It might be said for the most part, given the dominant ideology of Modernism, Shirley Jaffe has been overlooked for the standard reasons—her work was out of step with the times, it was derivative of Henri Matisse and Stuart Davis, it was too French, or too American—all according to who you speak with. Yet the gorilla in the room is she was an American woman of the post-war generation who had stayed on after almost everyone had gone home, who sought to get a foothold in the male dominated Parisian art world. Despite this, she persisted and gained respect and support among multi-generations of artists. As such she developed a reputation as an artists’ artist, yet despite her boosters and the fact that she is now being acknowledged with a retrospective exhibition at the Pompidou, Jaffe remains one of the best kept secrets of post-War abstract painting in France and remains unacknowledged in the States.
I was lucky enough to be in Paris this spring, to see Shirley’s retrospect at the Pompidou. I was also lucky enough to have known her, having been sent to her by Raphael Rubinstein when I was doing research on post-war American artists in Paris. I was told she was the one person I must meet and whose work I must come to know. It turned out Shirley was the quintessential American artist in Paris. After our initial meeting every-time I was in Paris in the mid-90s – 2010s, I would visit her at her spartan 5th floor walk-up studio on the rue Saint-Victor in the 5th arrondissement, where she lived and worked until she died in 2016. From these conversations I learned Shirley had an acute eye and critical perspective that she applied to her own work, as she did to others.
Jaffe’s life story reads like a novel. Her husband, Irving Jaffe, was the White House correspondent for Agence France-Presse in the 1940s. They moved to Paris in 1949, when her husband was transferred there. Jaffe would come to sublet Louise Bourgeois’s studio, which was on the same street as Joan Mitchell. Though they were rivals, both Jaffe and Mitchell would later come to be represented by Galerie Fournier, one of the most important contemporary galleries in Paris of the post-War era. Jaffe would also come to be close with other expat-artists such as Jules Olitski, Al Held, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Sam Francis, et.al. She and her husband divorced in 1962, with Shirley staying on in Paris. The terms and conditions of her life left her free to devote herself to painting.
By the late 50s-early 60s, Jaffe had been critically recognized as a significant second-generation practitioner of Abstract Expressionism in Europe. Yet, by the mid-1960s, despite her success, she turned her back on Abstract Expressionism. In the Pompidou show titled Shirley Jaffe: An American Woman in Paris, one can see her moving through abstract surrealism and gestural abstraction in these early years. To look at those works you would never guess where she was headed. Though very much in the know as to what others were doing and thinking, her work and its development were her own. Her abandonment of the gestural was a slow process, done in stages. First the introduction of identifiable forms, and then the suppression of the painterly. The third stage would be her life-long exploration of color, form, and composition. Subsequently, as Jaffe eliminated the gestural from her work, she slowly developed an approach in which she would fill her large canvases with irregular forms painted on a pristine white ground. Yet, while her pictorial vocabulary had changed, she perversely preserved the spontaneity and all-over-ness of AbEx.
Inspired by the pace of urban life, Jaffe’s paintings came to consist of skillfully mixed colors and eccentrically warped or fractured shapes, and patterns meticulously execution. Often these paintings at first, will appear to be pleasant almost decorative—the color never truly jarring—the forms never aggressive yet. As one tries to make sense of them, they disassemble into a jumble of graphic-symbols, signs, and fragments. So, while her compositions may appear to be a random crazy quilt of forms, they are dictated by a rigorously visual logic that privileges perceptual over the cognitive. Jaffe’s image/forms are not associative, what they reference is something within themselves. Therefore, they are only reducible to their presence, their readability, and what they make visible. This self-referentiality is central to Jaffe’s rethinking of abstract painting as a series of intersecting events that press up against each other. Consequently, the resulting array of shapes, patterns and image/forms are just suggestive enough to set the viewer adrift between sensation and contemplation.
While Jaffe’s works admittedly owe something to Henri Matisse’s cut-outs and Stuart Davis’s synthetic cubism, unlike them, she made abstract paintings, rather than figurative ones. The intuitive nature of her project and its often, contradictory means and effects may be among the reasons many younger painters of the 1990s, such as Polly Apfelbaum, Shirley Kaneda, Beatriz Milhazes, Sarah Morris, Bernard Piffaretti, Fiona Rae, Charline von Heyl, and Amy Sillman were drawn to Jaffe and her work. By the late 1990s, given this attention, Jaffe would join the stable of the young gallerist Nathalie Obadia. Ironically now, Jaffe’s work is being seen in the context of her fellow expat James Bishop, as well as such French peers as Simon Hantai and Martin Barré, all painters whose work in the 60s-90s did not fit into the dominant reductivist and formalist models of late-20th Century Western abstract painting, which supposedly brought abstract painting to its end in the mid-1970s. Happily that history is under revision and along with Jaffe’s many other significant artists and models lost to it, will also emerge.
Shirley Jaffe: An American Woman in Paris Pompidou Center through August 29th, 2022
Saul Ostrow is an independent curator and critic. Since 1985, he has organized over 80 exhibitions in the US and abroad. His writings have appeared in art magazines, journals, catalogues, and books in the USA and Europe. In 2010, he founded along with David Goodman and Edouard Prulehiere, the not-for-profit Critical Practices Inc. as a platform for critical conversation and cultural practices. His book Formal Matters (selected and revised) published by Elective Affinities will be launched Fall, 2022. He served as Art Editor at Bomb Magazine, Co-Editor of Lusitania Press (1996-2004) and as Editor of the book series Critical Voices in Art, Theory and Culture (1996-2006) published by Routledge, London.