Art Chronicles: Jane Freilicher 1924 – 2014

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

Art Chronicles: Helen Frankenthaler Again

 

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Photo : Burt Glinn

Helen Frankenthaler, whose work is currently on show at Margate’s Turner Contemporary, was one of a relatively small number of women artists who managed to find a means of negotiating their own distinctive and successful art practice in the midst of what was, by and large, a male dominated New York art scene in the 1950s and 60s. Here she is, above and below, pictured with two other artists from that number – Joan Mitchell (left) and Grace Hartigan (right) – at an opening of her show at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in March 1957.

Photo : Burt Glinn

Photo : Burt Glinn

And here are Frankenthaler and Hartigan again, hanging out at the Five Spot, a jazz club where Thelonious Monk famously played, and where the painter/musician Larry Rivers organised poetry & jazz events on Monday evenings, Monk’s night off.

Photo : Burt Glinn

Photo : Burt Glinn

That’s Frankenthaler on the left, in front of the sculptor, David Smith, while Hartigan is on the opposite side, across from the poet Frank O’Hara, with Larry Rivers on her right. O’Hara, who reviewed art shows for Art News and other magazines, worked at the Museum of Modern Art, first as an administrative assistant and later as a curator, and was a personal friend of many artists, including Jane Frielicher, Joan Mitchell and Grace Hartigan, to each of whom, at various times, he dedicated poems.

It was O’Hara who curated and wrote the catalogue essay for Frankenthaler’s first major show, Helen Frankenthaler Paintings, held at the Jewish Museum between January and March of 196o. This is part of what he had to say about her work …

Frankenthaler is a daring painter. She is willing to risk the big gesture, to employ huge formats so that her essentially intimate revelations may be more fully explored and delineated, appear in the hot light of day. She is willing to declare erotic and sentimental preoccupations full-scale and with full conviction. She has the ability to let a painting be beautiful, or graceful, or sullen and perfunctory, if these qualities are part of the force and clarity of the occasion.

Helen Frankenthaler, Hotel Cro-Magnon, Courtesy Milwaukee Art Museum

Photo : Burt Glinn

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Photo : Burt Glinn

 

 

Art Chronicles: Helen Frankenthaler

Along with Grace Hartigan and Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, who has died at the age of 83, was one of a relatively small number of women artists who came to prominence in the male dominated New York art world of the 1950s. Loosely catagorised as second generation Abstract Expressionists, each had to find a style – and a space – within which their work could develop and grow. Hartigan, [below left, with Frankenthaler] without eschewing abstraction altogether, began to bring representational forms and figures into her work, to the point that she was later heralded [much against her wishes] as one of the progenitors of Pop Art. Mitchell – who along with Hartigan and Jane Freilicher, had been linked with the group of artists and writers closely associated with the poet Frank O’Hara – left New York for France, where the influence of Monet and the Impressionists on her work became increasingly visible.

Not unlike Mitchell, Frankenthaler was interested in combining landscape – as she saw it in the paintings of Cézanne and in the sketches and water colours she herself made when travelling – with abstraction. “I wanted,” she said, “to draw in with colour and shape the totally abstract memory of landscape.”

Her breakthrough came when, partly as a result of watching Jackson Pollock at work, she set her canvases, still unprimed, on or close to the floor, pouring thinned paint directly on to the canvas and allowing it to spread, while, to some degree, guiding its shape and flow. A mixture of accident and control, resulting in, as the poet and art critic James Schuyler described it, “chanced beauty.”

The first major painting to come from this method of staining, as it came to be called, was “Mountains and Sea”,[above]  which gave birth to the branch of Abstract Expressionism known as Colour Field Painting or Post-Painterly Abstraction.

Frankenthaler continued to paint and show her work until recently, Paper is Painting being the last of three exhibitions held at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery in London between 2000 and 2010.

Art Chronicles: Cy Twombly

One of the best things about a fairly recent visit to Munich, to do a reading at the behest of my German publisher, DTV, (and where, to my bemusement and delight, I was billed as “the Pope of British crime fiction”) was a visit to the Museum Brandhorst,where almost the entire top floor – some six rooms – is given over to the paintings and sculpture of Cy Twombly, who has died in Rome at the age of 83.

It wasn’t as though Twombly’s paintings had exactly been hidden from sight in recent years: the wonderful four-part Quattro Stagioni had been shown at Tate Modern in 2008 and then there were the dazzling and sumptuous canvasses depicting Roses at the Gagosian. Right now, his work is on display alongside that of Poussin at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Even so, being able to wander from room to room and gaze at these large works – the scale on which Twombly worked seemed to get bigger, and more deliberately beautiful – as he got older – was, I felt, a privilege.

