The constraints levied against female abstract painters in New York during the postwar decades resulted in their near-total marginalization. Nevertheless, they persisted. The situation seems unfathomable, but such was the depth of this historical amnesia that by the 1960s and ’70s women were disparaged for “painting like men,” which was idiotic given how prominently they figured as producers and innovators in vanguard abstraction. Special reverence is due the female artists who, continuing on their paths of invention, set up studios in Lower Manhattan—a boys’ club—despite the blatant sexism they experienced for this initiative. Marcia Hafif, Louise Fishman, and Suzan Frecon—to shout out but a few—were among them. Each laid claim to a legacy that had previously been reserved for men only.
Although Frecon exhibited frequently in New York’s downtown scene of the ’80s and ’90s and benefited from her association with the neo-geo movement (even though she never really belonged to it), she’s not as widely known as she should be. This is unfortunate, considering the outstanding caliber of her work, which—across nine paintings made between 2018 and 2019—was on full display at David Zwirner. Her big bright canvases sport idiosyncratic yet organic shapes that pop against empty grounds, beckoning the viewer to come closer with their seductive simplicity. Their tactile surfaces—from matte to shiny, translucent to opaque, dull to luminous—are cultivated through multiple layers of paint. The immediate overall effect of Frecon’s paintings can be good-humored, even whimsical, but that sensibility belies the laborious methods she employs for grinding her own pigments and precisely mapping her compositions before she begins production. She makes painting look easy—but that’s part of the artful ruse she orchestrates. The paintings reward sustained engagement: The longer we look, the more we are able to see.
In addition to their uniform size—roughly nine by seven feet high or wide, depending on orientation—the works are all are diptychs, and their junctures interact with the elegantly misshapen humps, blobs, blips, ellipses, and wedges that animate Frecon’s surfaces. Orange and bluebird blue illumination, 2019, sizzles with hot chromatics: A radiant blue ground is coupled with a lumpy half circle painted a blazing tangerine that swells to fill the upper register, as if it were emerging from the diptych seam itself. Frecon repeats this “rising sun” motif in yellow lantern, 2018—rendered in a rich harvest gold that vibrates against a serene blue-black background—and again in mars stealing the night, 2019, in which a Brobdingnagian navy bulge shimmers upon a brilliant field of molten orange.
With the nine oil paintings currently on view at David Zwirner, Suzan Frecon moves into what we might call the classical phase of her career: the moment when she marshals, with supreme ease, every aspect of her previous work into a grand summary. This is, however, in no way “end-of-the-line” painting. To the contrary, viewers should look forward to an ever-expanding Frecon universe.
Looking back on her career, we see a gradual change in scale. Many of Frecon’s earlier works, including the “dark red compositions” of 2013, were small-scale watercolors rather than oils or encaustics and recalled abstract Tantric paintings. That association marks the point where we can identify a distinctive Frecon aesthetic. As Tantric paintings are aids to meditation, springboards that turn the contemplative soul toward transcendence, Frecon’s works are ends in themselves. Or, as Fernando Pessoa (writing under the pseudonym Alberto Caeiro) put it in a poem about the river running through his village: “The river in my village doesn’t make you think about anything./ If you’re standing on the bank, you’re just standing on the bank.” Frecon’s work is a challenge to the notion of referentiality, to the idea that there must be a meaning hidden in the image.
Frecon hides nothing: under the surfaces of her paintings there is—literally—nothing. At the same time, we are not dealing with Malevich’s black square or Ryman’s textured white pigments. Both color and the formal arrangement of shapes matter to Frecon; orange and bluebird blue illumination (2019) is a case in point. The title might in fact be a reference, since the eastern bluebird does in fact have an orange chest and a bright blue head and back, but nature, perhaps Frecon’s point of departure, seems irrelevant here. The large composition is disconcerting: an orange half-moon abuts the upper and left-hand limit of the picture surface, off center. At the same time, like all the other works in the show, this one is composed of two panels of equal dimensions (these measure 87 by 54 inches). So, the structural symmetry of Frecon’s twin panels is played off against the deliberate asymmetry of her composition.
In numerology, two is a notoriously unstable cipher. Like a see-saw, it hovers between conflict and precarious equilibrium. In orange and bluebird blue illumination, the two halves of the image are simultaneously sundered and joined by the offset half-moon imprinted on them. What’s more, the half-moon, like the number two, alludes to the concept of mutability, to the uncertain nature of the artistic enterprise. So, while Frecon eschews allegory, the elements she deploys, like the figures on a Tarot deck, have a life of their own that plays out irrespective of their place within the entire deck or their appearance in any particular game.
GERMANTOWN, New York — In his article “Piero della Francesca: The Impossibility of Painting” (Art News, March 1965), Philip Guston wrote:
He is so remote from other masters; without their “completeness” of personality. A different fervor, grave and delicate, moves in the daylight of his pictures. Without our familiar passions, he is like a visitor to the earth, reflecting on distances, gravity and positions of essential forms.
