Jane Freilicher, “Painter Among Poets” at Tibor de Nagy

Freilicher and Ashbery

Jane Freilicher: Painter Among Poets,” an exhibit currently showing at the Tibor de Nagy gallery in New York (April 13-June 14), has been getting a lot of attention and favorable notice (including a piece by Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker).  The show’s title, with its neat reversal of the title of Marjorie Perloff’s groundbreaking 1977 study Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters, indicates its focus:

The exhibition will closely examine painter Jane Freilicher’s pivotal role among the poets of the New York School, particularly John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, along with Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler. Freilicher was in many ways a catalytic and consequential presence…

It will be the first exhibition to explore in depth Freilicher’s relationship to the poets and their work. It will comprise the artist’s paintings and works on paper, including portraits of the poets, many on loan and exhibited for the first time. It will also include a selection of original letters between Freilicher and the poets, as well as films, book covers, and photographs.

Freilicher, now 88, was not only the poets’ closest friend and confidante, she was also their muse. As has become clear in early correspondence, a selection of which will be exhibited for the first time, Ashbery and O’Hara regularly sought her advice for poems in process. Urbane, affectionate, and gossipy, the letters put the artist’s legendary wit on display.

O’Hara wrote his celebrated series of “Jane poems,” weaving her name into the titles. James Schuyler came up with the scenario for “Presenting Jane,” a short film starring Freilicher. A scene depicting Jane walking on water – a moment which became legendary among the group of poets – speaks to the esteem for which she was held. The film was never completed and what footage existed is now lost.

This past weekend the New York Times ran a short piece, “Painter Amid Friends,” about Freilicher and her “exalted status among the poets of the New York School … to whom she was muse, confidante, beloved brain.”  The piece discusses Freilicher’s relationships with Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch, and Larry Rivers, and generally waxes nostalgic about the 1950s art and poetry world, referring to the exhibit as “an  exploration of an ever-receding way of social life among successful creative people in the city, one in which the friendships built and circles configured seemed more firmly rooted in genuine affection, in affinity, in shared notions of whimsy, than in the prospect of mutual professional advantage.”

This show sounds like it provides a wonderful chance to think more deeply about Jane Freilicher’s crucial role within the New York School of poetry.  I think my favorite of O’Hara’s “Jane” poems may be one that doesn’t have her name in the title, “A Terrestrial Cuckoo,” which depicts the poet and Jane on a surreal journey into an exotic tropical jungle  (a voyage into the wilds of the avant-garde, among other things).  It begins:

What a hot day it is! For
Jane and me above the scorch
of sun on jungle waters to be
paddling up and down the Essequibo
in our canoe
of war-surplus gondola parts.

And ends:

                Oh Jane, is there no more frontier?

We strip off our pretty blazers
of tapa and dive like salamanders
into the vernal stream. Alas! they
have left the jungle aflame, and in
friendly chatter of Kotzebue and Salonika our

friends swiftly retreat downstream
on a flowery float. We strike through
the tongues and tigers hotly, towards
orange mountains, black taboos, dada!
and clouds. To return with absolute treasure!

our only penchant, that. And a red
billed toucan, pointing t’aurora highlands
and caravanserais of junk, cries out
“New York is everywhere like Paris!
go back when you’re rich, behung with lice!”

Is there no more frontier?  If you get a chance, check out the show.  To return with absolute treasure! Our only penchant, that.

Freilicher O'Hara drawing

Untitled (Frank O’Hara), nd. Pen and ink on paper, 14 x 11 inches

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