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Shirley Jaffe: An American Woman in Paris

Centre Pompidou, Paris, April 20-August 29, 2022
Samantha Lemeunier

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Figures 1 to 7 are press visuals shared by the Centre Pompidou with the author.

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  • 1 Samantha Lemeunier is a PhD student at the École normale supérieure (Ulm); a member of the research (...)

1If at first sight the subtitle of the exhibition “Shirley Jaffe: An American Woman in Paris” almost sounds like an oxymoron, the works displayed at the Centre Pompidou this year rather suggested that the artist managed to create a syncretism between French and American cultures.1 Born in a Jewish family in 1929, Shirley Jaffe lost her father at a young age while her mother spent her time working in order to feed the future artist and her two siblings. After pursuing art studies at Cooper Union in New York City, she moved to Washington with her husband Irving Jaffe. There, she attended the Phillips Art School before following her husband to France where his G.I. Bill benefits enabled him to study at the Sorbonne (Kaneda, 42).

2The exhibition at the Centre Pompidou opened with the works she painted right after her arrival in Paris in 1949, when she met with other American expatriates such as Sam Francis and Kimber Smith, who had begun to experiment not only with French Impressionism but more importantly with Abstract Expressionism. Frédéric Paul, who curated the exhibition, designed a chronological display aimed at bringing into relief the artist’s stylistic evolutions progressing from gestural painting to Geometric Abstraction. The organization of this first retrospective dedicated to Shirley Jaffe furthermore suggested visitors should compare the artist’s early works with her later paintings as they were occasionally displayed on facing walls. This review follows a similar development as it examines how the painter’s stylistic idiosyncrasy maturates through her different travels, encounters and processes of self-exploration and self-criticism. Her works from the 1950s and 1960s amount to an exploration of Abstract Expressionism. Yet, her year in Berlin between 1964 and 1965 led her to abandon gesture painting in order to focus on colors through Geometric Abstraction. It was only after the 1980s that she reacknowledged gestural abstraction, thus striking a balance between the American preoccupation with gesture and what Shirley Jaffe identified as a European interest in color.

Abstract Expressionism: Exploring Emotion in Painting

  • 2 The exhibition was entitled “Véhémences confrontées” and took place at the Nina Dausset Gallery bet (...)

3The entrance hall of the exhibition opened onto a first room in which the influence of Abstract Expressionism was perceptible in Shirley Jaffe’s paintings. At the time, the artist who had just arrived in France started to forge ties with the American and Canadian diasporas while she was still looking for her stylistic identity, as suggested by the biographical information provided in the exhibit. While the roots of Abstract Expressionism are to be traced back to the 1940s when the so-called New York School started to bloom, the movement spread internationally in the 1950s thanks to curators such as Michel Tapié who organized an exhibition dedicated to non-figurative artists including Alfred Russell, Jean Paul Riopelle, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock in Paris in 1951.2 Though diverse, the strategies of Abstract Expressionists all consist in abandoning the figuration of social realism as well as creating emotion, which is notably produced by the act of painting itself, or, in other terms, gesture. The voice of the artist which was continually played at the Centre Pompidou similarly allowed visitors to be engulfed in Jaffe’s artistic process.

4She was immersed in this movement when she arrived in Paris, but also when she returned to New York for two years in 1952, and her artworks from the 1950s and 1960s mainly drew inspiration from gesture painting. The spontaneity of her brush strokes is revealed by occasional traces of dripping paint as in Untitled (1952-1953), and the relief of her works in which superimposed coats of paint (realized either with brushes or palette knives) show the artist experimenting with the thinness and thickness of paint. These varied techniques allowed her to create emotion as she believed that “paintings should speak for themselves” (Kaneda and Jaffe, 42), even though she remained fascinated by the French tendency to verbalize the meaning of a painting: “For the French, it seems important to be able to give one’s work a verbal context and articulate one’s visual position” (Kaneda and Jaffe 43).

