From the A.i.A. Archive: John Ashbery on Jane Freilicher

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To mark the passing of painter Jane Freilicher (1924-2014), A.i.A. offers poet John Ashbery’s review of a Freilicher show at New York’s Fischbach Gallery, published in our May-June 1975 issue.

Jane Freilicher showed paintings of the landscape outside her studio in Water Mill, Long Island, along with still-lifes and views of the city from the windows of her apartment in New York. Thus she is a painter of “what there is there,” in Kenneth Koch’s phrase. The Long Island landscape is beautiful, though not spectacularly so in reproduction, whether photographic or painterly: its beauty is more a question of light and atmosphere, both singularly pure and precise because of the nearby ocean. The land is flat, though in the distance there are some discreet undulations which pass for hills. The buildings, at least those the artist can see from her studio, are a discreet mélange—old frame houses of the type that used to be called “beautiful homes,” less distinguished newer ones, and barns and sheds. It is a landscape as good as any other, perhaps nicer than many, but the artist is less interested in whatever picturesque qualities it may possess than in its exemplariness. Somehow everything she touches is revealed as a prototype, a sample of what there is there, though she would be the first to disclaim any transcendental intent and is probably unaware of this quality in her work. Obviously, she paints what she sees, but it happens that she sees a lot.

Creation—fresh, unassuming, a little awkward still with some of its folds not yet shaken out, is her subject; creation even in the joyous, homely sense Milton imagined it:

Forth flourished thick the clust’ring vine, forth crept
The swelling gourd, up stood the corny reed
Embattled in her field: add the humble shrub
And bush with frizzled hair implicit.

Nothing is made to look more important than it is, some things are even kidded a little. One is tempted to ask the floppy Marsh Bouquet: “And just who do you think you are?” When the houses down the road or the tower of the Con Ed building seem to be giving themselves airs, when the field outside the studio momentarily assumes a brightness that is out of keeping with the glum cast of light in the sky, these discrepancies are noted, but sympathetically. Everything is free to be itself, nothing is too tentative or modest to be included in her factual but generous account of what she sees.

In the landscapes, the “interesting” part of the scenery—a bay, a line of trees, a roof poking mysteriously out of the foliage—is usually in the distance, as is true of most landscapes; the foreground may be occupied by some “frizzled” shrubbery. That’s the way the view is, but one can’t help reading a kind of moral order into the way the scale of things is managed: these are “democratic vistas.” In Potato Truck, everything hinges on the truck, a tiny patch of man-made red in the distance, organizing space like Stevens’ jar; but what is closest and biggest are some bushes. They are elaborated more thoroughly than anything else in the picture perhaps just because of their shapelessness and their inability to benefit very much from celebration by a poet or a naturalist. So they are left in their frumpiness, looking unfinished despite the articulation lavished on them. Nature is efficient but not always neat, and the romantic depths of the painting, suavely and succinctly painted, seem to recognize the justice of this and efface themselves before its logic. And two of the still-lifes, One Cat, Two Fish and Objects on a Table, are miniature cosmogonies: all things in them co-exist and are allowed their idiosyncrasies, as is subtly indicated by the varied handling of paint. The cityscape outside has a Guardi-esque fluidity, but on the table things are less easy: some objects (the loaf of bread, a branch of broccoli) are deftly encompassed; others are allowed to appear as problematical, as recalcitrant to easy solutions as they would have looked to Cézanne.

The swift transition from style to style is one of the most remarkable things in Freilicher’s painting. The denotative and connotative jostle each other, with no fixed boundaries; a rough tangle of brushwork menaces a sleekly realistic passage. A field as minutely painted as Ruysdael would have done it leads to a cloud on the horizon which really isn’t a cloud but a brushstroke. “Non-representational” painting is always lurking in the background, or the foreground for that matter, of an ostensibly straightforward account of a landscape, and of course landscape is like that; the eye deals with some of it and neglects the rest. Other painters have made the point, but in Jane Freilicher’s case the transitions are so gradual, the differences so close, that her grammar of styles can easily go unnoticed. The viewer imagines he is looking at an “objective” account of trees or a table top without realizing that they have been dismantled and put back together again almost seamlessly. It is only on closer inspection that the oddity, the purposeful inconsistencies of tone, the fact that everything doesn’t hang together quite as it should, become apparent. By then one has accepted the anomalies as the norms that they are. Her purpose in ruffling the surface, in injecting not her own note but that of things, in showing up each element’s poignant desire to make its own point, to put itself across, to be accepted on its own terms, is to restore the primitive calm that the world presumably had before anyone had looked at it, to reinstate that higher naturalness which can only become visible with the help of a little artifice. She succeeds both in recreating the innocent look things presumably once had and reconciling it with the knowledge of them we have now.