The painter Jane Freilicher, whose airy, radiantly colored still lifes and landscapes made her a leading light of the 1950s New York School and one the great representational artists of postwar America, died on Tuesday in New York. She was 90. Tibor de Nagy, the New York gallery that showed her art for more than 60 years, confirmed her death.
Freilicher began her mature artistic pursuits as an abstract painter, and studied with Hans Hofmann in the late 1940s, but quickly shifted to representational painting after seeing the Museum of Modern Art’s 1948 Bonnard retrospective. “It was not a matter of choice,” she told an interviewer 50 years later. ”But I couldn’t find a kernel in that kind of painting to split open. I have to struggle, to make something coherent…I felt I couldn’t find a struggle within Abstract Expressionism.”
In that struggle she painted luminous, nuanced scenes from atop her Fifth Avenue window and around her home in East Hampton, shifting at various points from brushy near-abstractions to more meticulously detailed pictures. She was not widely known by the general public, but her consistent, steady experimentation earned her intense acclaim throughout her life, particularly from contemporary critics and poets, many of whom were her close friends. In 1958, the poet James Schuyler termed her “a poet’s painter who may yet become the public’s painter”—an apt description for her entire career.
The poet John Ashbery, with whom she shared a six-decade friendship, wrote, “Her pictures always have an air of just coming into being, of tentativeness that is the lifeblood of art.” The two met when Ashbery, fresh out of college, came to stay at the poet Kenneth Koch’s apartment at East 16th Street and Third Avenue, and Freilicher, who lived one floor above, provided the key to let him in.
Freilicher was an important member of the artistic circle that sprang up around poets like Koch, Ashbery, and Frank O’Hara and painters like Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, and others, both as an artist and a confidant. “Her subdued, astringent personality kept the others from getting out of hand—no mean accomplishment,” as Joe LeSeuer, O’Hara’s onetime roommate and partner, once put it.
She “set a tone of ineffable wit, a sugar-free sweetness that made high sophistication seem a snap,” the poet and critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote in the review of a recent Freilicher show. “Her paintings exude an alertness to subtle, passing joys.”
Jane Niederhoffer was born November 29, 1924, in Brooklyn—her father was a Spanish-language court interpreter and her mother was a musician—and took the name Freilicher in 1941, when she married the jazz guitarist Jack Freilicher, a union that was annulled five years later. She earned her B.A. from Brooklyn College in 1947 and a master’s from Columbia’s Teachers College in 1948.
Through Freilicher, she met Rivers (the two played together in a band), and they dated for a stretch. When they split up, River slit his wrists. “She has more integrity than anyone I have ever known,” Rivers wrote in his memoir. She married Joe Hazan, a businessman turned painter, in 1957. He died in 2012 at the age of 96. Their daughter, Elizabeth Hazan, who is also an artist, survives them, along with a son in law, Stephen Hicks, and three grandchildren, Benjamin, Katharine, and Lucian.
Freilicher was included in the Whitney Biennials of 1955 (the painting annual, at the time), 1972, and 1995, and her work is included in numerous museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 2005 the American Academy of Arts and Letter presented her with its Gold Medal in Painting.
Like Giorgio Morandi, Albert York, and Fairfield Porter, Freilicher was able to present, with a seemingly casual ease, the awkward, slippery strangeness of reality—a vase of flowers or a hazy East End day imparting metaphysical significance.
”I suppose I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing,” she told an interviewer in 1998, when she was 73. “Even though I’m using ostensibly the same subject matter, I keep on trying to get some other kind of sensation from it. Every flower has its own cosmology, its own relationship to the foliage, to the air around it.”