JANE FREILICHER: THE FEMALE GAZE
ESSAY BY JENNIFER SAMET
On the occasion of the presentation of Nudes by Jane Freilicher at ADAA: The Art Show February 28 – March 4, 2018
Jane Freilicher’s paintings of the female nude may come as a revelation to those who know her as a painter of interiors, still lives, and landscapes. A selection of paintings of the nude from the 1960s and 1970s is presented here for the first time. These are paintings of women by a woman who recognizes small and fleeting expressions of body language – and allows them to manifest as seemingly casual, painterly gesture.
Freilicher—who was central in a bohemian circle of painters and poets that included Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Alex Katz, Larry Rivers, Fairfield Porter, and photographer/filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt—engaged this traditional genre by making some of the sparest paintings of her career. They followed her 1950s paintings, which were loaded with more elements, and a darker palette. In the 1960s, it was in the air to ask what would happen by narrowing the visual focus, cleaning up lines, and looking at the everyday.
Her nudes are about the inner life of women; in them, the woman is usually self-contained, in reverie, or asleep. In “Untitled (Reclining Nude)” (1970s), figure, studio worktable, and the skyline outside are analogized; the woman is metaphorically linked to the space of creativity, and the city as muse. In “Nude Sleeping” (ca. 1965) the woman is at rest but also protective of her space. She is situated in that space between self-consciousness and letting go. The wall structure behind her is also provisionally established, but also melting away with Freilicher’s painterly marks.
“Nude with Raised Arms” (1966) is the most outward looking of the group and has a direct lushness, but even this sexuality feels more about the woman’s relationship with her own body than with someone outside of it. In “Asleep” (1966) there is an eroticism of the dream-state made visible – as Freilicher focuses in on the redness of her nipples, lips, and the red ground all around her. In “Nude on Green Blanket” (1967), the woman is totally at ease – self-contained, thinking, resting.
An awareness of vulnerability — an empathic identification with that state — is palpable in this work. In “Untitled (seated nude with blue robe)” (1970), the woman’s blue robe, chair upholstery, and even the wood shelving behind her all become signs for a protected enclosure encircling the woman. Her face is round, she herself feels in formation. The demarcation of her abdomen is treated with a kind of gentle affection. There’s an allowance of slight awkwardness; nothing is perfectly poised.
Freilicher opposed certainty in her work. Instead, she preferred to make a series of provisional moves, which together accrue into a feeling for the subject. “If you don’t start with a preconceived arrangement you get a fresher view of things,” she said. In each of her paintings of the female nude, Freilicher engages with an attribute specific to her subject, using formal qualities to reinforce them.
Her great friend, poet and critic John Ashbery highlighted the “tentative” quality in Freilicher’s work. He wrote of her early paintings, “...they struck me at first as tentative, a quality I have since come to admire and consider one of her strengths, having concluded that most good things are tentative, or should be if they aren’t.” Ashbery’s embrace of the “tentative” is a proposition — since, culturally, we prioritize its opposite: fixed, permanent, certain. Freilicher’s paintings of the nude function as a similar proposition: how can depicting this state of becoming provide a lens into more vital meaning?
In a published dialogue with Alex Katz, Freilicher maintained the validity of a process of open deductions. The two go back and forth; Katz talking about control and conscious decisions, while Freilicher suggests the inevitability of letting go of one’s initial ideas and impulses. By foregoing a priori decision-making, Freilicher was able to engage in an empathic call and response process.
Freilicher said of Courbet, “His composition is sometimes awkward. His figures are larger than life and almost more vivid. He communicates a great excitement. If the essence of good painting is vitality, then, in painting nature, one should try to get nature’s vitality. Courbet seems not to order consciously.” For Freilicher, rejecting a prescribed ordering of forms was a way to allow an inner state to gently reveal itself. Freilicher’s marks guide, more than they direct.