5This interest in and enthusiasm for both American and European cultural idiosyncrasies progressively led her to develop a more personal style taking into consideration not only gesture but color, as she declared that “what the French do have is a marvelously instinctive sense of color” (Kaneda and Jaffe 43). In this regard, the wide range of vivid pigments that she initially used became gradually deprived of their saturation throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Thus the first corridor of the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou took the visitor through a sensory experiment with color, as highly-saturated artworks were gradually replaced by softer tones.

6Moreover, even though Abstract Expressionism was mainly inspired from surrealism, Parisian artists also reinjected Impressionist elements into their works as Frédéric Paul explains in his virtual tour of the exhibition (Paul, 00:01:25-00:01:31). The way Shirley Jaffe juxtaposes short strokes of complementary colors in early works such as Untitled (1952-1953) or Which in the World (1957) is, to a certain extent, reminiscent of Impressionist techniques while the different shades or nuances of white that she explores in Painting (1955) echo the Impressionist manner of depicting light. These works also reveal her growing interest for contrast as the artist’s chromatic palette of the 1950s and 1960s often consists in complementary or binary sets of colors as illustrated by the duality between black and white in Painting (1955) or between the warm yellow hues and the cold green strokes in Untitled (1957) (Fig. 1). This sense of binarity was also suggested by the scenography chosen by Frédéric Paul: his specular placement of paintings at the Centre Pompidou indeed constituted a physical extension of the dual colors used by Jaffe.

Fig 1. Shirley Jaffe, Untitled, 1957

Fig 1. Shirley Jaffe, Untitled, 1957

JAFFE, Shirley. Untitled. 1957. Oil on canvas, 133,5 x 152,5 cm. Centre Pompidou, Paris. © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-Cci/Audrey Laurans/Dist. RMN-GP © Adagp, Paris, 2022.

Domain: Painting
Technique: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 133,5 x 152,5 cm
Acquisition by the Centre Pompidou: Gift, 2020
Identification number: AM 2020-440
Credits: © Adagp, Paris
Photograph: © Audrey Laurans - Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI /Dist. RMN-GP
Reference: 4N97023
Image diffusion: l’Agence photo de la RMN

7Shirley Jaffe’s compositions were exhibited along with those of other Abstractionists in group shows in European cities (notably in Paris in 1954 and in Basel in 1956) before her solo show in Berne in 1959 (Schipper 48). These expositions gave her a sense of how her art was perceived. While her paintings from before the mid-1950s are hardly figurative, the works she painted after 1955 and until the late 1960s tended to be interpreted as landscapes due to the nascent segmentation of color that they displayed. Untitled (1957) (Fig. 1) might for instance have been understood as a figurative representation of rocks and cliffs even though the artist has always insisted on the fact that figurative art was not her goal. This is the reason why in 1963, after obtaining a Ford Foundation Grant to spend one year working in Berlin, she started to question her style: “When I went to Berlin, in the late 60s, I felt that my paintings were being read as landscapes. And that wasn’t my intention” (Kaneda and Jaffe, 42). When she came back from Berlin, she isolated herself from the Parisian art world in order to focus on her style. During this period of self-criticism, she recorded herself on camera, which allowed her to conclude on the necessity of abandoning gesture painting: “I couldn’t control the color. The gesture was getting in the way” (Schipper 48).

Fig. 2. Shirley Jaffe, Untitled, c. 1963-1964

Fig. 2. Shirley Jaffe, Untitled, c. 1963-1964

JAFFE, Shirley. Untitled. c. 1963-1964. Oil on canvas, 152,2 x 122,4 cm. Centre Pompidou, Paris. © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-Cci/Audrey Laurans/Dist. RMN-GP © Adagp, Paris, 2022.

