“Painting as we know it,” Alberto Giacometti lamented in 1962, near the end of his life, “has no future in our civilization…. There will always be people who would like to have a picturesque landscape, or a nude, or a bouquet of flowers hanging on the wall,” he went on, “but what we call great painting is finished.” Giacometti’s pessimism aside, it’s worth noticing his dismissive citation of those humble, nearly contentless genres that seem to exist for no other reason than to proffer an ordinary pleasure; evidently, landscapes and still lifes represent the abjection of painting. Today, when indifference to Modernist notions of artistic progress has become common, for painting to enact its own abjection by dwelling on the banal or trivial has become an almost self-evident strategy; this must have seemed a much stranger thing to do back in the ’50s, when Abstract Expressionism was at its pinnacle and reaching for the sublime was second nature for an ambitious painter.
Yet that’s exactly what a number of talented and sometimes ambitious painters in New York began to do at the start of that decade–artists of whom the senior figure, Fairfield Porter, who died in 1975, remains the best known but among whose ranks were several still active today. These include Jane Freilicher, who recently showed new paintings at New York City’s Tibor de Nagy Gallery, where she first exhibited in 1952. Freilicher had been a student of Hans Hoffmann, who spread the gospel of abstraction in America and whose teachings inspired its foremost critical proponent, Clement Greenberg. No provincial, Freilicher was taking a calculated risk: to find a way to paint that could be, as Porter wrote of that first show in 1952, both traditional and radical.
That’s more easily said than done, of course. Today, one might say that Freilicher turned out to be neither traditional nor radical, but eccentric. Not that she is indifferent to tradition, as she makes perfectly clear with a painting like Man in the Red Cap (2006), in which the still life includes a postcard of a Titian portrait in the Frick Collection. What Freilicher’s use of the citation shows is mainly that she has no more intention of entering into direct competition with “what we call great painting” than of trying to criticize or outdo or even simply emulate the cut flowers in the vases and jars around the postcard. Nothing could be further from, say, the agon of Picasso’s repeated confrontations with Velázquez; there is no anxiety of influence. The flowers won’t last much longer, and perhaps neither will the tradition of which Titian is a primary exemplar. Yet in transcribing their lineaments Freilicher shows little urgency; she seems to view their evanescence with complete composure. Ultimately, her only concern is with what occupies the painting’s lower-right corner, namely her own working materials, those brushes that sprout from the coffee can like a sort of austere bouquet and the paint tubes that have deposited their inevitable spots and smudges around her signature, as if to say that her role is simply to draw attention to these otherwise random traces of shimmering and elusive color.
Despite the faux-naïf awkwardness that affects Freilicher’s sense of composition, which could almost fool you into thinking she is just an unusually talented Sunday painter, and the immense refinement and tenderness and considered variousness of her touch, at the heart of her work there is also a redoubtable professionalism, a sphinxlike sang-froid. She has often been called a painter’s painter, and the reason is that, more than most, her paintings are about nothing but her feeling for the activity of painting–above all, the dichotomy between the visual and the haptic, between the contemplative activity of looking and the manual activity of manipulating materials. Thus, although many of her paintings are pure still life or pure landscape, her best and most characteristic works are still lifes in front of landscapes–a fairly uncommon mixing of genres, otherwise pursued most assiduously by the remarkable but little-known early twentieth-century Italian painter Filippo de Pisis. The title of the best of Freilicher’s recent paintings sums it up: Still Life and Beyond (2007). There is the realm of the immediately at-hand, what can be seen and touched: some flowers and the jars and flowerpot that hold them, and a little Venus de Milo statuette, all perched on a windowsill, the leaves of the potted plant spilling over the edge as if into the viewer’s space, feigning an even closer contact than usual for Freilicher, who usually keeps her pictures more contained. Then there is the world beyond: the buildings of Manhattan, atmospherically rendered as so many indistinct rectangles, and beyond them the sky–a reality that can be seen but not touched. Things are either very near or very distant; there is no middle ground, nothing to connect them–nothing except the technique through which they are rendered, in which touch and vision become strangely entangled.