Jane Freilicher: Abstractions
On ViewKasmin Gallery
March 2–April 22, 2023
Will the real Jane Freilicher please stand up? The question, the punch line from a 1950s television show where four celebrities had to guess a contestant’s true identity, is especially apposite in the case of Freilicher: is this the painter of still lifes and urban or rural landscapes, the painter whose rendition of places on Long Island’s East End made her famous, or the abstract painter responsible for these twelve magnificent examples of American post-Ninth Street Art Exhibition (1951) and post-Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) non-figurative painting? She was both of course and these works, all produced between 1958 and 1962, provide a unique opportunity to catch Freilicher at a critical moment in her artistic career.
A curatorial tour-de-force combining resources from the artist’s estate (represented by the Kasmin Gallery), private collections, and at least one public institution, the Delaware Art Museum, these twelve oils show a painter in her mid-thirties: confident, bold—the sixty by seventy-inch canvases attest to that boldness—unafraid to create work that pushes the limit of domestic-scale art. The large-scale works here are a statement: “I’m here, and I demand to be noticed.” At the same time, they make a coherent argument for abstract painting beyond Abstract Expressionism as not simply the representation of passions or emotions, but an interaction between a self and a world, especially a natural world.
To see the evolutionary process entailed in these wonderful paintings, we should begin with Untitled (Rambler Rose) (1958). Among the smallest works in the show (38 by 33 inches), the oil on linen is a first step away from representative landscape painting into abstraction. The allusion to Cézanne in the wild roses is clear, as is the tripartite division of the painting itself: sky above, a horizon line, and, below, the quasi-still life with flowers. There is depth and perspective, but the forms dissolve into masses of color. There is no discernable source of sunlight, so the entire canvas appears in a uniform light. It is as if Freilicher were making an artistic decision and decided to dramatize it by creating a threshold, with her art about to step through into non-representation.
The three levels appear in other works, Northern Lights (1959) and the large, 63-by-46-inch Rain (1958). Freilicher deploys this traditional organization of painterly space but limits depth, opening the way to the flat surface of the totally abstract works. The geometry of the landscape painter links this Freilicher to the painter of representational still lives and landscapes: the two are consubstantial, but the decision to go fully abstract is clearly a schism in the artist’s sensibility. It is as if she needed old tools to break new ground.
This new territory we see in Harvest Moon (1958). The canvas, in a modality similar to what we find in other painters of the fifties—Grace Hartigan, for instance—is like a game board. Its whiteness and utter flatness mark a separation from landscape: it is an island independent from reality on which the artist arranges splotches of color. Coherence does not derive from Freilicher’s tripartite division but from the juxtaposition of colors. Untitled (Mecox Bay and Field) (1958) confirms this departure from landscape even though, paradoxically, Mecox Bay is real and the site of the artist’s house. The actual place and the actual view out across the water no longer matter here: only the space of the canvas and the dialectical pressures of color against color.
True enough, but it would be a mistake to say Freilicher moved from representation to abstraction in the way Philip Guston set aside abstraction in favor of gestural representation. She clearly went back and forth, as we see in the stupendous Montego Bay (1959-1961). Whatever the effect of that city in Jamaica had on Freilicher cannot be known, but this complex painting, very possibly derived from a memory and painted in the studio, amalgamates all of the tensions in her work during this three-year period. The division into three discrete levels reappears here: in the lowest level, red predominates, perhaps an allusion to raw passions breaking free; in the middle level, blue and green take control, a subduing of the id-like lower area. The upper third of the canvas is white streaked with blue, escape or release from the turbulence beneath it. This is a large (68 by 61 inches) piece, as close as Freilicher was likely to come to a self-portrait.
This small body of work is sixty-years-old, truly a “foster-child of silence and slow time,” but it speaks to us with an eloquence that renders it forever contemporary.