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Mario Naves

Shirley Jaffe


The abstract paintings of Shirley Jaffe delight not least because of the provocative question they entertain: What does it mean to be a Modernist painter in the twenty-first century?
          How provocative you find Jaffe’s bumptious arrays of clean, bold colors and quizzical cut-out shapes will depend on the value that is placed on continuity and reach—that is to say, on the acceptance of precedent and its ultimate transformation.
          An American in Paris since 1949, Jaffe is unapologetic about divulging her artistic resources. The work is unimaginable without the brash angularity of Stuart Davis, the figurative impulses informing Jean Hélion’s abstractions, and the stern and bracing hedonism of Henri Matisse and Piet Mondrian. Still, Jaffe is her own woman. Try to dissect one of the paintings. It’s impossible. Integration, not appropriation, typifies her engagement with tradition. The paintings are fresh for all their borrowings or, rather, because of their borrowings. Individuality is made stronger through the (hardly reverent) assimilation of historical example.
          Jaffe brings an oblique coherence to odd, fractured and what often seem to be ephemeral moments. The clatter of jutting boxes, wandering calligraphy and nestling rectangles in Bruit d’ete (2001) has an out-of-thecorner- of-one’s-eye rush and spontaneity. Four Squares Black (1993) pictures an omnipresent entity, a banana-yellow splay of lines, hovering above a tumult of overlapping events.
          The specificity—indeed, eccentricity—of Jaffe’s cobbled shapes, crisp palette and loping, playful rhythms suggest sources outside the imagination. Jaffe’s abstractions are elaborations on observed phenomena—among the items the artist has cited as visual stimulants are people, architecture and, of all things, pinball machines. Don’t mistake the paintings for Utopian projects. Experience is Jaffe’s true subject. The impurity of lived events is welcome even if it isn’t necessarily presented in a forthright manner.

MARIO NAVES is an artist, teacher and critic. Naves’ collages are shown at the Elizabeth Harris Gallery in New York and Allyn Gallup Contemporary Art in Sarasota, FL. He has taught at Pratt Institute, the New York Studio School and The Ringling School of Art. Naves’ column on the visual arts, “Currently Hanging,” has appeared weekly in The New York Observer since 1999.

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