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Shirley Jaffe at the Centre Pompidou

A retrospective of the painter’s work brings a new appreciation for her apparently random, meticulously planned style

Joe Fyfe
August 12, 2022
Catherine Panchout/Sygma via Getty Images
Shirley Jaffe, pictured here in her Paris home and studio in 1995, said that she was not interested in beauty but in visual pleasureCatherine Panchout/Sygma via Getty Images
Catherine Panchout/Sygma via Getty Images
Shirley Jaffe, pictured here in her Paris home and studio in 1995, said that she was not interested in beauty but in visual pleasureCatherine Panchout/Sygma via Getty Images

There is a retrospective of the American artist Shirley Jaffe running through the end of August at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The exhibition travels to the Basel Kunstmuseum and then to Musee Matisse in 2023. Born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and raised in Brooklyn, Shirley lived and worked for most of her life on the Left Bank, at 8 Rue St. Victor, the last remnant of an old thoroughfare that Baron Haussman’s 19th-century renovations had cropped down to two short lengths. A Paris resident since 1948, she never applied for citizenship. She died there in 2016, just shy of her 93rd birthday.

Shirley Jaffe was the doyenne for a great number of American artists passing through what always seems to me simultaneously feudal and modernist Paris. In her later years, more and more of them climbed the slate stairs to her home, unevenly burnished by centuries of wear, and sat with her on the top floor garret where most of her life she just scraped by. In her last decade, her late success and very moderate fame brought an influx of visiting women artists from the U.S. It was flattering, she told me, that they sought her out, but she didn’t get much from the visits because she had not seen their work.

I think I can claim to have known her pretty well on the basis of the many dinners and studio visit afternoons I spent with her. I traveled to Paris fairly often during the past 20-odd years, and always looked her up. She would usually arrange for us to go to a French restaurant—I have never known a Parisian to suggest French food without first prodding them—because she knew I liked their traditional snails, confit de canard, etc. The second time we met she asked me flat-out what I thought of her painting and I fumbled for an answer, blindsided by the question, not yet understanding that it was characteristic of her.

While I liked her immediately, and admired her intelligence, her dedication, and her curiosity, I had problems with her paintings during most of our relationship. She brought this up often enough but I don’t think it impeded our friendship. Clearly, she could be blunt and confrontational, demonstrating that she remained a no-nonsense American (this also applied to her French, which she insisted on speaking with a “New Yawk” accent). Otherwise she was the most attendant and polite of conversationalists, a lone salonnière who had retained the manner of her original milieu, the postwar generation of American artists in Paris: Sam Francis, Norman Bluhm, Al Held, George Sugarman, Joan Mitchell, and the equally important but lesser-known Kimber Smith. They affected the glibness of taxi drivers and were forward and argumentative (French artists called this pooshy).

Around 2000 I had begun writing regularly for Art in America, which she read religiously, to keep up with what was happening in the U.S and elsewhere and because my editor there, Raphael Rubinstein and Jaffe were very close friends and he had written many essays on her work. One insight of the many that came from our conversations was produced from her reading a feature I wrote on Al Held’s recent work, which I had compared in the article to the pictorial structure of 19th-century American landscape painting. She took great exception to this comparison, explaining that Al, like her, had worked hard to rid their pictures of any unaccounted for simulated depths, that every square inch must be determined and fought for.

The problem I had with Shirley’s work at first is that she inhabited exactly the attitude I had abandoned. I remember a conversation with her where she said that she wanted the complications of life to replicate in her work, its contradictions, its problems, and her process was putting these discrepancies in opposition to one another within the canvas and resolving them towards a kind of satisfying truce. My response was that after a long period accepting that the making of a painting of any merit was going to involve a struggle, what I had found among some of the work I had come across in Paris was a new attitude, that, one could choose what one wanted from an unlimited range of options -- that painting could be understood as an area with its own rules, another world completely. That is what I found so liberating about what I was finding there. The interesting question was, and I had found this question being asked by the works of French painters more than those in New York, what exactly was this thing you were working on? How are the rules broken? Our discussions often went on that way, where new exhibitions that featured an artist that had reduced the painting act to a single trope in the spirit of what might be called “the inherent sufficiency of limited artistic choices” would be praised by me and qualified by her.

Then there was the issue of her works on paper, which she largely would not show, and she knew I liked better than the paintings, saying “you just like them because they are more painterly,” not understanding how the paintings were the point. Maybe I understand them better now.

This second generation of American abstract expressionists in Paris was so confident in being heirs to the invention of a new language of painting that they willfully ignored the Parisian art scene that surrounded them. They weren’t trying to please anybody but themselves. After most of them left, Shirley stayed on and became almost a French painter, but also adamantly not.

