Chase, Doris Totten (1923-2008)

  • By Deloris Tarzan Ament
  • Posted 3/01/2003
  • Essay 5330

Doris Chase, painter and teacher, sculptor of monumental kinetic forms, was best known as a pioneer in quite another field. Beginning in the 1970s, she produced more than 50 videos regarded as key works in the history of video art. This biography of Doris Chase is reprinted from Deloris Tarzan Ament's Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002). Note: All quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from Deloris Tarzan Ament's interview with Doris Chase. Doris Chase died in December 2008. 

Doris Chase: Sensual Light

Chase's work won honors and awards at 21 film and video festivals, and has a permanent place in the archives of New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It is collected by major museums and art centers in eight countries.

Working with light as her medium, with dancers transformed into flowing colored shapes, Chase brought the Northwest sensibility to video. Her particular favorite was a pale blue that Northwesterners recognize as the color of the sky in a lingering summer sunset. Highly sensual, her work balances fluidity and stability; it explores organic movement in the context of abstract architecture. Critic Richard Lorber wrote, "The career of Doris Chase is emblematic of a long-incubating need for reintegration of body and mind in and through art" (Lorber).

Nothing in her early life hinted at what was to come. If Morris Graves was the "bad boy" of Northwest art, Doris Chase could be said to be its "good girl." She married well, reared two sons, and played tennis with the social set. Photographs usually show her well dressed and well groomed, a slender woman in hose and high heels. In daily life, however, she cared little for clothes, and never went shopping except when close friends pressured her into it.

Overcoming Bias

She had a substantial career as a painter and sculptor before she set off for New York, where she made groundbreaking videos. Curiously, pursuing her art was easier in New York than in the Northwest, where she endured considerable condescension for being female. In the early days of her career, gender bias was alive and well among the Northwest art establishment, which tended to treat her like a housewife with pretensions. Her subsequent art, which often championed the cause of women, is some indication of the pain such prejudice caused.

She was born Doris Mae Totten, the only daughter of a Seattle attorney, in 1923. She attended Ravenna Grade School, and graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1941. She studied architecture at the University of Washington, dropping out in 1943 after two years to marry Elmo Chase, a handsome lieutenant in the U.S. Navy.

When their son Gary was 3 years old, and Doris was pregnant a second time, Elmo contracted polio. He was paralyzed, able to move only two fingers. There is no good time for such misfortune, but the timing of this one was particularly bad. They were in the process of building a house (Doris Chase was the architect) that was two-thirds finished, and were cooking on a hot plate and sitting on nail kegs. Suddenly their world changed. Doris thought her life was over.

Art and Motherhood

She had become seriously ill after Gary's birth, suffering what was then termed a "nervous breakdown." The cause of the emotional collapse was clear to her: "I was doing everything except what I wanted to do, which was to paint." Encouraged by a counselor, she began to take time to paint, climbing into Gary's playpen with him outside, to keep him out of what she was doing. She studied oil painting briefly with Russian émigré artist Jacob Elshin, and with Greek artist Nickolas Damascus. She took one class with Mark Tobey. It was an important high-water mark in having her work taken seriously when one of her paintings was accepted into the Northwest Annual Exhibition in 1948.

Her early paintings were atmospheric Northwest landscapes and figures -- often musicians -- rendered in blocks of color. She loved heavy oil surfaces, sometimes building them up with sand to achieve coarse texture. She credits inspiration for her blocky, semiabstract style to the structured designs she admired in Northwest Coast Native American basketry and carving. "I didn't have very much schooling in art, so I didn't have people telling me that I couldn't do something this way or that. That freedom from shoulds and should nots kept me going."

After six months in the hospital, Elmo came home. He required intensive care for a long time before he was able to return to work. Doris cared for him and the children, consigning her creative work to late nights. To support the family, she taught classes in painting and design at Edison Technical School. Art collector Virginia Wright was among her students.

