In an art world intent on finding stories in art, Suzan Frecon advocates for pure visual contemplation. This is potentially an unpopular, and uncomfortable, stance. Without story or a convenient packaging, Frecon asks us to rely on our eyes alone, and to take our time.
Frecon and I have arranged to meet at her home and studio in the Hudson Valley. She requests that I arrive in the morning, when the light is best. She works on her paintings only in natural light, and prefers that they be seen that way. It is warm yet overcast — certainly not the perfect, crisp autumn day one hopes for. Frecon, however, has nothing but positive comments about the beauty of the day, and she encourages me to linger a while in the area.
At her home, she points out that she is allowing her lawn to go wild. She is a birder, and this supplies more cover for a variety of birds. In this way, Frecon provides space for wildlife simply by not trying to control the environment. It is clear that she doesn’t label her environment in a predictable way. It feels linked to her resistance to labels in art — and the possibility that this can open another kind of space for us as viewers.
There is tremendous ambition even within the subtlety of Frecon’s work. Her paintings are monumental, many of them two-paneled, composed of a ground and one or two shapes, which are often semi-circular. She frequently juxtaposes a matte surface with one that has a sheen; some look velvety. She balances two or three colors within the paintings — earth reds, indigos, cadmium yellow — building up these areas methodically, so that light comes through the surfaces or is reflected back. Up close, her brushwork is clearly visible. Ovoid shapes are held within a ground, as if they are both suspended and embraced. At times, the outer boundaries of these forms just barely kiss the edges of the canvas. After a couple of hours in her studio, looking at a group of six paintings, I realize I too have been held in this comforting state of suspension; it’s that pleasure in just being.
Suzan Frecon was born in 1941 in Mexico, Pennsylvania. After earning a degree in fine arts from Pennsylvania State University in 1963, she spent three years at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In 2008, her work was the subject of a major solo exhibition, form, color, illumination: Suzan Frecon painting, which originated at The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, and traveled to the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland. She participated in the 2000 and 2010 Whitney Biennials. In 2016, Frecon received the Artist Award from the Artists’ Legacy Foundation in Oakland, California. She is represented by David Zwirner Gallery, which hosted a solo exhibition of her work in New York from September 10 to October 17, 2020.
Jennifer Samet: Were you exposed to art or artmaking as a child?
Suzan Frecon: I grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. My grandfather was French and his father was an artist. In the family, there was always talk about this artistic man who played the piano and won a major prize in France. We had his paintings, and he was like a hero of our family. However, my father wanted to be a farmer. His father had gone bankrupt and he had to live by his wits. He was charismatic, and he also worked really hard. On the farm I learned that you have to work hard. My brothers all had to go into my father’s farm or horticulture-related work. They were not allowed to be artists.
My father put all six children through college. I went to the state university, and I settled on art as a major. My father said that was fine, but that I had to major in either applied art, commercial art, or teaching. He said, “You can’t live in a garret and be a painter.” I knew from the beginning that I wanted to be a real painter — not a teacher or commercial artist. By the end of my first semester, I knew I needed to change my major to fine art. I kept it a secret from him. And it turned out, I was the kind of artist who lived in a garret and painted my whole life.
JS: Can you tell me more about your teachers at Pennsylvania State University? How did your path as an abstract painter begin?
SF: I didn’t learn anything about technique, but they opened my eyes. Growing up, I had access to some books, Readers Digest, and Life Magazine. I had barely seen paintings in museums. When I got to college, I had two friends who read The New Yorker. I remember being envious because I was way behind.
I was always looking for that path, trying to figure out how I could see and learn more. In my junior year of college, I had the chance to go to Europe. I went to Colmar in France and saw Matthias Grünewald’s “Isenheim Altarpiece” (1512–16). When I returned to finish my degree, my entire focus was on how I could get back to Europe so that I could be free to look at paintings and try to understand them. I knew that I was seeing just the tip of the iceberg from slides and reproductions.
I lived in Spain for a year, and in Paris. I enrolled at L’École des Beaux Arts and painted there. In Spain, I often went to the Prado. I was looking at Bosch and Breughel, because the stories are so seductive. I noticed that everybody was saying Velázquez was the greatest painter ever. I didn’t get it because I thought the people depicted in his paintings were unpleasant and weird looking. But the more I looked at the paintings, the more I understood how they were painted. That is what mattered. I went with that understanding and direction forever.
As a student, I worked with the model. That’s just what we did. I tried and tried for years. And then, one day, when I was about 20, I was working on a painting and I realized the figure was just getting in my way, and that I couldn’t do anything with it. That was a turning point. I threw out the figure. I wanted pure painting, which exists on its own strength as painting. My intent is high abstraction, no figurative depiction.
