We lost Jane Freilicher two days before a planned public celebration of her 90th birthday on December 12th, which poignantly turned into a memorial honoring her life and work. Although I didn’t know Jane personally, and our work has little in common (we’ve been working down different shafts in the mine), she has served in my imagination as a kind of mentor. Across the years and decades, her resolutely humble, smart, wry, luminous paintings have continued to act as a touchstone that cuts to the heart of what this calling is all about.
What she models for me goes beyond a specific aesthetic mastery, though there is that. It’s an ethical stance that rises like mist off her work. Her oeuvre reminds me that it is not the new voice that matters (though radical breakthroughs can open doors, give permission to others, and put juice back into a tired enterprise), but the authentic voice, the singular fresh voice, the enduring voice. Schooled in abstraction during its heady early days, but turning back to the visible world as her subject when it was considered retrograde, Jane’s life in painting speaks of the courage necessary to hold with what you believe and love, what you are searching for, against the strong ever-shifting currents of artistic fashion and ideologies.
The poet W.S. Merwin once asked a struggling young writer: “What is it you are listening for?” What Jane was listening for were hints of the mystery and meaning that can be teased out of the most ordinary and familiar things: the common objects, vistas, and casual disorder of daily life, what our eyes fall on every day without noticing. Her paintings make us notice again. Her enduring commitment to finding value in what lies closest at hand, the very substance of our lives, is an ethos I hold dear.
Jane’s painting reawakens the sense of wonder that this non-verbal language of color and form can communicate so well. How is it possible that the manipulation of colored mud is capable of transmitting feeling, meaning, an attitude towards the world, even a philosophical stance? That it can lies at the core of why we care about art in the first place. Jane put all that into her painting in such an unaffected way. Her painterly voice is so direct and plain-spoken, an ego-less matter-of-fact visual narrative of “what is” in her world. And how daring for such a sophisticated worldly intellect, connected to the avant-garde painters and poets of her day as she was, to paint flowers her whole life! With wit and seeming nonchalance, she would set those flowers up with mock monumentality in front of the city view out her window, or the salt marsh she looked out on from her Long Island home—then play with the give and take between figure and ground, the intimate near and the cosmic far, enacting small psychic dramas, and extracting tremendous force and poetry. At some point in this operation, beauty—yes, beauty—tiptoes softly in. Its uncanny unsentimental quality may come in part from the rare combination of humility and intelligence at work here. It may come from some whiff of pleasure and affection we pick up from these accumulated brushstrokes, pleasure that she has taken in both living with her subjects, and in telling us about them in paint. How good to be reminded that there is nothing wrong with pleasure!
With Jane’s death, the lessons I’ve gleaned from her have rushed up to the surface more vividly that ever; her artistic temperament of quietude, generosity, lack of pretension, sly humor, serious devotion to her work—they all add up to character and integrity.
And as if this isn’t enough of a gift, I have the good fortune to own a print of hers from a series she did toward the end of her life, that hangs on the wall at the end of our bed. My husband and I wake to this image each morning, as if we are looking at the view from her window. It offers two vases of flowers perched before the distant view of the salt march on an ineffably clear day. It speaks volumes. In the center, a larger bouquet of round pink peonies in a deep blue vase that packs a graphic punch strikes a grand pose that seems slightly humorous, the largest pink flower placed dead-center just above a distant strip of land that marks the horizon. Next to it is a smaller bouquet with pale flowers in a pale vase—a kind of spirit alter-ego to the central bouquet with the starring role. “Not so fast”, the more ethereal bouquet seems to say. “The sky may be bluer than blue today, but it won’t last”. And as if to amplify that hint of mortality, an odd trapezoid of very pale lavender is creeping across the bare tabletop in the lower right corner, an approaching ghostly shroud reminding the unsuspecting subject, and us, of the impermanence of all things. It reads as an exquisite articulation of our brief time on this planet.
Thank you, Jane.
December 20, 2014