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Jane Freilicher Photo

Jane Freilicher

American Painter

Born: November 29, 1924 - Brooklyn, New York
Died: December 9, 2014 - Manhattan, New York
Movements and Styles:
Contemporary Realism
,
American Realism
"[My works] were an emotional reaction to something I find beautiful in the subject, which provides the energy, the impetus to paint."
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Jane Freilicher Signature
"I sort of arrive at the final image in a paroxysm of despair."
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Jane Freilicher Signature
"I have always gone my own way. In a way it's been kind of a relief. Balthus once said of himself, 'I am a painter about whom nothing is known.' Of course, that's not really true of him. But it is of me."
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Jane Freilicher Signature
"My work was deviant enough to explain why I was not rising through the ranks. But I liked not having the demands made on me a big career would have made. It allowed me a certain freedom to fool around. I felt the other painters respected me. Nobody treated me like a dumb broad."
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Jane Freilicher Signature
"I'm quite willing to sacrifice fidelity to the subject to the vitality of the image, a sensation of the quick, lively blur of reality as it is apprehended rather than analyzed. I like to work on that borderline - opulent beauty in a homespun environment."
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Jane Freilicher Signature
"Realism is the only way I can do it.... Every so often I get an anxious feeling and would like to produce that bombed-out effect of modern painting. Maybe my form is too closed. I feel a certain desire for exploding a picture the way some artists do. Can you explode a painting realistically? I don't know."
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Jane Freilicher Signature
"To strain after innovation, to worry about being on 'the cutting edge' (a phrase I hate), reflects a concern for a place in history or one's career rather than the authenticity of one's painting."
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Jane Freilicher Signature
"As soon as I do something that seems very tenuous I get bored with it and when I get more and more specific I begin to feel sort of cloistered."
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Jane Freilicher Signature
"I feel very lucky to be a part of the whole tradition of art, which keeps reminding us of what it is to be a human being."
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Jane Freilicher Signature

Summary of Jane Freilicher

Amidst the existential gestures and transcendent color fields of Abstract Expressionism, Jane Freilicher hewed to a quiet realism that won the admiration of her friends, painters and poets alike. Not able to find her voice in abstraction, Freilicher concentrated her sights on the urban landscape outside of her Greenwich Village apartment, still lifes, and later the Long Island landscape around the Hamptons. Though her subjects remained consistent throughout her painting career, each new canvas brought a new mood, association, or perspective on the familiar.

Her commitment to realism bucked critical trends but inspired a host of mid-20th century American realist painters, including Larry Rivers, Fairfield Porter, and Grace Hartigan. She combined the sensibilities of earlier 20th-century painters Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard with the compositional lessons gleaned from her teacher Hans Hofmann to contribute to the burgeoning scene of Contemporary Realism that resisted the clamor of the growing post-World War II consumer culture and instead insisted on the importance of the everyday and the present.

Accomplishments

  • Freilicher's realism is rooted in everyday landscapes and objects, and yet her compositions create a dialogue between realism and abstraction. In the juxtaposition of flat planes of color and often-time impressionistic brush strokes, Freilicher's paintings recall the quasi-abstractions of the Post-Impressionists and Cubists.
  • Especially in her paintings done in New York City, Freilicher combined outside and interior views, often blurring the boundary between the two. While she did paint portraits of her friends, her still lifes and cityscapes are usually without people and yet still convey the sense of human presence even in its absence.
  • Freilicher never adopted an Abstract Expressionist style, but such decisions did not keep her out of their social circles. Friends with both first- and second-generation Abstract Expressionists as well as the group of New York School poets, Freilicher was a beloved figure on the post-war New York scene, influencing and influenced by her friends.
  • Freilicher's embrace of realism was part of a larger trend in the 1950s that saw artists returning to figurative subjects, both earnestly and ironically. Along with artists like Grace Hartigan, Alice Neel, and Larry Rivers, Freilicher made a case that realism - and not just abstraction - was a valid, even necessary, response to Cold War culture.

Important Art by Jane Freilicher

Progression of Art
1954

Early New York Evening

A green glass vase with thin stems of purple irises sits in the foreground of the painting, perched atop a windowsill. Looking out the window, which is the entire canvas, the viewer can see the close and crowded buildings of New York stretched before them. Lights flicker in windows, smoke billows out of smokestacks, clothes on lines seem to sway, and the sky turns a dusky purple. Freilicher's brushstrokes are loose and casual, which creates an impressionistic sense of the constantly changing and vibrant city, but the tones of the colors are somewhat muted, as if to suggest that at dusk the city becomes quieter and takes on a more meditative mood.

