Summer Highlights #4: Painted by the Sky

by Sam Swasey

July 20, 2018

Jane Wilson. Green Sky in Autumn (2004); Oil on canvas; 60 x 60 inches. © Estate of Jane Wilson. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York.

Degree Critical, the online publication of the Art Writing MFA program at the School of Visual Arts has been a mainstay of the department since shortly after its inception. As the Art Writing program advances into its second decade, we’re also taking the opportunity to freshen Degree Critical by re-launching it as its own standalone website, so that its relevance becomes more profound than ever. Look for more information, and an official re-launch date to come later this season. To celebrate this anticipated and exciting new phase of Degree Critical, we are looking back on some of the treasure contained in its vaults. Every Friday throughout the summer, we’ll be re-posting earlier pieces of writing that capture the spirit and essence of the publication. 

In “Painted by the Sky,” first published here in Spring 2017, writer Sam Swasey (Class of 2013) recounts the life of painter Jane Wilson (1924-2015) in an essay that is at once part memoir, part biography, and part critical writing—a fusion of genres that blossom into something entirely new. He deftly weaves together details from the artist’s life as well as his own personal memories of her, all the while relating these elements back to a subtle, humane critique of Wilson’s storied body of work. What results is not only a fresh take on her paintings, but also a new light shed on one of America’s great—but overlooked—twentieth century painters.

—Jessica Holmes, Editor-in-Chief

There is on occasion a moment when an artist’s career becomes inseparable from who they are—when their work is not simply a by-product of life, but is life itself. While this moment could occur in a flash, it is more likely that it spans their entire life and, sometimes, transcends it for generations to come.

A moment.

Whether it is one’s realization of another’s virtuosity, or, when the other achieves a certain level of notoriety, a lifetime of devotion, or, when one recognizes a lifetime’s worth of creative activity, there is at times a moment when we begin to refer to an artist’s work, not as objects apart, but interconnected pieces—like everlasting breaths—of their creator. The painting is not by Jane Wilson. It is a Jane Wilson.

A few years ago I spent a weekend with Jane, her husband, John Jonas Gruen, and their daughter, Julia, at their home in Water Mill, New York. It was spring, and Jane and I sat together looking out on their patio of red and browning brick, with furniture and metal tables in oxidized greens. It was afternoon, and the sun swept in on a horizontal plane, held in place by the constant ocean breeze, illuminating the pinkish buds of the cherry blossom that, one after another, were released into the air making light of their descent, as if this transient dance was their singular purpose. We discussed, as we often did in the nearly four years I knew Jane, the act of painting and what it meant to her. She talked about her many attempts, mostly in watercolor, to render the cherry tree, not precisely as she saw it, but as it was to experience it. Whether it was in full bloom, or in its most permanent state—blossomless and bare, except for the growth of hairy green moss or outfitted in snow—Jane painted this tree often throughout her life. But each painting is marked by differences, which speaks as much to the changing scene as it does to the painter who, like all of us, was in each instant becoming something new.

Jane Wilson at her show Tibor de Nagy Gallery, NY (1960). © Estate of John Gruen.

During her nearly 70 years of artistic production, Jane brought her sketchpad, watercolors or oil paints nearly everywhere she went, from her various Manhattan apartments, to her home in Long Island; from San Francisco and Hanover, New Hampshire where she was a visiting artist at Dartmouth College in 1991; to Paris, London and Venice, and the many other European cities she travelled through, experiencing their landscapes and culture and studying the collections of their museums. She explained to me that painting was a process by which memories of a specific time and place are created—an action that alters a moment’s significance. When painting, one focuses on passing life, but the experience is not passively enjoyed; it is studied. To paint a landscape, still-life or cityscape is to isolate a piece of fleeting time, to pay homage to a fragment of that great expanse of world that contains all that is outside ourselves.

She asked if I wrote about the things I saw or felt when I travelled. We discussed what seems to be a rare occurrence in life: when a comparison of two things—in this case, writing and painting—presents a profound clarity regarding their limited similarities, while a vague and mysterious fog shrouds their apparent, though unspeakable differences. To write about the things we experience, just as to paint them, creates for us a past which we otherwise would not possess, but the differences between how these creative processes manifest themselves in memories are not claimable, especially when these memories are another’s, apart from us and, like the landscapes we contemplate, contained in that great moving existence outside and beyond us.

We often speak of a work of art as if it were the artist herself, because that is precisely what it is, particularly in the case of Jane Wilson. A painter of landscapes, skies, and lived experience rather than abstraction, for her the act of painting was one of creating memories. For nearly 70 years, it was the process that formed who she was—each brushstroke bending the trajectory of who she became. This includes her human-less seascapes beneath twisted skies, or those figures made nameless by city rains and her glowing moons that comfort like nightlights when caught half-way between dream and wake: Jane Wilson and her paintings in a lifelong dance, forever complicating, beautifying and becoming the other.

