ROCK, PAPER, SCISSORS:
The Whites of Shirley JAFFE
By Gwenaël Kerlidou, September 16, 2022
Shirley Jaffe, An American Woman in Paris
Pompidou Center, Paris, 4/20 - 8/29/2022
It is not too usual for a painter’s first posthumous retrospective to take place in another country than his/her country of birth, but one may think of Pablo Picasso or Willem de Kooning as good examples of exceptions to the rule. In Shirley Jaffe’s (1923-2016) case, it may be fitting that her first full career retrospective would be in Paris, France, where she spent most of her adult life as an artist, was well respected, receiving multiple public commissions, while being barely acknowledged in the US.
With her compatriots Ellsworth Kelly, Sam Francis, Joan Mitchell, James Bishop, Kimber Smith, Norman Blum, Jack Youngerman, and countless others, she was part of a generation of young Americans who came to Paris right after World War II, with the help of the GI Bill; A historical moment first examined in the 1988 exhibition « Des américains à Paris » at the Fondation du château de Jau, in the south of France, and soon to be revisited in “Americans in Paris, 1946-62”, at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery in New York , due to open in early 2024. With Mitchell, Francis and Bishop, some of the other American expat painters who spent significant parts of their artistic career in France, she was represented for years by the Jean Fournier gallery in Paris.
Jaffe settled there, not so much because she was particularly interested in the local art scene (she could be quite dismissive of French habits, while at the same time being very open to younger artists in Paris), but because it gave her enough distance from her own cultural context and from the pressures of the NY art scene, so that she could develop her own voice. That distance and hard-earned independence allowed her to adopt a very improbable position in the narrative of Postwar American Abstraction.
When she arrived in Paris, she still fully embraced the Ab-Ex credo, but her paintings while quite strong did not set her apart enough from early Joan Mitchells, Phillip Gustons or De Koonings. Through the 60s to the late 70s, she slowly transitioned to thinner paint, brighter colors, and more defined shapes. Already in her fifties, mixing the geometric and the biomorphic, with hard-edge paintings of seemingly randomly organized shapes separated by expanses of white, she emerged from that long transitional period as a full-fledged master of her own idiom, each painting an unpredictable but strangely understandable surprise.
In the shift from Abstract Expressionism to her mature style, she distanced herself from a kind of painting driven by internal conflict to a painting driven by external disjunction, where the ego would become secondary to the reflection of a dysfunctional world. Whether she would admit it or not, she moved away from a German Romantic world view (and from its idea of the sublime) which pervaded Abstract Expressionism, towards a more “cartesian” approach where, instead of a tormented ego, the artist is, first and foremost, an eye and a mind observing and commenting on the world, possibly a return of the repressed Gallic culture through the back door.
From Abstract Expressionism, instead of moving toward Minimalism or Pop art, as many Americans of her generation would, Jaffe avoided Serialism, Reductivism and self-referentiality like the plague; something which would certainly have been difficult to understand in the New York art scene of the 70s. When Frank Stella insisted on rejecting relational painting, she doubled back on it instead. A true Modernist, she was a firm believer in the power of creating new forms. But she seemed to fall back on a kind a post-cubist space, a development possibly difficult to accept at the time, with an understanding of Modernist evolution as formal progress, especially when formal progress was so narrowly defined by either embrace or rejection of Clement Greenberg’s precepts. Was this really a step backward, as some may have thought then, or a sign that something else was at stake?
What she did was to turn the spatial discontinuity of Cubist collage into a smooth continuous context. She inverted the terms of the cubist equation. In her work the Cubist unity of figure and discontinuity of space became discontinuity of figure and unity of space. In a very democratic approach, the contrasts in shapes and colors, the shifts in scale, the decentering of the image, the unresolved conflicts, the painting-within-the-painting, the ambiguities, the disruptions were all given equal voices, equal weight, and equal time, so much so that it sometimes felt as if she tried to compress multiple paintings into a single image.
But beyond the principles of collage, her encounter with Iannis Xenakis and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s concrete music on a Berlin residency in 1964, while she was losing faith in Ab Ex values, might have provided the model for the organized cacophony type of painting that she would later pursue.
