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.
A few hours later I was sitting in Frecon’s studio, with its double-stacked windows facing north, looking at three large, two-panel paintings without the aid of electric light. It might simply have been because of the orientation of my chair or my distance from the painting — though I know it was much more than that — but I found myself staring at a green painting with a large blue form, elliptical but not symmetrical, floating near the top.
In every conversation I have had with Frecon over the past 40-plus years, we have talked about artists, art, color, form, music, translation, and poetry. I remember conversations about Mimbres pottery, the poems of Clark Coolidge, and the music of Steve Lacy.
On this particular wintry gray day, we talked about Venice, which had flooded. I learned that years earlier, in 1983, Frecon had seen Cimabue’s “Crucifix” when it was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting — which was in the Museum of Opera di Santa Croce in Florence — was on tour after it been restored from the damage it suffered in the early November floods of 1966 that filled the streets of Florence. Two days after the floodwaters receded, the “Crucifix” was found face down in water and mud. More than half its painted surface was lost. Even in its restored state, with much of the painting irretrievably lost, Frecon talked passionately about how moved she was by what she experienced.
I remember bumping into Frecon at the exhibition Pioneering Modern Art: Cezanne and Pissaro at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (June 26–September 12, 2005). She was looking intently at Cezanne’s “The Pool at Jas de Bouffan” (ca. 1878), a little-known painting measuring 18 1/2 by 22 1/8 inches. It was in a private collection so it was not likely to be seen again in the near future, which is why, as Frecon told me, she had come back to the museum many times to look at it. Frecon lives in the world of art, not the art world.
As Frecon and I talked, I realized I had hardly taken my eyes off one of her paintings. It did not immediately occur to me that she had not turned on the electric light, and that I was looking at the large, two-panel painting in the darkening light of a rainy afternoon in November. I was fascinated by the contrasting visual textures of the painting, the fact that Frecon had merged color and surface. All this engaged me even though I was at least 20 feet away from the painting.
The painting was inspired by a trip to Sicily, where Frecon had seen the “Virgin Annunciate” (ca. 1476) by Antonello da Massina. Born in Sicily, Massina is one of the first Italian painters to begin using oil paint, most likely after seeing the work of the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck in Naples in the mid-1440s, as well as his encounter with the work of Piero della Francesca (though art historians have not settled on exactly where this occurred). We do know that by late 1475, da Massina traveled to Venice and saw the work of Giovanni Bellini, who was also influenced by the work of Piero della Francesca and Flemish painting. Art historians are still speculating on whether or not da Massina inspired Bellini to begin using oil paint around this time.
Most observers agree that “Virgin Annunciate” is da Massina’s greatest masterpiece; it certainly is his most mysterious. In the painting, the Virgin Mary is standing at a lectern, her head covered by a lapis veil. In contrast to other depictions of the Annunciation, which usually show the Archangel Gabriel and a radiant dove, a symbol of the Holy Spirit, da Massina focuses only on the Virgin Mary. We are not seeing a story, but are engaged in an encounter: it is as if each of us is the messenger.
The Virgin Mary’s hands are raised, with the right palm facing down, angled above the lectern, while her left hand clasps the sides of the veil together. The space she occupies is pitch black and abstract. The hands are not welcoming; they keep us at a distance. She is not looking at us, which means she might not want to hear this momentous news. And the lapis veil is matte, rather than glossy. Finally, the shape of the veil was clearly inspired by della Francesca’s platonic forms.
Frecon saw the painting mounted on a green velvet wall and she liked the intersection of colors and textures. I knew none of this, of course, when I was looking at the painting, its smooth blue shape floating near the top, on a green ground. I was struck by the fact that the blue form seemed hard and the green appeared soft and, yes, velvety. The blue form felt impenetrable while the green ground was inviting.
When I asked Frecon about the colors, she was very precise. The green was a mixture of Rublev Nicosia Terre Verte and Rublev Cinnabar green, while the blue form was painted with Daniel Smith Lapis Lazuli with extra linseed oil in it.
In Renaissance painting, terre verte was used in the underpainting of flesh. It is the color of moss and vegetation — “green earth” — as well as an indication of death. During the Renaissance, lapis (or ultramarine) was often used in the clothing of the painting’s central figure, especially if it was the Virgin Mary. Knowing all of this, Frecon has subsumed the colors into the painting while shedding the story. It seems to me that for her, the merging of form, color, and feeling is what is important, not the narrative or so-called content.
The painting was done on two panels. The position of the blue form and the space it occupies are not arbitrary. Both were worked out in advance, with special attention paid to making sure that the form in each panel takes up the same amount of space as its counterpart.
In “annunciata” (2019), Frecon is talking to della Francesca via Tantric Hindu art, which she has also looked at carefully. According to her friend, the French poet Franck André Jamme, this art is the result of “an egoless practice” (The Paris Review, April 3, 2012).
In her painting, Frecon engages with color and texture, the intersection of vision and the material world, particularly as it is manifested in oil paint. It is a finely attuned openness to the world that we encounter in Frecon’s work, a sense of color unlike anyone else’s. Can we let go of words and just look? Can we live in silence long enough to begin seeing what is front of our eyes?