Just as we can find Jane in each and every one of her paintings, we will likewise discover her paintings within these photographs of her, taken by her husband of 67 years, John Jonas Gruen.

Jane Wilson, IA, (c. 1940). © Estate of John Gruen.

Luella Jane Wilson was born on her family’s farm outside of Seymour, Iowa on April 29, 1924, to Wayne Wilson, and Cleone Margaret Marquis. Three years later, her sister and close companion in youth, Ann, was born.  The late 1920’s and especially the 1930’s was a time of profound distress for the Midwestern plains, and likewise for the farmers who depended on them. Various political factors during and after World War I had caused crop prices to increase. Farmers, some of whom were now equipped with efficient gas powered machines, overextended their agricultural reach into greater and greater swaths of land, expediting the overgrazing that had begun as early as the 1890’s, which eradicated native grasses that served to hold the soil in place. The Dust Bowl formed at the arid bed of the Great Plains, accompanied by intermittent but extreme droughts and severe winds. Earth was sent skyward, and moving storms of dust replaced days with horrific nights from Canada to Texas.

In his only novel, House of Earth, written in 1947, singer-songwriter and folk musician Woody Guthrie (a.k.a. the “Dust Bowl Troubadour”) harkens back to his life in Oklahoma during the “Dirty Thirties.” While the story takes place in Texas, which was affected more significantly by the events of the 1930’s, the novel serves as a voice from which we might feel, ever so vaguely, what life was like on the plains during this time.

The farm and ranch lands where the wind sports high, wide, and handsome, and the houses lay far apart. All down across this the wind blows. And the people work hard when the wind blows, and they fight even harder when the wind blows, and this is the canyon womb, the stickery bed, the flat pallet on the floor of the earth where the wind its own self was born.[i]
Guthrie’s spiritualization of the weather patterns, wind both the creator and destroyer of the “womb” (the canyon and the semi-fertile floor of the earth) from which “its own self was born,” is a vision of the land that could only be written by a person who worked it. Jane, who described herself as pantheistic, once noted in a conversation with the writer Justin Spring: “on a farm you’re very aware of weather because so much of your life is dependent on it. And in a place like Iowa the weather can be so extreme. You learn to feel the weather coming.”[ii] Just as Guthrie’s people, who “fight even harder when the wind blows,” Jane’s father “would work outdoors until the end of the day, and… [her mother would] do the cooking, the cleaning, the canning, feed the chickens, tend the garden, slop the hogs, milk the cows [and] make the sausages.” “Life” as Jane noted, “was an unending preparation for all seasons and eventualities.”[iii]

Jane’s childhood, as she remembers it and as can be seen in early photographs, was hardly some sort of unending apocalypse. To be young, contrary to the common narrative of innocence and ease created by nostalgic elders, can be extremely difficult, but what children and adolescents lack in years and physical stature they make up for in emotional resilience and something so many of us lose over time: imagination. In a conversation Jane had with writer and artist Mimi Thompson, she said: “The place and the light you’ve been born with sets you up for a lifetime, everything else is measured against that. A person as a child tends to think that the whole world is exactly like the place he or she lives in.”[iv]

At an early age, on car trips the family took, she learned that the whole world was not a replica of where she had been born: “You put two kids in the back of a car and a chicken in the front and the cast iron frying pan somewhere else and you can drive for two weeks.” And drive they did, through the vast and ever changing landscape of America. Through the Badlands, profound and otherworldly—a geological anomaly, like prehistoric sand castles dripped from prisms in the sky. Through the southeastern United States where she recalls seeing “razor back hogs running wild,”[v] and through the valleys of California and the moving fogs of San Francisco, where she was confronted by the ocean for the first time: for young Jane, America was a landscape with a conclusion. At the ocean, she viewed both the end and the beginning of the rest of the world, having once thought all of it was contained by the horizon line on the outskirts of her hometown.

From imagination comes dreams. As a young person, in dreams, we picture ourselves and the possibilities of who we might become. As a young American, imagination is often ignited in the dimly lit theaters and projected light where we find—to appropriate Humphrey Bogart’s modernized rendition of Shakespeare—“the stuff that dreams are made of.”

For Jane, who she might become, was Hedy Lamarr. In a leather bound photo album of Jane’s, on a crumpled black page, ripping at the edges and labeled “spring, 1940,” are small photos of her and her sister, Ann, with Clark Gable, Ms. Lamarr, and another woman who looks to be Claudette Colbert. That year, Jane was at that wonderfully mysterious, vibrant, chaotic, hormonal age of 16, crouching in a darkened cinema seat ,snapping shots of her favorite stars. Below these screen shots are headshots of the elegant Lamarr cut from magazines. On the following page in Jane’s album are pictures of her and Ann posing with an unlit cigarette. Jane’s hair is done-up like Lamarr’s, and she poses as if caught in mid-conversation about something utterly refined, here in the limelight, turning heads. It appears that early on Jane was well aware of the type of woman she would like to become, but she would not be judged by her good looks alone.

