Art Chronicles: Jane Freilicher 1924 – 2014

images

I first became aware of Jane Freilicher through her presence in Frank O’Hara’s poetry: Interior (with Jane); Chez Jane; Jane Awake; To Jane, and in Imitation of Coleridge. I didn’t immediately know that she was a painter, one of several whom O’Hara befriended, supported, reviewed and who became poetic muses in his verse. Grace Hartigan – For Grace, after a Party – was another; as was, perhaps most famously, Joan Mitchell, in Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s.

Painter Among Poets was the title of Freilicher’s last, 2013, show at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York; Poet Among Painters, the title of Marjorie Perloff’s  1977 critical biography of O’Hara. New York Poets: New York Painters. The Scene.

images-2

When she was eighteen, Jane Niederhoffer, as she was then, eloped with jazz pianist Jack Freilicher, whom she married and later divorced, having met, through him, the saxophonist Larry Rivers when both men were playing in the same band. Freilicher occupied herself during band rehearsals by sketching and painting and Rivers, interested in both Freilicher and her artistic talents, followed suit. It was the painter Nell Blaine who suggested the pair sign on to study with Hans Hoffmann at the Arts Students League of New York. That would have been in 1947.

During the next couple of years, she met O’Hara and the other leading poets in what came to be termed the New York School – Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery and, a little later, James Schuyler. All four men were familiar with the art scene, all, save for Koch, regularly wrote art criticism and reviews, and O’Hara was actually employed at the Museum of Modern Art. There is some small confusion over to which of them she sold her first painting, Ashbery or O’Hara.

By the early 1950s, she was fully immersed in the New York Scene and had met fellow artists Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan and Helen Frankenthaler, all three of whom were attempting to negotiate a stylistic space for themselves amidst the often aggressively male Abstract Expressionism that was the predominant fashion at the time. Strongly influenced by the Bonnard exhibition at MOMA a few years previously, and aware also of the work of Vuillard and Matisse, Freilicher’s riposte to abstraction was a lyrical, light-diffused and vibrantly coloured series of still lives and landscapes that remained at the heart of her work from her first solo show at Tibor de Nagy in 1952 until her last.

images-1

Keeping out of fashion, she suggested, gave her the chance to have the freedom to fool around.

I’m quite willing to sacrifice fidelity to the subject to the vitality of the image, a sensation of the quick, lively blur of reality as it is apprehended rather than analysed. I like to work on that borderline – opulent beauty in a homespun environment.

She also said …

I suppose I think more in terms of colour than of line …

… a statement I used as an epigraph to my novel In a True Light, which is, in part, about the New York scene and Greenwich Village in the 50s, though the character of the painter in the novel is more like an amalgam of Mitchell and Frankenthaler than Freilicher herself.

And, finally, here are the last lines from a  poem by James Schuyler, Looking Forward to See Jane Real Soon.

Jane, among fresh lilacs in her room, watched
December, in brown with furs, turn on lights
until the city trembled like a tree
in which wind moves. And it was all for her.

Unknown

 

 

Advertisements

Art Chronicles: Malevich at Tate Modern

 

malevichbanner

In a not dissimilar way to Tate Modern’s Arshile Gorky retrospective in 2010, its current (till October 26th) – and, it seems to me, if you have any interest in 20th century art, unmissable – Malevich exhibition shows him moving through a range of early influences as he searches for a style of his own. So, as with Gorky, there are brushes with the Post-Impressionism of Cezanne and then the early Cubism of Picasso and Braque, as he moves towards a personal form of abstraction which takes him in a very different direction, leading to his famous, or infamous, Black Square, which seemed to block out/black out all that had gone before: an iconic full stop that would propel him towards the splendour of colour and form that he was to call Suprematism.

Unknown

To stand in Room 7, at the pivotal centre of this exhibition, is to be surrounded by a glorious and controlled outpouring of image and ideas that was to dissolve only a few years later in the wake of Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

images

Painting died, Malevich said, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it.

He taught, and, when his work resumed it signalled a return, under the increasing strictures of Stalinism and Socialist Realism, to landscape, figuration and portraiture. With his death in 1935, his work all but disappeared from view, only re-emerging, in part, in the 1950s; it was not until the 1980s that his Black Square painting would be displayed again.

images-1

 

Art Chronicles: Mooching Around Tate Britain

Back down in London after a pleasant, eventful and stormy weekend amongst the nation’s crime writers at Theakston’s International Crime Festival in Harrogate – (Sorry, Val McDermid and doubtless others – I should move that apostrophe to the other side of the final S) – and what was I going to with my first morning back in the capital? As it happened, other matters took me out Pimlico way and thus it was more or less decided for me … a visit, far from unusual, to Tate Britain. I was there close enough to opening time to be the first one up the spiral staircase to the newly elevated Members’ Room and the barista’s first flat white of the day, which I enjoyed in peace and tranquility until a fellow member chose to park herself near me and conduct a mobile phone conversation with a presumably deaf friend, detailing the problems, that morning, of changing trains at Wimbledon.

