New York

Jane Freilicher, Window, 2011, oil on linen, 32 × 32".

Jane Freilicher, Window, 2011, oil on linen, 32 × 32".

Jane Freilicher

Jane Freilicher, Window, 2011, oil on linen, 32 × 32".

“She is not dangerous or rare, / adventure precedes her like a train, / her beauty is general, as sun and air / are secretly near, like Jane.” So wrote Frank O’Hara in an ode to Jane Freilicher that ably describes the art of his friend: Her paintings highlight the simplest subjects of wildflowers stuck in soup cans and pitchers, vast tracks of land on the East End of Long Island, and still lifes set up in her West Village apartment studio, often against a window looking out over the city’s rooftops and water towers. This exhibition, the artist’s twenty-first at Tibor de Nagy, was called “Theme and Variations.” Freilicher’s theme has always been the presence of living nature (even indoors and in the city). But the variations are what make that motif, in all its “general” beauty, empathetic—especially considering that she painted the same view for more than five decades, until her death in 2014 at the age of ninety.

Freilicher’s still lifes are rarely still. Butterfly Weed and Goldenrod, 1967, has a great messiness and expedience to its marks that reflect both the artist’s roots in Hans Hofmann’s school of abstraction and the composition’s own wild subjects brought inside. (Exceptions feel purposeful, such as her watercolor of hydrangeas here from 1990, in which the entire page takes on the brittle properties of a dried flower.)

Like her friend and fellow Southampton painter Fairfield Porter, Freilicher absorbed Pierre Bonnard’s and Henri Matisse’s subtle devastations of domestic life—what O’Hara, in another poem about Freilicher’s art, described as “The eagerness of objects to / be what we are afraid to do,” which “cannot help but move us.” One of the strongest works in the show, Window, 2011, is a collection of botanicals in various containers, sitting on a sill in front of a roof city-scape. Observing the straightforward flat shapes and colors of the vases and their blooms, I immediately thought of my favorite painting in New York, Matisse’s Blue Window, 1913, at the Museum of Modern Art, in which a collection of isolated objects (including a flower vase) are displayed in front of a large window whose abstracted trees rhyme with the circular forms of the interior still life in a constant play of reflection. Freilicher’s scene appears to take place on a misty morning and, if you look closely, with a lovely strangeness: A central green shadow might be a distant tree or a plant’s reflection; the line of the sill wavers and its top edge does not connect from right to left; a yellow bloom is suspended in midair, and then there’s the surprise of a fifth vase that is empty; the artist signs her name in the void where the bouquet would be. Further countering static repose, and with no small wit, the tall, curved, and stumpy containers are mirrored in the buildings behind them. We see this again in the terrific early pastel Untitled (Studio Table and Landscape), 1968, in which a can of paintbrushes is in direct dialogue with the bristly bush just behind, outside the window.

Sometimes we proceed past that frame and into the landscape itself. There were four such paintings of Water Mill, Long Island, in the show; my favorite was The Season, 2005, a riotous composition centering on a blue bay and a complementary thicket of ocher grasses. Rain seems to be arriving from the top of the picture, and the inlet sliver that cuts across the middle of the canvas whips the blues into the greens, oranges, and browns of the autumn reeds, much as I imagine they would blend in nature—a color field painting in the most literal sense.

As her exhibition with Jane Wilson at the Parrish Art Museum that also closed last month wonderfully demonstrated, Freilicher wasn’t afraid to muddy her scapes. The twinned scene in Tibor de Nagy’s September Landscape and Bright Day, both 1973, was also found at the Parrish, though the title of that 2001 painting tells of more ominous changes over time: Landscape with Construction Site. But then, Freilicher offers us a never-ending view.

Prudence Peiffer