Early New York Evening reveals Freilicher's keen eye for composition; the slender irises in the foreground parallel the Con Edison smokestacks on the horizon, but as art critic Peter Schjeldahl notes, "She values color and tone, over line and shape, as primary sensations of the eye," and thus avoids being overly cerebral. The hazy, diffused colors and lines seem to collapse the boundary between interior and exterior. As much as it seems that Freilicher set up her easel in front of her studio window to paint the scene before her, she admitted, "I'm quite willing to sacrifice fidelity to the subject to the vitality of the image, a sensation of the quick, lively blur of reality as it is apprehended rather than analyzed. I like to work on that borderline - opulent beauty in a homespun environment." Observation and memory blur in her depiction of Greenwich Village.

Oil on linen - Estate of Jane Freilicher and Paul Kasmin Gallery

1956

Flowers in an Armchair

Freilicher's penchant for painting flowers and intimate interior scenes is apparent in this early work. A large, honey-colored wicker chair fills the picture plane but is slightly off-center; diffused shades of taupes and grays comprise the background. A vibrant shawl in swirling patterns comprised of orange, blue, red, and gold drapes the back of the chair, and sitting atop the chair's seat is a glass vase filled with pink and white chrysanthemums and one single yellow rose.

With the vase of flowers taking the place of a person in the chair, this piece easily demonstrates one of the most salient aspects of Freilicher's oeuvre - that she rarely includes the human figure in her interior scenes. Instead, people are merely hinted at and evoked. Freilicher wants us to imagine the person who arranged the flowers and set them there in the chair and draped the shawl on the back. Art critic Tim Keane notes that "her pictures seem to be oblique self-portraits of the painter blissfully alone in a room of her own." The alluded-to human presence along with the loose, almost frenetic brushstrokes gives the work vitality, which set her apart from some of her more cerebral, analytical aesthetic influences like Giorgio Morandi and Édouard Vouillard. Indeed, art critic Xico Greenwald says of Flowers in an Armchair, "the intimate little scene seems born of a process that flows from seeing to feeling to painting."

Oil on linen - Estate of Jane Freilicher and Paul Kasmin Gallery

1963

Quality Farm

Freilicher is just as renowned for her pastoral Long Island landscapes as she is for her domestic urban ones. In Quality Farm Freilicher divides the canvas roughly in half between sky and soft grassy fields. The sky is a cloudless gray-blue, suggestive of a slight, misty chill in the air. At the horizon line scattered trees dot the landscape and frame a classic white farmhouse on the right and another roofed structure on the left. The farmhouse appears well-lived in thanks to details such as patches of foliage on the roof and the walls, an old car in the back, and laundry swaying in the breeze. Separating the viewer from the farmhouse is a large expanse of field, bright green in the center and becoming wilder and more variegated in hue closer to the viewer.

Poet John Ashbery once called Freilicher's style "a slightly rumpled realism." The subject matter is banal, and this Long Island farm isn't immune from the passage of time; however, Freilicher's style elevates the quotidian scene and offers innumerable points upon which to meditate and wonder. As Nick Obourn describes, she "borrowed the saturated pigment of the Color Field painters for her treatment of manicured grass as a thick nerve of bright, uniform, snap-pea green... [and] uses distinct, Post-Impressionistic brushstrokes to depict bunch grass and shrubbery." In its focus on a quotidian subject but one elevated by a witty, urbane eye, Quality Farm is an exemplar of Contemporary Realism - expressionistic paint handling combined with a good-natured commitment to reality as perceived by both eye and mind.

Oil on linen - Estate of Jane Freilicher and Paul Kasmin Gallery

c.1966

Portrait of Kenneth Koch

While most famous for her still lifes, urban scenes, and Long Island landscapes, Freilicher also painted portraits of her dear friends. Here, the poet Kenneth Koch, with the exception of his mop of dark hair, all but blends into the background. His white shirt and pale skin are similar in hue to the pinkish cream of the background and echo the soft lavenders and rose pinks in the vase of flowers to the right. Off center and juxtaposed with the vase, Freilicher's portrait resembles one of her still lifes.

