Born in New Jersey in 1923 as Shirley Sternstein, in 1949, the artist, now Mrs Jaffe, moved to Paris. Following her short-lived her 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 colour and gestures. Although, for the art market at the time, this amounted to a success formula 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—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 inspiration, furthermore, from the European abstraction of Wassily Kandinsky and of Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Over the course of her stay in Berlin, her colour fields acquired more monochromatic and geometric forms; like
Lego pieces or brightly coloured paper snippets, they dance here and there, fluttering through the abstract-expressive passages of her canvases.
Positioned to the left were the completed works, to the right were those yet to be finished. They were separated by a space of five metres. And so lived and worked the artist: From 1969 onwards, she resided in her Paris studio apartment in Rue Saint-Victor, where she was to remain until her death in 2016. The above-mentioned five-metre 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. One further reason for rediscovering Shirley Jaffe’s evocative painting and for celebrating this revelation by staging this exceptional and wide-ranging special exhibition. The exhibition was realised in close collaboration with the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Musée Matisse in Nice.
The exhibition is organized by the Centre Pompidou, Pris in collaboration with the Kunstmuseum Basel and the Musée Matisse, Nice.
The exhibition Shirley Jaffe. An American Woman in Paris was presented at the Centre Pompidou from April 20 to August 29, 2022. The exhibition will take place at the Musée Matisse from October 11, 2023 to January 8, 2024.