Domain: Painting
Technique: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 152,2 x 122,4 cm
Acquisition by the Centre Pompidou: Gift, 2020
Identification number: AM 2020-444
Credits: © Adagp, Paris
Photograph: © Audrey Laurans - Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI /Dist. RMN-GP
Reference: 4N97022
Image diffusion: l’Agence photo de la RMN

8To show this first stylistic rupture from gesture painting, the Centre Pompidou exhibited Jaffe’s post-1963 works in a second room in which Jaffe’s interest in geometry progressively appeared. With its numerous geometric shapes enclosing colors, Untitled (c. 1963-1964) (Fig. 2) exemplifies Shirley Jaffe’s stylistic transition from Abstract Expressionism to Geometric Abstraction. Gesture remains identifiable in this work, yet the top blue and bottom red sections of the dominating oval shape suggest that the artist was rather concerned with the exploration of color. Similarly, this painting is flatter than her previous works, which prefigures a textural shift in Shirley Jaffe’s style. This period of transition was also marked by the death of the artist’s mother. The latter had bequeathed some money to Shirley Jaffe, which granted the painter more financial—and eventually artistic—liberty (Schipper 47).

Geometric Abstraction: Experimentations with Color and Space

9In the 1970s, Shirley Jaffe’s interest in color was coupled with a new treatment of space: flat tints, including white spaces, became structural elements dividing the canvas. As the artist explains, she has “always been interested in breaking up space as a kind of compositional device” (Kaneda and Jaffe 43). Such artistic interest in dividing space might be accounted for by the physical, or practical, fragmentation of her works as she was compelled to combine small canvases as the pictures of her studio displayed at the Centre Pompidou attested. Indeed, when painting in an Abstract Expressionist style, Jaffe happened to work in Sam Francis’s spacious studio, thus allowing her to produce larger artworks. However, her own studio rue Saint-Victor in Paris, which “used to be a place for clochards” as the artist declared (Schwalb 2), was smaller, resulting in paintings which were more modest in size. For instance, Which in the World (1957) measures 193.3 x 300 centimeters (approximately 76 x 118 inches) whereas Quacker Oats, which was painted later (between 1979 and 1980) measures 92 x 73 centimeters (approximately 36 x 29 inches).

10The artist nonetheless transformed this spatial constraint into an asset by associating canvases to create polyptychs. Malibu (1979) (Fig. 3) is representative of this strategy as two triangular diptychs compose the left part of the artwork. Therefore, Jaffe’s treatment of space is not restricted to areas which are delimited by a frame but takes into consideration the area in which an artwork will be exhibited. Malibu can be displayed on a single wall, as shown on the photograph below, but it can also metamorphose into a corner piece as its arrangement in the Centre Pompidou illustrated. The association of multiple canvases also allowed the artist to experiment with the global shape of her artworks, the configuration of the left diptych in Malibu following a horizontal line of symmetry, while the central diptych is structured vertically. The complementary sizes and orientations of the four triangles also suggest that each piece could be slotted in to form a rectangle similar to that which constitutes the right part of Malibu, thus making this polyptych comparable with an undone puzzle in which “each part is important” as Shirley Jaffe declared in an interview with Shirley Kaneda (45). As a matter of fact, the spatial organization of the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou was also reminiscent of Jaffe’s painting techniques: echoing the separation between the diverse geometric shapes of her works, each room of the exhibition was also clearly delimited by partition walls and was dedicated to one particular stylistic period of the artist.

Fig. 3. Shirley Jaffe, Malibu, 1979

Fig. 3. Shirley Jaffe, Malibu, 1979

JAFFE, Shirley. Malibu. 1979. Oil on canvas, 128 x 525 cm. Galerie Jean Fournier, Paris. © Courtesy Galerie Jean Fournier, Paris © Adagp, Paris, 2022.

Domain: Painting
Technique: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 128.00 x 525.00 cm
Credits: © Adagp, Paris
Photograph: © Courtesy Galerie Jean Fournier, Paris
Reference: JAFFE_MALIBU_1979

