Saturday, May 1st, 2004

Out of the Picture – Milton Resnick and the New York School

Our TOPICAL PICK FROM THE ARCHIVES is a book review posted ten years ago at artcritical brought back to our front page to mark the landmark exhibition of Milton Resnick at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, on view through August 1.  The TOPICAL PICK series draws reader attention to over 1600 indexed and searchable essays, reviews, dispatches and news reports archived at this site.

Out of the Picture – Milton Resnick and the New York School
Transcribed, compiled & edited by Geoffrey Dorfman
Midmarch Arts Press, 2003, 314 pages


photograph by Sebastian Piras
photograph by Sebastian Piras

Milton Resnick committed suicide on the 12th of March. Up until then he was one of an ever-diminishing group of living individuals such as Philip Pavia, Robert Richenberg and Paul Jenkins that comprised the New York School (A.K.A. the Abstract Expressionists). The artists he knew ranged from notables such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky and Franz Kline to (now) obscure artists like Max Schnitzler and the sculptor Ernest Guteman. Geoffrey Dorfman, also an abstract painter, began working on this tour de force book in 1979. The result is a comprehensive readable volume that addresses Resnick and the New York School together and individually.

Reading this book might be compared to taking a river trip. The introduction provides a capable landing from which to launch your virtual canoe. Once underway you’re quickly immersed in the buoyant light rapids of the ‘Resnick Interviews’. The current begins to slow with reproductions of Resnick paintings ranging from the late 50s to 2000. Shortly thereafter the waters run very still and deep with a series of Resnick’s talks at the Studio School from 1968 to 1972. Subsequently you are swept up in the torrents again with the 1966 Resnick/Leo Steinberg panel discussion which quickly streams into the dénouement of the book Resnick/Ad Reinhardt debate: “Attack”, from 1960 that drops you over a waterfall. But you bubble back up to the surface with Pat Passlof’s remembrance (Milton Resnick’s wife and also a painter).


Milton Resnick, Untitled, 1975. Oil on canvas, 40 x 36 inches. © 2013 The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation
Milton Resnick, Untitled, 1975. Oil on canvas, 40 x 36 inches. © 2013 The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation

The interviews provide some early history on Resnick such as how he took up fine art due to the advice of a teacher and the encouragement of a friend. However, upon learning of it, his father presented him with a “not under my roof” ultimatum. This incident is a foreshadowing of Resnick’s often defiant, go-it-alone, temperament (hence the title ‘Out of the Picture’) because he chose to leave home and struggled for years to live and make art. For the next seventy plus pages Resnick and Dorfman engross you in a personal view of the New York Art world beginning in the 1930s. A subtext for the conversation is an engaging macro-perspective of the ‘New York School’ from its inception to its heyday.

Resnick’s account follows a number of interesting pathways such as the fact that early on he lived with de Kooning’s eventual wife, Elaine (and ironically de Kooning was with Pat Passlof). Or consider Resnick’s relationship with Pollock who at one point he invited to ‘Step outside’ at the Cedar Bar after an initial provocation. But he was also there (along with de Kooning) to steer a nervous Pollock clear of the bars while taking a break during the opening of his 1949 show. Resnick was one of the few individuals alive who was qualified to assess Pollock. He does so by pointing out Pollock’s weaknesses; but from a sympathetic viewpoint and ultimately, with respect for his intelligence and abilities. Resnick’s recollections relieve Pollock of his ‘Art god’ adornment while also countering his ‘piss-in-the-fireplace’ notoriety. This cutting through art historical analysis and sensationalist hubris is far more interesting in revealing Pollock as an individual rather than as cardboard cut-out.

The Studio School talks provide a fascinating view of Resnick’s forceful ideas regarding art, art making and artists. However, those ideas are presented with a refreshing undertone of uncertainty. Transcribed from tapes they possess a wonderful ‘off the cuff’ quality punctuated by humor and occasional audience discord. But they go right to the core of Resnick’s beliefs and demand a concentrated reading.

There are portions of the talks that don’t completely make sense such as Resnick’s assault on music. At one point he says, “.if you know anything about painting, you hate music.” further pointing out that music is poisonous. Is this just provocation, an attack on another medium or an absolutist’s statement? It’s not clear and when pressed by the audience his explanation is still not entirely satisfactory. At other times when challenged, Resnick defends his position by referring to his accumulated knowledge and experience over his questioners. This is weak and as a reader I was yearning to ask my own follow-up questions. But these are isolated criticisms. For the most part Resnick delightfully meanders through his subject matter in what amounts to a captivating journey through a wilderness of ideas.

The two panel discussions present the opportunity to see Resnick among his contemporaries; especially the ‘Attack!’ panel that took place January 1st, 1960. Chaired by Resnick and Ad Reinhardt ‘confrontational’ just begins to describe the event. The transcript offers an absorbing demarcation of the sea change that occurred when commercial success in the art world collided with the New York School artists’ decades long commitment and suffering for their idealism and integrity. Attack! represents one of the last documented gatherings of artists whose passionately fueled collective sensibility and veracity was something worth arguing and even fighting over. (Harold Rosenberg, immediately after hearing himself quoted by Resnick, was angered enough to get up and leave and de Kooning nearly got into a fist fight at one point). Shortly thereafter the art world moved on to embrace, indeed celebrate, the obtuse detached commercialism of Pop Art and the once intimate New York art community began to come apart.

Pat Passlof’s remembrance provides an excellent post-script. Presented in the same spirit as the interviews it brings a divergent view of the period plus a different personal take on Resnick. Passlof represents the younger generation of artists from that time and from her we learn of how the first contemporary art galleries sprouted up on East 10th street beginning with the cooperative Tanager gallery. There was also occasional friction between the younger and older artists. At one point, Passlof and others had been given permission to use ‘The Club’facilities for an alternative version of the Friday meetings on an off night. (The Club was the formal organization of the New York School that met weekly to discuss art and ideas). However, this was eventually revoked by the older artists in what appears to be fear of competition. One of the most touching accounts is Passlof’s portrayal of Franz Kline; of his character as well as being a character and of him tearfully breaking the news to everyone at Cedar Bar of the illness that eventually took his life.

Overall this book functions very well on a couple of significant levels. You get to know Milton Resnick the artist as an indisputable member of the New York School who was nevertheless separate from it – an individualist’s individual. Also you are treated to an intimate viewpoint as inseparable from a greater historical perspective; in short, a first person account of the birth and culmination of an authentically American art form.

With any visual artist, but especially for one of this magnitude, I wanted to see a lot more of his art. Still, the 16 reproductions of Resnick’s paintings present an adequate survey of his work. The period photographs sprinkled lightly throughout the content add context without distraction. The brilliant inclusion of maps indicating where artist’s studios once were also recreates a sense of place. At the completion of this book you walk away with a genuine sense of knowing Milton Resnick both personally and professionally. The downside is the sharp poignant edge this adds to his tragic death.