In his painting “Pantheon” (1973), Guston writes down five names. Four are written in red letters between the easel and a bare light that takes up most of the painting: Masaccio, Piero, Giotto, and Tiepelo. On the far left, squeezed between the easel and painting’s left edge, Guston has written de Chirico on a diagonal.
In the exhibition Enigma Variations: Philip Guston and Giorgio de Chirico, at the Santa Monica Museum of Art (September 9–November 25, 2006), the co-curators, Michael Taylor and Lisa Melandri, paired specific works by the two artists. The pairing revealed how closely Guston looked at de Chirico’s paintings. And yet, even when Guston is responding directly to a work by de Chirico, no one would accuse him of being derivative. His response was inspired and imaginative.
Thomas Nozkowsi’s pantheon surely included Pisanello’s “The Vision of Saint Eustache” (1438–42), which hangs in the National Gallery in London, where he first saw it and realized that you could put anything in a painting. In my interview with him in The Brooklyn Rail (November 2010), Nozkowski said:
What a great painting! Some works of art just open up and seem to stretch out in all directions. They go on forever.
For Nozkwski, this meant that he could put anything he experienced into a painting. This is how he put it in our interview:
Yes, but taking that idea [of personal experience] in the broadest possible way. Events, things, ideas — anything. Objects and places in the visual continuum, sure, but also from other arts and abstract systems.
A few days ago, I was sitting in Suzan Frecon’s studio in Germantown, New York. We ran into each other outside the train station in Rhinecliff, New York. We had both been on the same train but did not know it. She was going to her studio while I was going to Bard College to meet three students in the graduate program at Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies before giving a poetry reading later that evening. The accident of our meeting enabled me to invite myself over to Suzan’s studio. I had been visiting her New York studio since shortly after I moved to New York in 1975 and met her through a friend. But this was the first time I would see what she was up to in Germantown.
THE LARGE PAINTINGS Suzan Frecon recently exhibited at David Zwirner Gallery in New York revealed themselves slowly. The works were illuminated primarily by the gallery’s skylights, and the quality of light changed with the weather and time of day. To experience the color contrasts between Frecon’s seemingly simple shapes and the fields of color upon which they rested or floated required patience, and even a willingness to return at different times. It seemed nearly sacrilegious to check one’s cellphone under the circumstances, though visitors couldn’t really be prevented from doing so. The exhibition demanded a certain kind of attentiveness, one that could be at odds with modes of behavior common in contemporary life. To be fully present with Frecon’s paintings, one had to adjust one’s sense of being in time. Upon making such an adjustment, visitors were rewarded by the revelation of a layer of meaning that subtends the merely retinal: the fullness of Frecon’s paintings could be said to emerge from their illumination rather than to be laid bare by it, and that sense of emergence is something that must be felt in time.
The title of poet and critic John Yau’s September 24 review of Frecon’s exhibition in the online publication Hyperallergic, “The Pleasures of Slow Paintings,”1 got me thinking that Slow Painting was an actual stance, an intention and practice shared by other contemporary painters who, without constituting a movement, collectively insist on a phenomenological experience over a connotative one. Since so much contemporary discussion of painting is understandably focused on signification (urgent narratives of identity being an obvious example), the phenomenological aspects of painting by hand are in need of renewed focus. Without resorting to nostalgia, it is necessary to understand how and why a single body working patiently in the studio might achieve moving results that have a distinctly contemporary relevance.
The slowness of painting—both in its creation and in its apprehension by viewers—is routinely overlooked because it is so often taken for granted. Compared to digital media, painting is always slow. When painters seek to speed up the medium—offering quickly rendered “fast takes”—they are often doing so to self-reflexively critique art’s commodification. In Richard Prince’s work, for example, this fast take can be read as a deliberate strategy to reveal the problematic nature of viewing painting under the deadening realities of contemporary capitalism—a realization that supposedly prompts further thought. But it feels deflationary with respect to the multiple levels of the experience of time that painting may address.
These paintings are what the artist Suzan Frecon calls “slow,” meaning that they reveal themselves quietly over time.
I began looking at Suzan Frecon’s work shortly after I got to New York in 1975, when she had no gallery, and have been following it ever since. In 2005, when she was able to show her large paintings for the first time in New York, having previously shown small paintings and works on paper, I interviewed her for The Brooklyn Rail (November 2005). One of the things that she said in that interview has stayed with me:
"All my decisions are made for visual reasons."
Inspiration, no matter what it might be, can never be the justification for a painting’s existence. In this, Frecon shares something with another abstract painter, Thomas Nozkowski. The difference is that Frecon works on a much larger scale, with a much smaller vocabulary. In that same interview, Frecon expressed her admiration for art that was ‘anonymous” and reached “a high plane of abstraction.” This goes against the commonplace model in which artists explain what they are to up, and how it is relevant, producing a readymade text of meaningfulness (or creative unmeaningfulness) that can be replicated in various ways.
As curious as we might be about what prompted a painting by Frecon — and it is never really just one thing — an attempt to discover it seems almost beside the point. Here, the critic must avoid the pitfall of showing off how many clever associations (or visual similarities) you can come up with. I think this is why people dislike certain kinds of painting so much: they cannot say what it is. They don’t like that uncertainty because it reminds them that life too is precarious, with the only guarantees being, as the saying goes, death and taxes.
