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