Dorris Staffell

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DORIS STAFFEL
Painter, Teacher
Woodmere Art Museum
Philadelphia
July 28 – September 30, 2012
Curated by Bill Scott

catalog essay:

In the summer of 1974, I enrolled in a six – week class at the Philadelphia College of Art (PCA, now the University of the Arts) and met Doris Staffel, my first painting teacher. By the end of the summer I wanted to become a painter.

Working in her painting studio in the old PCA building was a very romantic indulgence for a twenty – year old who had never touched a brush. There was no instruction in “how to” paint, no differentiation between realism or abstraction – just encouragement, critique and a lot of work with models and still lifes. The room was saturated with the aroma of turpentine, discussion about the many ways to build form with paint and high-minded conversation about Diebenkorn, Matisse and Morandi. It was the fist time I had ever heard of Morandi (then dead for 10 years) and I remember the immense pleasure with which Doris showed us that thick Rizzoli monograph of his work which, toward the end of the summer, was stolen from her locker. But it wasn’t just what she showed us in reproductions or at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that left an indelible impression on me; perhaps even more important was the heat and quality of her passion for painting and teaching.  Even without knowing her work, which I didn’t see until years later, I was swept up into a kind of frenzy of enthusiasm from which I still have not recovered.

How curious to me now that it was not her work that pulled me in then. I had no idea what her paintings looked like – she never showed them to us, and it was long before the advent of the Internet. But her devotion as a teacher hit me very hard. Two years latter I dropped out of college and applied to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where I became a very conservative student.  When I finally encountered Doris’s paintings a year or two after graduating, I saw that she was, God forbid, a modernist. And at that time I had no interest in any work that was not overtly representational. However, with time my tastes and interests changed and over the years I saw one or two shows of her work. Last summer on the balcony of Woodmere I saw a ravishing piece from the permanent collection: Gateless Gate (1987), a grey and black abstract painting on paper that knocked my socks off, as if it were speaking directly to me in a language that was just what I wanted and now knew how to read it and care about. It is so beautiful. And this is who she always was, but how could I have known that then?

STUART SHILS

MAY 2012