In the exhibition "Suzan Frecon: recent oil paintings" at David Zwirner (September 14–October 21, 2017), the artist exhibits seven large, two-panel paintings. In six, Frecon works with two colors, one for the figure (an elliptical or a semicircular abstract form) and one for the ground. The figure has a glossy, lacquer-like surface, while the ground is more thinly painted and matte. The material differences affect the painting in a number of ways, including its relationship to the ambient natural light filtering through the gallery’s skylights, and not supplemented by artificial lights. The day I visited the show was cloudy, and so the light in the gallery felt gray and muted.
There is a bench to sit on in one room, where there is one painting, “noh” (2017), hanging, but none in either the front gallery or the large main gallery, and there should be. These paintings are to be contemplated from afar as well as walked up to and scrutinized. They are what the artist calls “slow,” meaning that they reveal themselves quietly over time. They are an anomaly and have more in common with Ad Reinhardt, whose “Blue Paintings” are on display in Zwirner’s other Chelsea gallery space, than they do with the work of Frecon’s contemporaries. Partly this has to do with her temperament, but it is also her response to the revelatory Hilma af Klint show that Frecon saw at PS1 in 1989, which helped her return to geometric forms, which she abandoned earlier in her career to concentrate on colors and paint strokes.
In “noh” (2017), a cadmium red half-moon extends across most of the painting’s two terre verte panels, its rounded edge touching the left panel’s top left corner while drifting just below the right panel’s top edge. I wrote “half-moon,” but I immediately want to qualify that description. The right side of the form is a skewed quarter-circle, stretched between the panel’s right and left edges. The other part of the shape extends across the width of the left panel not all the way. Its curve is more rounded. Do each of the shapes occupy the same amount of area? What about the severity of the red shape’s bottom edge, which cuts across the surface of both panels like a scalpel? It is as if the muted, matte green ground falls below the form it appears to be physically holding it up. How can that be?
Suzan Frecon came to Minimalism late, but she has persisted and her work has a deeper, quieter kind of originality: a sense of unassailable integrity and the fullness of form. Now in her early 70s, Ms. Frecon has for over three decades been homing in on one or two simple shapes seen against one color. Her newest paintings have two panels whose division forms a kind of horizon line, while the shapes themselves imply curved hillocks, small mountains, crystalline ponds, low-hanging clouds and rising or setting suns. Despite the use of "Sun" in this show's title, her colors, which she grinds and mixes herself, tend toward dark. Rust, blues and greens prevail here with results that seem like nocturnes. They combine Rothko's color at its most winey and most somber with the carefully modulated geometries of Ellsworth Kelly, but are always clearly handmade, painted with a meditative quality that evokes Morandi.
Ms. Frecon's images are obviously landscapes, but they also resemble something stranger: actual sculptures completely flattened against the surface, with traces of light and space lingering behind them that go beyond simple illusionism into actual perception. This balancing of nature and artifice is both exquisite and witty. Part of the physicality of the work stems from Ms. Frecon's earthy color sense but also from her subtle yet decisive contrasts of matte and shiny surfaces. The paintings have a profoundly odd optical reality that is all their own. They are obdurate objects that don't quite dwell in our space, which is what makes them so exceptional.
The turning point for Suzan Frecon happened in 1989, when she saw the exhibition of the Swedish artist and mystic, Hilma af Klint: Secret Pictures at PS1. In an interview I did with Frecon that appeared in The Brooklyn Rail (November 2005), the artist stated:
I always craved geometric solutions. They underlie so many things: architecture and old paintings that are informed by geometry, like Cimabue, Romanesque cathedrals, churches. You have the structure of the building and then you have the curves of the architecture and then within that you have the painting and within that you have the art. I like that, and Pomo baskets and Nigerian indigo cloth with light coming through. All those things left their powerful impression on me. I think those things have the influence of geometry. Years ago I was focused on trying to do geometric paintings and I didn't have the confidence to feel that I was doing something worthwhile or unique. There were so many painters using geometry at that time in their work. I kind of went back to concentrating on colors and strokes. But I always wanted to come back to it. I think Hilma af Klint helped give me the guts to return and go further.
In af Klint, Frecon saw an artist whose use of geometry had little to do with art history, especially Cubism or the grid. Rather, for af Klint, her use of the segmented circle and "snail" motif enabled her to evoke the occult and the underlying connections between inner forces and outward appearances. This is where Frecon parts company with af Klint. While both aspire toward the highest plane of consciousness, we have to remember that af Klint was a symbolist, while Frecon regards herself as a painter, a maker of things. This is what she said about her painting in our interview:
I try to keep any association or image out of my paintings. I think they are most successful when they reach for the highest possible plane of abstraction, when you can't say that they look like something. Certainly, I love architecture and I'm always fascinated with looking at it anywhere and it does influence my work.
There are eight paintings in her current exhibition, Suzan Frecon: oil paintings and sun at David Zwirner (February 19–March 28, 2015).