Stopping only to pick up a complaints form, I hightailed it down to the main floor where my eye was caught, quite by chance, by the elongated and superbly controlled explosion of red that is Anthony Caro’s Early One Morning from 1962.

Early One Morning 1962 by Sir Anthony Caro born 1924

‘Early One Morning’ Anthony Caro

Made from steel and aluminium and marking a shift in Caro’s work away from more realistic forms towards abstraction and the strong, flat single colours favoured by the American Abstract Expressionists, it carries with it, nonetheless, echoes of Henry Moore and his sculptures of mother and child.

And this, of course, is one of  the marvels of Tate Britain as it is now hung, step into one of the rooms and an area of British art at a particular period surrounds you; one piece of work leads painlessly, pointedly to another. Beyond the Caro, on the left hand wall, are two of the more famous David Hockneys  – A Bigger Splash and Mr & Mrs Clark and Percy – bisected by a beautiful – joyous, even – John Hoyland, in thrall also to the Abstract Expressionists but none the worse for that, it’s Rothko-like, maybe more Elsworth Kelly-like reverberating red offset by strips of dark green and paler grey.

28. 5. 66 1966 by John Hoyland 1934-2011

’28. 5. 66′ John Hoyland

Continue along the wall and at the furthest end, beyond the arch, is one of Frank Auerbach’s paintings of Primrose Hill – accompanied, it seems, by a persistent bird song that first of all has me looking up at the ceiling to see if one has somehow sneaked in and then draws me through the arch and into the adjoining room, where, beside Michael Andrews’ marvellous Melanie and Me Swimming, a small and old-fashioned looking television screen is showing Gilbert and George’s In the Bush, a blurry piece of video focussed vaguely on said bush, in front of which a figure (or are they figures?) of someone (or ones) seems to be moving. George, perhaps? Or Gilbert? Possibly both. And what are they up to in there? No doubt about the bird though, which, while I can’t identify it’s particular call, just keeps on singing.

'Melanie and Me Swimming'  Michael Andrews

‘Melanie and Me Swimming’ Michael Andrews

Placed just a little further along is Tony Cragg’s Stack, a rectangle of compressed materials – wood, concrete, brick, metal, plastic, textiles, cardboard and paper – which instantly calls to mind  Phyllida Barlow’s gargantuan many-part sculpture, dock, which is currently clambering all over the inside of  the Duveen Galleries – the high-ceilinged, classically proportioned central corridor of Tate Britain – with its wonderfully messy assemblages of timber, card, plasterboard, fabric and polystyrene.

'Stack'  Tony Cragg

‘Stack’ Tony Cragg

Turn away from the Cragg, in fact, step back through the arch and look up past Hoyland and the Hockneys and the Caro and there are the pink, orange and red panels that form one section of Barlows’ work filling the frame and echoing back into the room. Turn again and proceed through the opposite arch,  passing between Richard Long’s A Line Made By Walking and Roger Hilton’s exuberant and de Kooning-like (those Abstract Expressionists again) Oi Yoi You and a visual corridor of magnificent earlier sculptures stretches away – from Henry Moore’s Working Model for Unesco Reclining Figure and Barbara Hepworth’s Corinthos to Epstein’s monumental alabaster Jacob and the Angel.

There. An hour, give or take, mooching about Tate Britain. And what delights, what wonders it contains.

 

Art Chronicles: Matisse – The Cut-Outs

Matisse: Icarus

Matisse: Icarus

Back at Tate Modern this weekend for the second look at the Matisse Cut-Outs and yes, they’re glorious, especially when viewed in the sparsely populated first hour allocated to members; glorious in their exultation of colour and rhythm, their understanding of form and space, and yet … yet why do I come away each time harbouring some small but irrepressible feeling of dissatisfaction?

T. J. Clark, in his piece about the show in the June 5th issue of the London Review of Books, points, perhaps, towards the answer when he quotes a letter from Matisse to his daughter, Margueritte, written to her in 1945 when she was recovering from her time in a Gestapo prison in Rennes.

Paintings seem to be finished for me now … I’m for decoration – there I give everything I can – I put into it all the acquisitions of my life. In pictures I can only go back over the same ground.

And going over the same ground, as Matisse explained in a letter to his son, meant pain …

A man who makes pictures … is an unhappy creature, tormented day and night. He relieves himself of his passion in his pictures, but also in spite of himself on the people round him. That is what normal people never understand.

And, after the war, older, infirm, why put yourself through that again? Why not use those skills which, as he says, he has accumulated over a lifetime and put them to lighter, less threatening, more obviously pleasing use? So decorate the walls of your house and studio; the walls and windows and clerical garments of your local church; accept the commission from some rich American to provide artistic decoration for his house and when he rejects it as unsuitable – perhaps the colour ways clashed with the cushions, who knows? – as he does not once but twice, bite your tongue and do it again until finally he’s satisfied. What does it matter, after all? It’s work like much other … not highly personal … not art but decoration …

As Clark says, “only a killjoy … could resist the splendour on the walls,” but with a few exceptions … Zulma, Creole Dancer, Memory of Oceania …there is little that take us beyond our initial pleasure – brilliant, yes, and joyous – and each time we see them it will be the same.

matisse127

Matisse: Zulma

Is this something to do with the material used? Paper or card instead of paint? What are the cut-outs, after all, but coloured shapes pretending to be paint because the artist can’t – physically, emotionally – paint any more.

