Drawn to the Larger Mystery: Selina Trieff, 1934 to 2015
Selina Trieff, who died in January at the age of 81, was a hauntingly good painter. She reworked a recurring cast of doppelgangers — pilgrims in funeral garb, skeletons, angelic messengers and serene farmyard animals — into friezes of rare iconic weight, each composition a carefully calibrated balance between color surprise, dramatic stagecraft, and strong, intelligent draftsmanship.
Born in Brooklyn in 1934, she studied at the most advanced schools of the time: with Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko at Brooklyn College (note the deep roots of outer-boro hipness), and, beginning in 1953, with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown. She returned to Cape Cod with her partner, Robert Henry, for the last of their 60 years together in life and art — the couple for many years before that having embedded themselves in their own corner of the New York scene, living and working while raising two daughters in the Meatpacking District, which was not exactly a term of real estate glamour when they moved there.
From Hofmann, Trieff learned about the physicality of paint and how to ask pictorial questions without pat answers. Stubbornly, mutinously, she found her footing in the still-hot coals of expressionist gesture, which she trained back on figuration. I doubt “push-pull” means much any longer, the way it has been abused for half a century as a slogan for Hofmann’s intuitive, non-pedagogical method, but in Trieff’s work the term, for once, comes home to roost. Despite large flat areas of seemingly abstract color surrounding her figures, a flatness which Trieff often emphasizes with applications of inscrutably lustrous gold leaf, the space of her paintings is always activated. A springy dynamics of foreground and background locks into place by means of crisp, dimensional outlines. These, however, Trieff is sure to booby trap with painterly contradiction (draftsmanly contradiction, too — painting and drawing being, in Trieff’s oeuvre, inseparable concepts). These subtle instabilities allow poised flatness and deep space — push and pull — to coexist in hair-trigger equilibrium, in ways that are equally impossible in pure abstraction or illusionistic realism.
Trieff made the occasional sinewy portrait — and innumerable self-portraits, which shade, imperceptibly, into fictional characters: silent, composed female spirits who belong to an entirely personal narrative. These mythological visions, whoever they are, seem to stare back at us from the beyond, somewhat like the martyred saints Trieff hints at by her frequent use of gold leaf. As in medieval icons, Trieff’s tenderly apotheosized figures never smile. But it was not martyrdom per se that interested this artist. She was drawn, rather, to the larger mystery of mortality. Trieff’s enigmatic personages, embedded in geometry, are beyond their sufferings. Often they are angelically transfixed by their own beauty.
Trieff was charmingly clownish in life and anything but morbid, so much so that those who were fortunate enough to know her may be more liable to see the pilgrims and angels, and the sheep, goats and pigs as well, as a comedy of strangely familiar selves. In Selina Trieff Will Not Stop, however, one of several admiring videos posted on YouTube and Vimeo in which one can sample Selina’s (and Bob’s) gritty determination, candor and wit, Trieff lets the cat out of the bag: “We’re always surrounded by death,” she pronounces matter-of-factly. (I refer the reader to the online videos with misgivings, since genteel music choices in all of them, typical of a folk-art bio, excruciatingly undermine the seriousness of Trieff’s and Henry’s words and work.) Filmed toward the end of her long battle for health, Trieff explains that the recurring skeleton figure in her paintings and drawings had begun, many years before, as a way to continue the relationship with her closest friend after she’d died. Perhaps this fetishistic approach to the graven image explains the occult quality of Trieff’s best work, the way the eyes of her farm animals are always dimly aware, even shrewd, while the faces and hands of her credibly awkward figures wriggle into life within their solid pictorial niches. Trieff’s painterly attentions intensify in skin and anatomy, with additional dimensions revealed in every tactfully modeled eye socket and cheekbone, in every meaty hoof and finger. The effect, no matter how often Trieff went to the same well of characters and poses, is a hybrid quality of contained animation, of faraway sentience. One could say that Trieff’s unique contribution was to put the aniconism of Modernist abstraction back onto a more ritualistic footing — in effect by making private icons. Achieving the magical, eternal feeling given off by one painting after another required all of Trieff’s expertise and finesse. It was her own considerable skill, of course, that was the real object of her conjurings.