Two concurrent exhibitions of work by Yvonne Jacquette, Looking Up/Down/Inside/Out and Recent Views, Maine & New York, both at DC Moore Gallery through June 17, had long been in the making when Jacquette died in April of this year, shortly before the openings. Looking Up/Down/Inside/Out consists of 25 paintings and works on paper done between 1962 and ’76, while Recent Views, Maine & New York contains nine paintings, including a diptych dated 2019 to 2022. The exhibition of earlier paintings, watercolors, drawings, prints, sketches, and studies shows the evolution of an artist who kept pushing herself to enter into new territory that she made her own. Best known for her aerial views, which began with “East River at Night” (1978), and which she explored for more than 30 years, these shows fill out an under-recognized career that should be better known, particularly the early years.
When I asked Jacquette in a 2008 Brooklyn Rail interview how she began considering sharply angled viewpoints, she told me:
It happened because I started off with the opposite angle, looking up. I was beginning to do yoga, and I had to look up at the ceiling in my loft, which was stamped tin. So I did paintings of that, and of doorways and so forth for a little while, and then suddenly it occurred to me to reverse that, and look down. When my son Tom was born, I’m standing there feeding him, and there is his baby chair, and it’s making an interesting shadow on the floor. Every year, the space between the baby and me seemed to widen. And then the view started to expand. We got a house in Maine and I started going up in airplanes.
Between 1962 and ’64, working in New York and Maine, Jacquette painted what she saw in front of her: a field viewed through her curtained windows, the backyard where she has set up an easel, a window and fire escape. As good as these observational paintings are, she had not yet distinguished from herself from other painterly realists working the same vein. In Looking Up/Down/Inside/Out, it all changes with “Window Shadow” (c. 1965). Jacquette started to severely limit her palette to grays, here painting what reads as the shadow and light of a paned window, cast on a floor.
Only by taking away everything on which she had previously relied (shared viewpoint, realistic color, daylight, painterliness) was Jacquette able to begin defining the path that she explored for many decades. That severity of a limited palette is something I want to know more about, particularly after seeing the striking “Under-Space” (1966), which she described as her son’s “baby chair […] making an interesting shadow on the floor.” She has taken what could have easily been a sentimental or heartwarming subject and stripped it down to a basic form casting a shadow on the floor. The angle of the view is unlikely — it was hard to imagine exactly where the artist placed herself to capture it — while the drab prison colors introduce another layer of meaning into the work.
While the reductive impulse of Minimalism, and her husband Rudy Burckhardt’s photographs of pedestrians’ feet, were possible inspirations, what Jacquette achieves in these two paintings is unique. Between 1967 and ’69, still limiting herself to interiors, she broadened her palette to different whites, green-grays, and black or browns in a single piece. This body of work marks a breakthrough for Jacquette and deserves more attention. Along with Lois Dodd and Sylvia Plimack Mangold, who were her friends, she successfully pushed back against Minimalism and Conceptual Art.
In “Study for Fluorescent Light” (1969), the slight angle of the crisply rendered tube is in dialogue with Barnett Newman “zip” paintings and Dan Flavin’s sculptures. Yet by rendering the fluorescent lights representationally, as well as using a limited palette to broaden our view of observational painting, Jacquette refutes the cerebral abstraction of these two artists. She stayed true to the visible while reinventing it with color, which she used to inflect the work with feeling.
“Open Door with Hinge Study” (1967) and “Smaller Tin Ceiling” present extreme viewpoints. The plane of the door pressing against the picture plane and the shape and tilt of the ceiling in “Small Tin Ceiling” undermine the stability typical of American geometric abstractions, except perhaps for Frank Stella’s series of 11 Irregular Polygons (1965–66). However, in contrast to Stella, she rejected flatness, favoring a spatiality that did not rely on perspective. I wonder what the dimensions of the larger, final works are in comparison to these “studies,” particularly since “Barn Ceiling” (1969), depicting a triangulated post and lintel system in oranges and browns, measures 80 by 64 inches. I see this group of works as a reintroduction that entices me to look at more of her early work. The drawing, watercolors, and studies further fuel my curiosity.
Of the nine paintings in Recent Views, Maine & New York, one particularly struck me; it was unlike any other work by Jacquette that I know. In “Film Cans” (2020), she depicts a cropped, slightly angled view of a bookshelf filled with stacks of canisters containing Burckhardt’s films. We seem to be looking up at the bookcase. How will the films be preserved? Nearing the end of her life, Jacquette must have been thinking about her late husband’s legacy. From “Under-Space” to “Film Cans,” the two exhibitions trace an arc of her life and art, but these two paintings, which are not characteristic of her best-known work, are more personal. It is a side of her that could be better known.
Yvonne Jacquette: Looking Up/Down/Inside/Out and Yvonne Jacquette: Recent Views, Maine & New York continue at DC Moore Gallery (535 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 17. The exhibitions were organized by the gallery in collaboration with Yvonne Jacquette and her son, Tom Burckhardt.