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Paul Jenkins' Exhibition of Major Works from the 60s and 70s at the Redfern Gallery
Paul Jenkins, Phenomena Waves without Wind, 1977 195.6 x 378.5 cm ©Paul Jenkins. Courtesy Redfern Gallery, London.
LONDON.- American born abstract expressionist, Paul Jenkins’ exhibition of major works from the 1960s and 70s is on display from 7th June – 28th July 2011 at the Redfern Gallery, London W1. Born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1923, Jenkins was drawn to New York to study. He later became associated with the Abstract Expressionists; friends and co-artists included names such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell. Since the 1950s he has shared his time between studios in New York and France. Jenkins’ paintings have come to represent the spirit, vitality, and invention of post World War II American abstraction. Employing an unorthodox approach to paint application, Jenkins’ fame is as much identified with the process of controlled paint-pouring and canvas manipulation as with the gem-like veils of transparent and translucent colour which have characterized his work since the late 1950s.

Protean by its very nature, from culture to culture, generation to generation, art remains nevertheless an inherently private, individualized language. Some art languages fuse effortlessly with others and are incorporated into a kind of middle flow of expression; others are more starkly delineated, with a syntax and vocabulary that resist absorption, and tend to stand alone. It is a curious process, utterly fluid, and perceptions of it are forever changing in time. And by this last token alone, if Paul Jenkins was long regarded as part of the vast wave of Abstract Expressionism, surely he can be seen now very clearly as a painter apart, belonging to no group, tendency or movement other than his own.

That one-man movement — which in a sense is what all outstanding artists are — has drawn on a spectacular range of sources and influences: ancient and modern, Western and Oriental, spiritual and pragmatic. Jenkins’ life has been a voyage of discovery, and since that long, varied life has deeply informed every phase of his artistic development, it would be useful to resume its most striking features before discussing the work itself. Born (appropriately enough during a lightning storm) in 1923 in Kansas City, Missouri, Jenkins got off to an early start by studying life drawing as an adolescent at the local Art Institute (he remembers the female models being demurely clad in bathing suits) and by visiting the Nelson-Atkins Museum whose imposing Indian and Chinese sculptures fascinated him1. He also worked in a ceramics studio and was immediately in thrall to the magical transformation of colour by fire; such incandescence resulting in the subtle translucence of glazes would make a deep, lasting impact. Jenkins’ flair for meeting leading artists wherever he chanced to be — which has remained with him throughout his career — was already in evidence: before he was twenty he had become at least briefly acquainted with the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the painter Thomas Hart Benton (then teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute), whom the young tyro consulted about his future as an artist.

For a period during the war at the US Naval Air Corps, Jenkins was seconded to the on-site pharmacist, no doubt as close to alchemical experiment as he might have aspired to during the hostilities; he also continued to draw and began a series of watercolours on the theme of Kabuki dancers. Once discharged, Jenkins found his way to New York and enrolled at the Art Students League, where he studied under the Japanese-born artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi, whose early training had focused on weaving and dyeing. In New York’s relatively small, unpretentious, postwar art scene, it was not long before Jenkins had met all the leading luminaries, notably Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman and Willem de Kooning (who later encouraged Jenkins to take over his huge, luminous studio at 13th and Broadway3). Jenkins also benefited from visits to the city’s unparalleled art collections (the Frick’s masterpieces being a major revelation) and read widely, developing a taste for the mystical texts of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. It was at this time, too, caught up in that heady moment of postwar stylistic and technical renewal, that Jenkins began experimenting with the effects of a liquid binder that allowed his pigments to flow over paper and canvas. This period culminated in Sea Escape (1951), a watercolour painted during a stay on Fire Island, in which Jenkins mixed some actual seawater into his colours. Subsequent experiments led to the key discovery of the virtues of employing an ivory knife to control and guide the flow of acrylic paint over primed canvas. “With the smooth organic surface of the ivory,” Jenkins explained, “I could use great pressure against the sensitive tooth of the canvas.”

Jenkins now began travelling widely in Europe, and by the mid-1950s, after exalting trips to Italy and Spain, he had established himself in Paris to the extent of having a studio of his own and frequenting many of the city’s leading artists (notably Jean Dubuffet, Henri Michaux and Pierre Soulages) as well as the influential art critic, Michel Tapié. This was the beginning of Jenkins’ lifelong attachment to Paris — a place he found as “tough as Pittsburgh” yet immensely conducive to self-discovery. Paris returned the compliment, and in 1954 Jenkins was given his very first solo show at the Studio Paul Facchetti, then a focal point for the Parisian avant-garde.

