Fame by Association:Two Painters Named Shirley

Shirley Jaffe is one of the best abstract painters working, but how many people know it? In Paris, the city this New Jersey native has made her home for more than 50 years, Ms. Jaffe continues to build on a substantial career, one that includes museum retrospectives and important commissions. Here in New York, her name is unlikely to elicit more than a Homer Simpson–like “Huh?” Yet if Ms. Jaffe isn’t a household name, the households that are familiar with her paintings tend to be an enthusiastic and devoted bunch: witness two major articles on the artist that appeared last year, one by the painter Deborah Rosenthal in the British art journal Modern Painters, the other by Raphael Rubinstein in Art in America. Ms. Jaffe’s work has been exhibited most notably at Artists Space, which fêted her with an exhibition in the late 1980’s, and a show (or two) at Holly Solomon Gallery. If memory serves correctly, a canvas by Ms. Jaffe even hung at the Museum of Modern Art, though it was gone in the blink of an eye. In the past several years, however, her paintings have appeared only sporadically, usually in group shows. Jaffe sightings have become so infrequent, in fact, that when one of the paintings is spotted, it comes on like the most buoyant of benisons.

There’s a marvelous example of Ms. Jaffe’s work currently hanging in the front gallery at Feigen Contemporary in Chelsea. The painter Shirley Kaneda selected Ms. Jaffe’s Four Squares Black (1993), along with canvases by Frank Stella, Jo Baer and Nicholas Krushenick, as a kind of introductory primer for her own abstractions, which are on exhibit at the same venue. Ms. Kaneda chose this quartet of “divergent artists” in order to extol painters who “share a certain tradition,” but “came to very differing conclusions.”

“Very differing” is right. Compared to the ponderous piffle of Mr. Stella, the over-intellectualized formalism of Ms. Baer and the shrink-wrapped Pop abstractions of the late Nicholas Krushenick, Ms. Jaffe’s paintings may as well have come from another planet. And they did-a planet, if I may be allowed to stretch this particular analogy, capable of sustaining life.

Ms. Jaffe’s crisp and colorful oeuvre looks to the School of Paris for inspiration, and in particular the work of Henri Matisse, Hans Arp and Jean Helion. An unapologetic, unblinkered and utter Modernist, Ms. Jaffe isn’t what we’ve come to think of when we hear the designation “contemporary artist.” Her work takes little note of the ascendance of the Dadaist aesthetic, and has little truck with Abstract Expressionism or the litany of -isms that followed it in its wake. Ms. Jaffe’s work is contemporary in the way all significant art is, which is to say it’s both of the moment and gloriously outside of it. Perhaps the reason our cultural arbiters haven’t taken a shine to the paintings is that Ms. Jaffe demonstrates all too convincingly a path in which tradition-not to mention the art of painting-can thrive without having to make the mandatory pit stops at Pollock, Pop and PoMo postulation. Her paintings rebut the received wisdom of postwar art history with a vibrant necessity. This must rankle those who’ve placed all their eggs in the Duchampian basket. I like to think that it scares them a little, too.

I’m grateful to Ms. Kaneda for the opportunity to re-acquaint myself with Ms. Jaffe’s Four Squares Black, and for inadvertently aiding in the attempt to cure my habit of confusing the two artists. I’ve always credited this bothersome tendency to their shared first name. It certainly couldn’t be that I confused their work: I became a fan of Ms. Jaffe’s upon the first sighting of her art and never much cared for the chilly species of abstraction practiced by Ms. Kaneda.

Still, seeing Ms. Kaneda’s pictures in the vicinity of Four Squares Black makes me think twice. Both painters picture a free-floating world of cut and cobbled fragments, suggesting that deeper affinities can be divined within seemingly disconnected realities. Also, Ms. Jaffe and Ms. Kaneda both wear their influences as badges of honor. Yet their work differs not only in quality but in kind, and the proof of the painting is in how each wears her aforementioned badge. In Ms. Jaffe’s art, the Modernist masters she loves are absorbed through and through; they’re an inseparable, embracing part of her vision. Ms. Kaneda’s art, in comparison, is the purest pastiche, a by-the-numbers realm wherein love is bested by (to borrow the title of one of her paintings) “tactical strategies.” The canvases are itemized attempts at keeping up with the Joneses-or, in Ms. Kaneda’s case, painters like David Reed, Juan Usle, Stephen Ellis, Jonathan Lasker, Thomas Nozkowski and, if the recent pictures are any indication, Monique Prieto. Ms. Kaneda is not a little shameless in her appropriations. A couple of years back, her canvases were featured in a show called Exploiting the Abstract. One could not think of a pithier phrase to describe the artist’s aesthetic tack.

Having said that, let me add that Ms. Kaneda’s current exhibition is the first time the paintings have warranted a second, and even a third, look. Her compositions are still fussy in their complication and clunky in their calculation, yet the canvases have benefited considerably from Ms. Kaneda’s clearing them, simply and sharply, of clutter. What regulates the new work is the white ground upon which her shapes and patterns are alternately defined and placed. Acting as a pictorial bulldozer, this white clears a path through the artists’ jumbled inventory of motifs. As a consequence, the paintings begin to generate, rather than approximate, tension, as well as intimate a whole greater than the sum of their cut-and-pasted parts.

One hopes the artist will continue to ponder Ms. Jaffe’s abstractions, if only to realize that the studio need not be an assembly line, that it can be a locus of inspiration and exploration. If Ms. Kaneda has immersed herself too long in some of the more abstruse corners of the art scene, the recent pictures evince a painter who is, if not coming all the way up for air, then checking out her options. Shirley Kaneda is at Feigen Contemporary, 535 West 20th Street, until March 3.