11Even if her post-Berlin works appear as drastically different from what the artist painted in the 1950s, the philosophy of Abstract Expressionism remains identifiable in works such as Boulevard Montparnasse (1968), which became Shirley Jaffe’s first piece to be included in a French public collection. Even though the painting is divided into a multitude of geometric shapes, the bottom part of the work is significantly isolated from the rest of the artwork. Indeed, rectangular shapes of identical heights border the bottom of the painting, a regularity which is not to be found elsewhere in Boulevard Montparnasse. The colors which constitute this bottom line are nonetheless reused to form diamond shapes, triangles, circles, or parallelepipedons in the upper part of the work, thus undermining the disharmony brought about by this configurational divide. Everything thus seems as if the bottom part of Boulevard Montparnasse constituted the artist’s palette of colors, giving the viewer a glimpse of the painting process which, to a certain extent, echoes the focus that gesture painters put onto the act of painting. The Centre Pompidou equally highlighted the importance of the painting process by displaying some of the artist’s journals in which she mainly took notes on the evolution of color and movement in her works. Jaffe’s post-Berlin unregular forms might furthermore be interpreted as geometric transpositions of the imperfect shapes of gesture painting.

12Unlike some of her contemporaries such as Damien Hirst, who initiated his mechanical series of spot paintings in 1986, Shirley Jaffe was not preoccupied with regularity or perfection. On the contrary, in a letter to Merle Schipper she writes that balance is to be found in imperfection:

There has always been, consciously realized or not, this desire to give expression to the manyness of visual happenings going on at one time, and to stop them for moments on canvas. This manyness has never been symmetrical, nor even all over the canvas. I have always tried to make something odd, unsatisfying, yet fitting, occur. (Schipper 49)

This explains why her numerous geometrical shapes can only be described with hypernyms such as “polygons” or “curvilinear shapes.” The artist’s idiosyncratic style therefore differs from the precise linear depictions of Geometric Abstractionists such as Piet Mondrian, whose horizontal and vertical lines form perfect rectangles. Shirley Jaffe was conversely interested in depicting “a diversity that isn’t linear” (Kaneda and Jaffe 45). Other artists such as Shirley Kaneda equally identified an oscillation between balance and instability in Jaffe’s works, suggesting that her paintings presuppose two levels of interpretation, namely that of the part and that of the whole:

Analytical yet playful, geometric yet organic, complex yet airy, her compositions teeter and constantly threaten to come undone, yet curiously hang in precarious balance while the individual parts work in tandem to produce an unlikely accord. (41)

13Duality and unbalance can notably be observed in Malibu (Fig. 3), where the connected vertices of the two triangles on the left constitute the only point of stability in this symmetrical diptych. Yet, this vertically instable structure, which is also emphasized by the multiple unstable upright shapes represented on Malibu, is counterbalanced by the globally horizontal shape of the artwork while the alternating warm and cold colors establish an overall sense of chromatic balance. Likewise, the succession of vertical and horizontal paintings at the Centre Pompidou mirrored Jaffe’s paradoxical sense of balance. However, such balance is less used to convey aesthetic harmony than to create something new as the artist rather seeks to represent an “unborn,” or latent reality as she declares to Shirley Kaneda:

I am interested in non-centrality, coexistence, constant invention-making movements that are not repetitious but function together as a whole. There is always an element of non-belonging that holds everything together in tension, I don’t want a lyrical beauty. One could say I want to capture an unborn reality. (44)

The emphasis that she puts on “non-centrality” is visually represented in her paintings since the centers of numerous of her works are zones of marginality as they either contain the edge of a shape or are areas aimed at separating geometric shapes from one another. The absence of any salient, central figure is exemplified by paintings such as Sailing (Navigation) (1985) (in which a flat tint of white breaks up space in the center of the picture), All Together (1995) (in which the central vertical shape is so thin that it does not dominate the painting) or Untitled (Little Matisse) (1968) (Fig. 4), in which, despite the apparent central convergence of shapes, the vertices and edges of the different geometric figures do not fit perfectly.

Fig. 4. Shirley Jaffe, Untitled (Little Matisse), 1968

Fig. 4. Shirley Jaffe, Untitled (Little Matisse), 1968

JAFFE, Shirley. Untitled (Little Matisse). 1968. Oil on canvas, 119.5 x 91.2 cm. Centre Pompidou, Paris. © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-Cci/Audrey Laurans/Dist. RMN-GP © Adagp, Paris, 2022.

