Approaching Her Eighth Decade, An Artist at the Top of Her Form

One of the unwritten laws of the art world, as I learned when I was a student some 20 years

One of the unwritten laws of the art world, as I learned when I was a student some 20 years ago, is that if you don’t make it by 30, you’re a has-been. “Making it” was plainly (and pressingly) understood as the highly desirable, if unlikely, goal of achieving gallery representation, sales to sustain a livelihood and a retrospective at the museum of one’s choice. Given the cradle-snatching proclivities of art dealers in recent years-many of whom spend their time lurking around art schools intent on discovering Wunderkinder -one should probably drop the “making-it” age down to 22. Certainly, the triviality of so much contemporary art can be pinned on the youthfulness of its practitioners. If that sounds like the grumbling of someone who won’t see 30 again, then take a walk through the galleries of Chelsea. Marvel at the energy of the work on view; boggle at its abundance; despair, finally, at how unformed and short-sighted most of it is.

But forget careerism. The real it in “making it” is artistic maturity. When does that happen? The answer is, of course, variable. After visiting the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, which is hosting an exhibition of abstract paintings by Shirley Jaffe, I’d put the made-it age at about 79. This is a bit unfair to the artist: Ms. Jaffe, who was born in New Jersey in 1923 and has made Paris her home since 1949, achieved her signature style some time ago-far enough back to fill a spate of New York exhibitions in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, and before that she’d been exhibiting in Europe since 1959. But that was then and this is now: The paintings on display at de Nagy are fresher than fresh. Ms. Jaffe’s pictures are quirky, clarified, buoyant and-dare one say it?-happy. They’re unstoppable. I won’t insult her by saying that she’s got the get-up-and-go of a 22-year-old. Instead, I want to congratulate her on painting like an artist at the top of her form.

What’s invigorating about Ms. Jaffe’s art is its momentum. There’s a boundlessness to how her clanky and calligraphic forms fracture, float, reconfigure and dance; this is an artist who puts oil to canvas like there can never be enough tomorrows. The influence of Fernand Léger, Stuart Davis, Henri Matisse, Hans Arp, Jean Hélion and, in the use of white as a compositional unifier, Piet Mondrian is plainly discernible in the paintings. What’s thrilling is how Ms. Jaffe transmutes these influences into something utterly personal and decidedly contemporary. Just when you think you’ve got the pictures pegged, they go galumphing off on their own splendid tangent. Ms. Jaffe plugs into precedent and drags it in to the 21st century-not kicking and screaming, but fully and gratefully absorbed. That’s why calling her a Modernist seems a bit off; she isn’t history yet.

But neither is she a postmodernist: Ms. Jaffe is too forward-looking to give in to the easy gratifications of a dead-end aesthetic. So where does that leave us? With pictures as abrupt as a glance out the window of a moving car, as startling as a still-wet snarl of graffiti, as inevitable as the Venus of Willendorf. Ms. Jaffe is only human-some of the paintings are unfinished, others a tad slack. Yet all of them are of a piece, and three or four are just about perfect. Optimistic but not naïve, and traditional without being a stick-in-the-mud: Ms. Jaffe points to a way out of our seen-it-all, know-it-all, done-it-allcul-de-sac. She’s one terrific painter.

Shirley Jaffe: Recent Paintings is at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, until Nov. 16.

Fascinated by Form

Strolling through the Hunter College Times Square Gallery, where a 20-year overview of abstract paintings by Doug Ohlson is on display, my thoughts turned to the current state of art education. This reflection was prompted not only by the exhibition’s venue, but also by the fact that Mr. Ohlson was an instructor in the Hunter art department for close to 40 years. (He retired in 2001.) I have no idea how good a teacher he was, but I do know what he values as an artist; it’s there to see in the paintings. Above all else, Mr. Ohlson prizes an art that appeals to the eye. The pictures-with their subtle and often striking shifts of value, tenuous harmonies and spaces given amplitude-are those of an artist fascinated by the free-standing possibilities of form. So what, I wonder, does Mr. Ohlson think when looking at the work of younger painters, many of whom have been schooled not in the verities of art, but in the elisions of theory? In all likelihood, he rues a generation rendered incapable of seeing . And what might that generation think of Mr. Ohlson’s paintings? Not much, I’d guess: What he does is so far removed from their world that Mr. Ohlson may as well be from Pluto.

Hunter’s 41st Street galleries are capacious-one can literally get lost in them. Mr. Ohlson, who likes to work on broad expanses of canvas, never once breaks a sweat filling the space. His pictures recall the glory days of Abstract Expressionism, Colorfield painting and, to a lesser extent, Minimalism: They’re like artifacts from an era when there could never be enough paintings and no canvas could be big enough. Am I saying, then, that the work is dated? I would hate to; there’s much to it that’s worthy of praise. In their scale and ambition, they recall Barnett Newman (albeit without the portentousness) and, in their pictorial tension, Hans Hofmann. Mr. Ohlson doesn’t have the latter’s pluck, but his pictures are blessed with a palette particularly felicitous when predicated on finely tuned autumnal hues. His reliance on compositional formula homogenizes the pictures. But Mr. Ohlson can catch you up short, as he does in the wispy concordance of pink, blue, purple and orange in the middle section of Buff (2002), or when he makes light take a turn from somber to lurid to incendiary in the course of a single canvas. One is more likely to admire Mr. Ohlson’s achievement than to delight in it. Yet its satisfactions are true and its lessons valuable.

Doug Ohlson: 20 Years of Painting, 1982-2002 is at the Hunter College Times Square Gallery, 450 West 41st Street, until Nov. 23.

Approaching Her Eighth Decade, An Artist at the Top of Her Form