As one of the founders of the New York School of poets, Koch was an anti-traditionalist, known for his wit and humor. Writer David Lehman explains that Koch "takes a great deal of delight in the sounds of words and his consciousness of them; he splashes them like paint on a page with enthusiastic puns, internal rhymes, titles of books, names of friends . . . and seems surprised as we are at the often witty outcome." Perhaps Freilicher gives the viewer a glimpse of Koch's methods by making her own visual rhymes within the composition.

In 1951, poet Frank O'Hara sent Freilicher an article by the intellectual Paul Goodman about the plight of the current avant-garde. In the essay, Goodman asserted that writers must write Occasional Poetry, poetry for and about their friends, in order to build an avant-garde community that would resist the alienating effects of our consumer society. O'Hara and the other New York School Poets took Goodman's call to arms to heart and composed poetry about each other, their experiences at parties, and everyday activities. Freilicher's portraits seem to be the visual equivalent of the poets' verses. Freilicher, along with artists like Elaine de Kooning, Fairfield Porter, and Jane Wilson, reengaged portraiture at a time when abstraction was ascendant in order to share the intimate, everyday relationships that connect us to the world.

Oil on linen - Estate of Jane Freilicher and Paul Kasmin Gallery

1976

Twelfth Street and Beyond

Twelfth Street and Beyond is classic Freilicher - a comfortable, warm still life of objects in her apartment in the foreground and a window looking out onto the densely clustered buildings of lower Manhattan in the background. The eye-catching fuchsia linen that drapes the small wooden table is anchored by a central plant, whose verticality contrasts nicely with the horizontality of the table and mirrors the buildings behind it, a small porcelain mug, a blue pitcher, a can of paint, and a small glass mug filled with sprightly red and yellow flowers. Her brushstrokes are strong and crisp, less expressionistic than earlier works.

Freilicher's still lifes make a case for their being, as her friend John Ashbery wrote, "miniature cosmogonies: all things in them co-exist and allowed their idiosyncrasies." In her patient, thoughtful rendering of objects she creates works that, as critic Tim Keane writes, "achieve a transfiguring of the everyday...through representations of reality that painstakingly reenact the processes of perception. Natural and manmade objects seem to unfold themselves through an internal artistic agency all their own." The objects on the table have a subtle but mesmerizing push-pull relationship with each other (perhaps something she picked up from her former teacher Hans Hofmann, albeit used for the purposes of representation instead of abstraction) and assert their own individuality; critic Jenni Quilter calls them "optimistic and fierce, just as unconcerned and confident as the detailed cityscape outside the window."

Oil on linen - Estate of Jane Freilicher and Paul Kasmin Gallery

1987

Parts of a World

Though Parts of a World is similar in subject to many of Freilicher's other work in that it consists of a still life in the foreground and a cityscape in the background, its collection of objects, muted colors, and abstracted painterly style differentiate it. The buildings in the background are in hushed shades of salmon, ochre, and taupe, and a hazy white mist obscures their lower parts and seems to meld into the still life scene in the foreground. On the table rests a blue and white porcelain bowl, a decorative white dish, a plate with four silver sardines, a small earthen vase with two slender white orchids, and a slender, small statue of the Venus de Milo. The objects anchor a luminous gossamer textile to the circular marble table, but the perspective is just slightly off, slightly tilted; it is as if the veil is slowly slipping off the table into the viewer's space and the objects will eventually tumble.

Freilicher named this work after one of Wallace Stevens's collections of poetry, and indeed, there is something poetic in the juxtapositions of the different pictorial elements. The objects, critic Jenni Quilter writes, "get along comfortably enough, though we cannot be entirely sure of the intention of the arranging hand in all of this." Though Freilicher had no stated inspiration from the Surrealists, there is something of Giorgio de Chirico or Rene Magritte in the objects - the dead fish, the living orchids, the miniature female figure, the statuesque, lifeless cityscape. Critic Katherine Beaman also finds the scene somewhat discomfiting, calling it a "vacant" painting. She notes that "the proportions don't seem quite right. There's something off, as if a hint toward lucidity while dreaming" and that while there are no humans in the scene, the selection and arrangement of the objects hints at their presence. What viewers are left with is the sense that Freilicher wanted to create a specific mood here and found the best way to express it was intimation of presence through absence.

Oil on linen - Estate of Jane Freilicher and Paul Kasmin Gallery

2011

Window

Freilicher continued painting to the very end of her life, exploring the same subjects but approaching them from different perspectives and states of mind. Window juxtaposes interior and exterior as do many of her works, contrasting the soft, vibrant flowers in their vases and pitchers with the rigid, geometric formation of the city buildings in the distance. Her color palette is muted, ethereal; the eye is drawn to the yellow blooms but even those are subdued. The entire scene is suffused with a soft mistiness, filling the gray-blue sky and settling over the flowers on their sill.