Domain: Painting
Technique: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 119,5 x 91,2 cm
Acquisition by the Centre Pompidou: Gift, 2020
Identification number: AM 2020-446
Credits: © Adagp, Paris
Photograph: © Audrey Laurans - Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI /Dist. RMN-GP
Reference: 4N94932
Image diffusion: l’Agence photo de la RMN

14Merle Schipper defines Shirley Jaffe’s flat tints as “fields” of colors (46), thus echoing color field painting‒a movement which appeared in New York in the 1940s in reaction to gesture painting. Color field painters were inspired by the flat colors used by Fauvists such as Matisse, whose influence is also noticeable in the title of Shirley Jaffe’s Untitled (Little Matisse). Yet, the artist can hardly be classified as a color field painter as her imperfect shapes diverge from the consistency of form promoted by color field painters to define her own, singular style. In one of her journals displayed at the Centre Pompidou, she even writes that her art is “fluttering,” a word which suggests that her techniques clearly differ from the rather strict norms of color field painters.

15Moreover, Shirley Jaffe’s even, flat tints evolved over time to include traces of pattern, which Schipper attributes to her attraction to decorativeness: “Not only the decorative arts, but painting that admits decorativeness has also been a source of ongoing interest” (Schipper 49). The striped circle at the bottom of Untitled (Little Matisse) presages this tendency while the painting’s various textures and superimpositions of paint foreshadows what Schipper calls Shirley Jaffe’s “reacknowledgement” (49) of the techniques she had used in the 1950s. Therefore, even though after her time in Berlin in 1963 the artist had managed to develop and explore an idiosyncratic style which allowed her to express her creativity, she never stopped innovating. This endless quest for originality might be accounted for by the fleeting nature of novelty and success, as Shirley Jaffe herself declared during her interview with Kaneda: “That is something that I’m quite conscious of: styles and fashions and the ephemeral nature of success” (42).

Back to Gestural Abstraction

16The exhibition at the Centre Pompidou ended with geometric artworks such as Networking (2007) (Fig. 5), a picture which acknowledges gesture again. The oval grey shape on the upper left part of this image contrasts with Shirley Jaffe’s previous flat representations of color in works such as Malibu (Fig. 3) or Quacker Oats. The network pattern contained in this ellipsis brings about a sense of texture while hinting at the artist’s spontaneity. Irregularities equally contribute to the creation of “unexpected rhythms” (Rubinstein and Jaffe 80) in her compositions, a synesthetic quality which is reminiscent of one of her favorite painters, namely Wassily Kandinsky. She moreover compared the act of painting with the rhythmical act of dancing in the audio recordings played at the Centre Pompidou. As Merle Schipper declares about Shirley Jaffe’s post-1980 paintings, “by injecting her structured formalism with the vitality of elements that may dance, swim, or fly in a new dialogue of image and field, Jaffe’s new work reacknowledges gesture” (49).

Fig. 5. Shirley Jaffe, Networking, 2007

Fig. 5. Shirley Jaffe, Networking, 2007

JAFFE, Shirley. Networking. 2007. Oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm. Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris and Brussels. © Bertrand Huet / tutti image © Courtesy Estate Shirley Jaffe © Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Bruxelles © Adagp, Paris, 2022.

Domain: Painting
Technique: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 73.00 x 60.00 cm
Credits: © Adagp, Paris
Photograph: © Bertrand Huet/tutti image
Reference: JAFFE_NETWORKING_2007

17This ellipsis, in which lines crisscross in an unpredictable way, conveys a sense of randomness in the work. In fact, beginning in the 1980s, the artist stressed the random character of art: “I don’t want a logical reading in my painting. I want the possibility of unpredictable change” (Kaneda and Jaffe, 45). Her plain geometric forms thus started to be juxtaposed or superimposed with free traces of paints and curved lines which are defined as imitations of handwritten notes by Frédéric Paul (Paul, 00:09:13-00:09:36). The top of Untitled (c. 1987) (Fig. 6) notably displays a wavy brown oscillating line which replicates the overall shape of a written sentence.

