Painter Amongst the Poets
Jane Freilicher with John Ashbery at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 1952, image by Walter Silver, courtesy the gallery
I met Jane Freilicher the day I arrived in New York in the summer of 1949 just after I had graduated from college and decided to move here on the advice of my friend Kenneth Koch. He was away at the time but said I could stay in his apartment until he got back. I could pick up the key from Jane, who lived on the floor above his. Thus I found myself ringing the bell of a not very prepossessing-looking small loft building on Third Avenue near 16th Street. Jane came down to let me in and invited me in for coffee.
© Jane Frielicher, John Ashbery, c. 1954, graphite on paper, 16.75 x 13.875 ins, image courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York
I think that was the first time I saw her paintings, though it might have been slightly later. In any case, I wasn't terribly interested in contemporary painting then, and I have only a vague memory of some partly geometric, partly loose semi-abstract landscapes. I certainly wasn't aware that the year 1949 was going to be a momentous one, not just for me, but for American art, which had been slowly coming to a boil for several years thanks to the efforts of de Kooning, Kline, Pollock, Motherwell, and a handful of other revolutionary geniuses.
©Jane Freilicher, Portrait of John Ashbery, c. 1968, oil on canvas, 20.25 x 18 ins, image courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York
It was in 1949 that LIFE magazine, unwillingly no doubt, tipped the balance in their favor with a splashy article about Pollock, topped with a half-sarcastic, half-serious headline: "Is he America's greatest living painter?" The color illustrations of Pollock's drip paintings invited the reader to conclude otherwise even as they tilted the argument toward him.
©Jane Freilicher, John Ashbery, c. 1954, pen and ink on paper, 13.75 x 10.85 ins, private collection, image courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York
I don't intend to trace the history of the next momentous few years; only to point out that Jane was both close to and distant from the ferment of those times. Like so many other painters of her generation, she had studied with Hans Hofmann, the celebrated artist-teacher who practiced his own kind of abstract expressionism but encouraged his students to branch out in other directions, such as figuration.
©Jane Freilicher, Portrait of Kenneth Koch c. 1966, oil on linen, 30 x 40 ins, private collection, image courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York
This wasn't as unusual as it sounds-the so-called heroic period of abstract expressionism was by no means as monolithic as it seems in retrospect. To cite but one example, de Kooning always acknowledged the determining influence on him of the Le Nain Brothers, meticulous seventeenth-century realist painters. Jane also followed her own path, with stops along the way to take in Bonnard, Balthus, Watteau, and even, unless I'm mistaken, Hofmann himself, in a little-known abstract period of hers in the early 1960s.
©Jane Freilicher, Frank O'Hara 1951, oil on linen, 65 x 23 ins, private collection, image courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery
She continues today to elaborate a body of work that is devoid of formula and alive with awareness of consequences of art of the past, including much that seems at first glance foreign to her own way with paint. Her pictures always have an air of just coming into being, of tentativeness that is the lifeblood of art.
©Jane Freilicher, Jimmy Schuyler, 1965, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 ins, image courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York
There are always new and surprising full passages where you couldn't imagine another artist coming to the same decisions, which are invariably the right ones. Her subjects are often the same-still lifes or landscapes, sometimes viewed through a window-but the way of painting is constantly different, fresh, and surprising. Her work is rich in meanings that continue to resonate with us even after we have moved on and are thinking of something else. It is one reason why we value art and part of what makes her a great artist.
In praise of an enduring friendship, spring 2013: Jane Freilicher stands in front of the portrait by Walter Silver taken at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1952, image courtesy Lawrence Schwartzwald (no reproduction without express permission)
". . . one doesn't stay friends with somebody for forty years unless they have a lot of nice qualities, such as brilliance. Jane Freilicher, famous for her light-swept, vaporous paintings, is also the wittiest person I've ever known, but her wit is the casual, throwaway kind. It's a privilege to be able to 'tickle the conversational ivories' with her, to use a phrase of hers."
John Ashbery's words were delivered to accompany the presentation of the Gold Medal for Painting to Jane Freilicher at the American Academy of Arts and Letters on 18 May 2005, and they remain his copyright. They are reproduced here by permission of John Ashbery and Georges Borchardt, Inc.