Doris Chase was a housewife and a native of provincial Seattle who taught painting to socialites in the evenings. She was also a born experimenter who wanted to work in the tough, heavy materials of metal and wood—and later, in the avant-garde medium of video and computers. Born in 1923, she waited until 1972, when both her sons were grown and out of the house, to divorce her husband, move to New York, take up residence in the famed artists' quarters of the Chelsea Hotel, and become the full-time artist making work collected around the world, including by the Museum of Modern Art, which today presents her videos as canonical.
In Seattle, Chase is known little if at all. She made two large bronzes in public parks here, both abstracts: Changing Form in Kerry Park—she wanted its top to spin, but the city said no—and Moon Gates near the Space Needle. They're both beautiful, revealing her Asian and Northwest Coast influences. In other words, they breathe the same air as Salish design, George Tsutakawa's fountains based on sliced ping-pong balls, and Minoru Yamasaki's space-age white cathedral arches created for the 1962 World's Fair. But those big bronzes are stolid, and Chase ultimately was not an abstract monument maker. She never wanted her sculptures to sit still. She didn't even want people to stand still and look at them. Changing Form's top is the size of a human body; if it couldn't spin, Chase at least hoped it would be a recliner for all comers.
Just walking through Abmeyer + Wood Gallery downtown this month, you set Chase's art rocking and bobbing. From her estate, Jonathan Wood gathered more than 20 small and medium sculptures from her middle phase, 1964 to 1974, for an exhibition that demonstrates both the stability of her forms and the movement she craved. This moment is the pivot in her development. To tell her whole story, the gallery features videos, paintings, and photographs of the five-foot-three artist working with her tough materials.
You can touch and move some sculptures. The impulse is reminiscent of Brazilian artist Lygia Clark's handheld metal Bichos of this same period, and presages the overtly body-based, feminist interests Chase would bring to her later films. Others are modular, with loose parts that balance on each other and can be shown in any formation. They might be seen in the light of something like Tony Smith's Wandering Rocks, also from this time, a series of black, stonelike forms meant to be scattered differently each time they're shown; a set of them is strewn along a pathway in the grove at the Olympic Sculpture Park.
Several are models for larger works. "She was always pitching ideas," Wood told me. The sculptures have waited in her son's Seattle home for public interest to come around; some pre-sold before the gallery show opened. Portland Art Museum is said to be eyeing Space Study, circa 1968, a five-foot stack of hollow carved-fir rectangles stained mod orange and black. It's a modular piece, and the vertical arrangement the gallery settled on is like an early display stack of stereos or TVs—boxy and groovy. The boxes are open in the middle, like Yoko Ono's Sky TV, first made in 1966 and still brought out often. That piece—Chase must have seen it at some point, and loved it—is a monitor placed indoors but it "plays" the sky outside, always making room for new movement.