Jane E’er: Wilson and Freilicher Ascendent

The friends were two of the very last of a glittering and venerated generation of artists and writers
In a Douglas Rodewald photograph from 1957, Jane Freilicher, left, holds up a corner of her painting “Opening Night” while Jane Wilson holds up the other.

There’s an arresting image in the Parrish Art Museum’s exhibition “Seen and Unseen: Jane Freilicher and Jane Wilson” currently on view in Water Mill. Painted by Freilicher in 1981, “The Changing Scene” presents a likeness of the artist drawing back the curtain on a field torn up by bulldozers, prepped for yet another house to block her home and studio’s once expansive view.

When the names of Freiicher and Wilson are brought up in a South Fork context, they usually evoke a world of ’60s beach parties, fueled with alcohol, cigarettes, and bons mots. Both born in 1924, the friends were two of the very last of a glittering and venerated generation of artists and writers left standing before their deaths just a few weeks apart last winter. These circumstances drew an odd parallel to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two holdouts from another iconic generation who both died within a few hours of each other on July 4, 1826, just shy of a century before the artists’ birth.

Freilicher and Wilson have yet to achieve the august notoriety of those early Americans. Yet they were full members of an artistic, literary, and cultural scene responsible for some of the most acclaimed art of their time and of any other. That their work had a more naturalistic or illusionistic approach at a time when such choices were deemed “old hat,” as Freilicher once put it, was to their detriment in terms of what defines traditional art world success. Yet they were always exhibited, respected by their peers, and appreciated by a group of collectors less concerned with fashion than with what makes a good painting.

The allusion to Federal period America is anachronistic, but in the context of Freilicher’s painting, appropriate. Her gesture in “The Changing Scene” is a familiar one from art history, made famous by Charles Wilson Peale, an early American artist and founder of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. His version, “The Artist in His Museum,” shows him raising the curtain on his galleries and the art displayed. There is a sense of pride and wonder in the gesture.

With Freilicher’s grim face and clutched paintbrushes, one can see the bitter parallel she is drawing. It’s serious and ironic at the same time, channeling outrage into satire. The gambit is fitting for an artist whose personality has been described as wry, witty, sly, and earnest, including in Karin Roffman’s essay for the exhibition. Ms. Roffman noted that eventually Freilicher, famous for her sharply observed letters to her poet friends, would realize that her best paintings incorporated an innate literary quality, an essence she termed “her handwriting.”

The show at the Parrish has quite a few arresting moments in its rooms broken down into genres: landscapes in the double gallery on the north side with portraits and still lifes in each of the two south galleries. In East Hampton, the Drawing Room gallery includes both artists in a show rounded out with large paintings by Robert Dash and ink drawings by Fairfield Porter.

In the early years of their South Fork summer rentals with their spouses, the couples shared a house and the wives a studio. The installation of landscapes, which places the artists side-by-side or in small groupings, doesn’t highlight this. Wilson’s landscapes are all from a later time, and “The Mallow Gatherers” from 1958 is the only one by Freilicher included from the period. Wilson’s “John at the Piano” is from the same year, but because of the different genre, is not near the other painting. 

That’s really the only fault of the museum’s show, which follows a tradition of memorial exhibitions that were more common in previous decades. In these artists’ formative years, there were two memorial exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art that were hugely influential to their peers, those of Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse. Bonnard’s show would become a major inspiration in Freilicher’s work, and her affinity for his style of painting would have likely cemented her friendship with Porter, who was also greatly influenced by him.

While not a memorial show, the 1961 Mark Rothko exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art was revelatory for Wilson, as noted in Alicia Longwell’s essay for he exhbition catalog. “Some 30 years later she recalled that within the rectangle of his canvas was a vast world that made her ‘think about landscape in the sense that it was basically a horizontal series of balances and floating volumes . . . a density of air.’ ” Air and atmosphere were key elements in her treatments of landscape, factors at play in both her experience of the South Fork and her childhood in Iowa among vast stretches of flat fields and tall expanses of sky. Her low horizons might allude to water or land but are essentially blips in the dominance of firmament.

