‘Painting is what paint does’: Milton Resnick at Mana Contemporary
Milton Resnick’s paintings are arresting. The images are hard won. The surfaces are tactile and weighty. They have presence.
A major survey exhibition of Resnick’s work on view at Mana Contemporary through August 8, 2014. This exhibition, Milton Resnick (1917-2004): Paintings and Works on Paper from the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation, spans over a half century of the artist’s work. Resnick emigrated to New York from Russia in the 1920s, participated in the WPA Artists’ Project, and befriended Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, John Graham, and other downtown artists. He was drafted into the army during WWII, then returned to New York in 1945. His abstract paintings placed him firmly in the first generation of abstract expressionists. In the 70s and 80s, he created allover compositions with increasingly dense paint applications. The resulting works have a “topographical presence” and emphasize the materiality of paint above all else. Works from this period are exhibited in the first floor gallery space at Mana. The exhibit continues on another level, where several of his early works from the 1950s are grouped with later figurative works of the 90s and 00s. Resnick died in 2004 in New York, and his wife, the painter Pat Passlof died in 2011, establishing the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation in her will.
Ever since I first encountered Resnick’s works at Cheim & Read in Chelsea, I’ve craved seeing more of his paintings. The few exhibition catalogues I could find of his work are rare and out of print (with the exception of Milton Resnick: A Question of Seeing: Paintings 1959-1963, published in 2008 by Cheim & Read). In the late 90s, a televised portrait of Resnick aired on PBS, A World of Art: Works in Progress: Milton Resnick and (Works in Progress: Milton Resnick, Part 2). It provides a glimpse into his painting process, his life with Pat Passlof on the Lower East Side, and many of his insights into the medium of oil paint. “Painting is what paint does. You have to be the straw in the wind and listen to what the master, paint, tells you to do.”
Given the longevity of Resnick’s career, it is surprising that this show at Mana is the first major East Coast exhibition of Resnick’s work. Perhaps Resnick isn’t more widely known precisely because his paintings demand being experienced in person. He uses paint as a visual medium rather than as a vehicle for presenting ideas; since the paintings don’t explicitly express intellectual concepts, they don’t lend themselves to written discourse. Furthermore, in our age of mechanical (now digital) reproduction, we’ve become accustomed to slick images that are easy to represent with digital surrogates. There’s something to be said for the cult of the original, for authenticity, and for experiential understanding. Resnick is that breed of painter’s painter whose work warrants firsthand knowledge.
Visiting the Resnick show at Mana Contemporary is a pilgrimage of sorts. Firstly, you must take the PATH train (which isn’t that difficult, it turns out). Secondly, you cannot view the show without a guided tour. Due to the peculiarities of the gargantuan space, this procedure makes perfect sense, and isn’t at all a deterrent to seeing the art work at your leisure. When I went to view the exhibit, our guide explained some of Mana Contemporary’s features to the group. The enormous space is a work in progress, with a combination of galleries, studios, printing presses, and art storage. Its beginnings as an art storage facility have influenced the exhibitions, including this current ambitious show of Resnick’s paintings. Apparently, Resnick’s work was being stored at Mana, and one of the curatorial missions is to showcase artists whose works are in storage there. The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation will be opening a museum on 87 Eldridge Street in the Lower East Side in a synagogue that was Resnick’s studio from 1977 until his death in 2004. The museum is scheduled to open in 2016 and will provide an exhibition space for works by Milton Resnick and his wife, Pat Passlof, as well as the study of other abstract expressionists.