New York

Shirley Jaffe

Holly Solomon Gallery

This is the 60-year-old Shirley Jaffe’s first show ever, but her work looks eternally—and I don’t mean cosmetically—young. The brightness of color, the diversity of unresolved, quirky shapes on the canvas, and the tendency toward quick, succinct statement suggest a determination to remain innocent, perhaps to make a kind of sophistication or cult out of innocence. Jaffe’s pictures seem to take as their point of departure Matisse’s cutouts. Her shapes are the product of a similar process of essentialization, and her colors seem derived directly from those of Matisse, even seem to be a play on them. Beyond that, the resemblance collapses, for Jaffe’s shapes are not only militantly odd in a way Matisse’s never are, but they proliferate across the canvas, and have none of the late artist’s spatial restraint. Jaffe is more obviously decorative than Matisse, who spiritualized the decorative so that it came to seem the vehicle for something other than glamorous surface. Matisse increasingly suggested immateriality, as his blank surfaces—pure space—indicate.

In contrast, Jaffe’s shapes seem very material, and her empty space does not exist so clearly in its own right. What she wants is a revitalized decorative surface, distracting but also enlivening. Her problem is this: how to make a decorative surface that defies its own flatness—one that not so much finesses it as vigorously defeats it. She accomplishes this in several ways. First, she emphasizes the materiality of her shapes by giving them a vigorously uniform color. Second, by studiously avoiding repetition, the bête noir of the decorative—leading to the sense of its underlying limpness—she creates a kind of surface fervor. Any one work offers a great variety of shapes, each eccentric in itself and all going off in different directions. In Four Horizons, 1988–89, she uses a pile-up of shapes, each intriguing in itself, and maddening together. The joviality of the color is quickly swept away by the intensity of difference between the shapes. One is not always certain what might be the formal and/or pictorial point of the dynamic generated by this difference, but it certainly does preclude the work’s prematurely stabilizing and sinking into flatness, the way decorative surface usually does.

Many of the works seem responses to figureless environments—oblique landscapes, as it were. A few, such as Shannon, 1985, are set upon a painted field. This seems like technical overkill, undermining the works’ shapes. The individual configurations and the way they are thrown together are, after all, what makes these works worth the perceptual trouble—what makes them perceptually puzzling. As abstractions go, Jaffe’s seem unforced and lyrical, even though the shapes don’t really have much to do with each other. In a post-Modern situation of belabored effects, Jaffe’s retardataire Modernism is a relief, but not an alternative.

Donald Kuspit