The Northwest painter Kenneth Callahan, writing for The Seattle Times, reviewed her first solo exhibition in 1956 at the Otto Seligman Gallery, and called her "a serious and talented young painter." He noted a "diffused atmospheric depth" in her marine views of Puget Sound. Her distinctive style contrasted lightness in landscapes with dense solidity in people.

Wider Recognition

In 1961, she was invited to have a show at Galleria Numero in Florence, Italy. She had won enough money in prizes to pay for the trip to Europe. Insisting that Chase should not travel by herself, her mother went along as chaperone. The show in Florence was the first step in wider recognition of her art. Other shows followed in New York and in Japan, where a writer for Tokyo Shimbun compared her work to Japanese sumi painting, saying, "These paintings make us joyous. They have a strength and order; a solidity you rarely find in sumi painting."

Chase was accepted into the Huntington Hartford Foundation's artists' colony in Pacific Palisades, California, in 1965. There she was able to spend time with musicians and poets and painters who were as ardent about their work as she was about hers. She went there again in 1966, and 1969, each time for a month, with no responsibility except to paint. Her spirits lifted. She drew the birds that strutted across her windowsill in quick black outline, against abstract splashes of color. Both the liquid quality and spareness of paintings she completed during those years reflected the Northwest aesthetic.

From early wash drawings, her work evolved into a series of cement paintings meant for outdoor use, inscribed with whimsical faces, and words like "joy" and "love." It was the 1960s.

She was beginning to experiment with painting on shaped canvases when one of her students, Betty Talbot, gave her some pieces of laminated oak. Intrigued with the grain and the layered look, she used the wood as a shaped canvas, painting on its surface. Her first solo New York exhibition, in 1965, at the Smolin Gallery, comprised paintings on wood. She exhibited a series of small painted sculptures inset with hinged sections which opened to reveal painted interiors.

Soon the painted pieces gave way to pure form, and the laminated wood shapes began to be taller than their creator. Her restless drive for change found expression in sculpture that had no fixed position, but rather invited viewers to participate in rearranging modules.

Nesting modules, usually cut from one block, could be pulled apart into an infinite number of relationships to each other, then restored to the matrix to form a whole block again -- a particularly feminine aspect. "I want a new kind of spectator," she said, "not just an observer, but one who will touch and actively work with the movement and arrangement of its interacting parts; one who will redesign space, and reorganize form; be entrapped in creating" (Hyman).

The Influence of Totems

Many of the forms, such as a black-stained fir piece titled Haida, echoed the ovoids and rounded squares of Northwest Coast Native American art. She traced the inspiration to pieces from the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (of 1909) that were still on the University of Washington campus when she attended classes there, on the site where the Chemistry Building was later erected. "I was nurtured by them," she said. "In the Northwest, you come to feel very close to totems and ritual utensils. When I go away and come back to the Northwest, I feel as if I'm finding old friends."

Meanwhile, some of the nesting hoops and circles, and the giant arches and ellipses she created had grown large enough to be walked through, allowing people to interact with them as architectural environment. There was a problem, however, with such large-scale work. Chase, who stood 5 feet, 3 inches tall and weighed in the neighborhood of 110 pounds, developed back problems from the heavy lifting.

Sculpture was still considered a man's province in the 1960s, but Chase's pieces, with their undeniable freshness and their sheer power, helped to break down the gender barrier. Her work was both massive and delicate. In wood and steel, her sculptures were made to rock and roll, and look classic in any position.

An early signature steel sculpture, the 15-foot-tall Changing Form, was commissioned for Kerry Park on Queen Anne Hill, overlooking the Seattle waterfront. It became one of Seattle's most highly regarded public sculptures.

In 1968, dancer Mary Staton used a set of Chase's giant wooden circles as a setting for innovative choreography. The pieces allowed dancers to move as they never had before, rocking upside down in enormous wooden arcs, and spread-eagled like spokes inside great wooden hoops, which they wheeled across the stage of the Seattle Opera House. In collaboration with programmers at Boeing, Chase produced Circles, a computer film based on the spinning hoops.