Jane Wilson, age 17. © Estate of John Gruen.

In 1941, at the age of 17, Jane enrolled at the University of Iowa. Apart from studying painting and art history she also played the oboe in bands. As a teenager, she was immersed in music, studying voice and piano too, and in her later years, she spoke fondly of her time playing the bagpipe with the University of Iowa Scottish Highlanders, who in 1943 became the largest all female bagpipe band in the world. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1945, and received an M.A. in painting in 1947, and immediately took a two-year position as an assistant professor of art history.  It was during her time at the University of Iowa that Jane met John Gruen, a young man fresh from military service who spoke with something nearing a central European accent, having been born outside of Paris and raised in Berlin and Milan, before moving to New York with his parents at the age of 13. For each, the other must have had the allure of exoticism—he, a multilingual man who had grown up mostly in Europe, but also for a time in the great metropolis of the U.S.; she, from the middle of America, beautiful, and from a background perfectly foreign to a European. As the story goes, John first laid eyes on Jane while crossing a bridge that traversed the Iowa River. In his own words: “Every time I saw her, the more she resembled my two favorite film stars: Gene Tierney and Dolores del Rio, with their high cheekbones and elegant figures…[Jane was] so quietly glamorous! I absolutely had to meet her!”[vi] And later, in a darkened auditorium pierced by that projected light from which so many youthful dreams take flight, John asked Jane during a screening of Marcel Pagnol’s La Femme du Boulanger if she’d go to dinner with him. She said yes.

On Easter Sunday, March 1948, in Oskaloosa, Iowa, the young couple was married. In 1949, the newlyweds flew to New York, a city that was just taking the reins from Paris as the most innovative art capital in the Western world. John, an aspiring composer, and Jane, devoted entirely to painting, found themselves an apartment at 319 West 12th street, which only nostalgically could be considered boho-chic. On the cusp of the Beatniks’ rise, on the edge of “allover” painting’s development, in the midst of jazz, in a building with a shared bathroom and an apartment without a kitchen, the couple began their life in “Sin City”, as Jane’s parents had affectionately called it, paying 48 dollars a month for their new digs. They threw themselves into the mix, meeting painters, writers and composers. Having learned of the now famous Cedar Bar from their friends, writer Arnold Weinstein and soprano Naomi Newman, Jane and John began frequenting this artistically bustling locale. It was here that they met many of the people with whom they would form long and meaningful relationships: Willem de Kooning, Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, Marisol, Jane Freilicher, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler.

After working for a few weeks in a bookstore at the Hotel Marguery, Jane tried her hand at modeling. While this was hardly her dream job, and while it was frowned upon and deemed shallow or unintellectual by some of her artistic peers, it was a means to pay the bills. In the early 1950’s, Jane had joined two of the most famous artist cooperatives of the day: Tanager Gallery, and The Hansa Gallery. Only a handful of artists at this time could live from the sale of their work alone, so in order to get exposure and garner the support of a gallery one had to literally pay the price. Jane, like every artist in the Hansa cooperative, paid $18 a month for the upkeep of the gallery, while keeping her job as a fitting model in the Garment District.

For seven years, Jane’s notoriety as a painter and a fashion model grew, and at times, these two seemingly divergent lives worked as a team for the reciprocal benefit of the other. In May 1957, Glamour magazine, the self-described “fashion magazine for young women (a guide to good taste at home, at play, on the job)”, did a story on Jane Wilson, the artist of oil paints and cosmetics. In photographs by Frances McLaughlin, we see Jane ‘on the job’ (daubing paint on a canvas, wearing capris and flip-flops), and ‘at play’ (dressed to the nines in a beige silk sheath and stilettos). These photos of Jane are glamorous, and the way in which she is portrayed is mostly spot on, including the title: “Close-up of Jane Wilson, who sees clothes and make-up with an artist’s eye.” Jane never fulfilled the stereotype of the oppressed and bedraggled artist who walks the streets with sunken eyes and unraveling sweaters. No matter the occasion, she always dressed well.  

That same year, Jane and her work were featured in Life magazine in an article titled “Women Artists in Ascendance.” Alongside Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Nell Blaine, Jane was profiled as one of the five leading female painters in America. Such was her dual existence: both her internal and external worlds on permanent display.

Recalling her early days as a painter in New York, Jane told Mimi Thompson: “I floated around the periphery and either disliked or couldn’t handle the kind of scrappiness that was an element of the social scene.”[vii] Her peripheral existence, both in and outside it, stemmed from both her New York life and her childhood in Iowa.

