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Till Freiwald
July 12–October 6, 2002

Till Freiwald
Untitled, 2001
watercolor on paper
92 x 60 inches

Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, NY.

Photos: John Berens, NY

Till Freiwald's portraits conflate narrative aspirations and conceptual impulses. You could not mistake yourself or one of your friends if either of you were his sitter, yet the identical passivity of each sitter is unnervingly abstract and conceptually complicated. Rather than close us off, that striking similarity exposes a range of complex possibilities. Freiwald's watercolor portraits piercingly, yet almost nostalgically memorialize everything physical, yet seemingly nothing emotional about his sitters. There is a destabilizing disengagement between the paintings' minimalism and their almost photographic detail, suggesting that the paintings' meanings lie in the interstices between the narrative and the conceptual. Painting from memory suggests that Freiwald recovers something more than mere representation.

Freiwald's portraiture is a slick surface from which easy definitions slide away, heightened by the opposites they embody. They are intimate yet alienating, present yet strangely absent. Other than the faces' terrains, do we know more about the sitters after studying their portraits than we did at first glance? Probably not, but why not? Freiwald has situated them all in almost the same position on the paper, so that there are no clues as to height or weight. A small swatch of their shirts shows on each shoulder, yet not enough for the viewer to formulate a judgment about clothing and its expressive possibilities. There are no additional visual clues that might suggest anything but physical difference between them. Freiwald's subjects, despite their variance in skin, hair, and eye color, ethnicity, and gender, all share the exact same expression which is, stubbornly and obtusely, a complete lack of expression. They seem to all inhabit the same interior emotional space.

But their interiority becomes secondary to Freiwald's memory of them. While painting sitters with whom he is less familiar, Freiwald may refer to small studies he has made of the sitter for clarification. He understands his relationship with the sitters to be a collaboration between them. Passive rather than active, the collaboration is defined by the sitter's ability to be intently scrutinized. Freiwald writes, "Usually it takes some time for a sitter to feel confident having an incessant look on him. To accept this situation and return the gaze is mainly what collaboration means to me." (1) Passivity and activity commingle in Freiwald's paintings, yet the opposites are never fully merged. They are merely balanced against one another, effecting a visual conundrum of placidity and anxiety. The meticulous exterior reveals nothing about the interior, and interiority and exteriority share equal status in Freiwald's ambiguous, yet deliberate portraits.

Freiwald's portraits are unerringly alike. As extreme facial close-ups, they present a landscape of luminous skin, hair, and eyes. No other details such as clothing, pose difference, or background disrupt the paintings' uniformity. Portraiture, something so private and sometimes painful to the sitter because of the intense scrutiny, is by definition a transformative experience. By painting from memory, in such an unforgiving medium as watercolor, where the paint saturates the surface of the paper and is unchangeable without destroying the surface, Freiwald melds his memory of the sitter—maybe they were great friends, maybe they were strangers—to his portrait of her or him. The resulting portraits are isolating yet intimate, and the sitters seem alienated yet oddly present.

All the paintings are untitled, so no naming gives the sitter an identity for us to associate with. The only deliberately chosen characteristic that renders them unique from one another in style and self-articulation is their hair. Quirky asymmetrical bangs or a choppy color job reveal some information, lean as it may be, that we have come to associate with self-expression. But then, self-expression is not the goal of these portraits. Freiwald understand that the body is a site of variously complicated meanings and messages, not just physiological facts.

Incertitude extends even to gender in some of Freiwald's portraits. From time to time, his subtle painterly offerings are not enough to determine the sitter's gender. Hair and dress are ambiguous, and of course neither is gender specific. Furthermore, no other social referents ground the sitter in or out of the socio-economic and cultural centers or margins, unless one considers beauty. And beauty determines social position. Freiwald's sitters, then, all belong to a centered, privileged class. Under Freiwald's even-handed treatment, they look strikingly perfect. They are beautifully without blemish and they glow with good health.

What is it, then, that Freiwald hopes to impart about his sitters, singular individuals, and their/his portraits? Parsing the question suggests that what Freiwald wants to convey about his sitter is entirely distinct from what he wants to say with their portraits. Sitter and portrait are not seamless, congruent, or conflated strategies as Freiwald merges anamnesis, or recollections, and strict representation. Memory and its retrieval are an imperfect, but often-used hedge against the grief of separation or loss. These existential memory portraits suggest the beingness of the portrayed and portrayer. Meaning is lodged in the idea of their existence and Freiwald's ability to remember them. Since reclamation of their image is equivalent to his recovery of their being, the portraits are evidence of the sitters' lives and by association, of Freiwald's. According to art historian Sarah Wilson, "A portrait is not only both object and representation. It exists during its creation, as perception, and in memory, in reproduction, in description and as text; in its own time, through time and beyond time." (2) Freiwald's sitters and their portraits are autonomous, sustainable, and remembered.

Dana Self

1. Faxed letter from Till Freiwald to Dana Self, 11 May 2002.
2. "Rembrandt/Genet/Derrida," in Portraiture: Facing the Subject, ed. Joanna Woodall (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1997), p. 203.