Circles and More Circles

King Screen, then an arm of KING-TV, made a film of the dance and sculpture collaboration. Chase requested and received footage edited out of that film. The thrift she had learned in the lean days of Elmo's illness had taught her to waste nothing. From the cut footage she made her own film, Circles II, with the help of film professionals Bob Brown and Frank Olvey.

Using color separations that showed the dancers and sculpture as pure color forms, she used a slight time lapse in which trails of vivid light followed in the wake of dancers' moving arms and legs -- a tracery effect seen as abstraction. The film won acclaim at the 1973 American Film Festival in New York. Critic Roger Greenspun compared it to Matisse's Dance painting, calling it "at once delicate and massive," and stating that "as visual experience it is ravishing" (Greenspun).

At about the same time Circles II was in production, Chase created prototypes for a 12-piece group of kinetic sculptures for children, made of shaped urethane foam encased in tough, bright-colored fiberglass cloth. The shapes were designed for kids to interact with, to help them learn equilibrium and body awareness. The shapes held particular promise as a teaching tool for children with cerebral palsy or learning disabilities. Unfortunately, the idea coincided with a time when school budgets were plunging and the price of plastics soaring.

Midlife Evolutions

Doris was 49 when her younger son, Randy, graduated from high school. After 28 years of marriage, she filed for divorce. Gary had graduated from the University of Washington and was with the Peace Corps in Iran. Elmo had become solidly successful in the business world. Doris was ready to live alone and devote herself to making art.

She moved to New York in 1972, when macho male alcoholics and a gay in-group dominated the art scene. Conformity was out; drugs were in. Someone observed that Chase, with her pageboy haircut and her soft-spoken Seattle manners, resembled a kindergarten teacher.

Acclaim in New York

She moved into room 722 of the Chelsea Hotel, which since 1883 had been a residence for artists ranging from Sarah Bernhardt and O. Henry to Janis Joplin and Jasper Johns. Mark Twain had lived there; Dylan Thomas died there. Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey there. Arthur Miller and Virgil Thomson were in residence when she moved in. Intending to stay no more than a few months, she retained her apartment there for more than 28 years. She did much of her work out of that one-room apartment, using it as rehearsal space for video performances, as well as an office.

In New York, she was unable to find an affordable space for a sculpture studio, but found doors open to her for film and video work. She found that Circles II was widely known and well regarded. It was written about in The New York Times and the Village Voice. They called her work "ravishing," and "technically dazzling," and "multidimensional poetry." She was the cutting edge -- soft-spoken manners and all.

Impressed with Circles II, authorities at Columbia University invited her to teach a graduate-level course in the film and video department. She declined, not wanting to be tied to anything other than creative work.

The Age of Video

She began working in video in the early 1970s, using computer imaging, when video art was in its infancy. She began kinescopically integrating her sculptures with interactive dancers, exploring the range of image processing, synthesizing, and colorizing. She used special effects in the way other artists might use a paintbrush, to create dreamlike effects.

Victor Ancona said of her dance videos, "Watching her tapes gave me the feeling of being transported to an enchanted, phosphorescent environment unceasingly in flux, a voyage I will long remember" (Ancona). The "phosphorescent environment" that so impressed him was the Northwest's iridescent light translated for the first time as art into the medium of video.

Chase formed a romantic and professional alliance with composer George Kleinsinger, whose Chelsea penthouse apartment was a veritable tropical fantasy under glass skylights. His grand piano was ensconced in the midst of a jungle of plants, free-flying birds, tanks of tropical fish, and a corner waterfall. He composed the music for 12 of her videos.

Because she came to video as an artist, Chase was accustomed to producing work for which no ready-made audience existed. "People used to ask me, ‘What are you doing that for?' " she recalled. "It was not for money, or to have shows, or anything else. There were a small group of us interested in video, and we showed our work to each other. We knew video art had to happen, and we were doing it."

