I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Shirley Jaffe’s distinctive and eccentric work is difficult to pin down, both in time and style. When I first came across her paintings at the Holly Solomon Gallery in New York in 1988, I had an immediate response to their idiosyncratic quality. They were so fresh and inventive, yet from their complexity and the assurance of the vocabulary—loose geometry, gridlike formations, unnamable shapes, and squiggly lines—I knew at once that this was the work of a confident and mature artist, even though it fit into the context of what many younger painters were engaged in at the time, when abstract painting had returned to issues of eccentric composition and irregular forms realized through diverse approaches of painting styles.
Jaffe is a remarkable artist: she is resilient, sharp, and open-minded as well as warm, generous, and stimulating. An expatriate who has lived in Paris since the late 1940s, she has been a significant figure on the French scene and now shows with Galerie Nathalie Obadia, one of the more important younger galleries there. Starting out under the influence of Abstract Expressionism, Jaffe made a radical change in the 1960s toward a more geometric vocabulary, yet her work still retains some of the spontaneity of her AbEx works. By being fiercely individualistic, she neither embraces nor rejects past artistic movements, influences, and developments, be they American or European, and by staying her course she has resisted being absorbed into any of them, which gives her work a timeless peculiarity.
Jaffe’s paintings are about looking at the world around us, those oddities that add up to experiences that we have yet to articulate but that can be acknowledged through the types of visual experiences that her paintings offer. Analytical yet playful, geometric yet organic, complex yet airy, her compositions teeter and constantly threaten to come undone, yet curiously hang in precarious balance while the individual parts work in tandem to produce an unlikely accord. When she was in New York last fall on the occasion of her solo show at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, we met one afternoon and talked about her experiences living in Paris, the artists she knew and what drives her work.
Shirley Kaneda You’ve been living in Paris for a long time. When did you leave the States, and what was the reason for going to Paris?
Shirley Jaffe I went at the end of 1949. We were living in Washington, D.C., and my husband was on the G.I. Bill, so he could go to any school he wanted. He wanted to go to the Sorbonne, so we ended up in Paris.
SK What was it like living in Paris at that time?
SJ Exciting, wonderful. I took the opportunity to absorb as much art as I could, something I don’t think I had adequately done in New York. I went to every contemporary gallery and looked at everybody’s work and gave myself a visual education.
SK Who was “everybody” then?
SJ Well, there were artists from Japan, artists from Latin America, a lot of American and French artists. Most of them are unknown now, though Sam Francis came around ‘51 or ’52, and Joan Mitchell had already been there and would come back later, Jean-Paul Riopelle was there: a Canadian artist, one of the most generous artists I have known. There were other French Canadians too. And there was Alicia Penalba; Imai and Domoto, Japanese artists; Ellsworth Kelly, whom I didn’t know; Jack Youngerman, a close friend of mine; Zuka Middleberg, who also had come very early and has continued to live in Paris; Hugh Weiss; Charlie Semser. There was also a little group of black artists: Bill Rivers, Ed Clark. There was a going and coming that was vital, a cultural exchange that was very lively.
SK Did the American artists have a lot of contact with the French artists?
SJ There weren’t that many French artists who had contact with the American artists. I eventually became acquainted with a group whose work I followed; they were too media-wise and have more or less disappeared. That is something that I’m quite conscious of: styles and fashions and the ephemeral nature of success.
SK Yes, yes.
SJ Among those French artists, there was a group that was talked about and written about and kept in the public eye by certain critics. Neither those artists nor those critics have lasted. The critics seemed terribly important in the ‘50s and now people don’t even know who they were. It’s startling to me.
SK These are French critics?
SJ Yes. Julien Alvard, for instance, and Michel Tapié, and Charles Estienne. Alvard had a group around him that if I remember correctly were called Nuagistes. They were abstract artists whose work might evoke an inactive landscape, skies. One can still see paintings not too unlike theirs today. But they themselves are unknown today, unseen, as are the writers who wrote about them.
SK I guess it’s the way time filters. Memory is very short and gets shorter all the time.
SJ It gets very short. When you talk with students who don’t know enough about their own time, it becomes apparent that they don’t know what happened 20 years ago either. Often there is a repetition of the past in the work they do. I think they should be informed—not even necessarily brought to know the names, but to know the spirit of the works.
SK Yes, if young artists knew their sources, I think they would be able to extend what they’re doing.
SJ And go beyond listening to people who say there is nothing new to paint. Perhaps if they saw something that was even close to what they want to paint, they might know how to go beyond it.
