Carl Plansky In Memorial (1951-2009)

Carl is the complete package,
A trusted and intimate friend,
A compassionate mentor and teacher,
The walking bible of fine art material and techniques,
An artist who believed deeply in the endless possibilities of art,
And a fantastic painter.

Portrait of the artist. Courtesy of Beverly Plansky.

Thinking about Carl’s life, some of the things I know about him come from firsthand experience and some from stories Carl and other people told me. Carl led a very expansive and complex life for someone whose life was cut a little short. He had many, many more years of creativity and generosity in him, but in the time he was with us he packed in everything he could for one single purpose. Carl was on a quest. He needed to experience as much as he could to make himself be the best painter he could. His quest had with it the feeling of a hero and at times the feeling of a monk. In his quest he was severely tested by fire and ice. He would place himself in extreme situations that brought with them a density of experience that he needed for his art.

He was tested by fire, by a powerful artist, a serious painter, Joan Mitchell, who was a very difficult person to say the least. Carl knew at a very early age, that this sorceress held some of the Art of Painting’s unspeakable secrets and he needed to get them. In between the insults and the drinking were the secrets. When he had the secrets he withdrew. He survived the fire.

I first met Carl over a sales counter at the David Davis’s art supply store then on LaGuardia Place in the early 1970s where he was working. I think he was recharging his batteries after Joan. Carl and I talked freely over that counter, mostly about art materials but sometimes about David Davis’s bad breath from the beans he always ate for lunch or maybe about the hooded figure who worked for David in the basement, who seemed to be able to cross a room from shadow to shadow without moving his feet. But mostly, I listened to the vastness of Carl’s knowledge and experience with oil paint. Old Holland and Blockx were still around and they were the best paints. Carl had a way of revealing his knowledge in such a casual, generous, and totally unpretentious way. He would say, “Well, you could do that, but maybe try this and see if it doesn’t work a little better.” Everything he suggested I did and yes, it did work better.

I also sensed in Carl that he was the real thing; he had an authentic life and he was on a search for authentic moments in his art. And I sensed that he had more than enough expertise in materials and techniques to bring this authenticity into his painting.

Then Old Holland and Blockx paint deteriorated into student grade paint. Carl did not waste one minute: knowing that good painters need a high-quality paint. He used the contacts he had made in Paris with Joan Mitchell, small art supply stores that would custom hand-grind paint for individual artists. He went there and learned their secrets. He then found pigment in Europe and brought all of this back to New York City. He knew Milton Resnick had an extra grinding machine he could use. Next Carl rented a small storefront in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, close to my studio. I visited him one day. He was grinding paint wearing just a pair of summer shorts.

It was just like Carl to be generous and sensitive to
everyone else and to forget about himself. Well, Carl was covered with paint, bright red paint, from head to toe. The first thing he said to me was, “Bill, I think I have done it, I’ve made really good paint. I looked at him and said, “You may have made really good paint, Carl, but you should try to get more of it in the tube.”

Because he knew the secrets from the old paintmakers in Europe and had the best pigment and oil around, “Williamsburg Paints” took off. Not only did Carl  provide thousands of painters with high quality paint but he also employed many, many young painters to grind the paint, and he gave them free access to that paint on top of getting paid.

Carl was very proud of his paint. It was a “win-win” situation. He gave the world high-quality paint, he employed young painters to make it, and he himself had all the paint he needed. And believe me, Carl made the best and the fullest use of it.

Carl was very proud of his paint. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found Williamsburg Paints to be the purest around. Carl was awarded a commission to make a beautiful cobalt blue mixture for a house down south that Thomas Jefferson once owned.

Everything was working so well. Carl decided to move the paint factory upstate. Beverly, his sister, whom he loved dearly, came in to run the business. She also had worked for David Davis. Carl was then free to paint all the time. He built a new studio up there, close to the factory.

Carl’s next trial was by ice. For years, Carl’s work was invisible to the cold art world. He handled this like a monk. He knew that he had the support of peers he respected and that they could see the beauty of his work. Carl once said in a lecture how liberating it was to know that the pretentious art world would not be interested in his authenticity. This allowed him to deepen and clarify his vision. Very much like Giorgio Morandi, who was thankful to be overlooked by the Italian avant-garde. For that left him to pursue his own path.

Then the ice started to melt. With an artist like Carl, with that kind of conviction and energy, the work inevitably has to spill out of the studio and into the world. He began to show his work regularly in a New York gallery and numerous others in the U.S. He also found a second home that loved both painting and opera: Budapest, Hungary. He loved opera, he used it for enlightenment, he used it for subject matter and content. Every year Carl would spend three to four months painting at a studio he bought there. Carl told me he would hang out with the Gypsies and how exciting they were. I had fantasies of him singing and dancing with the Gypsies maybe playing the tambourine, and eating goulash with them. All of which fired his inspiration.

Margrit Lewczuk, the students, and I were very fortunate to have Carl in our Atelier at the New York Studio School. When Carl walked into a room you knew that this is an artist, this is a painter. Being an alumnus, he brought with him the best of the New York Studio School. His belief and knowledge was infectious. Carl could talk about light and color from all ages the way a geologist would talk about the Earth. Carl gave a wonderful lecture here on his work and life as an artist. Similarily, his honesty and the depth of his belief was so clearly demostrated in his last show Sacred Monsters at the New York Studio School.

Artists like Carl don’t pass away; they seem to hang around forever. Carl was so passionate about capturing the mysteries of this life in paint that after he is gone we still have that life to look at and experience.

Carl’s quest was a complete success. He discovered many authentic moments in his work, and it is in the capturing of an authentic moment that permanence is born into a work of art. It is the thing that generations keep looking at.

Carl had become a sorcerer. A sorcerer who, with generosity and humanity, would reveal to anyone sensitive enough, the unspeakable secrets to the Art of Painting.

I believe that energy and spirit are infinite and that Carl’s soul has been reborn some place in the cosmos. Maybe last weekend a baby was born who would look at you with his sparkling, benevolent eyes or maybe a new star was born into a distant universe that shines with a compassionate light. A light that says, “You can do it.” Carl did it. And he did it in a very expansive and powerful way. He hit the high C’s.

Bravo, Carl, Bravo.

New York City, 10/2009

A scholarship is being created under Carl Plansky’s name at the
New York Studio School.

Contributor

Bill Jensen

BILL JENSEN, born in Minneapolis, has lived and worked in New York City since the early 1970s and was one of the first artists to establish a studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He came into prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s during a movement that revived the predominance of painting. Intuitive and visceral, Jensen’s abstractions have long been admired for their unconventional compositions and profound sense of color. Jensen’s work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum, New York; the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California, and many others.

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