The outdoors have always figured in Doig’s life and work: He’s an avid hockey player and expert skier who kayaks weekly looking for “the extremes of nature or incidents that most people are not privy to see,” such as the isolated island he discovered one day by boat, “with a side going up 300 feet completely white with pelican s---.” Often he’s in the company of his longtime friend Chris Ofili, the Turner Prize–winning artist who moved to Trinidad a few years after Doig did and with whom he’s planning a strenuous kayaking expedition along the island’s northern coast.
Powerfully built, with closely cropped hair, gray-blue eyes and muscular forearms, Doig calls to mind Hemingway and Pollock, without the binges or mood swings. He’s been married to his wife, Bonnie, for 20 years, has five children, ages two to 16, and talks of his work with a sense of modesty and the urgent commitment of painters of an earlier era. “He grasps that if you challenge yourself as a person, it will reflect in the art you make,” says Ofili. “I think Peter wants to feel as if he is just small in the vastness of an exciting life, but he wants to be in that life rather than at the edge of it. Where his house is, you can see that he wants to be right in the middle of nature and breaking new ground.”
Proof of that urge can be found in the studio above the house. Doig leads me to MaracasM/em>, a work in progress since 2002 that he’s decided to finish in time to include in his retrospective, now in Frankfurt, and in two New York solo shows opening simultaneously in January, one at the Michael Werner Gallery, the other at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. (The gallery shows were supposed to take place last fall, but Doig canceled them at the last minute after deciding he wasn’t ready. “Being an artist isn’t a job. Running a gallery is a job,” he says, noting that artists should never make work just for the sake of selling it.) In a good year, he says, he makes about eight large paintings and about 15 smaller ones. He always works alone, without assistants, listening to one of the thousands of albums and CDs in his collection, and often makes sketches and drawings as part of his process of trial, error and serendipity. Maracas is drawn from Doig’s memory of seeing a man in Trinidad standing outside on a huge stack of totemlike speakers, which in his painting assume “a monolithic presence,” he says, the more he plays with scale and form.
When I ask if Doig sees his work moving toward abstraction, he quickly replies, “I hope it’s going that way. It’s less rooted to a specific source and more about the spirit of the painting.” A case in point is his spectral Man Dressed as a Bat, 2007, which was inspired by a small sculpture of a carnival character “that looks more like an animal than it does a human dressed in a costume,” he says. But what ended up on the canvas, he adds, “was just this kind of diaphanous form...a very washy, abstract painting.”