Shirley Jaffe’s Outlier Beginnings

Shirley Jaffe, “Untitled” (c. 1960), watercolor and gouache on paper, 13.98 x 11.61 inches

Shirley Jaffe is an outlier in the history of Abstract Expressionism. A member of the so-called “second generation,” she was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 1923, and grew up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. She studied at the Cooper Union School of Art. In 1948, she saw the Pierre Bonnard retrospective at MoMA, which influenced a number of artists of her generation, and in 1949 she moved to Paris with her then-husband, Irving Jaffe. In Paris, she became part of a scene of expatriate artists that included Jean-Paul Riopelle, Sam Francis, Norman Bluhm, Jack Youngerman, Ed Clark, and, later, Janice Biala, Kimber Smith, and Al Held. Unlike the other Americans in this group, Jaffe, who passed away in 2016, never returned to the United States.

Jaffe began exhibiting her work in Paris in 1956, but she did not have her first solo show in New York until 1989. For those who have followed her art, the work in Shirley Jaffe: The 1950s and 1960s, Works on Paper and a Painting at Tibor de Nagy Gallery (December 10, 2022–January 21, 2023) is largely unknown in New York. The show includes 15 undated pieces on paper, likely from 1958–60, and a vertical oil painting, “Dominos 2” (1962).

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