Cy-Twombly-life-in-pictur-003Cy-Twombly-life-in-pictur-015The artist Maggi Hambling has summed up many of the reasons why I think I respond to Twombly’s work so positively.

In these days of so much dry, clever, soulless trivia, completely lacking in worthwhile subject matter, Twombly stood a towering hero. His mixture of intimacy and grandeur, force and delicacy, creates a sexy dynamism. He advanced the language of paint – from late Titian, through Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Rothko and Pollock – and so takes his place among the elite. He is dead, but the courage of hsi work lives on.

Art Chronicles: Tracey Emin – Love Is What You Want

I’m sure it’s far from an original thought, but that Tracey Emin’s rise to fame (and fortune) should occur in an age besotted with the cult of celebrity and forever agog for (preferably sexual) gossip and scandal, should be no surprise. Having long adopted her prime art work as herself, her greatest achievement is surely to have raised herself up from the sad and often hostile tawdriness of her early life to the position she now holds – and I’m quoting the publicity from her Hayward Gallery retrospective here – as “one of Britain’s most celebrated contemporary artists”.

It’s a beautifully, carefully curated show, the main room on the ground floor, with it’s Family and Friends section, in particular. Bits and pieces of writing, what are described as ‘relics’, snapshots of Gran & Dad. Lovely. Quite moving. The kind of early ephemera from a artist’s life that is always interesting- interesting for the light they throw on Tracey Emin, the person, the public person she’s chosen to become –  [Chosen, yes – compare her former friend and colleague, Sarah Lucas, sitting out the spotlight somewhere in the midst of Suffolk.] – if that’s what you want to engage with. But as for the work …

How many images of Tracey do you want to see? Tracey’s pregancy kit; Tracey’s old tampons. Tracey’s thoughts on being, then not being, pregnant, having or not having an abortion. Videos of Tracey riding a horse; runing round in a dress with pinned up with bank notes; Tracey demonstrating all too clearly “Why I Never Became a Dancer”; Tracey encountering a dog and [shades of James Ellroy] asking if it would like to have sex with her.

Though, judging from what’s on display here, the main person Tracey likes to have sex with is herself. The images abound, crowned [I think that’s the term] by a large size animation, created from 200 or so drawings, of a woman masturbating. “Even though it is an erotic subject,” she’s quoted as saying, “I felt distant from the sexuality of the pictures. It was almost like I was trying to understand something – what it means to be a woman, a single entity and feminine.”

And, in the broad public space of the gallery, the images are denied erotic impact – all the more so, for a male viewer amongst an audience [on this occasion] made up almost entirely of women.

It’s when she’s able to put some distance between herself as subject and herself as artist, however, that I think Emin produces her best work. The appliquéd blankets in the first room – practically the first things you see  – are simply stunning. Large pieces, recalling both the Trade Union banners of old and the notion of women’s craft, they merge word, colour and material into a series of fascinating artistic statements about everything from the most personal aspects of the maker’s life to what I see as [interestingly, in terms of her recent espousal of the Conservative party] her hatred of Mrs Thatcher and her fury over the Falklands War – but maybe I’m reading that one wrong.

On the upper floor, behind the screen showing the aforementioned animation, and dealing far more subtly with similar subject matter, are two linked series of paintings – one in gouache, watercolour and pencil on canvas, the other acrylic on canvas – in which the subtle use of pale colours – yellow and cream, pale orange and pale, pale green – which are quite beautiful, and connected in terms of their use of paint and visual imagery, to a pair of abstract canvasses – “Love, Love, Love” & “A Rose” – which show a marked influence of abstract expressionism and recall the work, in particular, of Philip Guston and Cy Twombly.

And then there is the stunning and unsually, for Emin, large-scale canvas, “Black Cat’ – based apparently on a story by Edgar Allan Poe and wearing the influence of Goya to great effect – a pink and white figure wearing a trailing black dress or cape,  her face obscured by a rectangle of solid black and with a pool of dark red blood at her feet. So striking, both in its execution and by its very presence that you wish there were more of this – even if she is the model’s whose identity is blacked out – and less that is blatantly herself.

Finally, I do recognise, I think, that much of my negative reaction to parts of the show is based on the fact that the very femininity of a great number of the works shut me out – this is, I think, in part at least, very much a exhibition by a woman for other women – and, as such, that’s my problem, not Emin’s. I also see that those works I’m responding to me most warmly are those which both fall into areas of art, of painting, to which I generally respond, and which call to mind other artists or works I like – Guston, Goya, TUC banners – rather than those which are more exclusively Emin. Again, my problem, not hers.

