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Doris Totten Chase

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Doris Totten Chase

American, 1923 - 2008

Doris Totten Chase
Doris Totten Chase was an accomplished painter and sculptor and a pioneer in the field of video art. She trained as an architect before taking painting classes, and quickly achieved fame locally and internationally. Her work gradually evolved into three-dimensional interactive sculptures, which eventually transformed into “film dance” and video art. Her work is dynamic in each medium and contains a sense of movement intended to pull the viewer in. Chase lived and worked in both Seattle and New York City and created groundbreaking works through collaboration and innovation.
Born in Seattle in 1923, Chase attended Roosevelt High School and then the University of Washington. While in school she met Elmo Chase, a naval officer, whom she married in 1943. She completed only two years of university study and focused on architecture. She never painted until 1948, when she began taking night classes in oil painting at the Edison Vocational School . Chase made progress very quickly and in less than a year one of her paintings was selected for the Seattle Art Museum’s 1948 Northwest Annual, where she would exhibit her work 12 more times during her life. The 1948 exhibition included work by local painters such as Kenneth Callahan, William Ivey, Margaret Tompkins, and Mark Tobey, who Chase said was “a god.”
During the early 1950s Chase occasionally took painting classes from Kenneth Callahan and worked towards developing her painting style, but her personal life was falling apart. She had a nervous breakdown after the birth of her second son, Randy, in 1951, and her husband became paralyzed after contracting polio. Chase used painting as an escape and found success by showing her work at venues such as the Kaufmann Gallery in New York in 1955, which allowed her to gain greater public recognition. She had her first solo show at Otto Seligman Gallery in Seattle in 1956, where she displayed semi-abstract, blocky oil paintings of landscapes, still lifes, and a few figures. The show was given excellent reviews by critics such as Kenneth Callahan, who called her “serious and talented.”
Chase’s fame continued to grow and she exhibited internationally, first in Florence in 1962, and then in Bangkok and Tokyo, among other locations. She turned mainly to water-based media and created images that many would place directly within the “Northwest School” style, possibly because she was highly influenced by art made by the Coastal Native Peoples, whose work was exhibited at the University of Washington in what is now known as the Burke Museum. There is also a direct connection in her work to the region’s environment, as can be seen in Trees in a Yellow Light (62.88). Despite having her work labeled as ”Northwestern,” Chase said that she did not actually identify with the school and did not see her work as directly influenced by the recognizable style of Northwest art:
“It wasn’t really until I moved to New York many years later that I realized what a big deal the Northwest School was supposed to have been for Seattle. I don’t recall being consciously influenced by a Northwest ‘look,’ but many of my watercolors and gouaches seem to fit right in. It must have been the same for a lot of Seattle artists.”
At the same time, she was also experimenting with new materials, such as wood, sand, and concrete in her paintings. Many of these concrete paintings depicted musicians, and Chase was invited to sit in on Seattle Symphony rehearsals by the conductor Milton Katims. She created hundreds of sketches during these rehearsals and was fascinated by the movement that she saw. Her cement drawings transformed into three dimensional works that were meant to be moved and rearranged by viewers. She mainly worked in wood, but gradually began to use other materials such as steel and Plexiglas. She continued to work with these materials and turned away from painting, even though her paintings were achieving great fame. She decided that it was time for a change of pace, especially after seeing the similarities between her own watercolor work and the work of Adolph Gottlieb.
She continued to exhibit internationally but began to include kinetic sculptures that were intended to be interacted with. “This work… pleads for your active participation. It wishes to bring you closer and wants you to look and enjoy and to touch and actively work with the arrangement of its various parts,” she said. Gradually, her pieces grew in height until the forms could fit grown humans inside of them. She viewed works as a bridge to awareness, and at one point created kinetic sculptures for children that were designed as therapy for children in special education programs. The sculptures were tested in 1970 and were found to help with spatial relationships, balance, body awareness, and perceptual development. However, due to the rising price of oil and plastics and decreasing school budgets, the project was dropped.
Chase’s work was seen by choreographer Mary Staton, who asked the artist to create large sculptures for dancers to move in a multimedia production directed by the Seattle Opera in 1968. This project provided the inspiration that Chase needed to enter the world of film. After the production, Chase began to work with video footage of the event taken by King Screen, which was part of KING-TV, manipulating it in various ways with the help of programmers at Boeing. She then took the cut footage and created her own film with the help of professionals Bob Brown and Frank Olvey. This collaboration exemplified the goals of the organization Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), which aimed at bringing together artists and scientists in order to explore new ways of making art. Chase belonged to the Northwest Chapter, which sparked her interest in the visual and technological collaborations that would become so essential to her work for the rest of her life.
In 1972, after her two sons had graduated, she divorced her husband Elmo Chase and moved to New York City to pursue film and video arts. She lived in a one bedroom apartment at the famous Chelsea hotel, which served as an inspiration for some of her later works. Chase did not fit the typical Chelsea resident stereotype of macho alcoholic or drug addict, and some said she resembled a kindergarten teacher because she was soft-spoken and had a tidy haircut. Despite her unassuming appearance, she was seen as cutting-edge, and Chase made the Chelsea Hotel her home. She found that some had already seen her previous dance-based video, Circles II, and doors opened for her in the world of film and video.
She continued working extensively with dance and video manipulation throughout the 1970s, but beginning in the 1980s her work moved away from “film dance” and became more theatrical, involving collaborations with many women actors and writers. She created works that explored the inner lives of older women through monologue in her five-part film series By Herself (2004.30).
Chase both inspired and was inspired by her fellow residents at the Chelsea Hotel, and in 1988 Parke Godwin published his novel “A Truce with Time,” which is a fictionalized version of Chase’s life. She recalled that her experience “was completely different from his view of things,” particularly his interpretation of their relationship. Chase continued to break ground in the field of film while investigating topics such as family ties and feminist issues in her work.
In 1989 Chase moved back to Seattle part-time to continue sculpting and painting, while continuing to work on film in New York. She died in Seattle in 2008 but her extensive career is represented in the permanent collections of influential museums such as the Seattle Art Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution, and the British Film Institute in London. Her video art won awards in film festivals across the globe, including locations such as Berlin, Cannes, London, San Francisco, and New York. Her career followed a trajectory of growth from painting to sculpture and then to video art, and her work from each stage proves her tenacity and her constant attempt to move forward, engage viewers, and make innovations in the field.
-Camille Coonrod, curatorial intern, summer 2014

  • painting
  • American
  • New York, NY
  • Seattle, WA

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