Americans came to Paris in droves after the Second World War on the GI Bill. Paris was cheap, as was the education in some very good schools, in which you had to enroll to get the money. Shirley came with her husband, who was there to study sociology at the Sorbonne. She had gone to Cooper Union and was already an artist. The earliest works in the retrospective, from 1952, date from a few years after their arrival: gestural abstractions, made with swipes of paint, some dry drags, some wet squishes of various colors. It is clear that early on she could paint abstractly, that she could organize seemingly random, arbitrary strokes into something anyone could recognize as pictorial in an all-over composition: no emphasis on any particular area. There was a scaffolding of disbursement that one had to establish along the way by building on what went down before. That is pretty much how it was done, but it was also not as simple as it sounds. Al Held once tried to make me understand what it was like at that time: He said, “Look, there were about 20 people in the world that knew how to look at an abstract painting. One of us would have a show and one of the others would go up to their painting and point to one brushstroke and say, ‘What the hell is that?’”

'Arcueil Yellow,' (1956) on show during 'Une Americaine à Paris' at Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2022

‘Arcueil Yellow,’ (1956) on show during ‘Une Americaine à Paris’ at Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2022Foc Kan/WireImage

Shirley later said that something had bothered her about this free improvisation: The picture always seemed to be some kind of landscape. As this very thorough exhibition progresses through Shirley’s 1950s production, partial solutions based on modernists like Sonia and Robert Delaunay and Wassily Kandinsky come to the fore, as if she was looking at past nonobjective painting through to its present problems. “The Plume,” for example, from 1957, is an inventory of marks and colors, of going back and forth with thicker, loamy, and then dry paint, alternating surface textures with shimmering transparencies. There appears an uncertainty as to where to stop and start. Her ’50s paintings are significant in making clear one of her chief characteristics: the opposite of simplifying painting, as Matisse’s teacher, Gustave Moreau, predicted of him. In Shirley Jaffe’s case, there appears a desire to complicate it, which became a key element in her practice.

Shirley dug in. She looked for a struggle. She wanted to synthesize diverse elements as much as possible—in addition to the disparate coloring and tonal changes, she varied marking with scrapes and palette knifings as well as brushing. She pushed and pushed. In the early work it was textures, applications, and brushstrokes, later it was in as great a diversity of shapes and colors as she could manage. Each picture was a unique problem and because of this there were never more than eight or nine paintings finished per year.

I remember a conversation I had with her about a young, and it seemed to me enormously talented, French painter who was always able to produce a new, extensive body of interesting paintings and sculptures. She said she felt sorry for him, that he had never found a way to be substantially engaged in his work, which was why he overproduced.

Shirley’s first solo exhibition was in 1955. She also exhibited with Americans Kimber Smith and Sam Francis at the American Cultural Center in Paris, with an accompanying text by Basel Kunsthalle director Arnold Rüdlinger, who later showed her in Basel and formed a collector base for her and helped establish her first contract with a commercial gallery there. This is the significance, in part, of the retrospective stopping in Basel. Another is for its affinities with concrete art, which had many Swiss adherents dispensing with subjective references and painting solid geometries of color.

By the 1960s there were fewer Americans coming to Paris. Shirley had recently divorced and was to live alone from then on. A Ford Foundation grant allowed her to spend 18 months in Berlin, meeting painters, including Emilio Vedova, a very forceful gestural and angular painter, and interestingly, the composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis, both of whom made musique concrete. There was a turning point in her work in Berlin—it became less organic, more frontal. There was less implied depth: looking more like a jammed suitcase seen from above, the plane of the pictures pieced together with broken and elongated bars, stripes and angles. The earlier evocative titles like “Arcueil Yellow” and “The Waves” gave way to solid, geometric designations: “Big Y,” “The Red Diamond,” and “Big Square.”

Shirley’s exposure to Xenakis may have provided a conceptual baseline. His first major orchestral work, “Metastaesis,” from 1955, has been described as a meticulously planned form of sonic chaos. Xenakis’ composition was inspired by the sounds of an anti-fascist rally that occurred in his native Greece at the end of the war, and utilized musical concepts originating in mathematics and architecture, particularly the modular principles of Le Corbusier, with whom Xenakis spent time working. Xenakis learned from Le Corbusier to think of mathematical proportion visually, and was already thinking of music in terms of sound masses and shapes. He described his music as involving trying to get from one place to another from within this ordered chaos without breaking the continuity.

I certainly didn’t think earlier of Xenakis being a way into her work. This is one of the great values of retrospectives and the information in the catalogs, including that on her return to Paris she took photographs of the old Gare Montparnasse under demolition. It might have been utilized as a kind of model for a disruption amidst built structures, on which she could base paintings.

In her lifetime, comparisons were often made to the American color cubist Stuart Davis, or even at moments the paintings and murals of Le Corbusier and Ozenfant. In every case, this was superficial; her work always strove for a more complex syntax. Ultimately I perceive her painting as something conceptual rather than imitative. In one of the interviews in the catalog, she admits that what she got from French culture was a clearer conception of what she was doing. Strong painting, in the end, doesn’t come from just looking at other paintings your whole life but finding an interesting problem, one that will sustain you. She benefited from the endless discussions one has in Paris about painting—which were among the great treasures of an international fine arts culture that is waning and has been further reduced by her absence.

