Five years after the death of the painter Paul Jenkins we offer this highly personal account by Fr. Paul Anel of his encounter with the abstract master’s work. Fr. Paul is Art Director of Heart’s Home USA and exhibitions curator at First Things magazine, New York. A work by Jenkins, meanwhile, is included this summer in the exhibition, Intuition, at the Palazzo Fortuny, Venice, to coincide with the Venice Biennale.
Talking to an artist at an opening reception in Chelsea recently, I mentioned I was writing a short piece on the painter Paul Jenkins, on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of his death. That a priest would write about an artist, and a non-religious artist at that, caused my bewildered interlocutor —half-ingenuously, half-ironically— to wonder: “Was he part of your fold?” Not only was he not “part of my fold” (nor, I think, of any fold for that matter) but I regret to say that I never met Paul Jenkins, because if his paintings reflect who he was, as I am sure they do, I am sure he and I would have gotten along pretty well. Neither atheist nor agnostic, Paul Jenkins was a seeker.
My first encounter with the work of Paul Jenkins was at Robert Miller Gallery on a cold Thursday night in the fall of 2014. Titled Thresholds of Color, the show included about 25 works from the 1960s through the early 2000s. I was immediately struck by the vitality of the paintings. I remember in particular the large, horizontal canvas Phenomena Timbuktu, whose organic shape seemed to have grown naturally out of some inner life principle. Standing in the gallery, I felt surrounded by the colors, smells and whispers of a mysterious garden.
Walking through the gallery, my attention was soon monopolized by a smaller room to the right, designed specifically to welcome an installation entitled Chapel of Meditation. As I would learn, this was the very first time Paul’s “chapel” was on view in its entirety. I walked in. In front of me stood a large (108 x 144 inches) and awe-inspiring canvas, Phenomena Himalayan. I can only try to describe it as a vast mineral cathedral swept over by the powerful tide of an endless river. To the right and to the left, on separate walls, were two grisaille paintings, Phenomena Chapel White, a diptych, and Phenomena Chapel Shell Sound. Vertical and still, they stood like angels keeping watch. On the fourth wall was Phenomena Entrance Portal, a title that could refer to the East Portal of the Chartres Cathedral in France, stonework he admired greatly, writing in his monograph, Anatomy of a Cloud, “The whole structure seemed to have compassion on the viewer.” In this diptych, the light-filled panel on the left seems to breathe a milky balm into a red hearth on the right. Or is it the other way around? Is the “sacred hearth” to the right breathing out its spirit into the immaculate expanse to its left? As I walked out of the gallery and down the chilly Chelsea street, I was firmly resolved to do more research about the author of such admirable work.
Actually, I did not have much time to research about the artist, since Paul himself (so to speak) came to me, in the person of his wife, Suzanne Jenkins. She was told that a priest had lingered meditatively in the chapel, and a mutual friend soon arranged our meeting. We first met at the gallery, pulling two chairs together in the chapel room, between ‘Himalayan’ and ‘Portal’. We then met a second time at Paul’s studio in the East Village, and then again at Japonica, his favorite Japanese restaurant. Little by little, I got to know more about this man who had the nobility of a Russian prince and the discipline of a Japanese calligrapher.
Born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, Paul Jenkins’ interest in art was, from the outset, imbued with a spiritual sense. During the time he lived in Kansas City, he would pay constant visits to the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art (then the William Rockhill Nelson Art Gallery) which includes one of the finest collections of Eastern art in the world. There, he would admire the sculptures of Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy, Shiva and Kali. Their mystical poses —sometimes languorous, sometimes terrifying— were compelling and as the artist described it, fostered in him “a sense of mystery about the universe” that has drawn him all his life. (1) His great-uncle Burris Jenkins, the outspoken protestant pastor of the First Community Church in Kansas City, Missouri, was among the first to notice his “vocation” —and even nourished hopes that Paul would one day follow in his footsteps! Paul had a vocation, yes, and was driven towards the mystery, yet the path opening before him was art, not the ministry, as he clearly manifested it in a letter written in 1945 (when he was 22): “It suddenly became clear to me what kept those few great artists at their constant drive in creating. It was the realization of humility to the greater source. Whether to them as individuals the source was God, instinctive faith in an abstract divine force, or a God heathen in manner, they were the vessel. How easily we lead astray our egos and if you and I are not kept nourished we will harden into breakable glass. Better we are supple children and never all knowing… We’ll thrive on the mystery!”(2)
That Paul Jenkins was a man on a quest for the “greater source” of life is not a poetic fantasy of this writer nor do we rely solely for this on one epistolary confession made in a moment of youthful exaltation. This is documented by his work: each painting can be read like a distinct diary entry on a lifelong pilgrimage. From 1960 on, Paul Jenkins titled his paintings “Phenomena”, alluding to Goethe’s Theory of Color as well as to Immanuel Kant’s understanding that the object perceived is but the incomplete manifestation of a mysterious essence. Yet nothing is more foreign to Paul Jenkins than the German philosopher’s dualism. In that regard, the artist is a lot closer the Eastern non-dualistic mindset. Speaking of which, I soon discovered that Paul and I had something else in common: our love for Japan. From his early interest in ceramics, to Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s classes at the Art Students League in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, to his enduring friendship and numerous collaborations with Yoshihara Jirō and the members of Gutai, Japan was key to Paul’s artistic formation. I was not surprised, therefore, to find in his work a certain quality that is particularly developed among Japanese artists and craftsmen: an appreciation of nature that is not exterior, but rather interior. Rooted in contemplation, the artist reproduced within himself, through patient and humble practice, the inner workings of nature leading to the slow and organic birth of form.
Phenomena Timbuktu is a good example of this. When I first saw it at Robert Miller Gallery, I was struck by its enigma. What I saw had movement and stillness, gravity and growth, accident and control, matter and spirit. Only life itself can hold together such contradictory forces within the simplicity of a form, without dissolving into chaos. As I took my time to allow the painting to articulate its paradoxical existence, it invited me to travel back in time, from the flower to the bud, and from the bud to the seed; from the visible phenomena of form, movement and simplicity, to the invisible, the inner principle of life, the “greater source” of being. Goethe, whom Paul Jenkins read extensively, said that it is as hard to read a great book as to write one. In a similar vein, we can state that we cannot understand a painting unless we are ready to partake in the deeper questions that moved its author.
Religious art as such has grown scarce in the past two hundred years, and while contemporary art sometimes claims to be “spiritual,” it is often so in a way that is vague and formless. Paul Jenkins, as much as I understand him, was not trying to make “spiritual paintings”: he was concerned with light, color, form, movement. Transcendence called out to him from within, not unlike his words about watercolor: “like a bell tolling deeply in the sea from some strange sunken chapel”, as he wrote in a 1983 letter. (3) If the faint vibration of this bell can be heard in many of his works, the Chapel of Meditation is a resonance chamber where it echoes with particular intensity. I don’t know whether it comes from the mystical heights of ‘Himalayan’, or from the secret chamber of the hearth of the ‘Portal’ on the opposite wall. What I know for sure is that it echoes from one wall to the other, under the benevolent eyes of the white, standing forms. The viewer, walking through, is carried away by the music.
(1). Anatomy of a Cloud. Paul Jenkins with Suzanne Donnelly Jenkins. Harry N. Abrams, Inc.: New York, 1983, p. 40.
(2). Exhibition catalogue, Paul Jenkins A Tribute. The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio, 2015, p. 65.
(3). Ibid. p. 46.