You should probably go, make up your mind for yourself.

Art Chronicles: Helen Frankenthaler

Despite (or possibly, because of) her close relationships with the critic, Clement Greenberg, the high priest of Abstract Expressionism, and the artist, Robert Motherwell, whom she married, Helen Frankenthaler – in common with other women painters of the previous mid-century, such as Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan and Lee Krasner – never quite managed to find a profile as high as that of her male contemporaries. Think Jackson Pollock, think Rothko, think Willem de Kooning. And yet, it was Frankenthaler who, after observing Pollock at work, came up with the process of allowing paint to stain the canvas in a manner that was less aggressive and, in some ways, more subtle, and which showed the way for much of the Colour Field painting that flourished amongst the ‘second generation’ of American Abstract Expressionists. And yet it was her male followers, lesser lights to my eyes, such as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, that Greenberg championed.

Now 82, Frankenthaler’s hands are so sadly crippled that she can no longer make new work, so the paintings currently on show at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery in Cork Street are amongst the last she will have made. As the show’s title, Paper is Painting, suggests, these pieces are all Acrylic on paper and were made between 1986 and 1997. The final, large, painting, untitled, (on the right, above) shows Frankenthaler’s eye for form, space and, above all, colour undiminished: a blaze of orange and red that holds the eye to the centre of the paper, pulling our attention to the rich flourishes of paint upon the surface, even as it suggests depth, the darker reds  in the foreground, with their circular movements, perhaps flowers, the centre receding through orange-yellow space towards what? A field? A wall? The waning sun? And see how the small blip of green – not visible above, take it on trust! – snags the eye. And the whiplash of red below the mass of colour, like a boundary, like barbed wire – the artist’s last quick flick of the brush – I’m me, I’m here.

The strongest pieces – which include the marvellous Canal Street from 1987 (below), redolent of both vaginal blood and  first growth, and the gorgeous fluid blues in the 1994 untitled painting to the left above (recalling the cover she designed for Barbara Guest’s 1968 poetry collection, The Blue Stairs) – repay repeated viewings with a sense of deep satisfaction and pleasure, and confirm Frankenthaler’s place amongst the foremost abstract artists of the last century.

The exhibition continues at Bernard Jacobson until November, 13th.

Art Chronicles: Joan Mitchell

Took the train up to Edinburgh recently, just for the day, in order to visit the exhibition of Joan Mitchell’s work at Inverleith House in the Royal Botanic Garden. Okay, a longish way, not so far off ten hours in  total on the train, but it was a comfortable enough journey and, aside from window gazing (great views of the sea, quite stormy, from Berwick upon Tweed north), I managed quite a bit of reading – and, at least, unlike Jackson Brodie in When Will There Be Good News?, I was travelling in the right direction. Besides, not so very long ago (2002) I flew over to New York to see the major retrospective of Mitchell’s paintings at the Whitney, so this was nothing …

It says much about the position of woman artists internationally, both now and in the recent past, that this is the first solo museum showing of Joan Mitchell’s painting in Great Britain. Mitchell began painting in her home city of Chicago, lived briefly in Paris with her first husband, before moving to New York in the early 1950s amidst the tumult of early abstract expressionism. Encouraged by Willem de Kooning and the poet and art critic/curator Frank O’Hara, she seems to have succeeded to a significant extent in keeping her head above water in what must have been an intensely masculine, testosterone-fuelled environment. (By all accounts, she swore like a stevedore and could drink many men under the table) In 1957, her work was included, along with that of fellow women artists Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan and Jane Freilicher in an important group show at New York’s Jewish Museum, Artists of the New York School: Second Generation. But by 1959, she had moved to Paris along with her lover, the Canadian painter, Jean-Paul Riopelle, and France was where she spent most of the remainder of her life, until she died in 1992.

Landscape and nature were always, I think, an important element in her painting, an element which helped to give a structure to the abstraction, and living and working in France, she naturally took on the influence of such artists as Monet, Cezanne and Matisse. This influence is already clear in some of the earlier pieces in the Edinburgh exhibition, which, although small, gains greatly from its situation, the gallery’s high windows looking out towards the trees and shrubbery of the Botanical Garden outside. And there’s a full and persuasive review of the show by Jackie Wullschlager in the Financial Times.

If I had to choose one painter whose work I could live with to the exclusion of any other, Joan Mitchell would be the one.