“My art is about what’s left unsaid,” Elizabeth Higgins tells me on a sunny day in her Connecticut studio.
This is fitting for an artist who cites Miles Davis—who once said that jazz is about “the notes you don’t play”—as an influence as vital as Vivaldi and the ballet. In Higgins’s work, that which is unsaid speaks most forcefully.
The light slicing through the windows is a December light, warm and glassy. I sit in a paint-stained wicker chair purchased at Conran’s sometime in the mid-Eighties as Higgins and I look over a page from Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace. “We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will,” it reads: “what could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about virtue, or poetry, or the solution of a problem?”
Attention toward the unspoken and real is the leaven of Higgins’s work. The more the viewer treats her work with the same type of attention, the greater the sensory feast that arises.
Higgins’s newest figurative and landscape abstractions aim at the difficult task of educating the viewer in just how to look at art, how to pay attention to it and the surrounding world. She’s produced enough to fill two simultaneous shows, one at New York’s Prince Street Gallery and a second at Westport, Connecticut’s George Billis Gallery, both running through December 30.1
Her studio bears ample evidence of her four decades in the New York art world. Sketches, pages of poems, books, and dozens of canvases line the walls and floors. A Canadian, Higgins emigrated from Toronto in 1983 to pursue an MFA from Parsons. When she paints now, however, it is not in the city, but instead in the second-floor loft of a detached garage beside a once dilapidated 1904 coast-view home she and her husband restored. “This place was in total disrepair,” she tells me as we approach it, “nobody wanted it. . . . But I knew I could be happy here.” This propensity to see the salvageable in the old and make it her own extends into all of her art.
“I dislike the formulaic,” she tells me, a trait possibly stemming from her upbringing as an artist who was urged to become a doctor. Accordingly, her art is anything but formulaic—or if it is, it is a deeply complicated formula. Her artistic lineage is varied and elaborate, bearing elements such as Bonnard’s incandescent coloring, the quietude of seventeenth-century Dutch interior painting, and the striking posture of Balthus’s models.
“Leland Bell,” Higgins’s teacher at Parsons, “wouldn’t let us leave the program until we’d learned how to see,” she remembers. “Everything becomes a composition, even you sitting in that chair right now. . . . We learned to love light and shape like the Old Masters.” This formal education instilled in Higgins an art-historical awareness rare in the second half of the twentieth century, and rarer still today.
This foundation shines in a piece such as Woman at Window (2022). The title and subject both recall Balthus’s Girl at Window (1957), but Higgins has distilled the latter work into an even more fundamental essence. In Higgins’s idiom, thin blocks of calm purples and vivid greens interrupt cool blues and whites to communicate the intense sense of searching present in Balthus’s original but with a fingerprint unique to Higgins—the juxtaposition of these color blocks creates a stark divide between what is immediately present and what is across the window’s threshold. The bright, Bonnard-esque colors on the other side of the window, a vibrant canvas within the canvas, are applied in thin coats to achieve a halting luminosity.
“I want to strip away everything, all the extraneous,” she says as we look at an early version of Women Looking Out the Window (2022), another piece deploying the window motif. “I want to get to something through color and light that’s pure and true. . . . I want to find the essence of something.”
Surely, technical acuity aids in the pursuit of “the pure and true,” and Higgins is highly adept at representing light on the canvas. But mere technical skill can only be interesting for so long—absent a compelling emotional narrative or presence, plain formalism can quickly grow rote.
Still, these pieces are intimate. Accompanying this climactic “stripping away” of all technical waste is a simultaneous, perhaps unforeseen, introduction of something deeply personal: her family.
In the years prior to this most recent show, Higgins focused primarily on evocative landscapes. The human figure was largely excluded. But now, especially in the most captivating pieces, it is everywhere. The series Julia Reading (2018) presents her daughter reading a small book as the outside light illuminating her room gradually fades; The Conversation (2020) displays a tête-à-tête between two of her daughters as Copenhagen’s pink light suffuses the scene (“You have to see the light in Denmark—it’s poetic,” she remarks); and Looking Out at the Museum (2022) is a self-portrait of the artist and her husband at MOMA.
As in the rest of her work, these figures are constructed of only the most fundamental elements. The balletic stance of the main figure in I Stood There Once (2022), another portrait of her daughter, fills most of the frame but is nothing more than blocks of ochre broken up by black outlines and large slices of yellow and black. The face is expressionless, but it betrays a mental and physical gaze of longing as the figure overlooks the horizon. The stance is focused, as is the application of the black outline and weighty colors—together, an emotional depth results that encourages the viewer to search until they realize they have taken on the same stance as the subject. Her figures are thus expressionless and yet deeply expressive.
The most poignant and emblematic of these is the small Pilgrimage to St. Anne’s (2019). Within an unassuming six-by-twelve-inch frame, a blazing red silhouette bisects a pale blue and gray horizon atop a vivid green ground, each section a straightforward instance of reduced form. The spare, striking composition burns with a potent languishing, of an attention turned toward something missing. This technical effect results from placing such a zealous red against such a muted blue and the torrid synthesis of the two competing hues, though that would only partially explain it. Higgins herself wonders at the riddle of the process: “When my work is done, I step back and think ‘How did that happen?’”
This piece, Pilgrimage to St. Anne’s, was the first Higgins began and the first she completed after the death of her only son, William, on Christmas Day 2018 (All the proceeds of both the Prince Street and George Billis shows will be dedicated to Shatterproof in honor of Elizabeth’s late son). Nearly a year later, on a remote island off the shore of Newfoundland, she saw her daughter, standing alone in a red coat, looking out over the ocean. Only a small church, St. Anne’s, cut in on the horizon. “I was struck by the simple beauty of the image,” Higgins said. “When we got home I went straight to my studio and painted it.”
A solitary red coat against the melancholic Atlantic, an exercise in looking at someone looking at something undefinable—this is what reawakened her artistic activity. This seamless layering of gazes, executed with painterly economy, is characteristic of Higgins’s recent work.
Attention toward something invisible but unquestionably present resurfaces throughout. Higgins returns again and again to the action of looking and the objects of our attention. Her subjects stand at serious attention, peering out windows, into books, into each other—each one modeling the type of contemplative deliberation Higgins believes is required to see the world. What they are looking at is not the point—it’s how they’re looking at it.
She quotes Milton Glaser: “Art is art when it brings you to attention.” I wonder aloud if she thinks this means her art is confrontational, a term artists and critics love of late. She thinks for a moment, and eventually responds, “No. I think it’s invitational.”
“It invites the viewer to participate, to pause. . . . You have to question.” It is calm but demanding, asking for a labor that rewards continued engagement. This is art made for an inattentive world. If one can learn to hold attention like the meditative men and women depicted in her oils, then one can learn to see something essential.
In her pursuit of the essential she has stripped away everything irrelevant. I ask her if she thinks it’s a coincidence that she has found, at the end of all this, the figures of her loved ones. “Oh, maybe,” she responds, looking at something over my shoulder. “But I never really thought of it. They just started to appear.”