Conversation with Frank Trefny
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Conversation with Frank Trefny
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Elizabeth Johnson: Jeffrey Carr said of your work: "Art doesn't have to confound beauty, or fight with it, or compete with its naturally occurring presence. Beauty can be left as is." Does this ring true to you? If so, how do you find your groove that allows technique to reflect rather than overpower or undermine found beauty?
Frank Trefny: Yes, I agree with Jeff’s statement. But while everyone may share some concepts of beauty, it is subjective. One thing that makes something beautiful to me is that it looks paintable. That doesn’t mean necessarily that it looks easy to paint, but that it seems to call forth a painterly response. That feeling makes it “beautiful” in my mind. Ivan Albright saw the ugly in everything and made “beautiful” interesting paintings. I, on the other hand, often favor rather traditional beautiful subjects because they inspire me. I never find them boring. And if I do a boring painting of them, it just means I haven’t connected with my feelings and abilities and need to try harder, dig deeper, and be more aware.
EJ: Here’s another quote, from Scott Noel in a 1994 essay for your Coplan Gallery exhibit: "All the threads of the composition suggest an allegory about the making of the artist's private world, where nature and nature's inspirations are permanently wedded in the imagination."
EJ: Is narrative or allegory important to you? Is there an example of a story embedded in a still life in the current show at Gross McCleaf?
FT: I like the idea of allegory, but in the paintings in this show, such a concept would be very understated, to the point of being subconscious. But in Peony Elegy, from the very beginning, I was in a nostalgic mood, aware of past times, missing friends: this feeling increased as the painting progressed. All still lifes have an undercurrent of the temporary nature of things.
EJ: Gerrit Henry wrote for Art in America (1996): "Trefny haunts antique and junk stores before spending days assembling his rude objects into a setup he can live with––and paint.” What concerns determine building a setup? What inspires your color harmonies? For instance, I imagine the pastels in Shearwater Bouquet are ocean-based. Copper Top Table With Basin, Bottle And Screen recalls the dark mysteries of J. M. Whistler. Are you more inspired by nature or by art history?
FT: I do tend to arrange my setups, but I try to let certain things just happen, which is rather a contradiction.
FT: In the past I have done some very large, complicated compositions, but in this show the paintings are smaller and the compositions simpler with fewer objects. It just seemed to be where I was at. My color harmonies grow out of the observation of my subjects, but somewhere while painting and somewhat mysteriously the color of the painting develops its own existence, related to but not exactly like the subject before me. I don’t think about it. It just happens. As for Shearwater Bouquet having ocean-based colors, the large vase holding the peonies is a Shearwater contemporary ceramic. Shearwater Pottery began in the late twenties and continues to this day. It’s on the Mississippi coast and was damaged during Katrina. I bought this vase because the colors reminded me of ocean water meeting wet sand. I love the ocean more than anyone should love anything. I would say I am inspired by nature but am influenced and challenged by art history. Nowadays, after decades of painting, I feel like I have absorbed my influences. Of course, with the internet one can discover wonderful new artists, both historical and contemporary, and that is a great pleasure.
EJ: Marble Table With Roses And An Orange draws my attention to a modest silver bowl placed in the center, much like Marble Table With Conch And Pears showcases a conch. I sense that working with or against a central interest is important to you. For example, in your Coplan show, the black vase against the black background in the middle of Magnolia Branches really works. Has working with or against the center changed over the years?
FT: I am very strongly attracted to central compositions. But I also really enjoy the asymmetry of Japanese painting and prints. I have had a lifelong battle to try for more asymmetry.
EJ: In Frank Trefny, a Painter's Painter, (YouTube), you say that you sometimes change the setup while you are working, and that you don't want them to look too arranged. It’s fascinating that painting always spawns unforeseeable problems, and solutions that seem intellectually viable don't always work for emotional or painterly reasons. Was there a painting setup that went through many changes in this show?
FT: Yes. Shearwater Bouquet began with several more objects, which got removed one by one before I arrived at the present arrangement. There was a porcelain bowl with grapes in the space between the dish with onions and the rest of the table, and there was a group of small objects in that space that were cropped and went out at the edge. I removed them all and replaced them with that unusual little blue glass bottle that seemed to have a unique personality. Previously, that whole area seemed cramped, and the grapes just didn’t seem relevant. That left lots of white tablecloth with various shadows from two sources: overhead fluorescent light and natural northern skylight, which are an important part of the painting and fun to observe, adjust, and savor.
EJ: There is an arresting stillness that reads as serenity or repose in Marble Table With Tulips And Apples, a sense that placing objects just so generated lasting radiant energy. The small pink and cream vase in the foreground almost feels alive. Is this because of the jewel-toned palette? Do you remember how this composition gelled?
FT: By the time I got to Marble Table With Tulips And Apples, the fourth and final of the marble table series, I had begun to get a bit tired of the concept. So, I decided to use a brilliant iridescent blue/turquoise/green Thai silk fabric for the background for dramatic contrast. That may be the source of some of that energy. That little Japanese vase you mentioned I have used many times. I bought it in a Main Line thrift shop sometime in the 1980s for three dollars. Sometimes I paint it squatter, sometimes taller, but I always love to paint it. Its pinkish glaze makes it seem like it’s blushing.
