September 2013

Patrick James Dunagan

nonfiction

Jane Freilicher: Painter Among Poets by Jenni Quilter

"Dear Necessary Angel -- Why don't you write to a Noble Rider who longs for the sound of words, your words." This is the opening line of a postcard message Jane Freilicher sent poet Frank O'Hara in 1956. Her witty tongue-in-cheek reference to Wallace Stevens's at-the-time recently published book of lectures The Necessary Angel and its opening piece "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words" is but one example of the sort of fun, light romping repartee celebrated in Jane Freilicher: Painter Among Poets. Poems, letters, and photographs of the painter and the poets John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, and James Schuyler are interspersed with full-color images of Freilicher's art work in a generous layout. Not too surprisingly, gossipy personal affairs get frequent mention alongside literary and artistic matters. An endearingly lighthearted yet serious sense of artistic camaraderie runs rampant throughout.

In the accompanying text, scholar Jenni Quilter notes that Freilicher "inspired the gift of attention -- uncritical, adoring attention" a statement the included documents repeatedly attest the validity of. Though the abundance of material Freilicher directed back to the poets shows the adoration to be a two-way street. Freilicher painted portraits of the poets, designed book covers for them, and corresponded with just as much inventively verbose wit and charm. In Freilicher's own words, "My poet friends didn't influence me directly with their work... there's a sympathetic vibration, a natural syntax -- a lack of pomposity or heavy symbolism -- and something to do with intimism, an intimate kind of expression." Beginning early on in her life as an artist, Freilicher's friendships with the poets proved integral to her ongoing development.

O'Hara's "Jane Poems" are rather infamously well known. Full-page images of typed manuscript copies of "Interior (With Jane)" and "To Jane; and in imitation of Coleridge" are included, along with other O'Hara poems. There are also pictures of O'Hara looking startlingly young and slender in shirtsleeves. Freilicher notes the attraction of his good looks and easygoing body frame in her description of her painting Frank O'Hara (both the painting, in color, taking up half the page and her statement from the memorial book Homage to Frank O'Hara are reproduced here):

Frank was very well put together physically; the scale of his body, the delicate but irregular features of his face remind somewhat of the drawings of ideal male proportions by Dürer. He was so very pleasing to look at & I sometimes wonder if this attractiveness was one of the reasons so many painters enjoyed knowing him.

The depth of Koch's friendship with Freilicher is equally evident. There's a typed manuscript page for his script for The Automotive Story, a 1954 short film directed by Rudy Buckhardt featuring Jane Frelicher; likewise the painter's portraits of Koch are reproduced, as is Freilicher's painting The Car, alongside the painter and poet's jokey collaborative text "A Car" ("Dashboard: I am my setting sun, a dashboard. / Clutch: I clutch. We like each other."). In addition, the commentary accompanying Freilicher's painting The Mallow Gatherers notes that the title comes recommended from Koch as he "thought that since there were no people, no gatherers in the painting, the title The Mallow Gatherers might make the viewer look for the people, get him involved in the painting in an odd and personal way."

A clear, natural warmth and affinity with Ashbery shows through in the numerous photographs of him and Freilicher together. Not only do they adorn the cover, smoking cigarettes while taking a break from hanging a Freilicher show at the Tibor de Nagy gallery in the fifties, but the first photo inside the book is of Ashbery, Freilicher, and Koch, in dark shades, standing on a New York City sidewalk in the seventies, Ashbery looking slim, ever hip, and quite sharp with neatly trimmed moustache, despite all three of them with hands in pockets trying to stay warm on the clearly wintry day. Ashbery and Freilicher also appear together in the last two photos: a small shot of the two "in conversation" on stage with Quilter for the occasion of the Tibor de Nagy's sixtieth anniversary in 2011, and on the opposing page, a shot from 1955 of the two sharing what appears to be an intimate, humorous conversation on a bench in Mexico looking every bit the part of lovers -- which they apparently never were.

Yet Quilter remarks "it is Schuyler whose poetry most closely resembles Freilicher's painting in terms of subject and approach." She notes the similarity of subject matter they share: the individual looking out at landscape from within a room, or describing the contents of a room, a vase of flowers upon a table. The household is a constant in Schuyler's work. He lived for sustained periods of time with the painter Fairfield Porter and family, with numerous mutual friends coming and going. Quilter quotes the closing lines of his poem "June 30, 1974" as an example:

Enough to
sit here drinking coffee,
writing, watching the clear
day ripen (such
a rainy June we had)
while Jane and Joe
sleep in their room
and John in his. I
think I'll make more toast.

The generous presentation of the artistic relationships among these close friends can't help including a sense of the intimacy shared. Art and life spilled into each other with the ease of cream added to morning coffee.

This group of friends regularly kept in touch regarding work and life when distance separated them. Freilicher sent the Wallace Stevens-inspired postcard mentioned at the beginning to O'Hara at 9 p.m. on March 13 from Church Street Station in New York City to him "c/o Phelps 1306 Massachusetts Ave Cambridge, MA." That it's possible to read such postal details -- not to mention make out Freilicher's handwriting -- is a testament to the quality reproductions made of the material gathered here. The image on the reverse side of the postcard is a rosy-hued color image of a young woman guitarist of the 1920s flapper era posed in front of a moonlit backdrop. Further postcards are scattered throughout, and the inside end pages have Freilicher's handwriting gloriously magnified. In the front she addresses a postcard to "Francis O'Hara" while in the back she pens a message upon another to Koch in Paris from Ann Arbor where she's visiting O'Hara, who's there after having won the Hopwood Poetry Prize in 1951 and, as she tells Koch, purchased a painting of hers with the award money and invited her out for a visit.

In a recent short memoir, Kenneth Koch's daughter Katherine recalls the fanaticism with which "Old postcards -- late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century -- were collected by my father and his friends." She remembers "at junk shops and at flea markets you could find hundreds of them." These postcards crisscrossed the Atlantic when friends were living or travelling abroad and quite frequently passed between New York City and Southampton or points beyond during summer holidays. The abundance of correspondence included in Jane Freilicher: Painter Among Poets attests to the central role it played among the group as a venue for sharing laughs and keeping each other informed, as well as spurring on individual artistic activity.

Discussing Freilicher's painting style, Quilter argues that:

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the dominant Abstract Expressionist mode in downtown painting made its way into her brushstrokes, but her subjects were still recognizable; for lack of a better term, her sense of the figure recalled a painting tradition others seemed intent on reinventing altogether. Her interiors are just that -- portraits of a room in which each object is treated with the same loose detail.

And in Ashbery's brief address delivered when presenting Freilicher with the Gold Medal for Painting given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2005 (the text of which is included here) he notes how:

Her pictures always have an air of just coming into being, of tentativeness that is the lifeblood of art. There are always new and surprising full passages where you couldn't imagine another artist coming to the same decisions, which are invariably the right ones.

The stimulation Freilicher found in friendships with poets helped ground her work in the everyday familiarity it immediately expresses. Jane Freilicher: Painter Among Poets enriches the experience of looking at her paintings by supplying further context within which both the work and the painter thrive. The book is not only full of exquisite reproductions of paintings, but also here there are many poems and correspondence. This nicely oversized slim hardcover offers a tasteful glimpse of these friendships so central to the mid-century poetry and art scene in New York.

Jane Freilicher: Painter Among Poets by Jenni Quilter
Tibor de Nagy Gallery
ISBN: 978-1891123092
96 pages