Fig. 6. Shirley Jaffe, Untitled, c. 1987

Fig. 6. Shirley Jaffe, Untitled, c. 1987

JAFFE, Shirley. Untitled. c. 1987. Drawing, 95 x 69 cm. Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris and Brussels. © Bertrand Huet / tutti image © Courtesy Estate Shirley Jaffe © Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Bruxelles © Adagp, Paris, 2022.

Domain: Drawing
Technique: Varied techniques on paper
Dimensions: 95.00 x 69.00 cm
Credits: © Adagp, Paris
Photograph: © Bertrand Huet / tutti image

18In addition to reinjecting gesture into her works, these independent lines reveal the self-reflective dimension of Shirley Jaffe’s paintings. Being reminiscent of the painter’s own notes on her memos (Fig. 7), they might indeed be understood as a gestural representation of the artist’s intentions and compositional processes, echoing once again the principles of Abstract Expressionism.

Fig. 7. Shirley Jaffe, Mémo retraçant l’évolution d’un tableau en cours, 2022

Fig. 7. Shirley Jaffe, Mémo retraçant l’évolution d’un tableau en cours, 2022

JAFFE, Shirley. Mémo retraçant l’évolution d’un tableau en cours. 2022. Drawing, 15 x 10 cm. Bibliothèque Kandinsky, Paris. © Bibliothèque Kandinsky, Mnam-Cci, Centre Pompidou / Dist. RMN-GP. © Adagp, Paris, 2022.

Domain: Drawing
Technique: Bristol paper
Dimensions: 15.00 x 10.00 cm
Credits: © Adagp, Paris
Photograph: © Bibliothèque Kandinsky, Mnam-Cci, Centre Pompidou
Reference: JAFFE_MEMORETRACANTLEVOLUTI_2022

19At the turn of the century, such fortuitous, unanticipated fluctuations multiplied in her works. In a 2004 interview, she declared: “That’s what’s quite exciting about continuing to live and paint. The element of chance, but also taking from experience. One has to constantly push some visual idea to unforeseen conclusions” (Kaneda 43).

20In this regard, Untitled (2004) displays blue curvy lines at the top of the picture while the black wavy lines and abrupt pink lines of Hawley (2011) add visual dynamism to the painting by contrasting with the flat colorful tints of the image. Likewise, The Ragged Mountain (2013), which was displayed in the last room of the exhibition, is ornamented with an unstable black line at the bottom left of the work. The final room of the retrospective at the Centre Pompidou thus offered a conclusive syncretism of the multiple stylistic periods displayed in previous sections. The multiple techniques and stylistic evolutions previously described allowed Shirley Jaffe to go beyond Geometric Abstraction and develop an aesthetics of her own which, according to Merle Schipper, constitutes an “assimilation of modernism that gives authority to invention” (46). Therefore, if Jaffe’s works contain innovative elements which marginalize the artist from classical Geometric Abstraction, it does not mean that she was not interested in and inspired by both artistic tradition and contemporary art as she had “the catholic eye and open mind that admit both the preservation of tradition and the newest work on exhibition” (47).

21In her 2004 interview with Shirley Kaneda, the artist stressed the need for the younger generation to know about past and contemporary painters in order to build up on them. For instance, she mentioned Julien Alvard, a French critic who initiated Nuagisme in the 1950s (42). Even if the movement’s interest in visual depth contrasted with the principles of Geometric Abstraction, one might note that the Nuagists’ experiments with transparency influenced Jaffe’s treatment of color in works such as Untitled (c. 1987) (Fig. 6): the bottom brown polygon is indeed translucent enough for the viewer to discern the underlying colorful shapes. In this sense, she selects and reworks traditional elements to build her own style:

She neither embraces nor rejects past artistic movements, influences and developments, be they American or European, and by staying her course she has resisted being absorbed into any of them, which gives her work a timeless peculiarity. (Kaneda and Jaffe 41)

In a letter to Merle Schipper dating back from December 1980, Shirley Jaffe nonetheless deplores the lack of female artists from which she could draw inspiration, which might explain why singularity was so important to her:

