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.

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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.

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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?

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Matisse: Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table

 

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: Making Painting

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Turner Contemporary at Margate has an absolutely smashing show on right now. Making Painting, curated by James Hamilton, brings together the work of JMW Turner and the American abstract expressionist, Helen Frankenthaler; Turner making his journey from landscape/seascape painting towards abstraction; Frankenthaler making a similar journey in the latter half of the last century, the best of her work, though at first sight, perhaps, wholly abstract, never quite leaving landscape behind.

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There are three rooms dedicated to the exhibition, well, three and a broad corridor: the final room, the one in which people lingered the longest and in which the liveliest discussions were taking place – parents and young children, it was half-term week – is given over to a terrific selection of Frankenthaler’s most colourful and largest canvasses, brilliant enough to make the head spin.

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By and large, the work of the two painters is kept apart, allowing visitors to find the comparisons for themselves, whereas, in the neat little catalogue, there are a number of explicit pairings, Turner’s Stormy Sea Breaking on a Shore, for instance, alongside Frankenthaler’s Barometer – this last an extraordinary late piece – it was painted in 1992 – which eschews all of the artist’s normal strong colours for a palette of varying whites and greys that, for a long moment, you think could be a hitherto undiscovered piece by Turner himself.

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This show, which runs till May 11th, is not all the gallery has to offer. Juan Munoz’ Conversation Piece III departs on February 26th, to be replaced on March 29th by Edumnd de Waal’s Atmosphere, and Sol LeWitt’s vibrant Wall Drawing #1136 is on display till June 8th.

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Later this year, May to September, there’s a new exhibition, Mondrian and Colour, and, following that, Jeremy Deller’s Venice Biennale show, English Magic.

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: 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.