SK Did you know Joan Mitchell very well?
SJ I knew her quite well.
SK She had a number of shows in New York this summer that were well received, and I think there’s a renewed respect for her work.
SJ I didn’t know it had died out.
SK I think that gestural, Abstract Expressionist paintings became too emblematic of the failure or the criticism of painting, which is part of the reason her work has not been appreciated for a long time.
SK Well, if there was a death of gestural painting, it was because people were no longer doing it out of a committed visual idea. There was a lot of repetition of movement. For Joan, gestural abstract painting was always real, always an adventure.
SK When I saw her shows, there was such a feeling of freedom that I really admired in her works. And I could appreciate that, but obviously it’s a specific vocabulary.
SJ There is an emphasis on the idea now, the concept. But I think it’s always there behind strong works. Joan wasn’t really willing to talk about her work. She had an attitude about what she wanted, and she certainly wouldn’t engage in any intellectual discourse about it.
SK Because of her belief in the act of painting, that paintings should speak for themselves?
SJ Perhaps. I agree with her that paintings should speak for themselves. But watching her paintings change, I sometimes wanted to question her about it, since at the same time I was trying to think of how to get out of my own mode of painting.
SK Were you also painting gesturally?
SJ Oh, yes.
SK When did the shift to geometry take place?
SJ When I went to Berlin, in the late ‘60s. I felt that my paintings were being read as landscapes. And that wasn’t my intention. I don’t think I was terribly clear about what my intention was, but I knew it wasn’t landscape. At any rate, I was reworking gestural painting and it seemed wrong. I had to start thinking about what I was doing.
SK What do you mean when you say reworking?
SJ I became aware that gesture as gesture was not sufficient for me. Something wasn’t working. I asked Joan, “What do you want when you are doing this or that?” The fact that I had this need to question created a certain tense atmosphere. She proclaimed that what she wanted was feeling in her painting, but for me the question was, Feeling about what? It wasn’t possible to have that kind of exchange with her at that point.
SK She was dogmatic, in other words?
SJ You could say that. At the same time she was stimulating and very vital. And around us at that time was Kimber Smith. He was beginning to have a reputation in Europe, in Switzerland particularly, and had a small following. And when he came back to the U.S. his work was largely ignored. It was terribly sad, because his work is specifically American. Cool gestural painting. I want to make that distinction. It has something to do with jazz, it is not hot emotional gesture—
SK It’s more distanced.
SJ Quite distanced. In that way it corresponds to something we might see now in French painting.
SK Such as?
SJ I’m thinking of Bernard Piffaretti and the kind of gesture he makes. It comes out of Matisse, who made works that built from something closely observed and arrived at a loose yet accurate touch. I think a lot of French artists have that touch.
SK I agree. It’s about the immediacy of the gesture.
SJ I call it visual accuracy.
SK These artists are loath to rework something. Once they put it down, it stays there.
SJ The idea of not reworking is interesting. Writers tend to rework a great deal. Look at Proust. But with visual artists there has become an ethic that the first mark is the mark of talent, of genius—
SK Of integrity, of honesty, yes. Well, I think it started out that way, but it’s falling into more of a slacker mentality now. Carelessness can be passed off as something more important, but it’s not that easy to do. It’s very difficult to be convincing.
Do you think there is a difference between French and American painting?
SJ I don’t think there is much difference now. Of course, I haven’t been back in America long enough to see what is really going on here. What the French do have is a marvelously instinctive sense of color. That seems to be a subtle difference. And they have a tendency to verbalize about their work.
SK Do you mean the French always have to have theory, a source outside the work?
SJ That’s exactly what I’m saying. For the French, it seems important to be able to give one’s work a verbal context and articulate one’s visual position.
SK I guess it’s because their culture is so literary. The French are preoccupied with language.
SJ Well, they’re forced to defend their ideas when they take their exams. They have to explain their work intellectually. I went to Cooper Union, and it never occurred to me that one had to verbally express what one was looking for or trying to do. It’s too bad, because I did eventually come face to face with a verbal culture. And as time has gone on, I’ve become more interested in defining for myself what I do.
SK Have your ideas changed over time?
SK What were your ideas initially?
SJ I don’t think I knew at the time. I’ve always been interested in breaking up space as a kind of compositional device, but I wasn’t really thinking about making a satisfying image. I looked recently at some of my very early works; I was so concerned with how I could break up that space that I didn’t think about the fact that I was also making a picture. It’s curious, a big blind spot.
