“It’s that trigger I was talking about. The combination of forms and light in the landscape produces a rush of feeling which translates into the painting. When I have stopped painting on a landscape which is usually a motif seen through my studio window I go outside and I am always amazed by how much more is pouring over my head.”
—Jane Freilicher, from A Dialogue with Alex Katz
I had written about Jane Freilicher in 2013 in the course of my journey to visit and speak with women artists who met two criteria: that I had known about their work when I was a young art student, and that they are currently working as artists. I had begun to realize the importance of the people who made the art and to wonder about them and how they had managed to make lives as artists, the strength and conviction that they must have to continue making art. This is not easy, as anyone with a studio life knows. I wanted to understand what I could from these women artists whose work I admire and whose lives I sought to comprehend. I think this was to make sense of my own life as an artist over the past 35 years in the studio. To understand another's life and strength is easier said than done, but I have continued this quest because it feeds my own work as an artist and propels me into action.
I first met Jane at her gallery at a difficult moment for her as her spouse was ill. I could tell her thoughts were elsewhere, but she wanted to speak as much as should could about her work. She did convey to me her wit and passion for painting. Her gallery, Tibor de Nagy, was like a second home for her. She had been with the gallery for over 50 years, a very unusual occurrence in this era of artists’ continually trading up and gallerists doing the same. At the gallery, Eric Brown, Andrew Arnot, and gallery director Andrea Wells clearly treasure Jane; they show her work and recently published a catalogue/ book, Painter Among Poets. As in the best relationships, the admiration went both ways, and I think they all knew how rare such relationships between artists are and how they should be treasured. The exhibition on view at the gallery when I met Jane there was composed of still life paintings she had made in her studio in New York City and one or two landscapes she had made on site in eastern Long Island, where she and her husband had a home for more than 50 years.
All photos of the studio by Deanna Sirlin
I met Jane’s daughter, Elizabeth Hazen, a painter in her own right, in the fall of 2014 at an exhibition featuring a old friend at a gallery on the Lower East Side of New York City. I asked her about Jane, and whether Elizabeth thought I could meet with her again, but this time at her studio. Elizabeth replied that maybe Jane could see me, if only briefly, on my next visit to New York.
I contacted Elizabeth before my next trip north. Elizabeth told me she herself would be out of town, but her spouse, Steven Hicks, also a painter, would be happy to take me to Jane's apartment, as it was just a short walk from where they live. We decided I would come on a Sunday morning that also happened to be Mother's Day.
I met Steve at his home in the Village. He had a beautiful bouquet of white hydrangeas for his mother-in-law. I thought how perfect these flowers were, so much like Jane's paintings—so deeply articulated in form, yet so sparing in their essence. They already looked to me like one of Jane’s works as Steve held them in his hands and we walked through the New York City streets to her building, the play of nature against cityscape. Jane was in good spirits that day, her mood buoyant. She was in fine form, funny and full of stories she recounted in a lively sort of dry banter. After about 30 minutes, Steve needed to be off — but Jane suggested I stay and talk. I spent several insightful hours in her company.
At ninety, she was still sharp. We touched on many subjects: her life, her painting, her friends, her family and past. Jane liked talking about Hans Hoffman, who was her teacher. He was important to her, as he was to so many of the artists who studied with him in Provincetown and New York. Whenever I asked Jane a question she did not want to answer, she looked around for a drawing, book, or photograph to show me, to distract me from my query. I found her funny in a wonderfully deadpan way. As I think about the geometry and figuration in her works I sense an ironic take on the intimate viewpoint presented that reflects her wit.
Freilicher seemed to paint the same picture over and over again. Like an American Morandi, in her Greenwich Village studio she painted many variations on the theme of a still life with plants or flowers with a backdrop of the cityscape in the distance. She painted and drew the same vases and flowers repeatedly, never tiring of their forms, lining them up against the longer view of the city and playing foreground off of background. There is a sweetness in these setups which reflects her empathy not only for the forms of the objects, but also their meanings. Jane told me she paints these works, and “somehow people like them.” But it’s not as really as simple as that.
She also used the same device of playing background and foreground off against each other when she painted in her Eastern Long Island studio. In a still life of plants and flowers casually arranged on a table before a window or outside in the garden, the foreground meshes with the the landscape, each shape resting on the next, with one receding and the other coming forward ever so slightly, yet both married in a single vision. These paintings harken back to Bonnard and Vuillard, their intimate views of daily life, their tables set haphazardly. The view beyond the table shows the promise of good weather or a long night. Not so French is Freilicher; her work is flatter and more organized in structure, although her paintings also seem intuitive in a way that promotes an empathetic reading of the work.
Jane Freilicher, Window 2011 oil on linen 32 x 32 inches
One of my favorite works of Freilicher's is Window from 2011, in oil on canvas and measuring 32 inches square. A small army of flowers in pots, pitchers, and vases mostly line up at the bottom of the canvas. Behind, in muted grays, tans, browns, and whites, is the city with a sky that is uniformly gray but not at all flat; rather, it is softly brushed with blue. Each of the flowers that sit in or spill out of the vessels is different, calling attention to their differences of shape and timbre. The colors are soft, with ochres balancing the coolness of the rose colored pinks and sap greens, all so soft and moist.
If Freilicher’s city paintings are often characterized by a subdued palette, her Long Island works are often warmer, with clean stretches of yellow pigment that reach horizontally across her canvases to articulate sunlight on the grasses in the marshland outside her window. Flowers on a Pink Cloth from 2004, in oil on linnet, 36 by 30 inches, is just slightly more vertical than than Window. In this painting, the tabletop is pink and tilted up just slightly so we can see the entire shape. Four vessels hold a mess of wild flowers lovely in their unruliness. Their colors—pink, blue, and yellow with bits of red—are the energy center of the painting. The landscape beyond is is made up of three planes of color: the ground in beige, warm yellows and ochres tinged with orange and brown that articulate the soft grasses that grow near the ocean, and a violet gray sky with the most liquid feeling of a cloud that floats horizontally across the top of the canvas.
Jane Freilicher, Flowers on a Pink Cloth 2004 36 x 30 inches
Back in Jane’s Greenwich Village apartment, I want to know more about the life of this artist. Jane tells me to go look at the studio upstairs. It is difficult for her to do these stairs, and I suspect that, at 90, she may not be painting that much. It takes all your energy to make a painting, and only she knows when is the right time to work or not.
I go upstairs and enter a wonderful rooftop greenhouse which she used as her studio. Upstairs is also a room for resting or sleeping, its wall painted a wonderful Marsala Pink, now the 2015 color of the year. Coincidence? Maybe, but somehow I think artists understand the beauty of colors way before everyone else. The room is spare, but hung with 6 or more canvases and drawings, with a bed in the center. I thought it would be so wonderful to work here, much like an artist’s retreat — quiet, and removed from the reminders of daily life. I understood this artist a bit more from this place, a quiet studio where one could immerse oneself in the work of painting.
I go back downstairs and I ask Jane about her toils in the studio. She does not want to talk about this and looks around for a drawing to show me to distract me from asking the kinds of questions that really cannot be answered anyway. I already know the answers; one only has to look at the paintings to understand. The dialogue is personal, the relationship of the brush to the color of the paint to the form itself is like poetry.
Milton, Georgia 2015
Deanna Sirlin is Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section. She is an artist.