Rothko was always the elephant in the room in thinking about Wilson’s work. It is almost too facile to bring up his name in conjunction with her work and vexing to think that someone would see her landscapes and dismiss them as derivative when so much more is happening there. Where Rothko appears to be nullifying subject and space, Wilson affirms both in deep colors and rich texture. 

Her earlier landscapes contained more detail, more clouds, more whitecaps, more sea grass, but even her later, more abstract paintings are not devoid of content. Her paintings always feel like landscapes no matter how truncated or how green, in the case of one of the Drawing Room’s paintings.

The earlier studio views, still lifes of apples and onions, and portraits, including one of Andy Warhol from the Whitney Museum of American Art, round out the picture of an artist’s development over time and the search for (and ultimate settling upon) subject. Wilson may have diverted course from time to time after she locked in on her layered landscapes, but it could not have been from boredom. The variety she found in these fictive and remembered views seems endless, only limited by her imagination, which is a way of saying not limited at all.

The Drawing Room brings together works on paper and some of the smaller paintings. This show seems to favor Freilicher in its selections, particularly on paper, where a sepia ink drawing, “Pheasant Quill Landscape” from 1992, is a show stopper, benefiting from an intimacy and immediacy also apparent in other works on view. Wilson still makes a strong showing, but her seven works on paper at the Parrish land a more powerful punch. Her three watercolors at the Drawing Room are more ethereal and delicate. 

Wilson’s 18-square-inch paintings dominate the small back gallery, benefiting from the coziness of the space in a way that exposes another weakness in the Parrish installation. The cavernous room that houses both artists’ landscapes tends to swallow them up and diminish the impact of their gestures, best experienced in close proximity.

Also in the Parrish’s spine gallery are a number of photographs of the artists and their circle, both in city and country, taken primarily by John Jonas Gruen, Wilson’s husband. They are the physical embodiment of every myth or legend of those long-gone summers, proof that the Olympians of that time did indeed exist and frolicked in bacchanals on that once pristine strand. Portraits of the artists by other artists and poems and drawings round out the full examination of their lives and the extent of their circle. It’s a full document and one that could have filled the entire museum given the length of their careers, the glamour of their lives (Wilson helped support her family by being a fashion model), and the quality of their work.

What keeps coming up when people have gathered recently to discuss Freilicher and Wilson is how the current generation of young artists, unburdened by the strictures of Formalism, fully appreciate their achievements in painting. Let’s hope that they make the pilgrimage to Water Mill and find inspiration the way young artists paid tribute to those MoMA memorials of a previous century.

The Parrish exhibition is on view through Jan. 18; the Drawing Room show closes on Dec. 7.

Jane Freilicher’s “Pheasant Quill Landscape‚” from 1992.Jenny Gorman for the Drawing Room
Jane Freilicher’s undated oil “Untitled (Mecox Bay),” Jenny Gorman for the Drawing Room
Jane Wilson’s 1964 oil on linen “View From Seven Ponds Bridge,”Jenny Gorman for the Drawing Room
An oil from 1983, Jane Wilson’s “Rain on Avenue B,”
Jane Freilicher’s “Flowers and Pine Trees,”
Jane Wilson's 1981 oil, “Seven Green Apples,” from the Parrish Art Museum permanent collection.
A photograph taken by John Jonas Gruen in Water Mill in 1959 includes many players from the New York art scene. Front row: Robert Rauschenberg, Steven Rivers (standing), Larry Rivers, Herbert Machiz, Grace Hartigan (lying down), and John Myers. Back row: Maxine Groffsky, Joe Hazan, Mary Abbott, Jasper Johns, Sondra Lee, Jane Freilicher, Roland Pease, and Tibor de Nagy.