The overall impression of Window is quiet, meditative; if the viewer chooses to read into the nonagenarian's mindset when composing this work, it seems to be one of peace and contentment with a life and career well-lived. Critic Stephen Westfall admires Freilicher's "distinctly personal relationship to these genres, leaving us in no doubt that these are her interiors and landscapes, her rooms with windows and the views beyond." At the same time as she makes her pieces personal, however, Freilicher also continues to call on her decades-long inspirations of Morandi for structuring and relationships between objects, Vuillard and Bonnard for their lush depictions of florals, and the Cubists for their organization of the picture plane into disparate but united sections. In fact, critic Franklin Einspruch calls Window "the most overtly Cubist work" in her later years, noting how "the vases divide the windowsill into vase-size units, turning the lower quarter of the painting into an evocative abstraction."

Oil on linen - Estate of Jane Freilicher and Paul Kasmin Gallery

Biography of Jane Freilicher

Childhood

Jane Freilicher, neé Jane Niederhoffer, was born in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn in 1924. The only girl in a large family, she was coddled by her parents. Her mother was an amateur pianist who played in silent movie theaters before marrying. Her father was an Eastern European immigrant and a Spanish- and Yiddish-language court translator. His love for his daughter's drawings "was a kind of encouragement to go into the arts," Freilicher remembered. In particular, Freilicher liked flowers; she remembered, "When I was a child my parents used to give me little bouquets. I liked to contemplate them, wonder about them." Her brother often brought home issues of Verve magazine, which featured high-quality reproductions of works by artists like Picasso, Matisse, and Miró, and she wondered if she couldn't make art a career for herself.

Early Training and Work

After graduating high school (as class valedictorian) in 1941, she eloped with Jack Freilicher, a jazz pianist who played with the Army Band at West Point during World War II. Their marriage did not last long, however, and was annulled in 1946. Through Jack she met Larry Rivers, a painter and jazz musician with whom she was later romantically involved, and painter Nell Blaine.

Freilicher attended Brooklyn College, earning her B.A. in 1947. Working towards her degree and now divorced, she did odd jobs, and she recalled, "Somehow I struggled through the lean years. It was fun - and a terrible hardship at the same time." At the urging of Rivers and Blaine, she relocated from Brooklyn to Manhattan. She earned an M.A. from Teachers College, Columbia as a safety plan but was spending more and more time painting.

Immersed in the exciting downtown art world amidst the burgeoning Abstract Expressionist movement, and at the urging of her friend Nell Blaine, Freilicher began studying with the famous painter and teacher Hans Hofmann. Freilicher loved how democratic the studio was and recalled how Hofmann's teachings "brought a kind of melding of the modern with tradition." This resonated with her even more deeply when she saw the Museum of Modern Art's 1948 Pierre Bonnard show; she appreciated Bonnard's "sensuousness and intimacy" as well as his treatment of everyday objects and interiors.

Freilicher decided that Abstract Expressionism's elision of representation and narrative was not for her, admitting "I couldn't find a kernel in that kind of painting to split open. I have to struggle, to make something coherent, so the work engages me and leads me into some kind of struggle.... I felt I couldn't find a struggle within Abstract Expressionism." Instead, Freilicher painted interior and city scenes, portraits, still lifes, and landscapes, all with an expressive, meditative, and lush painterly hand. This placed her within the loosely-knit group of artists considered Contemporary Realists, though Freilicher deemed her own work "painterly realism."

Freilicher's first solo show was at Tibor de Nagy in 1952 and received positive reviews. Writing for ARTnews, fellow painter Fairfield Porter deemed her work "traditional and radical" and extolled the work for being "broad and bright, considered without being fussy, thoughtful but never pedantic."

Mature Period

Amid the larger-than-life personalities of the New York School, Freilicher continued with her own work, rooted in the world of quotidian objects and had no problem, in her words, "[standing] to the side a little, where I was anyway, and [going] on with what I was doing."

One day in 1949, the poet John Ashbery, newly arrived to the city, knocked on Freilicher's door. He was picking up a key to the apartment of his college friend and fellow poet Kenneth Koch, who lived a floor below Freilicher. Freilicher invited Ashbery in for coffee, and this encounter led to a lifelong friendship, one that was mutually beneficial on a creative and emotional level. Ashbery called her "the wittiest person I have ever known," "screamingly funny," and "probably my favorite person in the world." He lauded her way of painting that was "constantly different, fresh, and surprising."

