Tuesday, March 1st, 2005

Milton Resnick (1917-2004)


(c) Robert Ellison
(c) Robert Ellison

These remarks were delivered by Geoffrey Dorfman at a memorial for Milton Resnick held at St. Marks in the Bowerie on March 12, 2005. Other speakers on that occasion were Ed Rudolph, David Reed, Todd Granzow (ready by Jim Young) John Ittner, Nathan Kernan, Sherman Drexler, Jerome Rothenberg (read by Mark Weiss), Bob Hauge, Pat Passlof, Jake Berthot, Vija Celmins, Ray Spillenger, Sandy Brooke, Frances Barth, Gigi Meyer, and Bob Tannen, with Ralph Martin acting as master of ceremonies. The “booklet” to which Mr. Dorfman refers is a 112 page anthology of remarks and tributes to Resnick from some of the many people touched by his personality, teaching and work.

When initially helping Pat (Passlof) to put this booklet together, which as you can see has become a real book, I was amazed by how much everyone else had to say that squares with my own memories, how emotional it all is, how genuine, and that’s made me feel this less as a personal loss. I feel closer to the people here through Milton’s death, and the consequent collection of memories which would have never flown together as long as he breathed, make it seem we all share quite a lot, really — whether we acknowledge it or not, and one of the things we share is this man.


The first thing that occurs to me is Milton’s contradictions, a magus and a hard ass, a loner and a giver, a powder keg with a sense of irony, a mistruster of words who used them well, a thinker without a formal education, a sensualist in the form of an ascetic, an anarchist and a war veteran, and these opposites began to resolve themselves the more you knew him, the more Milton became himself in front of you..

The music that has been playing is from Kovantschina by Moussorgsky. It was some of of Milton’s favorite music. He liked Russian music; Tchaikovsky, Moussorgsky, Scriabin. Fierce, passionate music, much, but not all of it Russian, as he was.

I never heard any music in his studio. There were no diversions in the studio – the cocoon, the house of art, the place where it happened. Everything else was everything else, ie. beside the point. He perceived rhythm as he did sex and booze, as a societal seduction of the senses and therefore a diversion from the true concern of an artist, with a capital A. When Milton started to teach, and that’s one of the real contradictions, because if he didn’t have to, he would not have taught, and therefore he probably would not have met many of you, or me for that matter, – but when he began to teach regularly in the 1960’s and 70’s he heard the rock music constantly in the halls and studios, sensed the heightened stimulation, the hormones raging, the war threatening, the drugs beckoning, the unease of the those who were not children anymore, but not really men and women either. And he saw art getting marginalized.

Because he had gone through the experience of his own generation, and witnessed the premature termination of their aspirations in a haze of smoke, and drink, he cautioned young artists. Because he realized, and indeed – never stopped talking about – the anxiety of making art; that you were involved in an activity that may have no end, where your every acquisition was provisional and probably discardable, and where the more you proceeded, the less fit you were for anything else: the less fit you were to run a business, the less fit you were to work for anyone else, the less fit you were to be a parent, the less fit you were to lead, the less fit you were to follow, and even the less fit you were to teach!

Milton Resnick Untitled 1984 oil on board, 40 x 30 inches Estate of Milton Resnick, courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York
Milton Resnick Untitled 1984 oil on board, 40 x 30 inches Estate of Milton Resnick, courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York

Like Balzac’s Frenhoffer, who said that “too much knowledge leads to a negation,” you began to get the uneasy feeling that the innocent love of art that came to you as a child was developing into something serious, and the energy was a nervous energy, and you began to have the uneasy premonition that you were actually gambling with your life. You’d feel this when the picture began to appear. The excitement provoked the thought of an exit, to take a walk, to turn on some music, maybe eat, get a cup of coffee, seek out conversation – anything to alleviate the confrontation. And it was this anxiety that permeated every stroke of the brush on your canvas, that made you seek relief and diversion, and turned you away from your task.

Your task, as Milton saw it, was to do something wonderful, to maybe become something wonderful, because that might be a necessary precondition for the former, and that by these means you would either live forever or, of course, go on with your pathetic self-deception. And no amount of rejection or acceptance by the world was going to change that. That’s where he came in, where his wisdom came in. And it didn’t hurt that here was this wonderful, fierce person imparting it. He would tell you his Reznikoff story, how in the late 1920’s Gorky had met Mischa on the street and told him he was too scared to return to his studio. Would Mischa accompany him back? He was too frightened to look at what he had done by himself. And on his easel was a little picture with some apples. And in this story you would recognize your own thoughts, or at least find a place for them in the experience of another. And that was what art was, perhaps. That what we are on to may seem personal, perhaps at times even private, but that we are not doing that. That important art does not do that. And implicit in this idea of, for lack of a better word, we can call ‘the universal,’ we become a community, even though for the most part we rarely, if ever, act as one. Perhaps we are acting as one today.

