Bright Shapes, Crisp Contours: A Painter Plays Hide and Seek

The 11 paintings by Shirley Jaffe on display at Tibor de Nagy Gallery make for the finest exhibition of contemporary art I’ve seen since—well, since last week. That two of our finest painters, Ms. Jaffe and Helen Miranda Wilson, are having concurrent shows is an exceptionally lucky coincidence. That they also happen to be exhibiting in the same building—Ms. Wilson’s pictures are down the stairs at the DC Moore Gallery—is not only serendipitous but wildly convenient. Clearly, 724 Fifth Avenue is the place to be.

At least it is for New Yorkers who value painting as a vital art form with its own logic and tradition, and not merely as a plaything for the young, hip, theory-laden, career-savvy and—did I mention young? Ms. Jaffe, an American in Paris since 1949, may be 82, but her abstractions evince the propulsion of someone who has only begun to relish life’s bountiful contradictions. Been there, done that? Ms. Jaffe will have none of it. The closed horizons of the contemporary scene are put to shame by her curiosity and reach.

Each canvas is a brash array of brightly colored shapes defined by crisp contours. But Ms. Jaffe’s paintings aren’t hard-edged. Look closely: The barest wisps of color surrounding this or that cobbled shape divulge previous stages of development and exploration, rife with false starts, unexpected tangencies and subtle transformations. Parts of certain images remain relatively loose and open. But Ms. Jaffe doesn’t advertise the struggle inherent in realizing her compositions. The artist’s exertions shouldn’t be the viewer’s burden. Ease is an illusion and a boon. The result is plainly stated, clear-eyed and cohesive.

Still, Ms. Jaffe welcomes variety and courts incongruity, simultaneously employing geometric shapes and biomorphic blips—as well as ungainly combinations of the two. The forms hover, ascend and nestle within a white field that is Ms. Jaffe’s homage to High Modernism. (“Mondrian slept here” could be the credo for her clean and bracing cosmos.) The pictures share a strong affinity with those of Fernand Léger, Jean Hélion and Stuart Davis—in particular, the conception of shape in mechanical terms—yet the manner in which the paintings hang together is entirely her own.

It’s difficult, in fact, to determine how the paintings hang together at all. That’s part of what makes them exciting. There’s an immediately perceivable unity, but it’s more intimated than concrete. Connections are teasingly implied but inarguably present. If you try to detect a plan governing the compositions, the pictures simultaneously turn back in on themselves and expand in a dozen different directions. It’s as if Ms. Jaffe, having found the relationships that arise between disparate elements, tucks them away just out of sight. She plays a rambunctious game of hide-and-seek.

The jangled, bopping poise of Ms. Jaffe’s conundrums have garnered her an ardent coterie of admiring fellow painters. Don’t let them have all the fun: Visit Tibor de Nagy and acquaint yourself with a reason to feel happy about the art of our time.

Shirley Jaffe: Recent Paintings is at the Tibor de Nagy

Release Me

A well-known maxim advises us not to judge a book by its cover, but can you judge an art show by its press release? In the case of Proper, the exhibition of paintings by Belgian artist Luc Tuymans on display at the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea, absolutely.

Mr. Tuymans’ recent efforts offer, we are told, “a critique of America that is intended to be subconsciously constructed.” Stop puzzling for a moment over how anything subconscious could be constructed intentionally and let the press release ramble on: “The exhibition’s title, Proper … refers to a seemingly requisite order determined by society at large [and] simultaneously suggests the opposite—improper—and therefore subverts …. ”

You already know you’re in deep trouble, and then the word “subverts” rears its ugly head. Here we enter the well-trodden path of transgression, wherein art is valued not for itself but for any number of extra-aesthetic ambitions. It doesn’t matter what’s being subverted as long as subversion takes place.

Reading further, we discover that Fred Astaire, Ann Miller and the Nicholas Brothers are—didn’t you just know it?—role models for flag burners the world over. What else are we to conclude upon learning that Mr. Tuymans’ ruminations on “a fragile America and the crumbling state of current affairs” have been “incited [?] by war-time musical films from the 1940s.”

If it seems unfair to dwell on the words surrounding Mr. Tuymans’ art, realize that the paintings are nothing without them. They’re barely anything with them.

Mr. Tuymans’ paintings are vaguely cinematic in composition and wan in coloration. His depictions of a table setting, a canopy bed, a bedroom mirror and—the sore-thumb centerpiece of the exhibition—Condoleezza Rice are characterized by a deadpan caginess, a knowing refusal to convey meaning or principle.

This indifference is reiterated by Mr. Tuymans’ cursory approach to painting: He completes each canvas in a single setting. This approach would seem to guarantee an alla prima spontaneity, yet the products are listless and fussy, bleached of life, incident and interest. True, they’ve been purposefully manufactured to “fully contest optimism,” but that’s a cheap out favored by artists with nothing to say.

Mr. Tuymans presumably has something to say; he’s garnered international attention for tackling subjects like the colonial history of Belgium and 9/11. But the vacuousness of the work contradicts that reputation. Is preening disaffection really the benchmark for major art? Mr. Tuymans is neither a herald of the failures of history nor a significant painter. He’s a symptom of the fecklessness of official culture and, as such, to be deplored.

Luc Tuymans: Proper is at David Zwirner, 525 West 19th Street, until Nov. 19.

Bright Shapes, Crisp Contours: A Painter Plays Hide and Seek