Jane Freilicher: '50s New York Preview

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said, “I don’t think my paintings are very ‘realistic.’ They have reference to real things in nature, but they have their own objective life as paintings, not as imitations of other things.”3 Reviewing Freilicher’s first solo exhibition in 1952, Fairfield Porter wrote, “Jane Freilicher seems to be trying to rediscover first principles. Her painting is traditional and radical. She is consciously imitative of the masters of the Renaissance, but in a firsthand way… These paintings are broad and bright, considered without being fussy, thoughtful but never pedantic. The subject may be immediately obvious, or, as in Figure on a Bed, at first sight apparently something else. Reading from the top down, the figure looks like clouds in a greenish-blue sky, the bed like the opposite banks of a river landscape, the floor and dog below like the river and far shore.”4 Certain paintings in the present group are like the works Porter described in that they too give an impression of things that may not be exactly what they appear to be. Interior (1954) and its larger version on paper (1953) take the room—or

LEFT: Jane

interiority perhaps—as their subject, yet at the same time call into question that very notion. Like the Figure on a Bed morphing into a landscape cited by Porter, the image suggests a hybrid of room and landscape: a door in the back wall gapes open to reveal a slice of undefined, perhaps infinite, space beyond; walls are activated with white or yellow scumbled areas of brushwork which has the effect (perhaps contrary to what was intended) of making them look insubstantial and appear to dissolve into a mist, while the ceiling and its globular light has become a sky, with clouds and a moon. The illusion of a porous physical reality, where inside and outside states coexist, is a bit reminiscent of the 1930s surrealist-inflected interiors of Englishman Paul Nash. The effect also anticipates Freilicher’s later still lifes in front of windows—the work for which she is probably best known—in which the outside is explicitly brought in, and the inside is taken out. Prominent in many of Freilicher’s still lifes of this period are swaths of boldly patterned fabric: an oriental rug on a table beneath an arrangement

Freilicher, Interior, 1953,
oil on paper mounted on panel, 60 x 44 1/8 inches, 152.4 x 112.1 cm Freilicher, Peonies on a Table, 1954,
oil on linen,
36 x 40 inches,
91.4 x 101.6 cm


LEFT: Antoine

Watteau, Mezzetin, c. 1717–9, oil on canvas, 21 3/4 x 17 inches, 55.2 x 43.2 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Freilicher, ​The Lute Player, 1993, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches, 91.4 x 91.4 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Kathryn E. Hurd Fund, 1995. RIGHT: Jane

of vases and compote in Still Life (Persian Carpet) (1955) or Peonies on a Table (1954); a Spanish shawl draped over the back of a wicker chair in Flowers in Armchair (1956); and both a draped shawl and a table cloth in Still Life with Calendulas (1955). The image of a Persian or Turkish carpet on a table beneath a still life arrangement is a frequent convention in seventeenth-century Dutch still life painting, while the challenge of rendering multiple materials, textures, degrees of reflectivity or transparence represented by the silver coffee pot, glass compote, sea shell, fruit, and flowers may also allude to the technical virtuosity and material variety of Dutch Golden Age still life painting. However, Freilicher stated that she intended no explicit reference to Dutch painting in these still lifes, and included patterned fabrics simply in order to enliven different areas of the composition.5 The Modernist idea that all parts of the painting should be “active” goes back at least to Cézanne, and was carried forward by Matisse who used patterned fabrics (and at times deliberately “awkward”

composition and paint application) in ways that anticipate Freilicher. Like Matisse, Freilicher seems to enjoy replicating fabric patterns as “found” imagery in their own right: a flat alternate visual reality that momentarily contradicts the spatial illusion of the room. This is particularly the case in the theatrical Still Life with Calendulas, in which a large patterned shawl or coverlet draped over a room divider, and another floral patterned cloth cascading down the front of a cabinet, together occupy almost three-quarters of the image area. The actual calendulas all but vanish against the painted floral pattern they seem to recede into, setting up a witty badinage between the painted and the “real,” but also painted, flowers. Sun-struck floorboards at the right lead back to a vague, dark doorway which the drapery parts expectantly to reveal, like a trompe l’oeil curtain. Juxtapositions of different visual registers will occur regularly through her later work—in the occasional quotations of Watteau’s Mezzetin and other oldmaster paintings, for example—and most often,

IN CONVERSATION WITH JOHN ASHBERY A typed transcript, first page missing, of the following interview was found among Jane Freilicher’s papers; the interview occurred in or around 1958. Above, Jane Freilicher and John Ashbery at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 1952. Photo: Walter Silver.


and for some reason flowers and landscapes were the means which I used. Now, in the last few months, I no longer want a subject to begin with. It seems that the very paint itself will suggest some sort of image. I guess it tends toward abstraction, which I felt I was very far away from, though I feel it has some sort of natural foundation, as if I were painting the underside of the earth, something growing below the surface.


several of your early paintings, the more violent ones, like Soldiers Bathing and Football, you painted large groups of aggressive males. Then you switched to flowers and single portraits. Do you connect the subject matter with the style?

The Painting Table (detail), 1954, oil on linen
 26 x 40 inches, 66 x 101.6 cm OPPOSITE:

Jane Freilicher in the studio, c. 1958–9. Photo: John Jonas Gruen. © 2018 Estate of John Gruen. Courtesy: Julia Gruen. ABOVE:

Early New York Evening, 1954,
oil on linen
 51 1/2 x 31 3/4 inches,
130.8 x 80.6 cm