Suzan Frecon: Between Sun and Stone

by Han Mengyun

Suzan Frecon, vermilion mummy, 2020, Oil on linen © Suzan Frecon. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

“A painting is a poem without words, music without sound” famously stated by Leonardo da Vinci in his Treatise on Painting, is charmingly apt to describe Suzan Frecon’s paintings which, proposed by the artist, serve a wordless experience. Her paintings render an inaudible symphony for the eyes, reminiscent of John Cage’s composition, 4’33”(1952), a temporal and durational experience that aims at the very silence of the psyche. But it is neither through relinquishing the act of painting nor through painting the canvas white that Frecon achieves a state of emptiness. Contrarily, it is via a sensuous syntax of color and form in space that forges a synaesthetic quietude in the mind of the viewer. It intrigued me to fathom what this silence is and how it is created by such fullness of visual vocabulary.

Installation view, Suzan Frecon: recent paintings, oil and water, David Zwirner, London, April 12–May 28, 2022. Copyright the artist. Courtesy David Zwirner 

What struck me foremost about Frecon’s painting is the dynamic interplay between the matte and glossy surfaces. Her choice of material is inspired by the abstract visuality of Cimabue’s painting and Romanesque cathedrals. Interested in the retinal impact of medieval painting, Frecon renders the subtly changing surfaces by mimicking the sheen and light of the burnished gold and dazzling gold leaf. And it is exactly this sheen of gold that draws me to think about the sense of sublimity that comes through the work as gold has long been associated with notions of divinity, incorruptibility and eternity. The sheen on Frecon’s painting evokes the same venerations of the divine without preaching. We cannot deny the reference to the divine experience that a Byzantine painting, a gold gilded Buddhist statue, or an illuminated Persian album can evoke to the interpretation of Frecon’s paintings because our eyes are attuned to think and feel in response to the history of visual codification, however abstracted the form is, however secular we are, however much the painter herself attempts to free her paintings from any association or image. 

The lack of definition generates endless possibilities to interpret the symbols and metaphors that these colors and materiality embody, depending on the viewer’s personal, cultural or religious background, as well as the domain of knowledge on which the viewer wishes to base his or her analysis. When the postwar American painters strived to free painting from the burden of history, the symbols and metaphors embedded in color and materiality have resurfaced in the transcendental space that Frecon has brought forth, where the viewer’s deeper consciousness seeks a dwelling and the language of god is unknown.

Suzan Frecon, llibre vermell. 2021, Oil on linen, Overall: 108 x 87 1/2 inches (274.3 x 222.3 cm)

Panel, each: 54 x 87 1/2 inches (137.2 x 222.3 cm) © Suzan Frecon, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner 

The American poet and critic John Yau has posed an interesting comparison between Suzan Frecon and Hilma af Klint, as both aspire to bring consciousness to its highest plane. Yet, Frecon observes the geometry and the material elements that underlie our experience of past architecture and art, to then crystallize this observation in her paintings [1]. The dominant irregular and asymmetrical ovoid or arch forms hovering on the picture plane, the earthy colors as well the monumental scale of the painting have well encapsulated that captured feeling from looking at nature that Frecon attempts to recreate. Beholding these paintings resembles standing in front of a gigantic mountain as they bear a formidable weight and volume, which remind us of the immensity of the world and our very finite existence and lack of power. This abstract nature reincarnated on canvas immerses the viewer in the same way a womb harbors an infant, a temple shelters a soul. That is how mysticism comes into being: a need to interpret and understand the mythical world and its phenomena, in which human expressions fall short. The Greek word for mystery, μυσ, means “to close the mouth or the eyes”. As the mouth closes, the mind awakens to communications beyond the imperfect word. 

What is also worth noting, if we delve deeper into Frecon’s eclectic visual references and her historical knowledge of materiality, are the anonymous Tantric paintings from the 17th century Rajasthan collected by the late French poet Franck André Jamme, who exhibited them in 2004 at New York’s Drawing Center. These abstract Tantric Hindu paintings, at first sight strikingly similar to the 20th century abstract art, were made by adepts in India as tools for private meditation to awaken heightened states of consciousness, serving as intermediaries between the transcendent and the immanent [2]. Frecon’s friendship with Jamme might have allowed these paintings to lodge in her subconscious, given how strikingly similar the way their respective visual syntax maneuvers the eye and subsequently the mind. 

