There are few artists working today whose work I admire without reservation. Shirley Jaffe is one. Her recent exhibition at Tibor de Nagy Gallery of not so recent work (six major paintings from 1974 – 79) offers a revealing insight into the mental processes of a supremely intelligent artist at a moment of profound transition. Each canvas, looking as if it had been painted yesterday, seems to shout out: “Look at me, dammit. I’m ready to fly. Watch me take off.”
On ViewTibor De Nagy Gallery
October 17 – November 23, 2013
In this relatively unknown body of Jaffe’s work we observe a seismic pictorial shift. Previously Jaffe labored as a card-carrying Abstract Expressionist for some decades, but by now (1973) brushy whiplashes and toughly awkward moments had become annoyingly familiar. Jaffe had been storing up studio smarts: knowledge, attack, chromatic confidence waiting to be tapped as her mature voice ultimately emerged in this very work. In four years, Jaffe identified and laid claim to the vocabulary of her mature work that has sustained her for the ensuing 40 years.
By 1973, her question was: how to proceed? Pop art, now long in the tooth, had come and gone. She never went in for imagery or self-revelation anyway. Pop art’s abrasive, hot-house acrylic paint palette must also have seemed formulaic and too easy to her. Perhaps she could consider following the more Apollonian Minimal Art? However, Jaffe has always had way too much to say to fit into that straightjacket of reduction. Mondrian? Sufficiently complex, but then she always did love curves and squiggles. Kandinsky? Too arbitrary and ditsy. Color Field? Puhleeze. Ah, Matisse! The go-to alternative for those weary of the Picasso hegemony. Jaffe absorbed the complexity and deceptive ease of Matisse’s papiers coupes as her touchstone—the Matisse of pure, flat color as a compositional device, of the precision and balance of each curve, the suggestion of infinite expandability.
She accepted the general approach of the cut-outs but generally squeezed out every shred of white ground, even the vestigial flickers of white at the edges of forms. Consequently, Jaffe’s shapes head-butt each other all over the place. Individual color opponents are equally matched so that no one shade dominates. Sometimes our eyes hurt from optical vibrations at a wiggly edge (I believe she found this opticality oddly amusing). Other times a strong pastel seems nearly overwhelmed by a more robust neighbor, but manages to fight back. The overall chroma is much more muted and complex than a Matissean harmony.
Rule One of the game: no color can be repeated exactly in the same painting. Often two reds or blues are nearly identical, but not quite, and sensing the difference presents a delightful decoding process. She has said: “The French are always good at color.” In Jaffe’s case, this French color sense led her to use traditional oil paint mixed only with turpentine to provide a silken matte surface. Each color can come straight from the tube, but more often is modified with white or the slightest touch of black. Even when she employs earth tones or neutrals, nothing is muddy. The colors survive on their oddness, their juxtapositions to each other. Her harmonies remain surprisingly dignified.
On occasion, Jaffe allowed the hint of a white or off-white ground to reveal itself. In her subsequent paintings this becomes classical Jaffe—a white ground expanded to allow an open but energized playing field for the odd forms and a cooling relief from any overheated chroma.
Although we look to Jaffe primarily as a master colorist, the range of shapes in these paintings is vast and witty, sometimes even hilarious. They too refuse to repeat in the same painting. The forms are mostly abstract but are often referential. There are occasional arrowheads, a comical dying tulip, Monsieur Green Nose, or a recurring modernist vase. And is that a vibraphone in “Harlequin?”
These paintings are big, impossible to ignore. They are not experiments; they are assertions. However, throughout this period of exploration, Jaffe maintained a lively expressionist sense of unknowingness. Each work sets up wildly different parameters and creates divergent and difficult problems to be visually solved. And the painting itself is the answer. The artist’s confidence and bravura are impossible to ignore.
Warning: Jaffe’s work is a full-out, unapologetic modernist practice. Each work is intended to take us somewhere new, untrodden. There is definitely humor but not irony. This work is rooted in the idea that art can actually improve one’s life, both that of the viewer and that of the painter.
What makes this body of work so compelling 40 years later is its magisterial authority. The paintings have an uncompromising dependence on visual rectitude in contrast to charm. Jaffe’s courage is particularly revealing in this journey into uncharted and very complex waters. Knowing her later, continued mastery, these works become precocious, even poignant.