Monday, June 2, 2008

Milton Resnick: Ecstasy Made Visible

I've been making frequent pilgrimages to the Milton Resnick show at Cheim & Read Gallery (547 West 25th Street New York, NY; 212-242-7727). I'm not sure what I'll do with myself after it closes on June 20, 2008!

It's not that I'm such a huge art fan. While I peruse galleries and museums as often as any reasonably cultured urbanite, I'm rarely viscerally turned on, and I've never learned to rattle off painters, paintings, and periods the way I can tapas and bebop pianists. But every once in a while, one finds magic.

Last month I stumbled upon Resnick's "East is the Place", a sprawling, epic work of abstract expressionism at the Milwaukee Art Museum. For those unfamiliar with the terminology, this is one of those "squiggly" paintings that people tend to stare at in numb bafflement. But unlike many of the impenetrable works it superficially resembles, Resnick's painting wouldn't let me go. I dove in and swam happily, exploring an entire world, feeling as if I was cannily guided by the artist through an immense frenetic quagmire of blotches, smears, and squiggles.

I could easily have sat in front of the painting for a week. Viewing for a few minutes and then passing on to the next painting seemed as futile as hoping to appreciate a Mahler symphony by surfing a few moments on a CD. I'd found the ultimate Desert Island Painting, with infinite depths and dynamic richness that could engage the viewer for an eternity.

Resnick's work is so visually slippery that the eye can't help but keep moving, and the result is a sensation of active motion not easily described without resorting to hallucinogenic cliches. It's often said that the paint seems suspended in the air several inches in front of Resnick's canvases, and that's putting it mildly. Shortly after viewing "East is the Place" in Milwaukee, I stepped into the museum's
“Infinity Chamber," a trippy room designed to evoke an experience of infinite depth. But after Resnick, it seemed shallow and blandly finite.

Upon returning from Milwaukee I began sussing out opportunities for viewing other Resnick work around town, and, amazingly, this retrospective was under way. I hurried over, and discovered that Resnick's magic is consistent. The eight paintings in the show all have the same immersive, ecstatic quality that so mesmerized me in Milwaukee. I stood slack-jawed while my eyes throbbed and I softly whimpered.

Other viewers looked at the paintings, but there's nothing to "look" at, per se, but squiggles and blotches! These are sensory rides, not pictures. Yet few seemed to immerse. They gingerly stepped around the raptly smitten fellow, peered dully for a few seconds, and moved on.

This is artwork to inhabit rather than to observe. One might be intimidated by the sheer scale of the canvases (the largest is nearly 25 feet long) and their lack of obvious entry point, but one approach is to concentrate on a single color, deeming it the background, and allow eyes to come in and out of focus naturally. Then shift to another color as background. At a certain point, you give up and simply drink in the beauty, letting the painting direct the eye's movements as colors and brushstrokes begin to roil and radically transform.

Resnick's work superficially resembles that of other "energy" painters such as Jackson Pollock, but whereas Pollock's art is often said to be "energy made visible", Resnick's is ecstasy made visible. There's also a hard-to-pin-down classical quality to Resnick's work. These are lush, romantic, unmodern opuses...which happen not to contain recognizable content. They don't sneer in staunch resistence to figure. Rather, they hint, slip, and slide through the figurativism of the unconscious. Resnick described art as the unhinging of soul from sight, and his is the work of an unhinged romantic painter.

It's a happy coincidence that
Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976 is currently at the Jewish Museum through September 21, 2008. I'd be more upset at the curators' having snubbed Resnick if the Cheim & Read show weren't up in parallel, but the two together offer a sensational survey of this period of American art. If you hit the JewMu, do buy the catalog - gallery speak for that pricey hard-bound commemorative booklet with color images - which is already selling online at steep premium. I bought the Resnick catalog, but, alas, he has absolutely no impact in reproduction. I just might be forced to relocate to Milwaukee.

P.S.- after writing the above, I found the following quote by Resnick, who was apparently the rare visual artist able to convey his vision in words: "It isn't canvas that you approach for your focusing. It is a place…A very important part of this whole thing lies in whether this canvas, which becomes this place, also becomes a world."

Update: Here's a photo of "East is the Place", the painting I saw in Milwaukee. The image is about a thousandth as good as seeing the thing in person, but it's still pretty great. Click to expand (and open your browser window widely, or else download the image and open with a graphics program):


Anonymous said...

I just came across this blog tonight quite by err. It caught my attention due to the fact that I live in Milwaukee and love this painting. My son and I made our firt trip to MAM and saw it three years ago while he was five. We talk about it almost weekly and just went to see it again yesterday.

It is a massive and amazing painting that needs to be seen in person. We have sat on the bench, leaned against the walls, stood across the room, and even sat on the floor right in front of it. The painting just seems to move and be alive. He and I have come to think of it as a grand jazz party on the streets of the biggest city around.

I am not one for the "squiggle" paintings as you have mentioned it, but this is so much more than that.


Jim Leff said...

Terry, thanks much for chiming in. I'll see you on that bench sometime!

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