Even the U.S. government responded. She became one of very few video artists to lecture and show her work abroad under the auspices of the United States Information Agency, for whom she traveled at various times to India, Europe, Australia, South America, Czechoslovakia, and Romania.

Women's Lives

In the 1980s, she began to use video to explore her deeper concerns, in a series of short monologues and mini-dramas. Issues such as being of a divided mind were made manifest with a split image. Multiple superimpositions suggested compromises. She used the drift mode -- the visual image slowly drifting by -- to suggest insecurity. None cut closer to the bone for her than Glass Curtain (1983), in which actress Jennie Ventriss explored the anguish of watching her mother's slow mental and physical deterioration from Alzheimer's disease.

Aging emphasized Chase's preoccupation with feminist issues, particularly those involving older women. Her most widely shown work is a series of 30-minute video dramas focused on autonomy for older women, collectively titled By Herself. Table for One (1985), first in the series, stars Geraldine Page in a voice-over monologue of a woman uneasy about dining alone. The second, Dear Papa (1986), stars Anne Jackson and her daughter Roberta Wallach. Chase's script for the film explores her feelings about her own father.

Luise Rainer lays out the high cost of personal integrity in the third video, A Dancer (1987). Still Frame (1988) features Priscilla Pointer and Robert Symonds. Sophie (1989) stars Joan Plowright as a woman who has just left her philandering husband and set herself up as "Sophie, reader of French tarot cards," facing an embarrassed son. The first two videos were featured at the Berlin and London Film Festivals in 1985 and 1986. Dear Papa was awarded First Prize at the 1986 Women's International Film Festival in Paris.

In 1993, Chase produced a 60-minute video documentary about her home, the Chelsea Hotel. The Chelsea Hotel was originally conceived as New York's first major cooperative apartment house, owned by a consortium of 10 wealthy families, in 1883. It became a hotel in 1905. Her video paid tribute to the building's 110th anniversary, and to the remarkable artists and eccentrics who have called it home.

Art historian Patricia Failing wrote an in-depth study of the artist, Doris Chase, Artist in Motion: From Painting and Sculpture to Video Art, published in 1991 by the University of Washington Press. (Failing is assistant professor of art history at University of Washington and associate editor of ARTnews.) A companion videocassette directed by Tim Lorange enriches the documentation with moving images of Chase's work -- an essential element to understanding art in which motion has been a recurring motif.

It was not the first book to document her life. Parke Godwin's novel A Truce with Time, published in 1988 by Bantam Books, is a fictionalized version of Chase's life during her New York years. While he was writing it, Chase distilled her interpretation of their relationship into a film titled Still Frame, produced at the American Film Institute. She noted, "It was quite different from his view of things."

Full Circle

In the fall of 1989, hungry to work on sculpture again, Chase returned to Seattle to establish an apartment and a studio. She divided her time between the East and West Coasts, working on video in New York and concentrating on sculpture in Seattle. She began to produce works in glass, sometimes in combination with steel. "Working with glass I feel as if I've returned to painting in a new medium," she said.

In 1999, her monumental four-piece bronze sculpture Moon Gates, 17 feet high, was installed at Seattle Center. Although New York's MoMA has acquired her complete works in video and film, the Seattle Art Museum, at the time of this writing, has only one Chase work in its collection: an oil painting from the 1950s, done long before Chase began to create the work that has made her famous.

Doris Chase died of a combination of Alzheimer's and strokes on December 13, 2008. She spent her final years at Horizon House, on Capitol Hill.


Richard Lorber, Arts Magazine, September 1976, p. 10; Sally Hyman, The Seattle Times, Sunday, July 28, 1968; Roger Greenspun, Soho Weekly News, December 18, 1975; Victor Ancona, Videography 3, no. 6 (June 1978), p. 59; Mark Rahner, "Doris Chase, Celebrated Artist, Divided Career Between New York and Seattle," The Seattle Times, December 27, 2008 (
Note: This biography was updated on January 2, 2009.

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