New York

Jane Kaplowitz

Jane Kaplowitz would agree with Jean Cocteau that “style is the soul.” She is a connoisseur of Pop, of camp, and of “appropriation.” As if to establish her post-Modern credentials beyond a doubt, she has made an ironic play with motifs from Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Josef Albers, and others, but the irony of these earlier paintings can seem a little forced and, as a consequence, they fail to make the transition to the pure visual wit we can now see she was always aiming at. The new paintings are airy, evanescent, and lyrical in a strictly Firbankian manner. In them she celebrates the heroes of her personal camp pantheon—Cocteau in bed with a mask of Antigone, Oliver Messel painting a mural in the Dorchester Hotel, Stephen Tennant (the most outrageous English queen of the ’20s and ’30s) reclining on the bed he rarely left in his later years, while unfolding an enormous fan towards the seated figure of David Hockney.

All the paintings are based on photographs. All are painted lightly and fluidly, and two of them are painted on a large scale on the walls of the gallery, so that the result is an environment of delicate irony and artifice that at first charms you, then leaves you with an odd sense of pathos. Kaplowitz is not aiming at profundity, but it is tempting to look for a subtext. With the exception of Hockney, all the figures she has chosen to paint are to some degree marginal, and all but one are gay men: Messel was an interior decorator, Tennant an aristocratic dilettante and, thanks to his supposed frivolity and snobbishness, Cocteau’s reputation has been under a cloud for some decades. One might also argue that Hockney is currently more interesting as a set-designer than as a painter, and is thus perilously close to being a “mere” decorator. This is not Kaplowitz’s view, and in one of her murals she defiantly presents us with a gaggle of fashionable ’40s interior decorators relaxing in a fussy rococo salon. Though not didactically so, Kaplowitz’s stance is surely an implicit critique of the official canon of high seriousness, a canon that has had a particularly oppressive effect on the reputations of certain gay male and female artists.

The other mural in the show is called An Artist’s Studio, 1992, and the artist in question is a woman. Evidently 19th-century, and doubtless forgotten by art history, she sits comfortably on a sofa in the corner of the room reading a small book; schematic portraits hang above her; spindly furniture lines the walls. The painting makes no attempt to reproduce the original photographic image with literal accuracy, emphasizing, instead, a kind of careless elegance. It is essentially an enormous wall-sketch, tinted with pastel blues, pinks and yellows. Given the centralized perspective, the large scale, and the plain yellow floorboards that fill the foreground, the work resembles the backdrop for some lost comedy of manners, or a ballet with music by Georges Auric or Germaine Tailleferre. Its charm is undeniable, its seriousness less immediately evident. But Kaplowitz is passionately committed to her material, and this show—which is her best—presents a persuasive argument in favor of the delight to be derived from artistic productions that would normally be classified as minor, even frivolous. The dullest person can be serious, but true frivolity demands inventiveness and the ability to take joy in life.

John Ash