The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2023

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MARCH 2023 Issue

Jane Freilicher: Abstractions

Jane Freilicher, <em>Untitled (Near the Cove)</em>, 1958. Oil on linen, 65 x 101 1/4 inches. Courtesy of the Estate of Jane Freilicher and Kasmin, New York.
Jane Freilicher, Untitled (Near the Cove), 1958. Oil on linen, 65 x 101 1/4 inches. Courtesy of the Estate of Jane Freilicher and Kasmin, New York.

On View
Kasmin Gallery
March 2–April 22, 2023
New York

As I had seen previous shows of Jane Freilicher, some from an exhibition of the several women painters with whom she had shared a time away from New York City on Long Island, and some from previous exhibitions at Kasmin, I was all the more eager to see the present one of these abstractions she did for just a few years, in between the figurative paintings she composed before and after.

Let me speak as a “you,” so as to include all of us viewers and visitors to this show. Let’s quote the never-to-be-forgotten Peter Schjeldahl, for he, unsurprisingly, says exactly what we’d like to begin with:

Freilicher’s paintings gradually summon fugitive emotions that are beyond words. Foremost for me is a slightly melancholy but secretly smiling spirit of acceptance, conveyed with a casual formality that honors painting’s trusty conventions. I am reminded of the title of an O’Hara poem: “In Memory of My Feelings.” (“Chez Jane,” Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker, September 2, 2002, p. 151)

We need (or want) to point out how that feeling about feeling is enormously right in relating our sense of these paintings. That they are on linen instead of canvas must be part of that emotive memory: linen sheets in your grandmother the painter’s bed, and you seem to remember stretched canvas… Your memories enter these spaces.

In any case, we will be reflecting on these works, so wonderfully displayed, among which we are choosing only three, finding these exceptionally powerful.

First off, there is Untitled (Near the Cove) (1958). Entering the gallery, you try (impossibly) not to be seized by that work. With its enormously mighty anchor on the left pole, that bright green looms upward, far beyond the boundary of the work itself, the linen support doing its own reach. And there on the left, the curve of the mountain road stretches up beyond that endlessly incomplete tree-pole. (The incompletion of this painting, as of 1958’s Harvest Moon, will stick in the mind, as Freilicher’s abstractions and incompletions stick in the mind.)

What a road, looming up over the tree-pole and down the other side, curving with the mountain, upside and downside, all the way toward the brilliant yellow-orange of the shore below the water, itself separated from the road as a black line along it by a red splotch stretches to the right. You feel transfixed by the waterscape, and the ruddy mountains on the top toward the horizon. What, again the mountains? Are they by some underwater stretch, way beneath the surface, relating to each other? And how about the blue of the water and the sky: are they not responding? Do we not feel (that word again) that all this work is a response to something or other, whatever that might be? You find this particular painting quite beyond the pale, if such a familiar expression can fit here.

Let’s look again. With its deeper blue patches on the right and left of the base and a patch of red dripping downward on the far left and in the center as well as just above and to the far right, this red, this yellow, this blue, this green—they call out to you. And you hadn’t noticed the swoop of dark color waving to the left of that anchoring green as it reaches up. Let me think about this whole work as a reach.

Jane Freilicher,<em> Montego Bay</em>, 1959-61. Oil on linen, 68 1/2 x 61 3/4 inches. Courtesy of the Estate of Jane Freilicher and Kasmin, New York.
Jane Freilicher, Montego Bay, 1959-61. Oil on linen, 68 1/2 x 61 3/4 inches. Courtesy of the Estate of Jane Freilicher and Kasmin, New York.

In Freilicher’s Montego Bay (1959–61), you recognize the feeling and colors of the place you so loved as a younger person on a family visit. You feel again its lurching blue center below its green, far above its reds on the lower right with the road of blue reaching down from the hills toward the base. Ah, that road! You well remember being driven along it, along the water, and the sensation of underwater hurling and unfurling of the blue surge of those waves, somehow mirrored in the surface churn, so visible, with its surround of reds and greens and everything all rolling about like those waves we used to ride.

You well remember being taken underwater for what seemed like a “deep sea dive” and sitting on an octopus: you never got over that. These under-the-surface swells way down to the very bottom of the work do their own creations, from which you are never exempt. That may be the thing about these works: they never hold you exempt.

What you can’t eliminate from your mind or gaze is Freilicher’s Harvest Moon of 1958, with its firm black outline of that moon, which is repeated below on the right and by a less sharp and shorter black line on the left. The repeated greens, reds, blues, and oranges correspond to each other strangely, for the remarkably scattered shapes unrelentingly create a sort of scattered-ness in the spirit, as if the colors cry out to the observer: Look at me, forget the incompleteness of that moon! The scattered-ness of these shapes against a whiteish ground is itself anchored by a largish reddish splotch on the upper left, leading to a drawling red patch at the very top. In no way can you forget or overlook the way in which the centering splotch of squarish red anchors the entire work. Freilicher is great at creating her anchors for her abstractions.

Installation view: <em>Jane Freilicher: Abstractions</em>, Kasmin, New York, 2023. Courtesy of the Estate of Jane Freilicher and Kasmin, New York.
Installation view: Jane Freilicher: Abstractions, Kasmin, New York, 2023. Courtesy of the Estate of Jane Freilicher and Kasmin, New York.

These abstractions date from 1958–62, and you can feel in them the figurative works from before and where Freilicher took them later. Thus, these are bridge works, some with, as Molly Taylor of the gallery put it to me on my viewing, “a tickle of figuration.” Indeed, some sort of tickle went through me instantly upon my entering and did not leave, even on my departure.

I well remember earlier shows, with Freilicher among her poet friends including James Schuyler, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O’Hara. Shall I resist quoting O’Hara? No way. “Because of the ferocity of modern life, man and nature have become one,” he declared in a 1954 essay for the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, entitled Nature and the New Painting. Freilicher’s work was new then and in no way feels old now.

Let’s then again begin not where you began, having admired Freilicher’s paintings for years and having already been absorbed by the preceding Frielicher expositions of works in this same gallery. We all have been absorbing, gratefully, from the expositions of the gallery, the tales, letters, and documents about the poets and other artists Freilicher befriended over the years. And like the idea of anchoring, as in these three works concentrated upon, Freilicher herself became like the small highly-colored spots around which the parts of her abstract compositions seemed to gather and cohere, as in a symphony around a motif.


Mary Ann Caws

Mary Ann Caws is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in 20th-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2023

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