I was thinking of the recent show of paintings by Helen Frankenthaler at Turner Contemporary, where the viewer’s initial response is to colour and form, and the recognition here and there of aspects of landscape and the natural world, but always, I think, beyond that something more, out of reach of our understanding, something that no matter how hard, how often we look, refuses to be pinned down in the way that Matisse’s cut-outs are pinned down.

Paint on canvas doing what paint does, is that all it is?

Amongst the other work on display, there are two paintings … Interior with Black Fern from 1948 and Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table, 1947 … which suggest that might be so. That and the willingness to engage … but after so much challenging work, so long a life, who can blame him for relinquishing the pain while still using those skills he has learned to such formidable effect as this?

matisse123

Matisse: Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table

 

Hopper Poems

I took this photograph earlier this year, wandering around the area behind Old Street Station, and something about the colour, the angle, the light and shadow – the ‘blindness’ of it – reminded me of the paintings of Edward Hopper …

P1010831

… which, in turn, reminded me of this pair of poems, based on Hopper paintings, which appear in my New & Selected Poems, Out of Silence, now available from Smith/Doorstop Books or InPress Books.

COUPLES

1. Edward Hopper: “Room in New York”, 1932

With one finger she picks out the tune
the way her mother showed her,
slow afternoons when the dogs lay aside
their indifferent barking and moths
hung sleeping from the inside of the blinds;
distant rattle of ice inside her mother’s glass
and whatever burned inside her
cold water and calamine could not touch.
In the close air of the apartment she has been
thinking more and more of those times.
The newspaper rustles behind her, whatever
her husband is reading commands his attention.
Although he has loosened neither
waistcoat nor tie, the yellow distemper
of the walls has begun to sweat.
The red dress she is wearing
has a bow bunched high at its back,
like a flower that once, petal by petal,
he would have reached out and unfastened
before her mirrored eyes.
His shirt so white that to turn and look
at it would be to be blinded by the moon.

hopper1

2. Edward Hopper: “Excursion into Philosophy”, 1959

He has been reading the Tractatus, Wittgenstein,
the footnotes make him laugh; the book open
on the bed, the blue divan. How to explain
the duality of grief and joy, relief and guilt.
The way her breathing, as she lies behind him,
legs drawn up, exposed, her back
not quite touching his, touches his heart.
They have been together fifteen years
and he believes that is enough.
The sun burns low along the ripening wheat
that looks like the wheat in the painting by Van Gogh,
the postcard she bought him that day in Portland, Maine,
and told him if he ever left her she would truly die.
He picks up his book and begins again to read,
but sets it back down, drawn to the window by the sun,
the sound of a meadow lark in the field.
The only signs in the morning they were there
will be her red hair, snagged at one corner
of the pillow; the slight impression, fading,
on the mattress where they lay.

hopper4.3

 

Art Chronicles: Nottingham Contemporary

 

Saturday morning, with the sun shining despite forecasts of day-long rain, I went along to Nottingham Contemporary to see their current exhibition, Somewhat Abstract, a selection of work from the Arts Council Collection, which, to my pleasant surprise, included, in the words of curator Alex Farquharson …

… many examples of figurative art on the verge of abstraction, as well as art that isn’t abstract but that could not have been made without knowledge of it.

So, in Gallery 2, for instance, alongside the casts of Rachel Whiteread and the abstract canvasses of Prunella Clough, there is work by Sickert and Bomberg, as well as Frank Auerbach – one of his marvellous Primrose Hill paintings – and a beautiful – and truthful – little etching of Lucien Freud.

images

 

And also in this gallery is the most moving and disturbing work in the whole exhibition, Gustav Metzger’s To Crawl Into – Anschluss, Vienna, March 1938. One of Metzger’s Historic Photographs series, in which photographs of historic events, often connected to the Holocaust, are greatly enlarged and then covered, usually by a cloth, which the viewer is encouraged to remove or crawl beneath, slowly revealing the image underneath.

gustav-metzger-5-26-11-5

The principal component of this work is a press photograph, taken shortly after Austria’s annexation to Nazi Germany in March 1938, that depicts Jewish men, women and children being forced to wash the streets of Vienna as their fellow citizens look on. The photograph has been enlarged to over thirteen square metres – rendering the figures larger than life-size – and is displayed on the floor, covered with a cotton sheet. In order to see it, the viewer is required to crawl on their hands and knees beneath the sheet, mimicking the actions of the Jewish subjects, while the size and proximity of the image makes it impossible to apprehend as a whole.

Feeling too venerable to get down on my belly and crawl, with the help of one of attendants I slowly peeled the cloth down and away.