Jenkins’ artistic and philosophical interests, diverse and far-ranging from the start, broadened out even further under the influence of Europe and a changed perspective on to the world. Exploring the great Paris collections, Jenkins became entranced by the hermetic vision expressed in Odilon Redon’s pastels and by a series of painted sketches he found by Gustave Moreau in a side room of the latter’s carefully preserved, cavernous studio. These ébauches struck Jenkins forcefully as abstract essays in which radiant colour so dominated the work as to become its principal subject. The discovery gave the young abstract painter the sense of being rooted in a specific tradition, and he later wrote a text describing Moreau as the Moot Grandfather of Abstraction. But Jenkins’ restless intellectual and spiritual curiosity also took him further into Eastern philosophy, notably through the recently translated I Ching (or Book of Changes) and Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery. If one source emphasized the notion of the constant fluidity of all phenomena, the other convincingly described how through continuous practice and concentration the archer (or the artist) reaches a state beyond conscious self, opening the way to higher, spontaneous achievement. Both beliefs were to become key tenets of Jenkins’ spiritual development and his approach to his art. These awakenings were accompanied by parallel experimentation with the more material concerns of painting, such as the introduction of powdered pigments and chrysochrome, a particularly viscous enamel paint that radiates and catches light simultaneously.

Neither Paris nor esoteric text and technical innovation caused Jenkins to forget New York. Deeply dual by nature (“What I want,” he once stated, “is the coexistence of opposing forces”), the artist realized that both cities would play an essential role in his life and his career. Martha Jackson, the perceptive, internationally aware art dealer who rapidly became one of Jenkins’ staunchest supporters, organized his first solo show in New York in 1956. In order to spend more time once again in the city, Jenkins exchanged his Paris studio for Joan Mitchell’s on St Mark’s Place, where he began his famous Eyes of the Dove series.4

Although painted on a relatively small scale, the series’ explosive colour and movement transcended the canvases’ specific dimensions. “I discovered that one painting might seem to contract and concentrate, fold into itself, but another might appear to expand beyond its borders,” Jenkins said later in an interview.5 “All achieved a difference of scale.”

The show at the Martha Jackson Gallery, the first of a dozen to be held there over the following two decades, was well received, with art-world figures as central as Mark Rothko and the critic Clement Greenberg joining in the general praise. Jenkins’ work began to enter museum collections, and after several other solo shows in London, Paris and Germany, he was given his first US retrospective, which travelled from Houston to San Francisco. Many other accolades and honours were to follow. But by the early 1960s, with his reputation increasingly well-established on both sides of the Atlantic, Jenkins entered a period of unusually fertile and sustained invention. It is from this point on that the present exhibition takes its focus.

How does a pictorial vocabulary as personal yet as instantly recognizable as Paul Jenkins’ actually evolve? His work has drawn on a rich variety of sources, as we have seen, and for each one that has already been cited, a dozen others exist, from the writings of Kant to the finesse of the Flemish masters and the kaleidoscope of colour encountered on the streets of India. Jenkins has taken both culture and nature as his province and — in what he has referred to as “a state of constant self-discovery” — he has explored whichever areas have opened up to his wide-ranging but highly defined sensibility. At the same time, he has experimented tirelessly with painting materials and technique, developing a mastery of spontaneous execution akin to that of the Zen archers — or Chinese calligraphers — that he admires.

Thus the pictorial language that comes so fluently to him draws deeply on the twin influences of culture and technique. But such a basic introduction barely prepares the eye for the explosion of light and colour that constitutes Jenkins’ painted world. Out of the artist’s profound study and knowing comes a realm of un-knowing, where every fragment and nuance is in flux. Take any picture at random in the present selection of work from the 1960s and 1970s and the fact that Jenkins knows Goethe’s Theory of Colour by heart does little more to further an appreciation of the colour and composition than it would a sunset or a volcano in full flow. As in a mystical experience, one is invited to leave all knowledge and experience behind and allow oneself simply to float into these unexplored universes.