Suzan Frecon, hot, and dark lumière, 2020, Oil on linen, Overall: 87 5/8 x 108 inches (222.6 x 274.4 cm) Panel, each: 87 5/8 x 54 inches (222.6 x 137.2 cm) © Suzan Frecon, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner

Untitled by anonymous, Bikaner, 14x10cm (Tantra Song, Siglio, 2011). Courtesy Siglio Press [3]

The Rorschach inkblot like gouache stains in the Śivaliṅga tantric painting dissolves and frees the mind to an ocean of associative imagination which awaits divine manifestation, in this case, Śiva. Leonardo da Vinci finds similar experiences in “look[ing] into the stains of walls, or ashes of a fire, or clouds, or mud or like places in which….you may find really marvelous ideas” [4]. The mixture of oil and pigment that saturates Frecon’s canvas works in the similar fashion to summon a deeper level of consciousness where the babbling ego abandons her language to observe the silence of her consciousness. Jamme has clearly observed the Tantric painting’s visual effect on aiding the mind to let go of the ego, as is poignantly murmured in his poem La Récitation de l’oubli (The Recitation of Forgetting):

“While a single red line, against the earth’s ocher. Sleeping wall of energy and blood, of fear and force. Other trials. Did you find yourself, child? Did you lose yourself ?” [5]

While the viewer is lost in following a visual riddle, she finds herself again in the centripetal force of the liṅgam, the anionic representation of Śiva, an emblem of generative power. The horizontal ovoid shape that frequents Frecon’s paintings such as in the case of incognito (2021), modifies the Śivaliṅga in an interesting way by putting down the phallic object and diminishing its potency. Without the power of intimidation, the liṅga did not become a yoni, a vulva, but something neutral as a piece of stone that neither overpowers nor submits, inviting the beholder to observe its serene immovable nature, like that of her own. 

Suzan Frecon, incognito, 2021, Oil on linen, Overall: 87 5/8 x 108 1/4 inches (222.6 x 275 cm), Panel, each: 87 5/8 x 54 1/8 inches (222.6 x 137.5 cm) 

When the tantrikas obtain oneness with the manifested deity in the deepest recesses of their unconscious through yoga and meditation with the support of these paintings, they find themselves in an unprecedented state of mental and emotional calm [6]. This imaginative experience of tranquility corresponds to śāntarasa, the ninth rasa, or aesthetic savouring, of the Indian aesthetic theory that underlies all classical images in Indian art [7]. Abhinavagupta (c.950-1025 CE), the celebrated Kashmiri philosopher, aesthetician and yogi, compares śāntarasa as the supreme rasa to the experience of mokṣa, or spiritual liberation [8], in which the viewer enjoys sheer undifferentiated eternal bliss, ānanda, the ultimate aim of Tantra [9]. This sense of bliss is comparable to the highest enjoyment of timelessness and a state of ecstasy described by Vladimir Nabokov in his Speak, Memory:

 “And the highest enjoyment of timelessness – in a landscape selected at random – is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone.”

Suzan Frecon’s paintings present a nuanced mediation of disparate visualities from various traditions of art, bringing the viewer to a sense of oneness not with any god, but with the sun and the stone, as she worships their silence.


  1. John Yau, “Suzan Frecon’s Patience Should Be Rewarded.” (Hyperallergic, March 22, 2015),
  2.  Ajit Mookerjee, The Tantric Way, (London: Thames & Hudson, 1977), p.46.
  3.  Franck André Jamme, Tantra Song - Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, (Los Angeles: Siglio Press, 2011), p.18. 
  4.  Carl G. Jung, Man and His Symbols (Dell Publishing, 1968), p.10. 
  5.  Franck André Jamme, The Recitation of Forgetting,
  6.  Masson, J L; Patwardhan, M.V., Śāntarasa and Abhinavagupta's Philosophy of Aesthetics, (Bhandarkar Oriental research Institute, 1969),Introduction-VII-VIII.
  7.  Ajit Mookerjee, The Tantric Way, (London: Thames & Hudson, 1977), p.80.
  8.  Masson, J L; Patwardhan, M.V., Śāntarasa and Abhinavagupta's Philosophy of Aesthetics, (Bhandarkar Oriental research Institute, 1969),Introduction-VII-VIII
  9.  Ajit Mookerjee, Tantra Asana, a way to self-realization. (Ravi Kumar, 1 Jan. 1971), p.15.