SK You were interested in the process rather than the end result.
SJ Yes, but of course the end result mattered.
SK I think I see it even in your work of the last ten years. Your paintings become more and more resolved visually. But at the same time, you take a lot of chances.
SJ They have a more direct daring than I think they had before. But it’s much more conscious. That’s what’s quite exciting about continuing to live and paint. The element of chance, but also taking from experience. One has to constantly push some visual idea to unforeseen conclusions. It might start as an unconscious tendency but has to become a conscious force.
SK That’s the drive. And emotionality has been used to blanket whatever couldn’t be explained, but it’s a preconceived premise.
SJ Well, even those artists who were the most emotionally engaged had a lot of theoretical ideas. Van Gogh, for instance.
SK And the converse is somebody like Mondrian, whose works are considered so cool and distanced, and yet they’re very emotional.
SJ I saw a Mondrian show in Paris that was one of the most complete I’ve seen; it started with very early paintings. What you see in them is that each time he did a landscape, he did it in the style of his Dutch masters. It’s very conservative. But at the same time, he always chose an unusual perspective. There was an eye operating that had nothing to do with traditional painting. He would paint black-and-white cows in an idyllic Dutch landscape, but he would put the black and the white in a very unusual pattern. He would always make it interesting. He was always looking at art around him; there is a painting of a church facade that had to be influenced by his peers. Then when he moves on to his first attempts at the style we know as Mondrian, it comes as an enormous shock to see, because you realize that underneath all this almost staid respectability there has been something churning that made him keep moving.
SK We talked about your initial ideas; what are your ideas now?
SJ I am interested in non-centrality, coexistence, constant invention-making movements that are not repetitious but function together as a whole. There is always an element of non-belonging that holds everything together in tension. I don’t want a lyrical beauty. One could say I want to capture an unborn reality.
SK Who do you think are the important French artists, and why have they not gotten more attention internationally?
SJ Part of it is that the French don’t support themselves. French curators, French museum directors, French critics have never been overly interested in what French artists are doing—until recently. Now it almost a government program to actively sponsor French artists. Daniel Buren is, I think, an important French artist. He’s very intelligent; he has a kind of artistic intelligence that goes beyond theoretical verbalization, which he does as well. He’s thinking all the time. He’s moving, he takes chances.
SK Yes, he’s definitely one of the best artists coming out of France. Do you see yourself as an American painter or as a French painter?
SJ I don’t know anymore. (laughter) I had a very startling experience when I saw two little paintings of mine, done years ago, in somebody’s collection. A lot of the artists who were in this collection were from my generation, and I saw that I had been working against a current. I also saw that perhaps I was picking up on something that is still not yet fully developed, something of a certain French art of maybe the ‘20s and ’30s. It was just like a flash in my brain, a moment of insight. I’ve still gone on with my tunnel vision in terms of where I want to go, but at that moment I was seeing myself in perspective, almost historically. So I began to say, Now am I American or French or what?
SK But don’t you think your work can relate to that of someone such as Stuart Davis?
SJ Everybody tells me that. I wasn’t influenced by Stuart Davis at all.
SK But maybe Stuart Davis was influenced by French artists. So there’s the similarity.
SJ Maybe so. It’s quite possible. My insight into his work has only come relatively late, so I can’t see him as a source.
SK You once told me that you saw yourself closest to aligning with the Abstract Expressionists.
SJ Indeed, yes.
SK My first experience of seeing your work was the show that you had at Holly Solomon. I think that was in the late ’80s?
SJ In 1990. The real change in my work started when I came back from Berlin, in ‘68 or ’69. Prior to Berlin my paintings were gestural, with an all-over surface of strokes vaguely suggestive of relationships. In Berlin those gestures began to become more defined, often starting with compositional devices: criss-crosses, ovals, and so on. When I returned to Paris I dropped the gesture, painting flat, elementary compositions. By the time I showed at Holly’s my paintings were still flat but had become more inventive and complex.
SK How long were you in Berlin?
SJ A full year.
SK What was it about Berlin that changed your work?
SJ I think it was being in exile again, taking a distance from the art and the milieu that I had been a part of in Paris. And taking stock. I had a Ford Foundation grant and I was able to work and think in relative silence. When I came back to Paris, my paintings really started to change.
SK You seem to examine the elements in your paintings as parts. The eccentric shapes, lines, motifs and color are all treated individually, unconcerned with each other’s existence; they have an integrity of their own without succumbing to the whole, although their interaction also results in the integration of these parts.
SJ Each part is important.
