Lois Lane shares her name with a fictional newspaper reporter, but her work is about as far as you can get from Superman or the Daily Planet. She is one of America’s most accomplished painters, and she specializes in spare, poetic paintings in which everyday objects—a tulip, a girl’s dress, an opened paper fan—are engulfed in a mist of darkness. You might say she drapes the starkly minimal forms of the 1970s with a velvety chiaroscuro that harks back to Old Master painting.
The twelve large-scale paintings in this show were done over the past few years and bring her Romantic instincts to the fore. Taken together, the paintings evoke a lush nocturnal landscape, complete with a princess in a billowing dress and pearly moonlight setting things aglow. Arching plant forms are pressed flat, like flowers in a Victorian album.
Such operatic subjects contrast with Lane’s famously economic style. She tends to compose her images from just one or two colors diluted into ever-more diaphanous tones. Silver Sister has the black-against-gray hues of an old daguerreotype. Moon Shadow is painted almost entirely in thin washes of indigo, a deep, deep blue named for the plant long used to dye fabric. The painting has a wonderful fluidity about it, as if spilled into being from the contents of an inkwell.
Lane earned her first fame in 1978, when she appeared in the now-historic New Image painting show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Along with Susan Rothenberg and Jennifer Bartlett, she is part of a Postminimalist generation that sought to bring figurative imagery back into painting without lapsing into realism. Her paintings are neither figurative nor abstract, but operate in the gap between them. They hover on the edge of becoming; they seem to capture the moment when an image rising from the goo of oil paint first becomes perceptible.
Lane studied voice as a child and was a coloratura in high school. But afflicted with severe stage fright, she discontinued her singing lessons and found that she was able to access her inner life with similar effectiveness through the discipline of drawing. She was educated at the Philadelphia College of Art and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Yale University in 1971. Her first job after leaving school was working as an assistant for Jasper Johns, whose studio was then located in a former bank building on East Houston Street in Lower Manhattan. She clearly absorbed something key from him. Not unlike Johns, Lane tends to invest ordinary objects with an aura of strangeness and unfamiliarity.
I love these new paintings, with their Cinderella figures and nosegays. They can put you in mind of the opera singers of the Romantic era, stepping into the glow of the footlights, taking a bow, scooping up their bouquets and flowers. With this show, Lane updates the tradition of the nocturne as defined by James McNeill Whistler, who found a beauty in the blurriness of night. Lane may have given up her early devotion to opera, but these are paintings that sing.
Deborah Solomon, 2016