Jane Freilicher, a painter who emerged in the 1950s and achieved near-legendary status before her death in 2014, notoriously chose gestural realism over pure abstraction. As she once remarked, the approach gave her an emotional reason to make art. Even though representational styles moved in and out of fashion, she was never not part of the art world. An exhibition devoted exclusively to her still lifes at Kasmin—both on the gallery’s walls and in an online viewing room—put her virtuosity on full display, affording one an opportunity to contemplate how much she achieved by focusing on the seemingly insignificant details of the everyday while saying so much about perception, time, and memory.
Freilicher’s works are visually anchored to her own lived experience, her own desires. We see who the artist was in the myriad objects she collected, cherished, and chose to depict; in the ample references to her green thumb; and in the amazing views from the windows of her Greenwich Village greenhouse studio and her home in Water Mill, Long Island—places from which she gazed at the world beyond for more than fifty years. Garden flowers, grapes from the vine that grew by the country house, orchids given to her by her husband, an avocado plant she nourished into life from a pit, the tablecloth her mother-in-law made for her wedding trousseau—taken together, they convey not only intimacy and simplicity but also a sense of spontaneity, as if the artist had suddenly glimpsed something interesting and taken note by making a painting.
Freilicher often painted what was right before her. Yet it’s readily apparent that her compositions are highly staged—cooked, not raw—which has the effect of slowing our gaze. Objects appear and reappear over the decades—a classical figurine, plates, decorated bowls, a yellow shawl, an old watering can, a round white-Formica table—and regularly migrate from one canvas to another, creating a durational effect. Vistas to the east or west skyline are consistently the same, connoting a worldview characterized by stability, familiarity.
Yet despite her attachment to realism and to the day-to-day, Freilicher never fully abandoned abstraction—she just defined it in her own terms. Freilicher long ago declared that she wasn’t interested in the “dull” contents of the unconscious; nonetheless, various canvases are decidedly cerebral, offering flashes of her inner life. The earliest piece here, The Painting Table, 1954, renders the studio as a luminous yet empty space, save for the artist’s titular work area, which is cluttered with jars of brushes, cans of thinner, and other tools of the trade, including a palette loaded with colorful brushstrokes, as if to quote abstraction. A diaphanous curtain flutters before a darkened window, marking this visitation as a nocturnal event while emphasizing the dreamy mood of the picture.
Another abstract space of reverie and sensual pleasure unfolds across Parts of a World, 1987. On a reddish ground, the Manhattan skyline, featuring the Con Edison clock tower in Gramercy Park, is sketched in the upper register of the painting. Loosely situated in the work’s midsection is a still life with a figurine, an orchid, a plate of fish, and decorative bowls arranged on a round white table. This tableau floats in a translucent azure cloud and is complemented by an exquisitely sheer drape that cascades from the tabletop. An introspective late work, Untitled (Plates with yellow and black), ca. 2005, is deeply evocative. Here, four little dishes, constants throughout the artist’s practice, make yet another encore appearance. With fluid brushwork, Freilicher renders them as fleeting approximations of form that seem in danger of vanishing into the horizontal zones of languid color—sandy yellow, black, dark teal—comprising the background. The image calls to mind a tempestuous seascape, a psychic map. But more than anything else, it is a beautiful summation of Freilicher’s life as a painter, and of the power she has to fold us back into the in-between spaces where, in her oeuvre, all things are possible.