by David Rhodes
CHEIM & READ | FEBRUARY 22 — MARCH 31, 2018
In 1981, when Milton Resnick was 64, he bought 140, 40” by 30” impregnated, wax, corrugated boards. He had recently completed the large-scale Planets, Elephants and Straws in the Wind series. Each painting took as much as several months to finish and was up to seventeen feet in length. With the Boards, Resnick’s intention was to take what he had learned from the large paintings and see if he could finish a painting in as few as three or even two sessions. The Board paintings, together with two canvases from 1984 and 1985 respectively, are titled Untitled, or sub-divided into four groups: Straws, Burned O’s, Scows, and Bark.
The surface of each of the Boards is compact and dense—though a shifting and restless motion is also present in the movement of brushed or smeared paint. Looking at these surfaces, one thinks of Resnick and his family, when he was a young boy, crossing the river Moldova, escaping the civil war in Russia. Standing before this painting, one wonders: could the river’s dark surface and shifting undercurrent have stayed with him all this time? Resnick returned to Europe in 1940 with the U.S. army. He originally arrived in America in 1922. Like other immigrants of the 1920s, the experience of fleeing persecution, war, or revolution was a common experience.
By the beginning of the 1980s Resnick had been working in an abstract mode for over 35 years. In interviews, he talked of reclaiming some aspects of his paintings from the 1950s, as he had moved on quickly from one painting to the next. Resnick wanted both speed in the painting itself—rather than the difficult, incremental accumulations of recent paintings—and the freedom to move onto new paintings quickly, again and again, to explore different implications gleaned from earlier works—the numerous boards he had in his Eldridge Street studio provided this. Each Board was begun and then left for some days before more painting was added. Resnick could initially prime a work in one session before working into the inchoate and thickening layers of paint, adding or scraping off as desired. Both independently successful, each painting represents a point in a very wide range of impact—the scale of mark, its degree of absorption, the varying rhythms and flows, changing viscosities, and ridges and puckering of paint, all contribute to the differences found from one painting to another. Nothing is simply repeated.
Untitled (1982) is dark toned—merging greens and greys flecked with white. It recalls parts of Chaim Soutine’s paintings. Untitled (1984) is more openly gestural, and lighter in tone; pea-green and earthy yellows predominate. In Skow (1981) —a flat-bottomed boat similar to a barge, used to transport freight—the paint is inky black and sea green, bringing to mind Jackson Pollock’s Full Fathom Five (1947).
All the paintings have rough edges. In other words, the sharp rectangle of the support is obscured by viscous paint, and small areas of the boards toward the edges, are almost free of paint, making the perimeter of the painting anything but a clean, defining shape. Resnick had described the experience of being with the large paintings as being one with the surface, remarking that retreating to look from a distance was not essential. The Boards appear to confirm this approach by rendering on a smaller scale, so that we can approach them in their wholeness at arms length or less, and so we experience this proximity explicitly, rather than partially as in front of a large painting. Mark Rothko said that the ideal viewing distance for his own paintings was, “Way back, about eighteen inches,” as—I would argue—it is with Joan Mitchell’s. In this exhibition, Resnick made this proximity of viewing the very subject of the work.
DAVID RHODES is a New York-based artist and writer, originally from Manchester, UK. He has published reviews in the Brooklyn Rail, Artforum, and Artcritical, among other publications.