Girls have few role models as examples of successful creative artists and we have a hard time learning that fighting for our work is not something to be ashamed of as unfeminine. The manipulative passivity we have often been exposed to does not prepare us in handling the competitive professional business world. (47)

One of her aims was thus to stand out as a female Abstractionist, thus bequeathing a new, anti-patriarchal image of what an artist could be to the younger generation. As a matter of fact, “she occasionally gather[ed] a group of American feminist artists and critics in her studio for dinner” to spread American feminist ideas in Paris (Schwalb 2). Even if this feminist stance is not entirely explicit in her works, the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou put an emphasis on the artists’ gender in the title of the event, namely “An American Woman in Paris” (my emphasis), and the museum had already included one of her paintings along with works by Joan Mitchell or Georgia O’Keeffe in a previous exhibition entitled “Women in Abstraction” (From May 19 to August 23, 2021). Owing to this lack of successful female representatives in the artistic world, Shirley Jaffe sometimes resorted to her own past artworks to find inspiration and ways to innovate as illustrated in the last room of the exhibition. The picture The Ragged Mountain, in which a grey mountain is indeed recognizable, might in fact be perceived as a reworking of her early gestural works given that they had been received as figurative paintings representing rocks and cliffs. This image thus transfigures what used to be an unintentional stylistic component into a conceptual strength and suggests that, similarly to the visitors of the exhibition, Shirley Jaffe took a retrospective glance at her compositions.

22All in all, the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou showed how Jaffe’s stylistic evolutions allowed the artist to progressively become creatively independent and aesthetically innovative. Her originality was notably thrust into relief by Frédéric Paul’s rather sober display of the artist’s works as it created a visual contrast between the simple layout of the exhibition and the complex movements and colors in her paintings. Yet, the most singular feature of the exposition might have been the synesthetic dimension brought about by Jaffe’s voice: a recording in which she describes her creative techniques or her impressions of Parisian life was played in all the rooms and drew the visitors closer to the artist while conveying a sense of emotion and empathy.

23Shirley Jaffe’s fascination for both American and European art thus enabled her to produce idiosyncratic works which both innovated and drew inspiration from various international and local movements. Her stylistic evolutions show how the artist managed to combine the American taste for gesture painting with the French interest in colors, thus giving life to a singular artistic syncretism. The artist’s exile was both “a shock and a revelation” (Nochlin, 328), and Shirley Jaffe’s topographic uprooting of the 1950s eventually enlarged her cultural identity while fueling her artistic creativity. Therefore, if she was indeed “an American in Paris” when she first set foot in France, she progressively became a Parisian too, thus broadening her sense of identity while making her incapable of choosing between the United States and Europe: “Now, am I American or French or what?” (Kaneda and Jaffe 44).

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Bibliographie

KANEDA, Shirley, and Shirley JAFFE. “Shirley Jaffe.” BOMB, no. 87, 2004, p. 40-45.

NOCHLIN, Linda. “Art and the Conditions of Exile: Men/Women, Emigration/Expatriation.” Poetics Today, vol. 17, no. 3, 1996, p. 317-337.

PAUL, Frédéric, Svetlana ALPERS, and Bernard CHAUVEAU. Shirley Jaffe. Paris: Couleurs Contemporaines, 2022.

PAUL, Frédéric. “Visite exclusive de l’exposition Shirley Jaffe.” Centre Pompidou. May 25, 2022. www.centrepompidou.fr/fr/videos/video/a-suivre-visite-de-lexposition-shirley-jaffe. Accessed 29 July 2022.

RUBINSTEIN, Raphael, and Shirley JAFFE. “Raphael Rubinstein and Shirley Jaffe.” Art Journal, vol. 52, no. 4, 1993, p. 80.

SCHIPPER, Merle. “Shirley Jaffe.” Woman’s Art Journal, vol. 2, no. 2, 1981, p. 46-49.

