Friday, May 1st, 2009

Jane Freilicher: Changing Scenes at Tibor de Nagy Gallery

March 14 – April 18, 2009
724 Fifth Avenue
New York City, 212 262 5050

Jane Freilicher Afternoon in October 1976. Oil on canvas, 51 x 77 inches. cover MAY 2009: Harmonic Convergence 2008. Oil on linen, 24 x 20 inches. Images courtesy of Tibor de Nagy Gallery.
Jane Freilicher, Afternoon in October 1976. Oil on canvas, 51 x 77 inches. cover MAY 2009: Harmonic Convergence 2008. Oil on linen, 24 x 20 inches. Images courtesy of Tibor de Nagy Gallery.

To a follower of Jane Freilicher’s work, her new show at Tibor de Nagy is something like the renewal of a long-term domestic relationship; there are the familiar views, the repertoire of flowers and objects. That the eighteen works in this show span over forty years raises questions on the process of ageing, on the value of spending so many years on the same motifs. To sustain such an involvement might be considered an accomplishment in itself – or, to some critics, proof of the inherent conservatism of painting, a medium out of step with rapidly changing times.

Whatever the answers to these larger questions, the show encourages us to reflect on Freilicher’s origins among the painters and poets that emerged in the 1950s, and to situate her development under the light our contemporary context brings to bear. One imagines her early, spontaneous studies of the Long Island landscape in terms of the mercurial, collage-like poems of Frank O’Hara, immediate and improvisational. But where he often shifts focus, in response to the abrupt encounters of urban life, it seems as though one incidental encounter – with the window view from her studio in Water Mill – has become prolonged for Freilicher into a lifetime engagement. (Or two, considering the equal importance of the view from her studio in New York.)

But it’s O’Hara’s openness to the inspiration of each new day that sustains the remarkable freshness of Freilicher’s prolonged involvement, along with the other abiding influence of Pierre Bonnard, whose concurrent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum – like one of O’Hara’s chance encounters on the street – sets Freilicher ‘s paintings freshly in the French artist’s context.  Leland Bell, another painter who emerged from Freilicher’s milieu, liked to speak of the “violence” of Bonnard, referring to his abrupt juxtapositions of objects and spaces. His window views, merging domestic interiors and landscapes, certainly serve as models for Freilicher’s own juxtapositions, especially in the way that the table by the window serves as a stage, on which bouquets and other objects are injected into the frame-within–a-frame of the painting.

Freilicher’s compositions are admittedly more self-consciously artistic than Bonnard’s informal configurations of flowers, food, and figures – understandable enough in an American’s embrace of a European model. The distinctive American spaces out her window – the flatness of Long Island or the vertical density of New York – also impose constraints. In a 1952 review, Fairfield Porter, attuned to the struggles of American artists, commended Freilicher’s search for “first principles”, and her “deep affection for all bumbling things”. Inspired by the abruptness of Bonnard, Freilicher finds ongoing support in O’Hara’s diaristic improvisations for her own daily engagement with all that‘s unruly or monotonous in what’s before her; she insists on the flat Long Island horizon as a matter of principle, recording in works like Afternoon in October(1973) what could seem tedious variations in its expanse with easeful, inspired economy and, as Porter puts it, “never a hint of pedantry”.

Freilicher’s work becomes tighter over time, but the spirit of chance encounter remains, as inSummer Afternoon (1987) with its telephone, or From the Studio (1989-91), with its swimming pool ironically placed behind a small painting of a nude. The most recent works included here, most notably Yellow (2009), return to the city and show a growing integration of the view and the table, a tendency to seek out simple forms and related colors that impose an enhanced overall harmony. Details seem less important – perhaps her attention flags, or perhaps her painting simply tends ever more strongly towards those “first principles” that Porter discerned in 1952.