I’m writing these lines in late September just a few hours after learning that Shirley Jaffe died in Paris at the age of ninety-two. Last week, knowing that she had little time left, I flew to France to see her one last time. As I sat at her hospital bedside talking about our long friendship, at one point I told her, “Shirley, I never would have become an art critic without you.” Looking at me with a clear gaze and slight smile that conveyed to me that she still recalled, despite her physically weakened state, every episode of our long history, she said, “I know.”
It was 1975. I was twenty years old and spending a summer in Paris. A heat wave of historic proportions had descended on the city. I was living in a tiny, stifling top-floor hotel room in the 5th arrondissement a block away from Shirley’s place on Rue Saint-Victor. Every time I went to see her (as a friend of my late father’s, she had sort of taken me under her wing) she had a book of criticism to lend me—including Greenberg’s Art and Culture, Rosenberg’s Tradition of the New, both new to me, so little did I know—museum and gallery exhibitions to recommend, and something else, the supreme value of which I only came to appreciate much later: a readiness to engage an uninformed, opinionated, lonely young man in lengthy, challenging discussions about the lives of artists, the culture of Paris, and the art of painting.
From that summer on Shirley was a constant presence in my life even though we would see each other only every couple of years when I made my way back to Paris. (These were years when Shirley had no New York gallery and rarely traveled to the States.) Steadily, and still without the slightest expectation on either of our parts that it would be put to any use, Shirley fed me a constant stream of information about artists, historic and contemporary; quizzed me about shows I had seen and, most importantly, talked to me about her own work.
She also listened to me! It was sitting in her modest studio/living space, often sharing a simply prepared meal eaten at a small rickety circular coffee table, that I took my first halting steps as an interpreter of art, trying out a new identity as someone who loved looking at painting and possibly had something to say about it. If Shirley was encouraging, she was also quick to tell me when she thought I was wrong, usually because I had not looked carefully enough, or because I was so focused on questions of style or superficial comparisons that I had missed what was unique and distinctive in an artist’s work. (I’m thinking, for instance, of how she helped me overcome my New York bias to appreciate Simon Hantaï at a time when few people in the U.S. had time for his paintings.)
When the day finally came that I began to publish art criticism, Shirley’s precepts about lack of bias, thoughtful looking, openness to new ideas (and the courage to recognize and discard old ones) were always at the back of my mind, no matter what kind of work I was writing about. I sought then, and have ever since, to bring to my art writing the lessons she patiently instilled in me during our many conversations on Rue Saint-Victor, and just as Shirley’s assessments showed me what it meant to have an authentic response to art, so did her own paintings give me a standard by which to measure every other painting I have encountered.