SK There’s a very analytical aspect to your work, but at the same time it’s very playful. As a fellow painter, I see the way you think about boundaries and divisions in the space of the painting by how you treat all these individual elements.
SJ Well, in our world, everything has its importance. And for me there is not a great hierarchy. also want a diversity that isn’t linear. I don’t believe that one thing follows from another, and I don’t want a logical reading in my painting. I want the possibility of unpredictable change.
SK I think your paintings are never easy to figure out.
SJ But they are. I want every element to have a coexistence, if you like.
SK What do you think a painting can do?
SJ I would like painting to make people feel alive, have a sense of stimulation, of possibility.
SK That can be done in different ways—confrontation, for example. I think abstract paintings are always confrontational in the sense that people have to make sense of them, so while you can see it on just a formal level and appreciate the colors and the shapes and so forth, at the same time you have to think about what they may signify, which always makes the audience ill at ease.
SJ Well, and why not? The thing that worries me, though, is whether abstract painting has enough in it the way, say, great Renaissance painting has, in terms of continuing to be interesting. Can abstract painting meet that challenge? When I went to Italy and again saw Duccio and Cimabue and Giotto in that room with the Madonnas at the Uffizi—each one had a different way of dealing with the Madonna, and each way was stimulating and exciting. I was seeing it with abstract eyes. I could have reduced it to an abstract formula. But it also has the other human elements going on. I’ve often wondered about that. That is the challenge for abstract painting. Now, I have never wanted to make a figurative painting. It doesn’t interest me, although I see a lot in figuration that is very stimulating and gives me a lot of ideas.
SK Do you think it’s the fact that representational paintings always have an understandable content?
SJ Yes, but abstract painting does too.
SK It does, but they are abstract ideas.
SJ That’s a real question. I don’t know whether one really works from pure abstract ideas. I don’t know whether a painting that is purely abstract in its content has a sustainable vitality.
SK Well, for example, when you talk about not wanting your paintings to have any kind of logic, when you say that you’re not interested in a linear reading, that in itself is to most people—
SJ An abstract beginning.
SK Exactly. And when people look at figurative paintings, particularly from the Renaissance, it’s all about the narrative.
SJ I fault historians for that. You go to a museum and you hear somebody explaining the painting only in verbal and literary terms. They are never saying, Look, look at what that artist did! It’s deplorable to me. Even when they look at a Goya or a Velazquez, they don’t see the humor that the artist might have had in the way he placed the little dog or the cat. People are not sensitized to what pleasure they can have visually.
SK You were talking earlier about whether abstract painting can meet the challenge. That question in itself is sort of a challenge.
SJ Well, I don’t stop painting or go into figuration just because I think about that. I might be up against a blank wall, but I’m pushing it.
SK You once told me that one of the ways you develop your forms is by just looking at the street—for example, at how debris might be placed on the curb.
SJ Yes, I get influenced by things like that.
SK So you really look at the outside world to arrive at these forms and shapes.
SJ I don’t know to what extent they resolve themselves in a painting, but I’m very conscious that there are things I see that I want to remember, to use. Every now and then I’ve taken a camera with me, but it hasn’t worked.
SK What you remember and what you see in the photograph are never the same.
SJ No, not at all. And a photograph simplifies and flattens an instant.
SK Is your work received differently in Europe and America?
SJ I know in Paris I feel solitary. But at the same time I’m not. I sometimes have unexpected support. And I’m pleased when that happens. You asked me whether I consider myself a French or an American artist. Certain preoccupations, I think, are possibly European: the idea of getting to a certain conclusion, for instance, might be European. Not French, exactly, but something else. At the same time, the directness in my paintings is very American. You know, going to what I want to do without going around the corners, that is quite American. But after all, it doesn’t matter.
SK I know you keep in touch with a lot of younger artists. Do you think that you have more in common with younger artists than you do with artists of your generation?
SJ I don’t know. I don’t know what the young artists I’ve met are going to do, but they certainly have curious minds and broad culture. Young artists brought up with the computer and Internet who want to paint! Then there are the artists about ten years younger than I am, whom I consider my generation. Piffaretti, Viallat, Buraglio, and so on; a group of Americans as well.
SK What do you think of your life in France now?
SJ I spend more time alone in my studio. And no one meets the way we used to. I continue, however, to have friends and remain alert to whomever or whatever comes my way.
—Shirley Kaneda, a contributing editor of BOMB, is a painter living in New York. Her work is represented by Feigen Contemporary, New York, and she is an associate professor at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee