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).
The earliest painting in the exhibition has a horizontal format, “four directions” (2005), which, as suggested by the press release and the painting’s title, can also be hung vertically. In contrast to the curved shapes that define the seven other paintings in the exhibition, “four directions” is composed of rectangular motifs.
On the day that I saw “four directions,” the horizontal orientation resulted in two joined L shapes in the upper part, which can be read as linear spirals, and an L shape, a stepped form and a rectangle in the lower part. The painting oscillates between figure and ground, unity, and an upper and lower domain, which presumably can be inverted. This oscillation is further enhanced by the dominant use of different intensities of earth red interrupted by a dark blue L shape on the left side of the lower part and malachite green linear spiral on the right side of the upper part. Balance and imbalance are inseparable.
One of the strengths of this exhibition, and of Frecon’s work since the beginning of this century, is the tension between harmony and division she is able to infuse into her paintings.
The five largest paintings are all the same size, made up of two horizontal panels stacked one on top of the other. The two panels underscore the tension between harmony and division, particularly since each panel can be seen as self-contained even as it is part of the overall composition.
At the same time, Frecon’s use of irregular semicircles and arch-like shapes evoke mastabas, Native American burial mounds, Islamic architecture, and even turbans. In their evocation of natural and made-made forms, as well as their resistance to any one-to-one literalist reading, Frecon is determinedly anti-descriptive. At the same time, and this is what distinguishes her from the formalism espoused by Frank Stella’s famous summation, “What you see is what you see,” she is anti-literalist.
Frecon’s anti-literalism is further enhanced by her palette, which includes a variety of earth reds that can be associated with cave paintings as well as red clay and dried blood. Moreover, the paintings run the gamut from shiny surfaces to matte, and from hard edges to irregular, seemingly idiosyncratic curvilinear shapes. Her use of dark blues, ochers and greens (from terre verte to celadon and malachite) coupled to the earth reds evoke the natural world, without settling into that fossilized perceptual category.
I have the sense that the earth itself––its minerals and different soils––is always a baseline in Frecon’s work, that a deeply felt ecological awareness informs the contingency of the interrelated colors and forms, and their relationship to the overall dimensions of the painting. For, however distinct her curvilinear shapes are, their rounded edges suggest time’s constant unrelenting pressure, an awareness that everything exists in a state of change, however slow and imperceptible the transformation might be. It is this awareness that fills the paintings with a deep and poignant mixture of mortality and celebration, restraint and sensuality, resiliency and persistence.
In its hunt for the latest thing, the art world fails to recognize that painting is a slow art, and, because of its slowness, it is an act of faith in something more than worldly success and immediate returns. When Frecon cited a line by the challenging, innovative poet Clark Coolidge in our interview, she acknowledged her affinity with those who believe in experiment rather than branding, and in searching rather than finding. For various reasons, none of which are inspiring, the art world has focused its imperious attention on those who offer a stylish solution to what I regard as the failed narrative of historical determinism.
Since the turn of the century, Frecon has developed an open and flexible language that is recognizably hers. It is a language that asks questions rather than offers answers. It does so without cynicism, sarcasm, or male adolescent chest thumping. At a time when many institutions and observers continue to claim that painting is an obsolete practice, Frecon has quietly become a major artist.
Suzan Frecon: oil paintings and sun continues at David Zwirner (525 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 28.
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I’m not sure which exhibition was more inspiring – the previous one where her small works carried so well in the expansive space or this one where so few canvases held such rich presence. Her reliance on skylight rather than artificial lighting creates a different sensibility depending on the weather and time of day. She could well be the best abstract painter since Mark Rothko and Helen Frankenthaler! Thanks for your writing!
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