James Doolin, 70; Evocative Urban Painter


James Doolin, a realist painter whose technical skill and keenly observed interpretations of the world around him are prized by a broad audience, has died. He was 70.

Doolin had suffered from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease of uncertain origin, for several months and was hospitalized at UCLA Medical Center at the time of his death Monday.

A master of color and composition, Doolin sometimes said he was more interested in visual images than in social content. But his evocative, moody paintings teemed with life as he found it on the streets of Los Angeles, at the casinos of Las Vegas and in the deserts of Southern California.

"What I've always wanted to do," he told a Times reporter in 1999, was "to look at things in a transcendent way and find what I feel, be it beautiful or scary."

In a review of "Some Los Angeles Icons," an exhibition of Doolin's paintings two years ago at the Koplin Gallery in West Hollywood, Times art critic Christopher Knight praised the artist's "gift for endowing the everyday with a sense of estrangement." Doolin's urban paintings "stop in its tracks the steady freeway flow or ever-changing landscapes of billboards, rendering them mysterious and spectral," Knight wrote.

Writers also have been impressed with Doolin's ability to turn fleeting visual experiences into graphic drama. One of his best-known works, "East Wind," a 1991 freeway scene made ominous by gale force winds, is reproduced on the cover of Mike Davis' darkly prophetic book, "Ecology of Fear."

Australian writer Peter Carey, who met Doolin in Melbourne in 1966 and became a close friend of the artist, said he loved to accompany Doolin because "he had a way of looking at the world that was different from anyone else's, whether he was at an art museum or the Mojave Desert."

"He was also a risk-taker as an artist," Carey said, noting that Doolin's choice of subject matter was often unfashionable.

Working as a realist painter in an artistic climate ruled by abstraction, conceptual art and electronic media didn't help Doolin find a prominent place in museums and cutting-edge galleries, but he tackled enormously demanding projects that won the admiration of his peers and the public.

"As Edward Hopper did in New York, [Doolin] captured both the beauty and the alienation of our time in Los Angeles," said artist Carl Cheng.

"We have lost someone irreplaceable," said artist Michael C. McMillen, another longtime friend of Doolin. "He revealed universal truths in powerful paintings that are compellingly clear but have nothing to do with illustration."

Born in 1932 in Hartford, Conn., Doolin grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from the University of the Arts there in 1954. After a sojourn in Australia, he moved to Los Angeles to study painting at UCLA. He earned his master of fine arts degree in 1971, joined the faculty the following year and taught at the university until 1980, when he won a three-year Guggenheim Foundation fellowship to paint desert landscapes.

By then, Doolin was revered as the painter of "Shopping Mall," a 90-square-inch aerial view of Santa Monica's commercial center made over a four-year period, 1973-77. He spent the first two years sketching and photographing the site from every possible rooftop vantage point, then constructed a highly detailed diagonal composition of a busy intersection.

Another major project was a 1992 commission to create four murals for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's downtown Los Angeles headquarters. The administrators envisioned a visual account of the city's history of transportation, said art consultant Tamara Thomas, who administered the competition to select the artists. She was delighted when Doolin was chosen because "I knew he would take the idea further than any of them could imagine," she said.

Always a perfectionist, "he researched every tree and vine" in the paintings, Thomas said. Then he worked 10-hour days, six days a week for a year to complete the murals.

His effort paid off for visitors and employees who delight in pointing out details in scenes that depict a train chugging through an idyllic orange grove as well as an apocalyptic sunset over a network of crowded motorways.

He also received official recognition, in the form of National Endowment for the Arts grants in 1981, 1986 and 1992, and a Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department grant in 1997.

He is survived by his wife, Lauren Richardson; their daughter, Eve Doolin; two sons from an earlier marriage, Matthew and Paul Doolin; and a grandchild.

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