Last year, I went to Provence to see where Cézanne painted. I saw his studio and Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain he painted over and over again. He was not painting the story. Louise Fishman is one of the best painters I have known. But although she connects her work to her identity and heritage, I see no story in them. As with Cézanne, it is the reality of the painting that you see.
JS: It is interesting that you talk about Cézanne’s connection to Provence. I wonder if the shape of the Catskill Mountains, the silhouette of which you see from your home upstate, near the Hudson River, has affected the forms in your paintings.
SF: My path had been pretty well formed before I began coming up here. I do love Round Top Mountain, and that’s what I see when I come up to Germantown. It is half of an orb. But I was doing what I was doing long before I started living here. So maybe I like the mountain relating to the forms in my paintings; and because mountains are part of the eternal power that our eyes witness.
Architecture is art, and it has definitely influenced my work. Fulcanelli, in his 1922 book The Mystery of the Cathedrals, described how the original cathedrals were polychrome. This idea was very exciting to me. I began thinking about a statement on color, held by the form.
JS: I see your complex diagrams and drawings that you use to develop your paintings. Can you tell me about them, and how you use mathematics to develop the compositional structure?
SF: I felt that in most contemporary paintings I looked at — my own included — there was weakness in the compositions. Cezanne’s compositions are like stone, eternal; they don’t change. They anchor his work. It’s not a two-dimensional composition; it’s a three-dimensional visual composition.
I felt that I had to strengthen my composition. I was trying geometry, but a lot of artists in the 1960s and ’70s were working with geometric solutions. Mine didn’t feel meaningful or special, so I put it on the back burner. I was working more on stroke and material, and I was influenced by de Kooning. I was also looking at Brice Marden, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Robert Mangold. Later I discovered Agnes Martin, who is now one of my favorite painters. And I highly esteem Anne Truitt’s work.
In 1989, there was a show of Hilma af Klint’s work at [MoMA] PS1. The paintings really spoke to me. They were completely abstract. I didn’t know anything about spirituality. I began structuring my work with horizontals and verticals. I credit Hilma af Klint’s late abstract paintings for giving me that courage. I admired the fact that she was a mathematician, and I saw some asymmetry in her work.
I knew I wanted to work with asymmetry. I wanted to set up balances, imbalances, and dissonances. I tried working with numbers. But they had to be visual numbers; I didn’t want theory. I was trying to figure out the mathematics that went into cathedrals, but I never could. It is secret. I was impacted by music, and I read the book Mathematics and the Divine. I started experimenting and then looking, to see what worked, what held the painting.
JS: You mention the influence of, or your own interest in, several women painters. Do you think that there is something about female identity or the feminine which resonated with you, in particular?
SF: No. Though humans have been mistreated horribly, unfairly, and unjustly because of gender, race, religion, and so on, and I will always fight this, I think art does not have a gender. I never did. When I was 12 years old and I read Irving Stone’s 1934 novel on Vincent van Gogh, Lust for Life, I identified with the story as a human being. I never thought of myself as a “woman” artist; I just thought of myself as an artist. If I look at Mimbres pottery, or work where you don’t know if it was made by a man or a woman, there is no nationality and no racial differentiation. To me, art is universal.
JS: I know early or pre-Renaissance painting has been especially meaningful to you, and in particular, the work of Cimabue. Can you tell me more about your connection to Cimabue’s painting?
SF: When I first saw Cimabue, it was at the Metropolitan Museum. The crucifix from the Church of Santa Croce, Florence, was on loan in 1982. I was just overwhelmed by it; it was so powerful. To me it was abstract. The shape of the outside generated the art of the inside. That became an important guiding principle of looking at early Italian paintings, churches, and cathedrals.
For instance, I visited Aquileia, in Italy, and saw the 9th-century mosaics and frescoes in the crypt. Seeing a very moving crucifix depiction integrated into the arches of the crypt made me feel that Cimabue must have also been in this very spot. The shapes of the architecture of the crypt held the paintings. The paintings were made to fit in the crypt. That was very affirming of my desire to have the outside dimension of the painting generate the inside and hold the art. I knew I had strength in my compositions when I did that. It suspends the painting so that you want to keep looking at it.
JS: You prefer for your paintings to be exhibited with only natural light, and you work with natural light in the studio. When did you begin this, and why?
SF: In 1974, when I got my loft on Thomas Street in New York City, it was raw, and gorgeously lit by big arched windows. It was southern light, but it was good. That became integrated with my work little by little. Now I just paint with natural light. Artificial light creates one fixed way of seeing the paintings. Natural light sets up a multi-dimensional play with the painting, allowing a more heightened experience.
