Jane Freilicher: Paintings, 1954 – 2004
Tibor de Nagy Gallery
724 Fifth Avenue
January 13 – February 12, 2005
Refinement is in such short supply that I feel ungrateful to be less than wholehearted about Jane Freilicher’s show at Tibor de Nagy. Any reservation seems a sin against civility, like kicking the Queen Mother’s corgies.
But disappointment sets in when you realize that, among all the delicious work in this retrospective, much of its vitality was accomplished early on. After the Abstract Expressionist juggernaut subsided, complacency set in. Work began to coast on its own prettiness, not so much living painting as a safe product for clientele anxious to display fine breeding and correct feeling.
This exhibition coincides with the publication of “Jane Freilicher,” a handsome valentine from Abrams with mash notes from Klaus Kertess, John Ashberry and Thomas Nozkowski. Illustrations from the 1950s and 60s indicate the excitement of representational painting in those decades, when it was not safe and went against the grain of the moment. That was the ground of Ms. Freilicher’s well-earned reputation.
“The Painting Table” (1954) and “Early New York Evening” (1954) build on a delightful counterpoint of light and dark tones that slowly leeches out of her work, displaced–not always, but often enough–by a mannered placidity. You see the difference immediately in the pairing of the vivacious “Still Life with Calendulas” (1955) next to “The Sun Breaks Through” (1991). The dynamic composition, dramatic color and Matissean patterning of the older painting knocks flat the newer one with its formulaic vase of flowers in front of a meadow viewed contentedly through a window, all politesse and no punch.
Look carefully at the small “Study for Winter” (1997), tucked in a corridor off the main gallery. Vibrantly handled, it is a jewel of observation and painterly lucidity that trumps canvases 8 times its size. Ms. Freilicher is a splendid painter when she is not playing safer than she needs to.