The abstract paintings of Shirley Jaffe delight not least because of
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
and quizzical cut-out shapes will depend on the value that is placed
and reach—that is to say, on the acceptance of precedent and its
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
Mondrian. Still, Jaffe is her own woman. Try to dissect one of the paintings.
It’s impossible. Integration, not appropriation, typifies her engagement
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
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
palette and loping, playful rhythms suggest sources outside the imagination.
Jaffe’s abstractions are elaborations on observed phenomena—among
items the artist has cited as visual stimulants are people, architecture
all things, pinball machines. Don’t mistake the paintings for Utopian
Experience is Jaffe’s true subject. The impurity of lived events
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
The Ringling School of Art. Naves’ column on the visual arts, “Currently
has appeared weekly in The New York Observer since 1999.
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