“Between the gathering of food and its consumption there is an interval when it is on display. To this arrangement of eggs on the sideboard, as may be, brought in from the henhouse. . . apples and pears from the orchard, a string of fish from the river, a brace of partridges flecked with blood, a basket of squash and beans from the garden, the Dutch gave the name still life around the middle of the seventeenth century.”1
“Over the years (William) Bailey’s still lifes have changed. In the 1960s a few eggs appeared on a tabletop. Then a few utensils were added. Gradually, over the next fifteen years, as the utensils took over the eggs vanished, except for the occasional appearance of one, as affectionate reminder perhaps of humble beginnings. The early paintings made up mainly of eggs seem, when compared with the recent paintings, casual in disposition. And the tabletops seem nowhere as ample as they do now. Increasingly they have become sites, and their objects have grown in size. Coffee pots are towers, bowls are colosseums, other containers are houses or forts, and between them shadowy piazzas, dreamlike passageways. And then they are nothing of the kind, but themselves, as they were, parts of an elaborately orchestrated picture that is much more powerful and assertive than its individual pieces. What began with a few eggs on a table has become an image of immense inaction, an apparition of fixity and quietude.”2
In the selections above, two contemporary writers, Guy Davenport and Mark Strand, provide important observations on contemporary still life painting. Throughout the history of art the still life however, has constantly been overshadowed: as the great classical themes in painting were always monumental narrative histories set in deep and panoramic landscapes, making the arrangement and presentation of domestic objects only a footnote, of little meaning or consequence. The writer and critic Guy Davenport would argue with me on this point: “We must not, however, imagine that still life is inconsequential or trivial. Composers work out ideas in string quartets—Beethoven’s and Bartok’s experimental forms for discovering what can be done with harmonies and tempi—that have become masterpieces. There are artists like Chardin and Braque for whom still life was their major form of expression, as there are poets who have excelled only in the sonnet and the short lyric.”3
Along with Davenport and Strand, there have been many other contemporary examples of writing about still life, or as it is known in French, nature morte. For me, one influential example was a catalogue for the “Big Still Life” exhibition at the Allan Frumkin Gallery in New York in 1979.4 Frumkin’s proposal was to challenge gallery artists and a few invited friends to paint large sized images of a variety of traditionally intimate subjects. James McGarrell’s submission was a veritable tour de force of this idea.
The poet Mark Strand has written chapters in catalogues and small books on both Edward Hopper and William Bailey that read like prose poems about the artists. There is also Guy Davenport’s book of essays on this very subject, “Objects on a Table.” Also, there are the writings of the poet and critic John Ashbery who was always attentive to this subject, especially with his colleagues Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher.
Here are Ashbery’s observations regarding Freilicher’s paintings: “Her pictures always have an air of just coming into being, of tentativeness that is the lifeblood of art. There are always new and surprising full passages where you couldn’t imagine another artist coming to the same decisions, which are invariably the right ones. Her subjects are often the same—still life or landscapes, sometimes viewed through a window—but the way of painting is constantly different, fresh, and surprising. Her work is rich in meanings that continue to resonate with us even after we have moved on and are thinking of something else. It is one reason why we value art and part of what makes her a great artist.”5
Some would say that these things are just objects on a table. Sometimes in art school they were referred to as table-top landscapes. Random placements of things, occupying our field of vision. Right at eye level. Although appearances may often be random, happenstance and arbitrary, this is not the case. As every painter knows, it is indeed a calculated risk to place one certain object next to another. It is the ancient idea of the just placement of things. And the poet Mark Strand, a classmate of William Bailey at Yale, has always been keen on this idea.
“Every painting is an answer to randomness, a metaphysical solution—each object has found its proper place in the scheme of things. And the arrangement, inasmuch as it is an ideal order, inspires belief. So that when a number of Bailey’s still lifes are seen at the same time, we are forced to experience the provisional nature of even the most extreme order. The painting, instead of being conclusive, becomes a revision, a judgment on the previous painting’s power to enchant and to subdue anxiety.”
“Bailey’s seemingly reductive world of pots and bowls on a table becomes complex. His objects are as basic as colors in their capacity to recombine into new figurational orders. In its studied reordering of ideal groupings, Bailey’s work is anything but repetitious. Objects keep reappearing, sometimes with their size or shape slightly altered, sometimes with the stations they occupy changed, and as a result their positions are diminished or aggrandized. Each change, we feel, is a new final chapter in the life of the objects. To miss these permutations in Bailey’s work is to resist what amounts to a critique of what passes for change in our culture.”6
1 Davenport, Guy; Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature; Counterpoint; Washington, DC; 1998; p. 3.
2 Strand, Mark; William Bailey; Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; New York, New York; 1987; pp. 28-30.
3 Davenport, Guy; Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature; Counterpoint; Washington, DC; 1998; p. 10.
4 Frumkin, Allan; The Big Still Life; Allen Frumkin Gallery; New York, New York; 1979; (unpaginated).
5 From a portion of John Ashbery’s statement before his presentation to Jane Freilicher of the Gold Medal for Painting given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 18 May 2005.
6 Strand, Mark; William Bailey; Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; New York, New York; 1987; pp. 32-34.