Milton tilted towards the universal, something prelapsarian, a place without time, but unlike Eden, perilous, perhaps a presentiment of death, impartial but with its own specificity. He was onto this before he painted those paintings that he later became known for. I quote from a talk he gave at NYU in 1960; a time when he was leaving behind some of the buccaneer aspects of Abstract Expressionism. ” I think it’s more exciting to know what’s on the other side of the moon. If excitement isn’t necessarily a part of art, then that’s all right too. I can imagine an art that would have an innocuous surface where you don’t see anything at all of interest; you wouldn’t dream of looking at it with any idea that it could knock you over or have any power or anything, and then slowly you can begin to read into it all kinds of wonderful, imaginative things that you can see in it, and that could be a very marvelous form of art. I don’t know who does it. I think most artists in the last fifty years have been impressed more by art that has a way of attracting you to it to begin with; whether it lasts for very long or not doesn’t matter. There are some artists who feel it’s just the first look that counts and then, after that, you’re bound to lose interest anyway. But there are those of us that think art ought to be more complicated.”

I think I’m on pretty safe ground in arguing that Milton is already starting to have a presentiment of the art that he will come to make; the kind of artist and man that he will become; his way and also his role. I use the word, ‘role’ because he played a part in the world of art that the art-world refuses to acknowledge. And his role may be easier to write out of the script in death than in life. I’m not only talking about critics, but artists as well, and institutions, certainly. Even the Studio School, where he taught at its inception, was uncomfortable with him. When students didn’t buy into the incessant drawing and erasing, the linear dissection of everyday space into a sort of planar construct, or even better, when students had no ability to draw at all, he’d say, “I’ll take him, or her!” Milton felt painting was not about structure, that painting occurred prior to that, and that trying to cram irrelevant knowledge into a beginner’s head created a ball of wool that would only have to be unraveled later anyway. He maintained that the function of a school was not medicinal,it shouldn’t alleviate pain but rather inject the pain of art into you, and show you why the pain was necessary. He’d say, “I come to you like a snake.” He was against mastery his whole life, and he was against the whole idea of ‘the master,” and especially the aura of the master. And there was a faculty meeting at the Studio School of which he was not made aware, and he was tossed out. And although he never talked about it, he never forgot it either. I’m bringing this up because Milton was, as someone wrote in this booklet, the ‘outsider’s outsider.” And he would allude to that. He’d say, “Counterculture? They don’t know what counterculture really is.” And he understood that there were consequences to that, and he took a philosophical position about that; he knew there was a necessary price to pay. But, like I said, he didn’t forget. And even there I think there’s a lesson to be learned. There’s price to pay for your beliefs, and perhaps it’s a necessary price, but although you accept it, you don’t have to feel good about it or that it’s okay. Because it’s not okay.

I think of Milton as a painter first and always, but also as a teacher, and that is the greatest contradiction, or maybe irony, of all. Because he certainly wasn’t a natural. As his friend Yektai wrote so eloquently, “Whenever I brought a problem to Resnick, he always made it vaster.” He wasn’t a teacher in the sense that he had knowledge to impart. He didn’t think of painting as knowledge at all but, as he put it, the “unhinging of your soul from your sight.” Of course to understand that Resnickism you had to know what he meant by ‘soul,’ not the Christian soul, but rather that sense of opposites which Hegel pondered so ponderously, and which Milton perceived intuitively. Milton believed that the act of painting would give you what you needed, not reading about it, or listening to ”some idiot talking about what he doesn’t know either.” And he would serve as an example, as an example in extremis, a logical extension of what was required for art to live today. And he would serve as this example, play this part for which he was endowed by nature with such intelligence and courage, and that’s what I mean by ‘role.’

And now the man is gone, and that position, that ‘ever fixed point’, by which I don’t mean the work, but the stance itself, the artistic stance of the serious person, is also gone. And so it now falls to us, to the people in this room who know what I’m talking about because they’ve had some of the experiences I’m talking about, to serve as models, to the extent our temperament and development may allow, for the few that come after us who still see a blank surface and some colors as an invitation to work.