Shirley Jaffe emerged from the crucible of gestural abstraction with an approach to painting that has given her maximum formal freedom within fairly constant material conditions. A smooth-edge (rather than hard-edge) painter, she fills each one of her canvases with arrays of flat, discontinuous shapes (geometric, biomorphic, linear, allusive, ideal, familiar, eccentric, graceful, clunky) in which the color experiments of classic 20th century abstraction are pushed to new levels of creative discord and strange harmony. Frequently inspired by momentary glimpses of urban landscapes, or visual memories, her paintings undergo a long process of correction and adjustment as shapes change contour and color, or disappear completely, until absolute autonomy and tight choreography coincide.
When I interviewed Jaffe for The Brooklyn Rail in 2010, she described her approach as a turn away from “singularity” in favor of a “general congestion of events.” This rejection of singularity, which I take to mean both paintings dominated by single forms and paintings built out of repeated elements, is evident even in Jaffe’s early work, the gestural paintings she made in the 1950s. Unlike many of the painters around her, who employed somewhat modular motifs, she was interested in a plurality of forms and mark-making.
In the mid-1960s, during a sojourn in Berlin, Jaffe began to distance herself from gestural painting, thanks in part to her discovery of the music of contemporary composers such as Xenakis and Stockhausen. One thing she didn’t like about her gestural canvases was their suggestion of landscape. Since then, the built environment has been a central inspiration. But hers is a city transformed into an independent visual universe. Slow to be made (as French philosopher Yves Michaud has chronicled in a 1985 essay on Jaffe titled “Histoire d’un tableau”), Jaffe’s paintings also need time to be fully absorbed. (Michaud’s text has recently been reprinted by French publisher Lienart in L’art comme expérience: Shirley Jaffe & pratiques contemporaines, a collection of essays largely devoted to Jaffe’s work.) And maybe they can never be completely comprehended; something about the constantly shifting ensemble of parts and whole will always escape the viewer’s attempts to grasp it.
While Jaffe’s work has long been highly visible in galleries (Tibor de Nagy in New York, Nathalie Obadia in Paris, Gerta Meert in Brussels), and in French museums, not nearly enough has been done to think about her work broader contexts. In the U.S., she is too often seen as “an American in Paris,” a label that may be historically accurate but one which misses possible connections to artists as diverse as Kim MacConnel, Tony Cragg, Bernard Piffaretti, Trevor Winkfield, Jessica Stockholder and Jonathan Lasker. And even within the realm of expatriate American artists there is still much to be done around her work, especially to examine how Jaffe and two other artists who went to Paris after the Second World War (sculptor George Sugarman and painter Norman Bluhm) rethought the legacy of Matisse in three distinctive bodies of work.
Considered as a whole or seen canvas by canvas, Jaffe’s art is a testament to “the human variety” (to borrow a phrase from postwar sociologist C. Wright Mills). While so many contemporary works of art seem to develop through closing off choices or sticking to a initial plan, Jaffe proceeds by keeping every option open until the last possible moment. And even once the painting is finished, a sense of dizzying complexity and joyous invention sustain this openness. For me, I usually know a painting is worth looking at when I feel an intense curiosity about every decision that has gone into its making. That’s how I feel in front of Jaffe’s work: tantalized by countless questions, patiently waiting for the painting to “answer” them, even as new curiosity-inducing relationships keep surging up, prolonging to apparent infinity this perfect fusion of thinking and looking.