Lee Jaffe: History Revisited
October 21 through January 15, 2021
By SANFORD KWINTER, March 1984 (Originally published in Art in America)
Lee Jaffe’s paintings are big, bold and blunt and border precariously on the grandiose. Impressive in dimension, they are even more so for their startling ingenuousness, sentimental eccentricity, and gentle, almost touching rendering of details. Obsessed with historical time, Jaffe parades artifacts and images—maps, portraits, illustrations collected from history books, etc.—in billboard fashion, embedding them within and across an array of strange and funky surfaces that include such oddities as coyote and muskrat pelts, flypaper, turkey feathers, corrugated iron, and tar, not to mention a vulgarly lavish play of gold, silver and aluminum leaf.
Jaffe is reluctant, furthermore, to manipulate these materials: there is scarcely a patch of paint anywhere on the canvases (sprinkled dry pigment is the more common technique), and his work is, on the face of it at least, singularly without transformations. Its assembly is based instead on the mechanics of montage, with matter and images combined like collisions in their pure (indexical and non-signifying) exteriority.
ln a sense, each of Jaffe’s paintings functions as an impacted diorama: no recourse to illusionary or stenographic space, no dependency on a gaze to assure meaning and complete the work, just a literal display of the matter and facts—a host of metonymical paraphernalia collaged on large multipartite canvas structures.
The “Portrait of Nat Turner and John Brown” consists of real gallows (with a working platform, cross brace and noose) and a 10 by 14 foot canvas surface, on which appear the drawn figures of the two abolitionist martyrs superimposed over a Civil War map of the United States. Like nearly all the other 16 works in this show, the piece is intended as a portrait not only of historical figures, but of a historical mechanism—one which, like the gallows here or the electric chair (evoked by strands of wire) in “Eclipse Portrait of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg”, permits power to articulate itself directly onto bodies as the now common phrase would have it.
But the notion of mechanism is not exhausted by such depicted furniture: in each case the works are completed with various diagrams and notations. In the Turner/Brown portrait for example, there is the expansive Civil War map with its campaigns recorded with arrows and important events with date and place tags. The presentation is straightforward history book style, but with a slight twist: the phenomenon of war is shown to mesh indistinguishably with its local contact points, the personal lives of two men. The crossbeams which form the work‘s chassis go farther still to literalize this connection, evidencing Emerson‘s chilling prediction that Brown’s execution would "make the gallows glorious like the cross."
By EDWARD KIERSH, November 2021
Enveloped by mystery, their disappearance for more than three decades, the Portrait of Nat Turner and John Brown, along with such iconoclastic American martyrs as Sacco and Vanzetti, have resurfaced.
Now that the United States is riven by post January 6th, 2020 turmoil, besieged by gun-toting, anti-science Know Nothings quick to scapegoat and jam the airwaves with conspiratorial thinking, we again need Jaffe’s monumental “bold and blunt” historical paintings.
In 1984, when Jaffe debuted these works to such praise as Sanford Kwinter’s saying, “impressive in dimension, they are even more so for their startling ingenuousness, sentimental eccentricity, and gentle, almost touching rendering of details.”
Jaffe, a music collaborator with Bob Marley in the 1970s, and a friend of Jean-Michael Basquiat (a book detailing their relationship will be released in April) went on to numerous successful exhibitions. But his expressive dioramas/paintings described by Kwinter as “impacted...no recourse to illusionary space, no dependency on a gaze to assume meaning…” vanished sidetracked to a very private collection.
Now, at New York’s Nohra Haime Gallery in Chelsea, Jaffe is again compelling us to investigate history, the messages of Nat Turner, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and “Green” or capitalist George Washington. Perhaps even more relevant today than in 1985, these works are prescient, hinting at an America split by racial unrest, tribal factionalism, and dark, anti-democratic forces. In the Nohra Haime catalog heralding the reappearance of Jaffe’s dioramas, he’s lauded for his use of uncommon materials (collages of maps, animal pelts, turkey feathers, etc.) and “breaking down codified formats.” Jaffe is indeed the radical. He’s not merely a painter. He is the true artist, someone who exposes a world that might otherwise be forgotten. Jaffe provokes and shows us with great urgency what must now be fully seen. Or else…. WM