Jane Freilicher (1924–2014)

Jane Freilicher, 2008. Photo: John Zinsser.

ON A HOT AFTERNOON in early July, 1949, Jane Freilicher, who had been busy painting, opened her apartment door at 170 Third Avenue to hand John Ashbery a key to his sublet. They ought to have had nothing in common. Jane was a twenty-four year old, formerly married, Jewish, Brooklyn-bred valedictorian who had won a merit scholarship to Brooklyn College and then studied painting with Hans Hofmann. John was a twenty-one year old poet, a month out of Harvard, Episcopalian, gay, and the son of a farmer in upstate New York. Their wariness about one another, however, did not last even a day; they connected over everything that mattered: their humor, shyness, intelligence, ambition, and melancholy. They had both escaped difficult childhoods for freer lives in Manhattan. They shared a wry sensibility, capacious curiosity, and a fine-tuned ear for the absurd, and they began to spend almost every day together.

Jane introduced John to her friends: painters Larry Rivers, Nell Blaine, Al Kresch, and Al Leslie. John had arrived in New York City with a plan to be a poet and almost no connections. Jane, already ensconced in a life of art, generously shared what she knew. That Jane was the very first person John met on the day he moved to New York was the kind of luck that only happens in the movies.

John did not have Jane to himself for long, though. She bonded with his new college friend, the poet Frank O’Hara, and they traveled among Cambridge, Michigan, and New York to see one another. In the winter of 1952, the poet James Schuyler returned to the city and helped Jane frame paintings. Jimmy was so smitten with Jane’s insouciant excitement about her upcoming professional debut at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York that he composed an affectionate surrealist play, “Presenting Jane,” in her honor. The lyricist and film producer John LaTouche arranged to make a movie of the play. For the very first time during the summer of 1952, Jane, Frank, Jimmy, John, and the poet Kenneth Koch, who had finally returned from a long stretch teaching in France and California, were together. This was not an easy set of personalities to meld, and Jane’s quick, honest, biting sense of humor served as glue. She also read their poems and plays with fervor and delighted understanding. In the iconic shot filmed that summer, Jane, angelically lit, walked on water, becoming in an instant the image and symbol of a goddess.

Jane Freilicher, Young Girl with Flowers, 1952, oil on linen.

Although a willing muse, her talents were not only for her friends but for herself. Her intrinsic, genuine modesty masked a formidable discipline and determination. In 1951, she began working on Young Girl with Flowers. By the time she finished the painting in 1952, it had become a crucial portrait of Jane, about thirteen, on the cusp of maturity, sitting next to a blue vase full of pink, white, and red flowers. Jane and flowers produced an untraditional double portrait. The two subjects were close, nearly touching, in silent communion. From the age of three, Jane had wished for a bouquet of flowers the way other children hoped for toys. The painting’s rendering of her delphic gaze away from that blooming, drooping bouquet suggested an intense scrutiny of her past and future passion.

The precise, enigmatic painting, priced at $150–200, did not sell. “But it should have,” she remarked much later, still irritated. Eventually, she took the fiercely beautiful portrait home from the gallery and hung it in her bedroom directly across from her bed, where it stayed for the next sixty years. Young Girl with Flowers captured her private origins as a painter and intimated her future: an independent mind deciphering mysteries central to her lifelong relationship with art.

Karin Roffman is a writer and teacher based in New Haven.