EJ: In the Painter’s Painter video, you discuss northern light in your studio. Are the different kinds of subtle highlights on different materials in Marble Table With Tulips And Apples an indicator of northern light, since southern light usually makes objects seem more unified? Is adjusting highlights important to you?
FT: Yes. That painting was painted in northern overhead skylight. I do enjoy painting the highlights and paint them pretty much as I see them. But I will alter them, reduce them, or omit them if the painting needs it. Alas, I’ve had occasion to paint them, scrape them off, paint them again, scrape them off again––a million times––trying to get them just right. I read somewhere that Manet would paint them all as finishing touches and would do all the highlights at one time. I tried that and rather liked the way it worked. Never too late to learn something new.
EJ: Susquehanna Jugtown Bouquet and other bouquets in front of ocean scenery manifest a surreal feeling because flower arrangements that we usually encounter indoors are painted as exposed to the sun and wind. Did you paint them outdoors? Or did you combine a landscape painting with an indoor bouquet? Do you believe there’s an inherent tension between the two genres?
FT: That painting was originally conceived as an indoor bouquet and, briefly, I even had the bouquet on a bright turquoise green round table against a flat silver background, i.e., silver paint from the tube. That didn’t work. So, I imagined it on an old off-white table on a calm, white-sky day on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Columbia, Pennsylvania.
FT: For most of my life I painted such subjects outdoors. It’s my favorite way to do it. But, at my age now, that requires too much physical effort, so I will either invent the shore background, which I can readily do after decades of painting certain places outdoors, or I will take a photo and use it for reference. There’s something about combining the two subjects that appeals to me, and it’s nice to get out of the studio occasionally, even if it’s now just mentally. By the way, the four solitary bouquet paintings are titled after the type of pottery of the vase: Fulper, Jugtown, and Zanesville. They were all American pottery studios from early to mid-twentieth century. The Kashan vase refers to a type of Persian pottery from around AD 12th century.
EJ: I love Marble Table With Conch And Pears for its organization of blue, purple, and green, and the contrast of wispiness of real flowers with others printed on fabric, wallpaper, and a book cover. How did you get this particularly resolved interaction of colors? Was it a struggle? I experience the cool background first and then linger over the fruit, conch, and book. The curve of a honey-colored table seems very important to moving the eye with color. How do you "read” this painting?
FT: Conch and Pears is one of my favorites. That book-like object on the front of the table is a paper-covered cardboard shallow box probably from the 1920s that probably contained handkerchiefs or maybe stationery.
FT: It has a mysteriously nostalgic look that said, “Paint me.” I tend to favor objects with some history to them, i.e., old stuff. You very perceptively sensed a struggle with the color in this painting. The blue drapery on the left was originally a pale pink and it just didn’t work. So, I hung up a blue silver silk scarf instead and painted that, and it looked much better. Also, I had to correct a rather obvious drawing error on the bottom of the satin finished vase holding the bouquet. That also was an important improvement. In this painting I read the color as ending at the brownish gold curve of the table at the bottom, which anchors the whole composition. Also, I think of the patterned blue fabric in the background as a kind of night sky with stars and galaxies. That fabric, by the way, is 18th century. I’ve used it many times. It’s kind of magical.
EJ: “Paint me” and “magical” bespeak of someone smitten. Since you feature certain setup items again and again, does a former use of an object affect the new one? Do your objects generally play new roles in each painting? Does the difference between nostalgia generated by valuable, historic items such as collectible vases and quotidian old things affect you when you paint?
FT: As for the book-like box in Marble Table, I had never used it before. I was searching through my stuff for something to put in that space and found the box and it seemed to look good there. It’s old and rather enigmatic, and its charm grew on me as I painted it. I’ve used the “Mozart Fabric” (my name for it) many times because it has a hypnotic, paintable allure. I think my repeated objects do play slightly different roles in different paintings. Some are like old friends that I know I will enjoy painting. Even when I introduce new things, for variety, the old familiars can sneak into the painting. Old or new, these objects share an enigmatic paintable potential. They spark my “tactile imagination,” as Scott Noel might say. I hope that’s helpful. Some things are just difficult to express.
- Elizabeth Johnson
edited by Matthew Crain
Exhibition Dates: October 11 - November 12, 2023
Frank Trefny was born in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1948. He has lived in Newark, Delaware since 1983. He received his B.F.A. from Syracuse University in 1970 and his M. F. A. in 1974 from the Hoffberger School of Painting at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. He also attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1968. He has had 10 solo shows at the Steven Scott Gallery in Baltimore since its opening in 1988, most recently in 2016, and has been included in many group shows there. He has had 6 solo shows at the Gross McCleaf Gallery in Philadelphia, most recently in 2019 and has been included in many group shows there. He has had solo shows at the Bruce R. Lewin Gallery in New York, the Jerald Melberg Gallery in Charlotte, North Carolina and the Coplan Gallery in Boca Raton, Florida among others. His work has been featured at exhibitions at the Delaware Art Museum, the Noyes Museum in New Jersey, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and The Woodmere Art Museum, both in Philadelphia, as well as other museum venues. Trefny was the cover artist and the subject of a feature article in American Artist Magazine in December 1987 and again in 2009. He was also selected as the cover artist for Reader’s Digest in April 1995. His work has been reviewed in Art in America by critic Gerrit Henry and is represented in numerous major corporate and private collections including that of President Joseph and First Lady Jill Biden.