Freilicher took her new friend to Rudy Burckhardt's shoot for his short film Mounting Tension (1950), which she and Ashbery ended up starring in along with Larry Rivers and Ann Aikman. Freilicher liked acting and also starred in Burckhardt's The Automotive Story (1954).

Despite the stylistic differences, Freilicher was ensconced within the New York School, a term usually meant to be synonymous with Abstract Expressionist painters but was in reality far more diverse and included a host of other artists, including poets. As writer Jenni Quilter explains, "Freilicher occupied a singular position, inspiring an unparalleled devotion among her friends, particularly the poets." Frank O'Hara, in particular, wrote numerous poems for Freilicher such as "A Sonnet for Jane Freilicher," "Interior (With Jane)," and "Chez Jane."

Freilicher married Joseph Hazan in 1957. Hazan was a wealthy clothing manufacturer and painter as well as a former dancer. The couple had one daughter, Elizabeth. Freilicher began spending more and more time in Long Island starting in the 1950s; Hazan built her a house in the small hamlet of Water Mill. There she painted still lifes and landscapes, a perfect corollary to her Greenwich Village city scenes.

Late Period

Though Freilicher spent the rest of her life alternating between Greenwich Village and Long Island, she also had opportunities to travel. She went to Europe three times in the 1960s, visiting Ashbery in Paris each time, as he had relocated there. Together they went to Sicily, Barcelona, and the French countryside, as well as Spain and Morocco.

Freilicher enjoyed raising her daughter (who later became an artist herself) and did not see motherhood as an impediment to her own artmaking. Being older and more financially secure when she had Elizabeth helped, but she also explained, "Even though my daughter was the most important thing, I never felt that I had to do everything, and be everything for her - I never had to take her everywhere and provide her with every conceivable lesson, the way so many parents do today."

In 1975, Freilicher was one of 45 artists commissioned by the Department of Interior to make work for the travelling exhibition, America 1976, a show commemorating the country's bicentennial. Instead of travelling to paint an American scene, she decided to paint the familiar landscape of Long Island. She remarked, "I have to feel comfortable where I am.... I have to burrow in and feel at home." She was so closely identified with Long Island during her lifetime that the East Hampton museum, Guild Hall, honored Freilicher with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996, and in 2005, she received a gold medal for painting from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Freilicher painted for the rest of her life. When asked in 1998 at the age of 73 about her decades-long preference for her subject matter, she stated amiably, "I suppose I'll just keep doing what I'm doing. Even though I'm using ostensibly the same subject matter, I keep on trying to get some other kind of sensation from it. Every flower has its own cosmology, its own relationship to the foliage, to the air around it."

Death

In 2014, Freilicher died in her Manhattan apartment at the age of 90 due to complications from pneumonia. A December 12 birthday party hosted by the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church went on as planned, becoming a celebration of her life and work. Eric Brown of Tibor de Nagy Gallery, the space in which she exhibited the entire length of her career, said upon her death, "An extraordinary artist and an exceptional friend, Jane will be profoundly missed. We will never forget her wit, her acute intelligence, her integrity and grace."

The Legacy of Jane Freilicher

In pursuit of realism, Freilicher, by remaining true to herself, inspired other painters of her era such as Grace Hartigan, Fairfield Porter, Milton Avery, and Hedda Sterne in their engagements with representation. She was also profoundly important to the poets with whom she surrounded herself, such as John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O'Hara. Their poems about her and for her are a testament to her wit, creativity, warmth, and self-confidence.

Though her reputation ebbed and flowed throughout the latter part of the 20th century, as art movements privileging sculpture, abstract painting, video, and installation unfolded, she remains a "painter's painter" and came to inspire feminist artists who admired her unabashed focus on private spaces and intuition as well as contemporary painters of still lifes and interior scenes, such as Jonas Wood, Rebecca Scott, and Tracy Miller. Her landscapes also remain iconic; fellow painter Eric Fischl commented, "To me, when I drive around [Long Island], I see her.... Her vision of it. She's so imprinted in my brain. You drive by a field, you say, 'Oh, my God, a Freilicher!'"

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Content compiled and written by Kristen Osborne-Bartucca

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Jane Freilicher Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Kristen Osborne-Bartucca
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 08 Apr 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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