Jane Freilicher commands unalloyed reverence from fellow painters. I learned from a gallery director at Tibor de Nagy, for instance, that Thomas Nozkowski, whose work featured in their recently concluded “Object/Image” show, expressed elation at being exhibited alongside her. Any decent painter with a lick of sense would. As one of the last true scions of Giorgio Morandi, she combines a probing touch with a keen color sense to produce paintings of visceral power out of all proportion to the delicacy and limits of her subject: namely, as it has been for decades, still lifes set up in front of a window.
One of the delights of “Jane Freilicher: Paintings and Prints” is that some of the works were finished mere weeks ago. Bouquets, an especially Morandian composition with vases of flowers against a shadowy background, doesn’t even have a frame on it. The most intense hues in the painting appear in the chalky yellow flowers in an ocher vase in the foreground, followed by an unidentifiable blossom, a puffball of subverted pink, behind it. Besides those, there are only variations of silvery gray, earth yellow, and smoky ultramarine. But despite the piece’s undeniable neutrality, it feels saturated. (The spirit of Matisse’s French Window at Collioure infuses it.) This is the mark of a master colorist. Layers build up in one thin application of oil over another, but the final result is not a stratum so much as an authoritative burnishing of atmosphere, softly adjusted a quarter-inch at a time.
Window, also from 2011, works a higher key with equal effectiveness. Probably the most overtly Cubist work in the exhibition, the vases of flowers divide the windowsill into vase-size units, turning the lower quarter of the painting into an evocative abstraction. The windowsill itself splits into four pieces without feeling the least bit disjointed, such is the artist’s gentleness. The window frame is gone, somewhere beyond the edges of the 32 x 32 inch canvas, freeing the uncontained cityscape of Manhattan to rise up as ghosts colored rose, dust, and sand. Repetitions of pink and yellow ochre between the still life and the buildings cause them to pervade each other. The sky is at once blue and gray, a perfect capturing of the often unsure mid-Atlantic weather.
This leads us to Study in Blue and Gray, also 2011. Comparison between cityscapes shows her rearranging the architecture at will, this time into rectangular sections of undifferentiated depth, a quilt of neutrals tilting towards moss, mustard, and terracotta. A plangent blue vase filled with white blooms anchors the painting with its sharpness. An accompanying gray vase of unassuming lavender wildflowers seems like it would be content to disappear. They are contrasting characters. Blue and gray tie the still life to the sky overhead and lend the city between them marked warmth. A restrained light seems to be coming from everywhere at once.
Two color lithographs from 2010 and 2011 (although the images derive from earlier paintings) are in the exhibition, and my feelings about them remain mixed. Printmaking, in this case, seems to be forcing clarity upon an artist better suited to making a patchwork of indecision, as Picasso famously quipped about Bonnard. But Light Blue Above (2010), in which two vases of flowers have been positioned on the grass some ways off from a Long Island waterway, is a pleasure, and its flattening of Freilicher’s infinitely varied touch has a charm of its own.
I have a copy of a 1986 monograph for a Freilicher exhibition that originated at the Currier Gallery of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire. In one essay, John Ashbery wrote, “The artists of the world can be divided into two groups: those who organize and premeditate, and those who accept the tentative, the whatever happens along. And though neither method is inherently superior, and one must always proceed by cases, I probably prefer more works of art that fall in the latter category.” I would go further, and say that some achievements of art lie out of reach of premeditation. Nothing except an intuited search, undertaken for emotional reasons, resolved when the unforeseen has been discovered and recorded, will produce work of this sublimity.