Shirley Jaffe (artist)

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Shirley Jaffe
Shirley Jaffe (1998).png
Jaffe in 1998
Born(1923-10-02)October 2, 1923
DiedSeptember 29, 2016(2016-09-29) (aged 92)
Louveciennes, France
Known for
  • Abstract expressionism
  • geometric art

Shirley Jaffe (née Sternstein, October 2, 1923 – September 29, 2016) was an American abstract painter. Her early work is of the gestural abstract expressionist style, however in the late 1960s she changed to a more geometric style.[1] This change was initially received with caution by the art world, but later in her career she was praised for the "idiosyncratic" and individual nature of her work.[2] She spent most of her life living and working in France.[3]

Early life[edit]

Jaffe was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to Benjamin and Anna (née Levine) Sternstein.[4] Her father ran a shirt factory; however he died when Jaffe was 10. Her mother moved the family to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and Jaffe attended Abraham Lincoln High School. She then studied fine art at Cooper Union in New York City, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1945.[1]

After completing her degree, Jaffe worked initially in the print department of the New York Public Library and also worked for the department store Macy's drawing fashion sketches for the advertising department.[1]

After her marriage, she lived in Washington D.C. for a period of time, attending the Phillips Art School there, then moved to Paris when her husband was transferred there in 1949.[1][2] She became part of a circle of ex-pat American artists which included Sam Francis, Ellsworth Kelly and Joan Mitchell.[5] Francis introduced Jaffe to his dealer, Jean Fournier, who became interested in Jaffe's work and began showing her art in his gallery.[5]



Jaffe began as an abstract expressionist, using gesture in her painting in a similar way to Joan Mitchell.[2] In 1968, however, a grant from the Ford Foundation funded her to spend a year in Berlin.[2] This study break took her away from the circle of artist friends she had developed in Paris and exposed her to new influences such as the music of contemporary composers Iannis Xenakis and Karlheinz Stockhausen.[5] It may also have reunited her thinking with the European abstraction of Jean Arp, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Wassily Kandinsky and Auguste Herbin. "It [my style of painting] changed when I went to Berlin," Jaffe said later. "I had a feeling that my paintings were being read as landscapes, which was not my intention. I felt I had to clear out the woods."[6]

Stained glass windows designed by Jaffe for the Chapelle La Funeraria, Perpignan

Jaffe's new style featured flat, uninflected surfaces, single-colour shapes and predominantly straight, rather than curved, lines.[1] On her return to Paris, both her dealer Fournier and her artist friends were "shocked" at the change; however, Fournier continued to exhibit her work in his gallery.[5] Later analyses of her work note that Jaffe's style moved in a "different direction" from other painters of her time, and was characterised by "an incredible vitality of form and complexity".[1][7] The evolution of her style, which happened gradually over a period of decades, was described by critics as an "internal development" apparently unrelated to contemporary trends, and therefore she could not be seen as a part of any particular art movement.[1][7]


Although Jaffe began exhibiting in solo shows in France in the early 1960s, American galleries only began to show her work from the 1990s. This delay has been attributed to the critical response of other artists to the change in her painting style in the 1960s.[1] Overall, she had at least 25 exhibitions in the two countries; in the United States at the Holly Solomon Gallery, the Tibor de Nagy Gallery,[8] the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art[3] and the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA)[3] and in France at the Galerie Fournier, the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Nathalie Obadia Gallery.[3]

Her work is held in the collections of the Centre Pompidou, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art (Paris) and the Berado Collection Museum (Lisbon).[9][10]

In 2000, the state government and the City of Perpignan commissioned Jaffe to design nine stained glass windows for the city's chapel.[3] The installation of the completed windows coincided with a retrospective of Jaffe's work at the Musée d'Art Moderne in Céret.[1]

Personal life and death[edit]

Her husband, Irving Jaffe, was the White House correspondent for Agence France-Presse in the 1940s. They moved to Paris together when Irving was transferred to the Paris office of the news agency. The couple divorced in 1962.[1]

Jaffe died at Louveciennes, France, on September 29, 2016 at the age of 92, three days before her 93rd birthday.[1][3]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Grimes, William (September 30, 2016). "Shirley Jaffe, Geometric Artist of Joyful Forms, Dies at 93". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved October 1, 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d "BOMB Magazine — Shirley Jaffe by Shirley Kaneda". Retrieved October 1, 2016.
  3. ^ a b c d e f "US painter Shirley Jaffe, 93, dies in Paris | News | Expatica France". Retrieved September 30, 2016.
  4. ^ Jaffe, Shirley. "United States Public Records, 1970–2009". FamilySearch. Retrieved July 23, 2014.
  5. ^ a b c "SHIRLEY JAFFE WITH RAPHAEL RUBINSTEIN". Retrieved October 1, 2016.
  6. ^ Rubinstein, Raphael (2010). "Shirley Jaffe with Raphael Rubinstein". The Brooklyn Rail.
  7. ^ a b "An American in Paris: Shirley Jaffe's Paintings from the 1970s". October 27, 2013. Retrieved October 1, 2016.
  8. ^ Roberta Smith, NY Times review, 2009
  9. ^ Magazine, Wallpaper* (March 30, 2016). "How nonagenarian painter Shirley Jaffe stays cutting edge | Art | Wallpaper* Magazine". Retrieved October 1, 2016.
  10. ^ Duponchelle, Valérie (2016-09-30). "Mort de Shirley Jaffe, une Américaine à Paris". Le Figaro (in French). ISSN 0182-5852. Retrieved 2016-10-01.

Further reading[edit]

  • Border Crossing: Shirley Jaffe-painting and stained glass, Deborah Rosenthal, Modern Painters, Spring 2000.