In a 2010 interview with Eric Suchère, Jaffe kept insisting on the role of “tension” in her work: tension between shapes, color relations, figure and ground, tension in her way of applying paint, and more generally in the close attention given by the painter to the painting.
A particularly telling remark, because tension was such an overdetermined term in French post-cubist criticism; meant to imply that all parts of the picture plane jostled forward against background depth, in a tense state of balance with each other. But Jaffe imbued that post-cubist definition with a sort of psychological twist and a pinch of humor. The forms and colors in her paintings are charged with a subjective load which turned her paintings into a kind of comedy of formalist desires, with oblique whiffs of Pop Art.
Robert Kushner may well have put his finger on the central issue of Jaffe’s work, when he asked Frederic Paul, the show’s curator, what he thought of the use of the white in her work. To which Paul replied jokingly: “It’s the rock, the paper and the scissors, all at once”. Kushner interpreted Paul’s answer as meaning that in her paintings the white played all kinds of different roles, such as “ground, form, interruption, linkage”, to which I would add that there isn’t a single unified white but as many whites as there are paintings. Jaffe’s white is not an ideal neutral blank space sitting behind the shapes; it is co-planar with them. More than providing an abstract space for conflicts to develop, in each of her paintings it is each white which defines the place where they happen.
For comparison, let’s bring in Imi Knoebel’s “Messerschnitte” (knife cuts) collages from 1977-80, a series of works on paper with irregular shapes in primary colors randomly scattered on a white background, some of which might evoke Jaffe’s strategies. What separates the two bodies of work, is the way they acknowledge and criticize Matisse’s late paper cut-outs. Even though she seemed to be formally closer to Matisse, Jaffe operated from the opposite end of his humanist harmony. She spoke from the viewpoint of heterogeneity, where meaning is to be found in conflict and contradiction (even if with a grain of salt). The true reason of the tension in her work is that- no doubt thanks to that grain of salt, she managed to keep contradiction within the realm of modernist humanism.
On the other hand, Knoebel and his generation’s post-modernist response will be to break away from Matisse’s humanism with strategies of doubt and distancing. The irony being that the post-modernists still seemed to subscribe to the Supremacist version of the white background as blank page and clean slate free of its past history, in other words as an idealist, utopic harbinger of new beginnings.
She was likely much more interested in Wassily Kandinsky’s itinerary from expressionist to geometric abstraction, which her own evolution seemed to echo, than in Matisse -or Stuart Davis, for that matter. About her work, at some point, Frederic Paul also mentions the post-cubist abstractions of Alberto Magnelli (1888-1971), who was considered by many in the Paris of the fifties as the true heir to Kandinsky.
While she was looking at the early Kandinsky from the 20s and 30s, the dynamics of generational friendships temporarily nudged her in the camp of the Pattern and Decoration movement in the late 70s and early 80s. In the 90s she was perceived as having affinities with the likes of Jonathan Lasker, Thomas Nozkowski, or Charline Von Heyl. Now, in hindsight and with her sometimes cartoonish shapes, like Nicholas Krushenick, she could also be understood as a precursor of the Pop-Abstraction of the 90s, and perhaps it is because she has proved especially hard to pin down that she turned into the ultimate example of a painter’s painter.
If she was extensively championed by such respected French writers as Yves Michaud, Eric de Chassey, Frédéric Paul and Eric Suchère, her presence in the American art psyche is much narrower. Who knows what would have happened to her in the US, if Raphael Rubinstein had not been there to defend her work right from the beginning? Even with the help of Rubinstein’s writing, most of the critical corpus on her work is still in French, and it is puzzling that so few of these texts have made it in English.
I tend to think that her stature of rebellious irrelevance (my term) will only grow with time. Her main accomplishment is that she obstinately pointed out to an alternate path for abstract painting outside the purist idealism of reductive abstraction. With a remarkable independence of thought, she articulated an improbable but convincing fusion of Expressionism, Post-Cubism, Geometric Abstraction and Pop Art, while at the same time emphasizing their respective limitations and vouching for continuity rather than rupture in the progression of Modernity. Not a minor achievement.