The way I grew up… didn’t encourage me to be outgoing. Neither of my parents were outgoing. Our life was solitary because that’s what farm life is. And because we moved so much, we were always, in a sense, foreigners or aliens… Solitude is Midwestern. It’s not loneliness. It’s solitude, and it’s valuable.[viii]

Jane was articulate and succinct, with a witty sense of humor and a quiet demeanor that made people hang on each word she spoke. When we consider her paintings from this time, this sense of solitude is ever-present. Looking at these early portraits there is an awkwardness in the way she represented the people she painted. Like Fairfield Porter and her close friend Jane Freilicher, Jane was influenced by Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard, as well as by ancient Japanese art and Abstract Expressionism, the works of Delacroix, Velazquez and Turner, and so much more. Edvard Munch, or at least the humanity in his paintings, is likewise found in her work, and it is a certain inversion of this phenomenon that seems to produce this awkwardness. While an artist’s singular perspective can never be removed from a work of art, Jane focused not only on her subject and how they may have felt, but how she perceived herself engaged in the act of perception.

Jane Wilson. Portrait of Jane Freilicher (1957); oil on canvas; 36 x 24 inches. © Estate of Jane Wilson. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York.

Two well-known portraits from this time are Portrait of Jane Freilicher,1957 and Andy [Warhol] and Lilacs, 1960. The palettes for these canvases couldn’t be more different. The profile of Warhol and his surroundings are composed of muted yellows, eggshell blues, and soft creamy purples. Freilicher, who stares straight ahead just short of confronting our gaze, is dressed in deep-ocean greens and blues, and surrounded by streaks of pink and burning reds. Even when we consider the somewhat stoic pose of Freilicher compared to the hunched and dreamy Warhol, both exude a sense of fragility. It is as if at any moment, either could dissolve into their backgrounds. The task Jane undertook in such portraits is a fragile one indeed: to confront her own solitary perspective of another being’s solitude.

“Art practice is work” she told Justin Spring, “it’s focused and rigorous—and yet at the same time, doing it, you somehow get beyond immediate distractions, into something inner, deep, and important…the under-self.”[ix] In these works, a sitter’s humanness is the subject of the painting, but it was hers that defined it. Whether in her portraits, or in the traces of human life found in her cityscapes, people seem profoundly fragile. Jane’s subjects early on were surrounded, either literally or sensationally, by skies and weather patterns. Eventually, on her way down into her under-self, she reached the core, and like light piercing the lens of an eye, all was reversed—the inside became outside, and down became up. Viewers no longer stood on the outside looking in, but on the inside gazing upward at Jane’s limitless skies above.

In the second half of her career, Jane continued to paint portraits and still lifes, but she was largely devoted to the sky. She produced these land and seascapes from a combination of memory and sensual expression; or, more accurately, she painted her skies from a memory of the intellect and, like a dancer, of the body.

Writer Luc Sante once wrote of Jane, “the sky, which has no memory of its own, is tremendously fortunate to have her as its portraitist, its analyst, its biographer.”[x] Even the paintings Jane made from life often have the look of a memory. Her skies can be elegiac or foreboding, filled by longing or hope; they are at once recollections and premonitions. They expose paints’ ability to both render the past, and to outrun the conscious mind.

It might be commonplace now to have our lives and the lives of others thoroughly documented in photographs, to be flipped through at the click of a mouse, and witnessed in fragmented glimpses from the glow of computer screens. But for a life that preceded these trends, it is a rarity to have it so thoroughly documented. When I met Jane she was in her 80’s and I was in my 20’s. But, I was immediately aware that it would not only be clichéd, but perfectly inaccurate to consider her ‘in the winter of her years.’ John often told me that when Jane entered a room, “the temperature changed.” I believe this. She held the weather and all seasons inside her. The privilege to have known Jane Wilson for the short time I did will be something that I will forever cherish. And to have gathered, edited and written about these photographs, spanning the 90 years of her rich and prolific life, was nothing short of falling in love in reverse.

[i] Woody Guthrie, House of Earth, ed. Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp (New York: Harper Collins, 2013), 4.
[ii] Justin Spring, “A Conversation with Jane Wilson,” in Jane Wilson: Horizons (London and New York: Merrell, 2009), 157.
[iii] Ibid., 152.
[iv] Mimi Thompson, “Jane Wilson,” BOMB Magazine (accessed February 15, 2015).
[v] Ibid.
[vi] John Gruen, Callas Kissed Me… Lenny Too!: A Critics Memoir(Brooklyn: Power House Books, 2008), 57-58.
[vii] Thompson.
[viii] Spring, 157.
[ix] Spring, 159.
[x] Luc Sante, “The Sky’s Biographer”, Catalog Essay, Fishbach Gallery: Exhibition date 17 October-15 November, 1997.

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