Jane Freilicher

Fischbach Gallery

There are painters who search constantly for new and surprising subject matter. There are others, like Jane Freilicher, who are content to paint what is close at hand—the view from a studio window, a vase of flowers, a can of paintbrushes, or a glass of cranberry juice. For years Freilicher has been composing subtle and graceful variations on the same few themes, with the result that (for example) the ConEdison tower and the cedars that border her garden in Watermill have assumed the character of dramatis personae in a novel or a memoir one never tires of reading. Paradoxically, the great advantage of an approach that stresses intimacy and a fidelity to the real is that a very slight change of emphasis can have unforeseen, even radical consequences. When such a painter admits irrational and exotic elements to her work she takes great risks, and this is what Freilicher has done in her most recent paintings.

The familiar flowers, landscapes, and views of Manhattan are all here (and they have never looked fresher and more alive), but they are haunted by two visitors from quite different realms: a blue-gray parrot with red tail feathers and the figure of Watteau’s Le Mezzetin, 1718–20. This enigmatic, plain-featured lute player with his head thrown back in wistful ecstasy, appears in four of the paintings in Freilicher’s most recent gallery show, and in a fifth that can be seen at the Whitney Biennial. In Cymbidium Orchids, 1994, he is hardly more than a glancing allusion—a dim reproduction in a book lying open on a table; in The Lute Player, 1993, he appears both in a reproduction propped up beside a vase of flowers and in the supposedly “real” space of the garden beyond the studio window; in Minstrels, 1994, he has the incongruous parrot for company, and sits on a terrace surrounded by the landscape of eastern Long Island.

Freilicher is not in the business of idly ripping off old masters. She paints Watteau’s musician in her own style, and, although the work is still a long way from Surrealism, the presence of this figure renders it authentically odd and unsettling. The play of allusion and incongruity is at its most extreme in The Shy Lover, 1994, which borrows a seated, male figure from Watteau’s painting of the same name and places him next to both a large, golden Labrador reclining on a rock, and a naked goddess taken from Watteau’s The Judgment of Paris, 1869, who seems to be gazing at a pale moon rising in the early evening sky. It is an image halfway between dream and allegory, and Freilicher has painted nothing like it before. The whole show is a remarkable act of renewal.

Unexpected as they are, these developments point to something fundamental in Freilicher’s work. Among painters, Watteau is the greatest poet of transience, and transience is surely Freilicher’s perennial theme. We can see it in the shadows of the cedars creeping across the lawn to extmguish the color of the day lilies, in open tulips that are about to drop their petals, and in the mauvish, dusk-shrouded towers of Manhattan massed behind brilliantly illuminated bouquets.

John Ash