Shirley Jaffe — Form as Experiment
Born in New Jersey in 1923 as Shirley Sternstein, the artist—now Mrs. Jaffe—moved to Paris in 1949. Following her short-lived marriage to the journalist Irving Jaffe, the painter decided to remain in France. Having soon established herself in the city, she held regular contact with the American “art expats” Norman Bluhm, Sam Francis, and Joan Mitchell, who had relocated to Paris somewhat later. Her work dating from this period may be attributed to Abstract Expressionism, a form that sought to draw exclusively from its own resources and which consisted primarily of wildly applied fields of color and gestures. Although this amounted to a success formula for the art market at the time, Jaffe nevertheless decided to strike out in a different direction.
A Ford Foundation scholarship facilitated her relocation to West Berlin for a year in 1963. Life in the then divided city—in a divided world—together with the death of John F. Kennedy in the same year and various other new influences, such as the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, brought about a shift in her stylistic direction. She drew further inspiration from the European abstraction of Wassily Kandinsky and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Over the course of her stay in Berlin, her color fields acquired more monochromatic and geometric forms; like Lego pieces or brightly colored paper snippets, they dance here and there, fluttering through the abstract-expressive passages of her canvases.
From 1969 onwards, Jaffe resided in a Paris studio apartment in Rue Saint-Victor, where she was to remain until her death in 2016. There, completed works were positioned to the left and those yet to be finished were placed to the right. They were separated by a space of 5 meters. This space may also be read metaphorically as a space signifying opposites—America and Europe, abstract and geometric, enigmatic yet highly accessible art.
The Kunstmuseum Basel Collection has recently acquired a significant group of works from the artist’s oeuvre—another reason for rediscovering Jaffe’s evocative paintings and for staging this exceptional and wide-ranging special exhibition, which was realized in close collaboration with the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Musée Matisse in Nice.
St. Alban-Graben 16