely attempt it, as I always do. Each painting is very small—six inches by six inches. Many of them make up one work, and I like them stretched out in a line. So there are images that are six by six inches and there is also text, which is usually three by four inches. The paintings themselves are copies of old photographs, usually just part of the old photograph, and interspersed with the text they tell a story. They’re a narrative. They’re in black and white, with a tint of flesh color where that’s appropriate.
ELI ATTIE: Knowing, from my childhood, the kind of paintings that you did in art school and when you were starting out as an artist, your work started out more traditional. When did this idea occur to you of borrowing images, of appropriating other material into your work? Which to me feels incredibly contemporary—sampling in music; pop culture has become so self-referential—but when you started doing this decades ago, it probably was not as common of a thing.
DOTTY ATTIE: When I was in art school, actually, copying was totally taboo. We just were not allowed to do that at all; but I always loved to copy. When I was five years old I had copied the frontispiece of Heidi with chalk on a blackboard that I had. I remember my mother brought in all the neighbors to see it. I always loved copying, but I never really felt like I could do it. So when I was in art school I definitely didn’t copy. I remember one student, in I think a print class, had copied something, and the teacher went ballistic. He turned bright red and was very upset.
But when I graduated from art school and went for a one-year program at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, the teacher, Reuben Tam, would come in at the beginning of every week and talk about shows that he’d seen. He talked about one show in which the artist had used old photographs from his family, I guess, and painted from them. I was very excited. I loved the idea of painting from photographs. So I remember I went home to New Jersey—I was living in New York at the time—and I said to my parents, “You know, I would actually like to have some of our old family photographs.” And my parents looked surprised and I said, “I’d like to paint from them.” They really didn’t want to give them up and I said, “Would you rather have them moldering in an album or immortalized?” They went for being immortalized. I brought back a whole bunch of photographs, and I painted from them for a long time. So I was actually copying almost from the beginning of the time that I was painting seriously, just because I loved it. There didn’t seem to be any problem with it.
ELI ATTIE: What do you love about it that’s different from filling a blank canvas with things that are completely visions of your own mind? Is it more freeing or more structured in some way?
DOTTY ATTIE: I think that I always need to have something to refer to. I’m a referential painter. When I was little, I used to draw from my imagination, but it’s just not something that interests me to do at all, and it never really has. I prefer painting from things that are two-dimensional rather than three-dimensional. I suffer, although I don’t suffer much, from prosopagnosia, or face blindness. I think maybe I see things in two dimensions a little better than I do in three dimensions.
ELI ATTIE: You have this new show called “The Lone Ranger” that borrows a lot of masks, and I suppose some ideas, from The Lone Ranger. That’s interesting to me, because you spent a lot of your career copying fragments of great Renaissance master painters—Caravaggio and Eakins and Ingres—and being inspired, I think, by Trollope and Jane Austen. The Lone Ranger is a pretty pop-culture direction to take. Do you think of it that way? What made you cotton to that as an idea?
DOTTY ATTIE: I did use The Lone Ranger in the last body of work that I did, just one image from The Lone Ranger. It was a lot of fun. I think what really attracted me to it were the masks. My work is really all about our secret selves, the parts of our selves that we don’t really share with anybody else. I think I feel that masks really exemplify that. Masks really hide our faces from other people, and our faces are how we identify other people. So I think that for me was just very, very intriguing. I’ve always been interested in masks, actually. I’ve been buying books of photographs of people with masks—there aren’t that many of them.
ELI ATTIE: You’ve got some really great vintage gas masks on the wall in your kitchen.
DOTTY ATTIE: Right, I do. [laughs]
ELI ATTIE: And you did a great series of work of people with gas masks. I seem to remember that being before you started acquiring them for their aesthetic value.
DOTTY ATTIE: I can’t remember if I had bought the gas masks before or after I did those paintings, but yes. I loved the idea of painting people with gas masks; and I loved the idea that people during World War II, especially in Britain, all wore gas masks what seemed like all the time, but I guess it wasn’t.
ELI ATTIE: I have a work of yours in my living room that’s a couple kissing, both wearing surgical masks. Here’s a question on the subject of secret lives. I think people outside the art world, and to some degree, outside of New York, tend to think of artists— especially artists who, like you, do work that’s a little edgy and subversive and challenging—as wild-eyed radicals who stay up all night smoking clove cigarettes and drinking absinthe or whatever.
DOTTY ATTIE: You don’t think that’s me?
ELI ATTIE: [laughs] I don’t think that’s you, based on my very limited observation. But you’re honestly a mild-mannered person. You’re not a subversive person in life. You’re very domestic, you’re very nice to your friends, you rarely take a sip of alcohol, and yet your work could be the work of someone who is twisted and unhinged. You talk about this idea of secret lives. I’m curious as to how you would comment on that, I suppose, this is your secret life.
DOTTY ATTIE: I think that everybody has a secret life, and that our secret lives are probably not all that different from each other. In the survival of the fittest, the people who are the most aggressive and didn’t hesitate to kill people who were competing with them for food and mates and things like that really succeeded the best. But then when the population grew and grew, that had to change for people to survive… There was somebody, a writer, who I think had this saying mounted over this desk: “Live quietly so you can write noisily.” The idea is it should come out in your work, not in your life.
ELI ATTIE: I remember you saying to me a couple years ago that as long as a review of your work was positive, you didn’t care that much what it actually said. Do you still feel that way?
DOTTY ATTIE: I don’t know if I ever felt exactly that way. What I probably meant to say was that people have the right to interpret work in any way they want, and I do not try to point people in the direction that I think they should go in when they’re looking at my work. I really believe, for example, that people in a museum or a gallery who want to know, “What does this mean?”—your interpretation of it is just as valid as the artist’s interpretation, to my way of thinking. My work is very open-ended in that way. It’s open to a lot of different interpretations. Somebody once said that the viewer actually completes my work.