By the time Shirley returned from Berlin, the paintings became clearly made up of flat color areas. She was beginning to design, or maybe it is better to say engineer, a painting as she progressed, with a calculus that transformed what were merely loose gestures into shapes. “Untitled 1968” (list of works No. 162), is made up of mostly rectangles, triangles, half-discs, and drawn circles in a slightly airy, still slightly brushy midtone range, at this point, but there is an unpredictable oxblood-brown rectangle in the upper corner that seems to squeeze out its dark incongruity amid the ensemble, revealing itself quietly. I don’t know if this was a eureka moment for her, but it was for me. She had thoroughly understood the all-over painting, and wanted to figure out how to get from one painted shape, with its individual color, makeup, and “personality” to the next within the picture, without breaking the continuity.

From here on, for 48 years, came refinements, further explorations, and variations. All the works are hard-won, and surreptitious scrapings and revisions abound. If I were to make comparisons with other visual art, I would name two things: one which she mentions, Japanese prints, which are a key modernist source. In her case, we see her inspired by how they animate subtle shifts of blocks of color amid pattern and arabesque while maintaining a consistent foreground. The other is the late Georges Braque, who worked on paintings sometimes for years, attempting to synthesize deep textural and haptic shifts.

Around this time, the late ’60s, she got her first important Paris gallery, Jean Fournier, who was also the most artistically influential gallerist in postwar France. She remained there until 1999. Fournier represented many of the most important painters in France at that time, Simon Hantaï, and Jean Degottex, as well as some Americans, Sam Francis, James Bishop and Joan Mitchell, who was one of the few Americans of that postwar generation who continued to mostly stay there, and a younger generation of French artists, notably Claude Viallat, of the support/surface movement. This is the most impressive group of painters in one gallery I think I have ever heard. She held her own there among some outsized egos, and with limited support from some of the other artists. She was close to Joan Mitchell, but there were limits.

Shirley, wonderfully, and unusually, wasn’t a narcissist, nor a megalomanic, nor did she have a big ego. Her survival was a testament to a simple curiosity. It involved a tenacious focus on what could be discovered in her work, buffeted, challenged, and defined by the art and artists that surrounded her. Al Held had returned to the U.S. early, but remained her close friend throughout his life. He did comment to me one time that, “Shirley chose to have an elegant life.” What he may have meant is that she chose an alternative to the bigger stakes market of the New York art world, but my impression was there was not exactly a choice involved. A number of artists I have known there who are not French simply found themselves not leaving, because enough of a career had begun, or they didn’t want to interrupt their work, or they couldn’t afford to.

Shirley’s career advanced with the help of Jean Fournier, but she was never a big seller, though there were more placements in museums and some exhibitions elsewhere. This was the case when she began showing with Holly Solomon in New York, too. In 1999 she left Fournier for Nathalie Obadia gallery, where she began making some real money for the first time in her life. I was shocked when she told me that it took years to pay back the stipends she had been forwarded by Jean Fournier during her time with his gallery. She had been living close to the bone for decades.

At this moment, years later, these issues may seem esoteric or even quaint, and the idea of her retrospective may amount to more of an acknowledgment of her achievement as a lone woman artist, but from her point of view, it would only be fitting to have it be about the work. The writer Jean Rhys once described her attitude toward literature as being a large body of water and her being a rivulet feeding it. This would be Shirley’s attitude, that it is the contribution toward painting, in the largest sense, that is the point of her work.

It occurred to me recently, listening to Xenakis’ music, that although he progressed to electronic music later, in pieces such as “Metastaesis” he wrote individual scores for each of the 61 instruments, some of which, of course, are hundreds of years old. Similarly, Shirley insisted on the finished versions of her paintings. She said that she finalized them with tiny brushes, not mentioning that this was how easel paintings all used to be finished. She was orchestrating the very contemporary state of chaos, using modernist shapes and colors, but insisted on an unambiguous visuality. The detailed, or rather careful, finish finely tuned the painting. She was aware of the single most important aspect of making a painting, its continuity, its modulation from one surface area to the next.

There is a French term, tableau, that in one of its traditional uses, meant a fully realized or accomplished painting, there is no exact translation. In the pre-Revolution Ecole de Beaux-Arts, it meant that one had completed one’s apprenticeship, and had painted a tableau. Diderot, the first notable art critic, gave it more specific qualities, but in general, one might describe the history of modern painting as a revolt against the tableau, or the most radical attenuation of one. As I surrender my long misunderstanding of Shirley Jaffe’s work to what I hope is a very late understanding, I would submit that her intention was to paint tableau, to make a work both fully accomplished and contemporarily challenging. If only she were here to hear me say this. She would most likely disagree on some point, and we would have a lively argument over dinner.

Joe Fyfe is a painter living in New York who often writes on art. He is working on a biography of John Coplans.