How does a pictorial vocabulary as personal yet as instantly recognizable as Paul Jenkins’ actually evolve? His work has drawn on a rich variety of sources, as we have seen, and for each one that has already been cited, a dozen others exist, from the writings of Kant to the finesse of the Flemish masters and the kaleidoscope of colour encountered on the streets of India. Jenkins has taken both culture and nature as his province and — in what he has referred to as “a state of constant self-discovery” — he has explored whichever areas have opened up to his wide-ranging but highly defined sensibility. At the same time, he has experimented tirelessly with painting materials and technique, developing a mastery of spontaneous execution akin to that of the Zen archers — or Chinese calligraphers— that he admires.

Thus the pictorial language that comes so fluently to him draws deeply on the twin influences of culture and technique. But such a basic introduction barely prepares the eye for the explosion of light and colour that constitutes Jenkins’ painted world. Out of the artist’s profound study and knowing comes a realm of un-knowing, where every fragment and nuance is in flux. Take any picture at random in the present selection of work from the 1960s and 1970s and the fact that Jenkins knows Goethe’s Theory of Colour by heart does little more to further an appreciation of the colour and composition than it would a sunset or a volcano in full flow. As in a mystical experience, one is invited to leave all knowledge and experience behind and allow oneself simply to float into these unexplored universes.

There is clearly a delight in letting go and plunging into the vortexes of colour that comes from being suddenly freed from the tyranny of intepretation ( “... and already the knowing animals are aware,” as Rilke suggests, “that we are not really at home in our interpreted world”). The leap having been made, the spectator is no longer required to make conscious judgment of what suffuses his eye. Yet after a while, once the blaze of colour and chaos of shape have begun to be absorbed, it nevertheless challenges perception and demands explanation. The spectator might detect what he believes to be the wing of a bird, two cold grey glaciers merging, volcanic eruptions or the bruised remains of a sunset reflected in a pond. But this in the end is mere anecdote, the kind of narrative that, like children, we indulge in to take us from day to day. The reality is that Jenkins’ painting is far more consistently akin to the changing phenomenon of the world itself. As the artist himself has said:

“It is difficult to see what is really there in front of our very eyes. We cannot see all there is in any outward manifestation, but rather what we can perceive. The retina is no longer the mainspring of perception. We are caught up in ambiguity — the adventure being to distinguish the real universe of ourselves from the other one we reel through; the chasms of light outside ourselves which catch our own inner light projecting from us in forms unseen, presences, radiations, invisible but felt gestures.”

Essentially Jenkins addresses our unconscious mind, since, like Jung, the artist believes in the overriding need in our time to “repudiate the arrogant claim of the conscious mind to be the whole of the psyche.” The duality of conscious and unconscious is closely reflected in Jenkins’ dramatic use of dark and light in his canvases, a theme echoed in the play of hot and cold colour as well as deliberately ordered form clashing with inchoate or chaotic shape. But if the drama can be taken to refer to such primal dualities, there is nevertheless a hero — a leader of the dramatis personae that inhabit these mysteriously swirling, endlessly evolving universes with all their seductive symphonies and their simultaneous undertow of threat and destruction. The hero, the protagonist regularly defeated by the powers of darkness but always triumphant even as a glimmer, is of course light. As a young man Jenkins was quick to heed Monet’s mot that the “light is the real person in the picture” — the single force that brings colour to life. In a thousand different essays in a dozen media Jenkins has become a virtuoso of light: light reflected and refracted, veiled in mists of colour or naked, cold and white, harshly revealing, or golden, beguiling, life-giving light.

“Colours”, in Goethe’s memorable phrase, “are the deeds and suffering of light.” This is the dimension, both otherworldly and everyday, that Jenkins has chosen to explore as an artist: chronicling the deeds, recording the suffering — the pain — of light. The variations are infinite because light, caught in the fusion of time and space, is as close to infinity as the human imagination can conceive. Here we are taken beyond any question of aesthetics into the realm of the imponderable. The mystery in Jenkins’ pictures opens up other mysteries, like clouds dispersing to reveal ever-deeper, interstellar spaces. At the heart of his work there is a central enigma that never gives up its key. We look at these paintings as we look at the world around us, without ever being entirely sure what they are or where they will lead. This is the power of Jenkins’ art, to be parallel to reality while remaining hermetically apart, a mirror to the marvel and the confusion of this great unknown into which, willy nilly, we have all been cast.

Michael Peppiatt
May 2011





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