ELI ATTIE: It is true. Your work in particular, the text always feels like you’re sort of writing in between the lines. There’s a lot that’s not spelled out. You hear that all the time from musicians, from artist, from writers, someone else’s interpretation is as valid as the artist’s. Do you think that’s because they are going to see something that may have been deep in your subconscious, and that you’re not able to put your finger on, or do you think it’s just that it can mean different things to different people?
DOTTY ATTIE: It can mean different things to different people, and what I want people to see is not something deep in my subconscious but something deep in their subconscious. For me, art is about feelings and not ideas. You cannot determine what someone else’s feelings are going to be. Not everybody likes everything, also. I don’t really like Shakespeare, for example, and I’m not musical, whereas most people like both of those things. But that’s just how the world is.
But to go back to your original question, one thing I may have meant was that because I was in A.I.R., which was an all-women’s gallery, a lot of people interpreted my work to be about gender politics, which was not my own feeling at all. My work was psychological. So I would tell people initially, “You can write whatever you want, but don’t say this was my intention.” Say you think I’m doing this or to you it means this, and that’s fine. It wasn’t my intention, so I would rather you didn’t really impute it to me.
ELI ATTIE: It’s funny, as someone who’s done a little bit of criticism, it’s probably very hard for a critic to engage something on the level of feeling as opposed to idea. It’s much easier to write about ideas to fill out your column inches. They have talked about you as post-feminist, gendered, political, that sort of thing.
DOTTY ATTIE: Or pre-feminist. Or just feminist.
ELI ATTIE: [laughs] There you go.
DOTTY ATTIE: I am a feminist, definitely, but my work does not take up those issues, to me. That’s not my intention.
ELI ATTIE: Does it annoy you to be categorized?
DOTTY ATTIE: It doesn’t annoy me to be categorized, but it annoys me to be told that this is what I’m doing when I specifically am not.
ELI ATTIE: Interesting. Another thing, which is always very interesting to me—when you are executing your work, when you are sitting there painting the paintings, you very often have a TV that you’re not looking at that plays soap operas during the day.
DOTTY ATTIE: I always do.
ELI ATTIE: You’ve always told me the great thing is that you can go away for a month and come back and it always seems to be exactly where it left off, even though, probably there were nine sets of alien twins born in the interim. There is something very cinematic about your work—the idea of telling a story with pictures that couldn’t be told in the same way without pictures. You love movies, and good television—I wonder if you could have been a moviemaker, or if you think cinematically at all.
DOTTY ATTIE: I do think that in some ways I think cinematically, but I could never have been a moviemaker, because there are so many people involved, and I really love being by myself. I don’t like anybody else’s input, for the most part. My feeling about art is that it’s from the inside out, not really the outside in, and I don’t want anybody else to tell me what to do. I don’t want to collaborate with anybody.
ELI ATTIE: Well, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick didn’t let anyone else tell them what to do. [all laugh] They didn’t take input from anybody.
DOTTY ATTIE: They had to work with a lot of different people. When you work with different people input does come in different ways. You may not think it does, but it does.
ELI ATTIE: Another thing—it was always interesting to me as a child, too—is how regular your schedule is. As a TV writer, I work in an office, but if I have a script due, I can work evenings and weekends to meet a deadline, whereas you do keep pretty regular office hours, virtually nine to five. Why do you think that is?
DOTTY ATTIE: I don’t believe in, eureka!, inspiration. I believe that the only way to really work is just to do it, to set yourself time. My model has always been Anthony Trollope, who worked in a post office his whole life. He would get up at 4:30, he was at his desk at five, he spend a half hour reading what he had written the day before, then he set up a stopwatch and he wrote so many words per minute and so many pages per hour, and if he was finished and he still had, say, half an hour to go, he would start the next book. He did it on trains, he did it in hotels, wherever he was. That was how he worked. He wrote a huge amount of books, and I always thought that was wonderful. I loved that. While I don’t do that, exactly, I’ve always tried to have a schedule.
ELI ATTIE: You’ve had two life partners, both artists: my late father, who was a photographer and your current partner, whom I consider my stepdad, David Olan, who is a classical composer. Do you think that’s a coincidence? Obviously, you have tons of friends who are artists—although you have plenty who are not—are you drawn to creative people in your personal life?
DOTTY ATTIE: I think I am, yeah. Although, as you said, I do have some friends who are not artists, but they’re creative in other ways. I feel like I understand them better.
ELI ATTIE: Do you think they understand you better?
DOTTY ATTIE: They don’t necessarily understand me better, actually. [laughs] Your dad, he never really was that comfortable with my work.
ELI ATTIE: That’s interesting.
DOTTY ATTIE: He wasn’t such a big fan of it. While I think David likes it, I don’t think his creative life is quite like mine. Yours seems to be very much like mine, but I don’t think his is.
ELI ATTIE: I worked in government and politics and wore a dark suit every day for a bunch of years—did it surprise you that I ended up with a creative life? It surprised me.
DOTTY ATTIE: No. It didn’t at all. It didn’t really surprise me. I always thought you were pretty creative. You always played in a band, you loved music, you went about it in a pretty creative way. You always were an interesting child. [both laugh]
DOTTY ATTIE’S “THE LONE RANGER” IS ON VIEW AT P.P.O.W THROUGH DECEMBER 21. ELI ATTIE IS AN EMMY-WINNING TV WRITER, PRODUCER, AND FORMER POLITICAL OPERATIVE WHOSE CREDITS INCLUDE THE WEST WING AND HOUSE, M.D.