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The Gorgeous Sublime

Paul Jenkins eschewed Abstract Expressionism’s inward gaze, aiming to reflect nature’s beauty with sensuous pours of paint.

Paul Jenkins, Phenomena Shooting the Sun, 1978, acrylic on canvas, 77 x 148 inches.

Paul Jenkins, Phenomena Shooting the Sun, 1978, acrylic on canvas, 77 x 148 inches.

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Noting that he was born in 1923 in Kansas City, Mo., Paul Jenkins’ official biography adds that his birth occurred “during a lightning storm.” The implication, perhaps, is that the painter was by nature in sync with nature at its most spectacular. In 1960 the word “phenomena” began to appear in all his titles. Phenomena: Nightwood, 1962, is an imposingly vertical image delicately built from poured swaths of blue, pink, and magenta paint. Jenkins invites us to see this painting as a virtuoso deployment of color, and yet there is no reason to deny that it evokes arboreal forms bathed in particularly intense moonlight. Other Phenomena suggest extravagant sunsets, striated and somehow luminous rock, translucent petals, and more—allusions counterbalanced by the look of paint as sheer, luscious paint.

When Jenkins died, in 2012, he was a member of the National Academy and the Royal Cambrian Academy of Wales. He had received an honorary doctorate from Hofstra University, the Seals of the City of Prato, in Italy, and the Gold Medal of the French City of Lille. In 1980 the Republic of France made him an Officer of Arts and Letters. Three years later, he was promoted to Commander. Institutional recognition came early to Jenkins’ brand of lushly chromatic abstraction. He had his first retrospective in 1965, at the Kestner-Gesellschaft in Hanover, Germany. There were half a dozen more, including one at the Musée Picasso, at Antibes—but none in New York. Despite an impressive record of solo exhibitions at Manhattan galleries, Jenkins was never entirely at home in the New York art world.

During the Second World War, Jenkins served in the Navy. Demobilized, he studied dramatic composition at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon University) in Pittsburgh. After painting and drawing on his own for a few years, he decided, in 1948, to move to New York and study at the Art Students League. Meeting Mark Rothko, Jenkins became friends with him, yet he remained untouched by Rothko’s grand sense of the tragic. Inventing a variation on Jackson Pollock’s drip-and-pour method, Jenkins assimilated none of Pollock’s stark aggressiveness. From the 1950s until the ’80s, at least, a rule prevailed in New York: art is supposed to be tough. Not attractive, not inviting, but tough. Jenkins’s paintings are not just attractive. With their sensuous currents of luminous color, they are exquisite. So he never quite fit into the New York scene, and by 1955 he was spending half his time in Paris.

By the early 1960s Jenkins was calling himself an “Abstract Phenomenalist.” This was an effective way to acknowledge his distance from Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and all the other painters gathered under the Abstract Expressionist label. Putting “Phenomenalist” in place of “Expressionist,” Jenkins announced that he had no interest in charting the existential tremors of the “the self, terrible and constant,” as Barnett Newman called it. Flexing their muscles, physical or emotional or both, the Abstract Expressionists attacked their paintings. With one edge of an unstretched canvas raised up off the studio floor, Jenkins sent riverine pigments flowing serenely over canvases playing the part of gently sloping terrain. Guiding these currents of color with an ivory knife, he produced images alive with his feelings about the most entrancing features of the world beyond the borders of his psyche.

Of course, the first word of Jenkins’s self-description also has a job to do, if only to echo the obvious: his paintings are indeed “Abstract.” And they are abstract in way that recalls, from a considerable distance, the doctrines of Samuel Johnson and his fellow neoclassicist Joshua Reynolds, painter and first president of the Royal Academy, in London. In Johnson’s History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759), the prince’s teacher Imlac tells him that the true poet “does not number the streaks of the tulip.” Like the true painter, he gives us images of “general nature,” a phrase that recurs often in the Discourses Reynolds delivered to members of the Academy. Stepping confidently over the line from representation to abstraction, Jenkins made images of nature so general that they elude the bonds of specific reference. An evocation of petals may just as easily remind us of clouds or waves or the contours of some extraordinary landscape. Specificity crops up, nonetheless. In Phenomena: Hit the Tiger at Center (1968), thin, curving streaks of color look very much like stamens surging up from the heart of a lily.

His mystical tendencies strengthened by reading the I Ching and the works of Carl Jung, Jenkins was ultimately more a Romantic than a neoclassicist. So it was wise of the director Paul Mazursky to cast Jenkins’ canvases as the ones Alan Bates would pretend to paint in the 1978 movie An Unmarried Woman. For this is a comedy—romantic in another sense, with which Jenkins’ aesthetic was thoroughly comfortable. Though he offers much to a sophisticated eye, he never armored himself against untutored sensibilities. Moviegoers may well have liked his paintings simply because their colors are so lovely. His appeal is wide, and for decades certain New Yorkers, with their insistence on toughness, held that against him. But this old complaint no longer makes much sense.

In recent years, standards have not relaxed so much as become more versatile. It is possible, these days, to argue that Norman Rockwell is an artist, not just an illustrator. And decorative art—the kind that Reynolds called “merely ornamental”— is no longer dismissed out of hand. Philip Taaffe, among others, has shown that the decorative can be as demanding and as rewarding as Abstract Expressionism at its toughest. This is a point Jenkins made long ago and reiterated with unflagging versatility throughout his career. Painted toward the end of his life, Phenomena: Rim of Knowing (2010), offers the casual eye a mysteriously shadowed splendor. The initiated viewer sees that and more—an imaginary landscape where intention and chance meet, mingle, and endow even the subtlest flurry of pictorial incident with the grandeur of the sublime. This is neither Pollock’s cosmological sublime nor Newman’s existential variation. It is the sublime in the key of gorgeousness.

By Carter Ratcliff

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: March 2014

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