I have seen this with many paintings. In Italy, I was tracking down some Coppo di Marcovaldos. I went into the church, which was very dark. Then I saw this gleaming composition — the reflected gold form. I got closer and my eyes were adjusting to the dark interior. Then I saw the whole structure of the painting, the crucifix, and lastly, as I approached closer, I saw the art. The presence of the figure was held by the rest of the painting, and by the light.
In the 1980s, I went to Venice hoping to see every Bellini in the city. In the Accademia, the Bellinis were framed with reflecting glass, and poorly lit, so you couldn’t see anything. However, one Bellini painting, “The Presentation at the Temple” (c. 1460), was shown on an easel, beside a window, at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia. There was no guard around it. I could have stayed a long time, looking. You could see every nuance — the truth of the painting. That is the thing: it is more truthful for me to use natural light.
JS: Can you tell me more about the use of the diptych format, which recurs in many of your paintings?
SF: I actually don’t think of it as a diptych. When I found my double-stacked proportion, it was affirmed by the proportions of the carpet page in the 9th-century illuminated manuscript Book of Kells.
I find that great art lifts your mind into a realm where deeper thinking is unleashed effortlessly sometimes. When I actually saw a page in the Book of Kells in Dublin, it was so multi-dimensional; it wasn’t flat. The blue goes on forever and the yellow comes to the fore and it moves, and continues moving.
One day, I had a reproduction of the book open in my studio. I had been trying to figure out how I was going to break up the rectangle. It came to me like that. I put in a line that was generated by the outside dimensions, through the vertical. It eventually became a double rectangle. I titled it “tunc” after a page in the Book of Kells. This demarcation is still an underlying bedrock of my compositions. I began reading more about the Tunc page, and even found, to my delight, that James Joyce had written Finnegans Wake inspired by it.
JS: An ellipsoid or ovoid shape is also recurrent in your painting. How did that emerge?
SF: I was working with the vertical and horizontal. I continued with the one division, but I started bending it. I figured out that the mathematical proportion would be the same, but it would be a curved line. That’s where I began, and I continued with that.
JS: There is a lot of writing about how you mix your own colors. Can you tell me about that?
SF: That has been sort of warped into a legend — and it’s not. I used to make all the earth reds and other earth colors with pigment and oil because I could get varying sheens, rather than a very shiny or very matte surface. The earth pigments were pretty easy to mix. However, I buy many colors in tubes. For example, I can get a better ultramarine by buying Old Holland than I can by mixing it. Lapis lazuli would be impossible for me to mix. I buy genuine lapis lazuli already ground in the tube.
JS: Why do you often work with a contrast of matte and shiny surfaces?
SF: I wanted to make paintings with areas that could appear as both negative and positive in the composition, depending on the light and the viewer’s stance. It happened when I was at the Louvre, looking at Cimabue’s “Maestà” (c. 1290–1300). The burnished gold shifts brought the painting off of the flat plane, and activated its mesmerizing actuality.
I went on a mission to learn about gold, and took lessons in how to burnish gold leaf so that it would shift from light to dark, back and forth in the composition. I loved all the implications and the symbolism of gold as light and life. It all was very exciting, but eventually it turned out that I was spending too much time with it, and it was taking away from my time spent actually painting.
Color is an essential reason for my paintings. I found that I could achieve the negative/positive setup by using more oil. It can be problematic, because some pigments don’t work as well with stand oil. But I don’t want a quick-drying, slick-looking surface. I want it to work visually with the nature of oil paint. I had learned, through my reading, that the gold showed the flaws of the maker. I thought about how these surfaces show my nature because they had flaws. A pristine, smooth surface would not be as interesting or handmade. I want my work to be intimate and sensual.
I don’t really like to talk too much about my paintings. The way humans think about art, throughout time, is about the story. And it is true that the Christian painters were telling the story of Christianity to try to get people to believe. When you look at Giotto, that was convincing. The stories were beautifully painted. However, Islamic art, which I saw in Spain, is without any depictions, and it is very powerful in its own way. It leaves you to see the art, without a depicted story.
I spent time looking at some Islamic manuscripts at the Morgan Library, and they helped affirm some colors I was trying to work out in my painting. When I looked at the manuscripts, I didn’t understand the calligraphy in them. I began to call the series of paintings I was working on the book of paint. There are no words. Instead of a book that you read, it is the book of paint.
The content is the paint. People use content and say it’s the subject. But I don’t use it that way. My paintings have a lot of content. They are packed with it. Landscape, architecture, human beings and their consciousness: it is all there, but it’s not a depiction. I think every artist is trying to find their truth, of how to build a painting and turn it into art. I am working inside my own mind. The painting is to be seen, and experienced. It should come off the wall and become a presence with you.
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