To her many accomplishments as a painter, a teacher of painting and a successful collaborator on literary projects with some distinguished poets, Jane Freilicher has now added the role of museum curator in selecting the latest installment of the series of exhibitions called The Artist’s Eye at the National Academy of Design Museum. From the academy’s capacious permanent collection of 19th- and 20th-century American paintings, Ms. Freilicher has chosen 40-odd pictures. The result is a show that is rich in delightful surprises, and there may be some lessons in it for other museums. It would certainly be interesting to see what an artist of comparable experience and achievement would come up with if given an opportunity to assemble an exhibition derived from the many works of art we rarely, if ever, get to see in the permanent collections of the Whitney and the Guggenheim museums.
To accompany The Artist’s Eye exhibition, the academy has also mounted a smaller exhibition of 14 paintings by Ms. Freilicher herself. While The Artist’s Eye show is said to have been selected “without regard to theme,” the exhibition of Ms. Freilicher’s paintings is more narrowly focused on the artist’s paintings of New York City. It’s clearly intended to remind the public that the scope of this artist’s achievements extends well beyond her better-known and much-admired landscape paintings-and it succeeds brilliantly. To A Painter in the City , as this show is called, Ms. Freilicher has brought a level of invention and imagination that most viewers will not have seen before in her work.
The best of these paintings are what might be called inside/outside pictures, which combine interior still-life subjects with exterior views of the Manhattan skyline. In the best of these paintings-my own favorite is a dazzling picture called Parts of a World (1987)-the still-life objects in the foreground are rendered with vivid, lyrical realism in a stark contrast to the hazier view of the distant skyline, which has something of the quality of a mirage or a dreamscape. This divided inside/outside view of the world is, of course, a daily commonplace for many inhabitants of Manhattan, but it has rarely been so beautifully articulated in such a complex, painterly composition.
And if all this isn’t enough to underscore the range of Ms. Freilicher’s pictorial versatility, she has included in The Artist’s Eye the extraordinary Self Portrait in a Mirror (1971), another inside/outside composition that juxtaposes a mirror-image of herself in her Long Island studio with a glimpse of the countryside seen through the studio window.
There are, in fact, a great many portraits and self-portraits in The Artist’s Eye , for it was once a requirement for artist-members of the National Academy of Design to submit a self-portrait to qualify for membership, and it was also common practice for these artists to paint portraits of each other. Among the 19th-century examples Ms. Freilicher selected for inclusion are Thomas Eakins’ undated painting of Edward W. Redfield and John Singer Sargent’s 1892 Self-Portrait . Yet it is in the copious representation of 20th-century portraiture that this exhibition offers some of its most delightful surprises.
There is George Bellows’ 1915 portrait of the sculptor Paul Manship; Paul Georges’ undated Red Self-Portrait ; John Gilbert’s undated portrait of the painter Esteban Vicente; Louisa Matthiasdottir’s undated Self-Portrait in Overalls ; Henry Varnum Poor’s 1961 Self Portrait ; and Sarai Sherman’s Double Portrait of Raphael Soyer (1975), which juxtaposes depictions of the artist in his youth and old age.
There plenty of delights, too, among the non-portrait paintings in The Artist’s Eye . These range from a hauntingly beautiful Sunset (1916) by Ralph Albert Blakelock-which is about the size of a postcard-to a sensationally complex composition by Lois Dodd called The Torn Barn (1983), in which nature and geometry, light and shadow, illusion and reality are so deftly intermingled that one hardly knows whether the painting is a subtle exercise in abstraction or a faithful representation of its subject. There are also first-rate examples here of paintings by Charles Cajori, Andrew Forge, Ruth Miller, Herman Rose and-believe it or not-Maxfield Parrish.
I am not at all sure, after two visits to this exhibition, that The Artist’s Eye can be accurately described as having been selected “without regard to theme.” It’s true, of course, that the show encompasses a wide range of subjects and styles, but in just about everything we encounter there’s that elusive, difficult-to-define element we used to call quality-or, if you like, aesthetic authority and painterly command of a high order. It’s very much to Ms. Freilicher’s credit that she was able to discover this sometimes neglected attribute in such a broad range of work.
Both The Artist’s Eye: Jane Freilicher as Curator and Jane Freilicher: A Painter in the City remain on view at the National Academy of Design Museum, 1083 Fifth Avenue between 89th and 90th streets, through Sept. 22. The museum’s hours are Wednesday and Thursday, noon to 5 p.m., and Friday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; it’s closed on Monday and Tuesday.
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