Jennifer Wynne Reeves
Initial Impulse Paintings
October 18-November 30
Prepare to be completely disarmed by Jennifer Wynn Reeves’s honesty, tenderness, humor, and intensity, her sexual focus, her thoughts about art and artists, and her unembarrassed chronicle of her fatal illness. Dashing from precise outward observations to inward reflections and flights of the imagination without ever pausing to catch her breath, Reeves’s writing dissolves all kinds of boundaries, particularly those separating private life from public presence. She is a writer and artist who transports us to a world brimming with wonder.
Reeves’s writing is compressed and graceful, stripped down, always chugging along. This is how her entry for “May 13, 2010” begins:
He died first. She died second. He was an early riser. She was a night owl.
He’d slather mile high slabs of butter on his toast, would bring her breakfast
in bed, called her “honey”. He wore a bag on his gut. She was infertile and wickedly sarcastic. She put lemon zest in raisin pie. He had a horse named
Dan. She had four poodles. Ahab, Anthony, Anita, Allegra. She wore her
glasses around her neck.
This is only about half the entry. Once you begin, you don’t want to stop. Everything in this passage is necessary and tight: all the sentences miraculously fit together without ever becoming predictable. We never learn why every poodle’s name begins with “A” nor does the author comment on her deadpan observation that “She was infertile and wickedly sarcastic.” The writing is particular and rhythmic. I was not surprised to learn
that Reeves took “ballet, piano, singing, violin, swimming, golf and tennis lessons”[i]when shewas a child and started out as a “music major” [ii]in college. No matter how harrowing or personal the material might be, Reeves never seems to falter or lose her balance.
A figure skater in prose, Reeves makes impossible leaps and sudden switches feel inevitable. She speaks to her readers in an intimate, personable tone about all kinds of subjects. And yet, even after you’ve become familiar with her voice, she will surprise you and make the hair on your arms stand up. This is what Reeves has accomplished: she creates a palpable world and brings you, the reader, completely into it. Her writings leave you with an indefinable taste, touch, smell, and much, much more. She is one of those rare writers whose work you cannot get enough of, which makes the publication of Jennifer’s Booka reason for joy, as it is likely that new readers will discover the work of someone they had not known before.
Like her art, which resists categorization, this book will occupy a singular place on your shelf and – dare I say it – in your heart. To be a fan of Reeves is to wish that fate had given her more time. In 2008, Reeves became a dynamic presence on Facebook, where she paired her sharply compressed observations with images that ranged from her artwork to family photographs to objects from her life. Her juxtapositions of text and image quickly gained a large and loyal following, as well as generated an outpouring of comments and reflections.
Reeves’s postings struck a chord. She was unafraid of exploring every corner of her life and her art, which she believed were inseparable. Readers were moved by her candor, vulnerability, and tact: she had no axe to grind, no agenda to put forth. She was not interested in gaining followers, but in the revelations unearthed in the process of creation. She wanted to be astonished and she wanted to chronicle her amazement at being alive. This, more than anything else, is what she wanted to share with others: an enduring joy of life no matter what cards fate deals you. For Reeves, as her readers learned in real time, those cards included an abusive marriage, bulimia, an ovariectomy when she was forty-seven, a schizophrenic mother, a murdered father, who was shot in the head, leaving her to be raised by her grandmother, and her diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. At no point did she bemoan her fate, even with death galloping toward her. Her gentleness, humor, and grace are present in everything she did.
Jennifer’s Bookbrings together a generous selection of her postings, dating from March 31, 2010, to May 9, 2014, six weeks before she died at the age of fifty-one. She wrote movingly and beautifully about art and artists, from Charles Burchfield, Anselm Kiefer, and Jonathan Lasker to Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. The passages she writes about artists, art, and art-making are as deep and smart and heartfelt as anything I have read, and that is a lot. She imagines Clyfford Still and Arthur Dove talking in heaven. She brings you into the domain of her erotic life and imagination without embarrassment. She writes about the difficulties of her childhood without a trace of rancor. She steps back and comments on her own writing. “Grace to be born and live as variously as possible,” wrote Frank O’Hara. That grace is in everything that Reeves wrote and lived. We are lucky to have had her with us as long as we did. Read this book and celebrate her memory. Take a walk with her the only way you can.
[i]“Interview with Jennifer Wynn Reeves”, The interview was conducted by Julia Schwartz on March 1, 2013 and poted on the website FIGURE/GROUND.
Jennifer Wynne Reeves New Yorker write-up from their concurrent show: