Till Freiwald, UNTITLED, 2001

watercolor on paper



Till Freiwald makes closely observed portrait pictures, watercolors on paper, in two formats: one around 30 by 20 inches and the other around 90 by 60 inches. The view in both sizes is identical: full frontal, with the head cropped at the top of the sheet and the ears just contained within the vertical edges. The smaller are painted from life; the larger are subsequently painted from the artist’s memory. From the small format to the large, little changes other than the scale itself. In any case, presumably the original sessions—the smaller portraits are the result of several sittings—are necessary to the large pictures. Are then the larger portraits necessary to the smaller? The smaller paintings, after all, don’t call out for enlargement; they aren’t so small. At 30 inches high, the heads we meet in them are already well over life-size.

The necessity to go monumental might be stylistic, and stylistic within an established Contemporary context. We’re not used to seeing watercolors of this size, but we are used to seeing portraits—or at least pictures of people—this big. We recognize the scale, as well as the identity-card cropping and the smileless gaze that goes with it. Although the larger format invites comparison to the early heads of Chuck Close, Freiwald’s work feels closer to the large-scale photographic portraits of Thomas Ruff and indeed has more to do with Contemporary variations on the legacy of August Sander and Neue Sachlichkeit than Close’s Minimalist-inspired hyperrealism. Ruff has said that unlike Sander, who was interested in capturing reality, he is interested in creating a picture and that he makes portraits of people because he is curious to see what they will look like as pictures. The same seems to be true for Freiwald. Even if Freiwald’s series of identically framed heads becomes a kind of catalogue that hearkens back to Sander’s project of documenting “types”, Freiwald is interested in creating pictures. He shows us what a face will look like portrayed in his style at least as much he shows us a particular likeness.

Unlike Ruff’s photographs, or Close’s paintings for that matter, Freiwald’s watercolors do not confront us with pores, pimples, and hairs. Rather than offering up the pitted topography of an enlarged face, Freiwald fuses layers of subtle color to give skin a powdery and uniform luminosity. (The people he paints are all young; one wonders what he would do with wrinkled, sagging skin.) Freiwald’s use of watercolor is controlled in a manner that banishes all flourishes; there are no flashes of light and shadow characteristic of masters of the medium like Winslow Homer or John Singer Sargent. But then his sitters are not en plein air. Like Ruff’s subjects, they are under the kind of even, neutral light that would suit a passport-photo studio. Freiwald also translates quirks of a portrait lens with a shallow depth of field when he lets the sharpness of the sitter’s eyes, nose, and mouth diffuse at the hair, which he renders as soft shapes of uninflected color. The ears too go soft.

It is because these heads—even in their smaller format—are so allied with the stylistic features of a Contemporary photo-based portrait idiom that they translate so seemlessly to a monumental size. If there is no inherent surprise in the exaggerated scale of Freiwald’s large works in terms of how they ‘look’ as contemporary portraits, there is a particular indicator of his Conceptual method. The element of scale calls attention to the two-step process of making the large pictures. We know that Freiwald paints the large pictures without his subject before him. He relies on his memory of the earlier sittings, or perhaps just as feasibly on the memory of the smaller antecedent watercolors. One would imagine that the two memories—of how the person looked and how the smaller painting looks—must in some way fuse in Freiwald’s mind. It’s odd that virtually nothing changes in a face when it goes from small to large, from seen to remembered. If the larger pictures are the result of the mind’s eye, then they suggest a mind that can hold an image of a face remarkably still while enlarging it up to nearly eight feet high, bigger than the body of either artist or sitter. The effect of this strange permanence of the image on us, as viewers, is to make us feel that it is we who have changed scale—like Alice after drinking a potion that makes her shrink. These\ pictures are nothing if not constant.

EH Gombrich has written that “style, like any other uniform, is also a mask which hides as much as it reveals.” What Freiwald reveals with the style of these pictures is his literacy in a common idiom, but he also uses style as a cloaking device that allows him to contemplate both a face and its image in uncommon stillness and even more uncommon privacy. The fidelity they suggest is not to the observable world but to an interior repository. The dramatic shift in scale becomes a clue to the viewer of Freiwald’s uncanny inner process. How else would we ever even guess it might exist?

Jeanne Marie Wasilik

Brooklyn, New York