Seen and Unseen marks the first museum exhibition that examines the work of the two artists from the beginnings of their careers in New York, considering their proximity in the Long Island hamlet of Water Mill, where they lived and worked within a mile of one another for 50 years. Organized thematically, the exhibition also shows how the storied light and natural beauty of Long Island’s East End became a primary focus of, and major influence on the work of Freilicher and Wilson, close friends whose professional and personal lives converged and diverged over the course of their lives.
According to Alicia Longwell, Ph.D., The Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Chief Curator at the Parrish Art Museum, who organized the exhibition, “At a time when abstract painting was thought to be the only valid, and valued, way to make art, these two artists began to look at the world around them in terms of how a painting could present a heightened reality and still deal in representational images—each conveying her own authentic response to the natural world.”
The exhibition at the Parrish, spanning the full range of the artists’ explorations of landscape, still life, and portraits from the 1950s through 2007, reveals how each pushed the boundaries of traditional approaches to create highly individual accounts of the world around them. Jane Freilicher and Jane Wilson: Seen and Unseen features approximately 20 paintings by each artist as well as works on paper, plus portraits of the two women painted by Fairfield Porter and Alex Katz, and photographs by Wilson’s husband John Jonas Gruen, chronicling the women’s lives.
Freilicher and Wilson were both born in 1924 and rose to early prominence in the 1950s New York art world, where they were regarded as serious modernist painters by leading critics including John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Fairfield Porter. After brief explorations with abstraction, both artists departed from the style in pursuit of a more personal approach. Freilicher was compelled by what she called the "seen," and her keen observation skirted realism in favor of an unconstrained, fluid paint handling. Wilson, too, abandoned abstraction and literal transcription, rather seeking to convey in paint the “unseen” or what she called "moments of strong sensation."
Freilicher painted the world as it was from specific vantage points: a greenhouse atop her apartment building in Lower Manhattan and her second story studio window in Water Mill. The latter view dominates the subject matter of her work in Seen and Unseen, beginning with early forays into abstraction such as The Mallow Gatherers (1958) and Blue and Green Abstraction (1960). For the next five decades, looking out onto lush marshes and farms, Freilicher objectively chronicled the changes on the East End of Long Island in works including Landscape with Construction Site (2001) and The Changing Scene (1981), in which she inserts into the painting a sliver of herself, drawing back the curtains to reveal a landscape transformed by rampant development.
While Freilicher’s titles illustrate her straightforward take on the view beyond, Wilson’s are indicative of her focus on the view from within, as apparent in Near Night, Water Mill (1988), Tempest (1993), and Yesterday’s Clouds (2010). Wilson painted landscapes from the mind’s eye, imbuing the work with her bred-in-the-bone sixth sense about weather, which she developed during a childhood growing up on her family’s farm in Iowa. These later landscapes—ethereal and atmospheric, with low-hanging horizon lines that give way to a full play of light and color—are the hallmark of Wilson’s mature work that capture the moments where nature, weather, time of day, and season of the year converge.
A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition, featuring works by the two artists, historical photographs by Gruen, and essays including Worlds Seen and Unseen: The Art ofJane Freilicher and Jane Wilson by Alicia G. Longwell, Ph.D.; A Day in the Life by Deborah Rothschild that delves into a 1957 Coronet magazine feature article on Wilson, who worked part time as a show room model; Jane Freilicher’s “Handwriting” in Pen and Paint by Karin Roffman; and a piece on Wilson by Mimi Thompson, Transforming the Everyday.