SCHWALB, Susan. “A Letter from Paris: Feminist Art Movement Gathers Steam in France.” Women Artists News, vol. 5, no. 5, 1979, p. 1-2.

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Notes

1 Samantha Lemeunier is a PhD student at the École normale supérieure (Ulm); a member of the research unit “République des Savoirs,” she belongs to the CRRLPM group studying the links between literature, philosophy and morals. She has notably worked on William Carlos Williams and published a monograph entitled L’improvisation chez William Carlos Williams : expérience-limite du modernisme (L’Harmattan, 2020). Her multidisciplinary work adopts a cultural approach of American Modernism and also draws inspiration from philosophy and psychoanalysis as illustrated by her PhD dissertation entitled William Carlos Williams and hypermodernity: going beyond disfigurement and supervised by Hélène Aji. ORCID: 0000-0002-6014-2751.

2 The exhibition was entitled “Véhémences confrontées” and took place at the Nina Dausset Gallery between March 8 and March 31, 1951.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig 1. Shirley Jaffe, Untitled, 1957
Légende JAFFE, Shirley. Untitled. 1957. Oil on canvas, 133,5 x 152,5 cm. Centre Pompidou, Paris. © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-Cci/Audrey Laurans/Dist. RMN-GP © Adagp, Paris, 2022.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/20466/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 366k
Titre Fig. 2. Shirley Jaffe, Untitled, c. 1963-1964
Légende JAFFE, Shirley. Untitled. c. 1963-1964. Oil on canvas, 152,2 x 122,4 cm. Centre Pompidou, Paris. © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-Cci/Audrey Laurans/Dist. RMN-GP © Adagp, Paris, 2022.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/20466/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 556k
Titre Fig. 3. Shirley Jaffe, Malibu, 1979
Légende JAFFE, Shirley. Malibu. 1979. Oil on canvas, 128 x 525 cm. Galerie Jean Fournier, Paris. © Courtesy Galerie Jean Fournier, Paris © Adagp, Paris, 2022.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/20466/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 104k
Titre Fig. 4. Shirley Jaffe, Untitled (Little Matisse), 1968
Légende JAFFE, Shirley. Untitled (Little Matisse). 1968. Oil on canvas, 119.5 x 91.2 cm. Centre Pompidou, Paris. © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-Cci/Audrey Laurans/Dist. RMN-GP © Adagp, Paris, 2022.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/20466/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 181k
Titre Fig. 5. Shirley Jaffe, Networking, 2007
Légende JAFFE, Shirley. Networking. 2007. Oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm. Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris and Brussels. © Bertrand Huet / tutti image © Courtesy Estate Shirley Jaffe © Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Bruxelles © Adagp, Paris, 2022.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/20466/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 210k
Titre Fig. 6. Shirley Jaffe, Untitled, c. 1987
Légende JAFFE, Shirley. Untitled. c. 1987. Drawing, 95 x 69 cm. Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris and Brussels. © Bertrand Huet / tutti image © Courtesy Estate Shirley Jaffe © Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Bruxelles © Adagp, Paris, 2022.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/20466/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 518k
Titre Fig. 7. Shirley Jaffe, Mémo retraçant l’évolution d’un tableau en cours, 2022
Légende JAFFE, Shirley. Mémo retraçant l’évolution d’un tableau en cours. 2022. Drawing, 15 x 10 cm. Bibliothèque Kandinsky, Paris. © Bibliothèque Kandinsky, Mnam-Cci, Centre Pompidou / Dist. RMN-GP. © Adagp, Paris, 2022.
Crédits Domain: DrawingTechnique: Bristol paperDimensions: 15.00 x 10.00 cmCredits: © Adagp, ParisPhotograph: © Bibliothèque Kandinsky, Mnam-Cci, Centre PompidouReference: JAFFE_MEMORETRACANTLEVOLUTI_2022
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/20466/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 383k
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Samantha Lemeunier, « Shirley Jaffe: An American Woman in Paris »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 09 décembre 2022, consulté le 02 février 2023. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/20466 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.20466

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Samantha Lemeunier

École normale supérieure – PSL

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