Cloudy skylines and vivid floral bouquets, still-lifes and landscapes, nasturtiums and petunias lording it over Manhattan’s imposing cityscape, the rectilinear cityscape itself dissolved into a phantom Cubist still-life-these are some of the suggestive incongruities to be savored in Jane Freilicher’s new paintings at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. Brilliantly rendered floral color commands the foreground in most of these paintings, while views of the city, seen in a distant haze through an upper-story window, have a mirage-like quality-too shadowy to be entirely real, yet never venturing into the kind of fantasy we associate with surrealism.
About the chromatic appeal of these floral bouquets, there is a wonderful observation by Thomas Nozkowski in his essay for the show’s catalog. “Notice how the city pulls apart,” he writes, “to give these stalks and stems room to perform their Matissean shimmy.” In some of the paintings- Nasturtiums Before a Red Cloth , for example, and Nasturtiums and Petunias I -the spirited patterns traced by the blossoms, leaves and stems of the flowers do seem to be performing a kind of dance on the canvas, in which every element is not so much composed as choreographed. In other paintings, however- Light Blue Above and Flowers on a Wicker Tray -the flowers in their vases seem to be sitting for their portraits. Under the magic of Ms. Freilicher’s fluent brush, they acquire a “personality” that places them beyond the category of still-life.
While landscape and cityscape remain important to Ms. Freilicher’s paintings, flowers now appear to have supplanted the human figures as her other commanding interest. It’s not a new interest, however. In 1952, when Fairfield Porter reviewed Ms. Freilicher’s first exhibition, his principal focus was on a painting called Figure on a Bed , and in retrospect it’s interesting to see how accurately he foresaw the direction in which her paintings would be heading in the years to come. “Reading from the top down,” Porter wrote, “the figure looks like clouds in a greenish-blue sky, the bed like the opposite banks of a river landscape, the floor and the dog below like the river and near shore,” and so on.
Even more interesting, in relation to Ms. Freilicher’s current work, is the illustration chosen to accompany that 1952 review: The painting is called Early New York Evening , and it depicts-what else?-a window view of the Manhattan cityscape with a vase of flowers on the window sill in the foreground. The cityscape is rendered far more realistically than in Ms. Freilicher’s more recent pictures-the Cubist element remains understated, and the vase of flowers is less demanding of our attention-but the principal pictorial idea was clearly in place more than half a century ago. (You can read the review and see a reproduction of the painting in Art in Its Own Terms , the 1979 collection of Porter’s critical essays edited by Rackstraw Downes.)
Something that Porter wrote in 1960, in an essay called “Impressionism and Paintings Today,” may also be relevant here. About the flower paintings of Leon Hartl, a painter now forgotten by everyone but the painters who saw his work, and the landscapes of Alex Katz, who is still going strong, Porter observed: “Though Hartl and [Katz] are realists, they are both abstractionists in color.” So, indeed, is Jane Freilicher. Abstractionism in color is particularly evident in her two Flora paintings on handmade paper, with their shallow-spaced, all-over structure, and an abstractionist impulse can be seen in all of her recent paintings. It’s even more emphatically stated in Seascape , another painting on handmade paper, which has a structure of stacked horizontal forms.
All of this suggests that what we’ve been witnessing-though not always acknowledging-in the history of American art since the 1950’s is a widespread movement among representational painters to come to terms with the powerhouse influence of the Abstract Expressionists. Not only as a critic but also as a painter, this was an issue that Fairfield Porter was absolutely obsessed with: In writing about abstract painting, he often went looking for its subject matter, and in writing about realist painting, he was mainly concerned with pure pictorial form.
What this also suggests is that, in the long term, representational painters may have derived greater benefits-pictorial, aesthetic benefits-from the Abstract Expressionists than abstract painters have. It may be heresy to suggest this, but in the presence of Ms. Freilicher’s current exhibition, it’s a heresy worth thinking about.
Jane Freilicher: Recent Work remains on view at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, through April 24.