criticismExhibitions
Monday, October 10th, 2011

Maelstrom Gathering Energy: Milton Resnick in the Seventies and Eighties


MIlton Resnick: The Elephant in the Room at Cheim and Read

September 22 to October 29, 2011
547 W 25th Street, between 19th and 11th avenues
New York City, (212) 242-7727

Installation shot of the exhibition under review.  Courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York

Installation shot of the exhibition under review. Courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York

Milton Resnick: The Elephant in the Room places a spotlight on paintings from the 1970s and ‘80s that show Resnick in some of his purest painting moments.  These large-scale, near monochrome, intensely physical, assertive paintings yield infinite depth to the patient viewer.  In a recent article in Art in America magazine the painter David Reed recounts his years under Resnick’s tutelage, quoting the first generation Abstract Expressionist as saying “it’s over for us, something else must be done. We didn’t make it, learn from our failure”. Resnick lamented the death of Jackson Pollock and the waning camaraderie surrounding the movement with an air of defiance and determination to pull from the rubble a pure vision emptied of “isms” and the trappings of taste.

As Cheim and Read’s show makes clear, Resnick’s efforts at attaining an art free from form and style was dirty and laborious business. These deeply emotional canvases present bewilderingly dense surfaces in which energy feels trapped, pulsing beneath craggy mountains and cavernous pools of oil paint.  Defying the grand gestures of Resnick’s earlier work, seen in the 2008 show at the same gallery, Resnick has used the build up and excavation of his repetitive surfaces as his vehicle towards a kind of painfully earthbound painting imbued with palpable reverence to the medium.  Accounts of Resnick’s personality reveal something of a curmudgeon, the kind of teacher who would smear flawed areas of his students’ work, although usually at the service of the painting.  He promoted the obliteration of image and the liberation of paint, to “let the paint do the talking.”

Lightness of touch is gone, as loose handling is eschewed in favor of dutifully executed, plaster-like finishes.  The canvases are not all callused, however, as some are almost even in surface, allowing their smoky color to become velvety. Untitled (1988) recalls Swan (1961), the massive action painting that dominated the 2008 exhibition.  Smaller than most works in the current show, the 1988 work present a cool, lunar surface is in a state of unrest.  The painting is neutral in overall color though remnants of vibrant color defy total austerity.  There is a sense of a slow, forceful swirling motion, like a maelstrom gathering energy. Resnick’s tenet that a painting should incur all energy but not release it is perhaps most evident in this work.

Milton Resnick, Straws, 1982. Oil on canvas, 80 x 60 inches. Courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York

Milton Resnick, Straws, 1982. Oil on canvas, 80 x 60 inches. Courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York

Pure force is contained within the crusty blistered surfaces as they try to resist Resnick’s rage and ecstasy.  The endless depths of paint lead to a confrontational and impenetrable impasto that confronts and compels the viewer.  With even the most archaic form is purged and any reference to external influence is ostensibly denied.

Straws (1982) seems like a glimpse back to the 1960s and a foreshadowing of the 1990s. The paint is splattered in a repetitively downward gesture over a characteristically blistered surface.  The surface is broken into three primary colors: teal, rust and earth green.  Resnick provides more breathing room in this particular work, one of several early 1980’s paintings with this title. Cosmological blue light glows below the encrusted surface.  This painting is all emotion, anguish and heaviness.  The stoic flat surfaces of the prior decades begin to yield to modulated color.  Amorphous masses of earth color float in an amniotic greenish blue like zygotes of the archaic figures that would materialize in the next decade.

Exhaustive physical and psychic energy are contained within these canvases.  A skeptic could argue that these are a contrarian’s monolithic reaction towards neo-Expressionism, a lamentation for Abstract Expressionism’s displacement.  This seemingly willful suppression of gesture and color yields the anxiety and tension that animates this phase of Resnick’s career, anticipating twenty further years of painterly evolution.

Milton Resnick, Untitled, 1988. Oil on canvas, 45 x 75 inches. Courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York

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Milton Resnick, Weather X, 1975. Oil on canvas, 80 x 90 inches. Courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York

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3 Responses to Maelstrom Gathering Energy: Milton Resnick in the Seventies and Eighties

  1. ‘Lightness of touch is gone, as loose handling is eschewed in favor of dutifully executed, plaster-like finishes,’ is not my impression of this work nor of the artist. The handling was always very loose, and Milton worked with very large brushes, often dipped into several colors at once, (unmixed) and moved the paint around with gusto and authority. The paint was all handmade and milled only once which made it unruly, and this appealed to him, as did working with different consistencies of paint more or less simultaneously. As heavy as these pictures are, half of the paint ended up on the floor. So terms like ‘dutifully executed’ which sounds like you’re describing a legal writ, not a ‘Maelstrom,’ and ‘plaster-like’ which implies an inert encasement, are really antithetical to the type of engagement this artist had with his art, and frankly the look of it as well. If you want ‘dutiful’, you can look at Robert Ryman.

  2. Eric Sutphin says:

    Thank you for your response and insight into Resnick’s work. In this review I use “dutiful” to assert Milton’s persistent commitment to painting, not as a formal assessment of the works themselves. In preparing for the review I watched footage of Resnick at work in the 90′s and yes, he was quite loose with large house painting brushes and very fluid paint. In the work presented there are moments where Resnick’s “gusto” comes through, namely in the “Straws” works. Some of the paintings are however worked almost to the point of inertia, traces of bright pigment are evident beneath months of oil paint, so there seems to me a feeling of encasement or restriction. Resnick said himself that when a painting left his studio and went into the world it became something else. While anecdotal bits about Resnick’s studio habits are interesting (more of which I’m sure I can find in your book) I’m not convinced that they lead me to a deeper understanding of what he was after in his finished paintings.

  3. I know very little about Resnick’s studio habits and have only come across various hunks of gossip about his personality, as one does, but the word ‘dutiful’ seems right for this show. I kept having a sense of someone reluctant to do the work but pushing on in the belief that it needed to be done. There is something honorable about going ahead in the face of doubt and for the sake of a better work. I don’t know if this was true, but it certainly felt like that when I was there and I accepted that sensation with some admiration.

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