If you've ever been to that postcard-perfect lookout point in Queen Anne's Kerry Park, you've seen the work of Doris Totten Chase. Perhaps you've even been inside it. But what you might not realize is that the artist who created one of Seattle's most iconic outdoor sculptures was also a trailblazing figure in the history of experimental video and early computer art.
Changing Form (1971), a 15-foot steel sculpture pierced with circular holes large enough to walk through, is a work of public art that engages the whole body of the viewer. To move through it is to participate in its changing form, and to move around it is to discover all the delightful and profound ways it slices up space.
The marriage of simple shapes with a kinetic sense of time and movement is a thread that connects Doris Totten Chase's painting, printmaking, and sculpture with her highly influential work in video. This summer, the Henry Art Gallery is hosting the first ever retrospective of Chase's work—an exhibition marking the occasion of a generous gift from the artist's sons of 59 artworks.
This gift, added to the 42 works already in the Henry's collection, creates a comprehensive overview of an artist Henry director Sylvia Wolf calls "long overdue for this kind of attention."
Chase was born in Seattle in 1923. She briefly studied architecture at the University of Washington, but succumbed to social pressures to get married and have children before graduation. Following the birth of their first son, Chase's husband contracted polio, resulting in a period where she was the family's sole breadwinner. "I was doing everything except what I wanted to do, which was paint," she later recalled. Eventually, the stress culminated in an emotional breakdown.
Encouraged by a therapist, Chase began to study oil painting, taking classes from Mark Tobey and immersing herself in the work of the Northwest Mystics. In 1956, in a review of her first solo show at Otto Seligman Gallery, Kenneth Callahan called her "a serious and talented young painter."
Experiments with shaped canvas led to sculptural works, and in the 1960s, she started making three-dimensional wooden nesting modules that could be rearranged to form different relationships to each other. With these modular sculptures, Chase hoped to create "a new kind of spectator"—one who would not just look at the art but also "touch and actively work with the movement and arrangement of its interacting parts."
Two developments occurred in the late 1960s that would forever alter the course of Chase's creative practice. The first was her involvement with the Northwest chapter of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), headed by William Fetter, a designer and computer programmer who had developed a cutting-edge graphic imaging system for Boeing. The second was a commission from choreographer Mary Staton, who staged a children's opera where dancers rolled around inside of circular sculptures designed by Chase.
The movement of these rolling rings inspired Chase's first film, Circles I (1969–70), produced in collaboration with Fetter's associates using Boeing's mainframe computer. Featuring an electronic soundtrack by composer Morton Subotnick, Circles I is now considered a classic of early computer-generated video art.
Using footage of Staton's dance performance as source material, Chase then created Circles II (1971), which treated the dancers as colorful layers stacked in perpetual motion. In video, she saw a whole range of expanded possibilities for exploring time, shape, and movement.
Around the time when she decided to devote her full attention to film and video, Chase's youngest son was graduating from high school. In 1972, after 28 years of marriage, she filed for divorce and moved to New York, into the Chelsea Hotel. She was 49 years old.
Despite her early successes, Chase always felt that Seattle's art scene didn't take her seriously enough. In New York, where Circles I and II were already heralded as groundbreaking works, she found a receptive community and flourished (an example, perhaps, of what gallerist Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt calls the "Jimi Hendrix Effect"—where Seattle artists are undervalued until they move away).
In the 1980s, Chase's films became increasingly narrative, tackling issues like aging, death, and feminism. Her works from the 1990s include a documentary about the Chelsea Hotel (1993) and the four-piece bronze sculpture Moon Gates (1999), currently installed at Seattle Center. Also produced during this time were silkscreen prints, embossed collagraphs, and experimental works on paper created with residual acid and metal, many of which are now on view at the Henry.
Over the course of a career spanning six decades, Doris Totten Chase created prints, paintings, and iconic sculptures, and helped chart a course for video art as a medium. Changing Forms brings Chase's work full circle, offering the most in-depth look to date at this innovative artist in the first and final city she called home.