Jane Freilicher at her exhibition, 2011. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.
Jane Freilicher, Study in Blue and Gray, 2011. © The Artist.
by Deanna Sirlin
I remember having a calendar featuring the work of women artists in my college dorm. This would have been about 1976 or so and I had no female art teachers in my studio classes. The calendar was big, with nice color plates. Jane Freilicher was one of the twelve painters chosen to be in this calendar. I remember her image well: a squarish composition with a lusciously hued blue sky painted in a flattened manner, and a table of which we did not see much, with a vase of flowers centered on it.
Over the past year, I have been making studio visits with women artists whose work I have followed for at least twenty-five years. So many of the artists I have visited have asked me, “Who else are you visiting?” I happily give them the list. These are artists I treasure; they have been with me a long time as my friends in the studio, although I had never met them. When I mention Jane Freilicher to the other women artists they smile, nod, and say “yes, Jane.” I ask if they know her, since an introduction makes it all so much easier, but they all shake their heads no. Nevertheless, she is important to all of us, an American woman artist who has been painting for more than 60 years. A potted plant or vase of flowers on a table or shelf with the New York cityscape behind it, or a landscape seen from her studio window out in the Hamptons have been her continuous motifs.
Fairfield Porter painting Jane Freilicher
Photograph courtesy Fairfield Porter Archive, The Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York.
Jane Frielicher is 87 years old. She has agreed to meet me at her gallery, Tibor de Nagy, who has been her dealer since 1954, rather than her studio. Her studio is in her home, and her husband is not well. I hope to get to the gallery early to see her show and her work before I meet her, but she is already waiting for me at the front desk, half an hour early. We go to the back of the gallery where there is an intimate space with her paintings, beautifully hung. Jane begins to talk to me about her work. She is extremely modest. Jane starts to tell me of her night painting which was so recently on her easel at home but is now hung in the gallery. She seemed delighted to see her work there; she said it was sort of amazing that people seem to want to look at her paintings, and that they like her work. She told me she studied with Hans Hoffman, an influential teacher.
Tibor de Nagy Gallery was quite a place “back in the day,” as they say. New York School poets like John Ashbury, Kenneth Koch, James Schyler, and Frank O’Hara all hung around the gallery, and some collaborated with the artists on prints and text. They were all great admirers of Jane’s work. At the gallery, she also met the painter and critic Fairfield Porter, with whom she developed a close friendship. Together, they painted the bucolic word of eastern Long Island, a fresh, clear place where artists could work. Porter and Freilicher both used the landscape as a motif in their paintings, with family members and friends naturally milling about, reading , painting, sleeping. In 1954, Porter painted a double portrait of his wife, Anne, reading and Jane painting in the lush Long Island landscape. Neither sitter is paying him much attention, but the figures sit well in the composition. Another of Porter’s Long Island pastorals, from 1967, is of Jane and her daughter, Elizabeth, when she was just a small child. Here, Jane is sitting and looking directly at her portraitist; she is wearing a short, lilac-colored dress with a pattern on it, and little Elizabeth is wearing red overalls with a pattern on it as well. It is a touching depiction of Mother and Child in the Long Island landscape. Jane owned this work and generously gave it to the Parrish Art Museum. It is not only a significant work of Porter’s but also a document of the lives and friendship of these two artists. Porter died in 1975 when he was 68.
Jane in her Water Mill Studio. Photograph © 2011 Jonathan Becker
In this exhibition of Freilicher’s are eleven works, several from this year, and all but one are botanical still lifes set against the New York cityscape. Freilicher brings the planes of color from the background close and pushes the color of the botanicals in the foreground back to make them combine and flatten. This is Hoffman’s technique of “push and pull” which had a tremendous influence on artists of the New York School. Where Hoffman’s colors vibrate against one another, however, Freilicher’s colors sit softly in the same tonal range even as they playfully create spatial tensions. In a small (8 x 10 inches), a liquidy landscape from 2010, the greenish gray in the foreground recedes into coral and yellow and breathesupward into the twilight sky of a grayish blue that comes forward and flattens the picture.
In the paintings Freilicher made on Long Island, the horizon and clear, cloudless sky dominate the compositions. There is often a wonderful swatch of bright and clean cadmium yellow that rakes across the greenest of pastoral grass. Although nominally interiors and landscapes, the true subject of Freilicher’s paintings is color and the quiet but very compelling dramas it can enact.
Jane Freilicher, Mixed Flowers, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.
Deanna Sirlin is the Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section. She is an artist and a writer.
This essay is part of a project on living American women artists she began under the art writers' mentorship program of Creative Capital and the Andy Warhol Foundation.