PRINT February 1974


Paul Jenkins

Albert Elsen, Paul Jenkins (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1973), 284 pages, 56 colorplates, 115 black-and-white illustrations.

This monograph opens, after a few grainy Avalanche-type photographs of the artist at work, with a sententious note by the author, Albert Elsen. “In writing about a living artist, the historian must remind himself that he should ask questions such as those we would like to have had answered by artists of the past, before the recording of art history.” This laudable intention of satisfying the curiosity of future generations is taken by Elsen as art occasion for boldly extrapolating a different breed of art historian than we know. His future reader seems to be one who will want to know that “in 1959, the writings of Kant and Goethe came to Jenkins’ attention.” Presumably Elsen sees this as a contact of great minds. However, suppose that the historian of 2001 is not above the quibbles of today’s historians, and that he asks: which painting by Morris Louis did Jenkins borrow in 1957, and what were the consequences? Here is Elsen’s account. He records that Greenberg showed Jenkins canvases of 1954 by Louis, as opposed to his expressionistic canvases of 1955–56, and quotes Jenkins that he

was convinced that Louis was a dark horse with a new luminous vision. Hoping to encourage Louis to return to the “unique presence” which I saw in these earlier works, I borrowed a rolled Veil as a gesture of conviction and admiration. I never did unroll it at the St. Mark’s apartment studio, though, because there had been a recent fire there.

This point of contact between assiduous Jenkins and poor old Louis is interesting. What effect, Elsen’s future reader might ask, did this rolled-up painting have? According to Elsen, “Louis and Jenkins seem to come together in spirit even more than form” and points out, correctly I think, that Jenkins’ early work derived more from Wols than from Louis. However, Elsen points out elsewhere that Jenkins “was increasingly drawn to sustained translucency of color, which in turn influenced his feelings about an oil medium.” This occurred in 1959, the year in which Jenkins noticed Kant and Goethe, and two years after the loan of the Louis. It seems likely that Louis was instrumental in Jenkins’ move away from Wols, but this connection is not made much of by Elsen; indeed he smudges it over. In the early ’60s Greenberg told me that he lent the paint-ing to Jenkins in the hope of cleaning up Jenkins’ painting technique, encouraging him to take the shine out of his glazes and to let the ground show through more. This is pretty much what happened to Jenkins’ painting between 1957 and 1959 so perhaps the favor he did Louis was returned. At any rate, Greenberg was satisfied and wrote in 1959 that Jenkins was “one of the most individual painters of his time.” Elsen quotes Jenkins as saying that “Wols had a kind of veil in his little watercolors and in his oil paintings. The veils in my paintings came from this source in Paris, not out of Washington color painters.” Actually it is not an either/or situation. First Jenkins was influenced by Wols, in 1953–54; then he was influenced by Louis, 1956–57, as the scale of his pictures got bigger and as his surface became simpler, a process that culminated in 1960 with his total conversion to acrylics. Another question the future historian might ask is: which picture was it? Though Elsen is the art historian here, not me, he does not give this information, so I will: it was a painting at the time untitled but now called Salient, 1954 (collection William S. Rubin).

I would have thought that detail of this kind is precisely what future art history will be made of, unless the profession shows startling change. What is really happening, I think, is that Elsen is writing an obsequious plug for a friend. His remarks about method suggest that he is self-conscious about his suspension of the usual evidentiary standards. Indeed, there is a kind of flattery and self-deception implicit in the relationship of artist and author which surfaces in the “Biographical Outline,” where it is recorded that in 1962 Jenkins “meets Albert Elsen at the Rodin Museum, Paris.” The point here is that Elsen’s arrival in the art world was a notable study of Rodin’s Gates of Hell. Where were their meetings when Jenkins was in the United States: at the Rodin Museum, Philadelphia?

The problem is that it is very difficult to behave like an art historian while collaborating with a living artist. The artist as the originator of the whole work has one idea of it, whereas a writer coming from outside has another. Jenkins laid this book out but several early pictures, one of which Elsen discusses at length, Thisbe’s Wall, are not reproduced and a new work, Phenomena Himalaya, which Elsen nominates as a possible masterpiece, is reproduced on the back of the dust jacket but not within the book itself (and it is captioned Phenomena Himalayan). An art historian can (1) establish an authentic canon, which does not arise in the case of a living artist’s easily verifiable paintings and (2) study the historical context. An example of context in this sense is Jenkins’ relation to Louis, which, as we have seen, Elsen evades. He relies on the word of the artist without testing what he is told against other data, which is not a secure base to work from.

Barbara Rose, John Coplans, and Andrew Forge, who have written other books in this series of Abrams monographs, seem to have run into related difficulties. Rose’s book on Frankenthaler is highly responsive to the art, and gives new information taken directly from the artist, but Frankenthaler gets isolated from the real world of contacts, influences, and parallels. Coplans’ study of Kelly is weakened by the fact that the dates given for the early work are those supplied by the artist, not by the author. Forge’s text on Rauschenberg was obliterated by being printed over grainy photographs, a decision of the artist’s. Frankenthaler’s isolation assumes the form of eminence; Kelly’s dates give him various priorities; and Rauschenberg’s erased Forge text turns the book into a work of art like his own Erased de Kooning Drawing. In different degrees and in different ways, these cases demonstrate artist infiltration or domination of the text. Elsen is unusual in that he seems to welcome the passive role the artist has assigned him. For example, he recounts that “when he was 16 Jenkins had an unforgettable experience that must have conditioned his thinking about using light in the quest for unaccountable occurrences to confirm his awareness of a divine presence.” Then he quotes Jenkins: “One time I witnessed a Fata Morgana when I was visiting my mother in Ohio.” Thus the Fata Morgana, “a mirage, esp. one of the kind seen in the Strait of Messina” (Random House Dictionary, unabridged), seen c. 1939 predates all merely artistic influence and confers total originality on all Jenkins’ work, or is supposed to.

At the end of the ’50s Jenkins’ art changed considerably. Forms are still the outcome of the behavior of liquids, but they are often lighter, more sleek, and continuous. Elsen would have it that the change lies in nature or in Jenkins’ psyche, but Salient is the real cause. For instance, photographs of icebergs are scattered through the book and one of them shares a double-page spread with Phenomena Jacob’s Pillow, 1961. It is true that the painting looks like the iceberg, but so does Salient, which means that Jacob’s Pillow also looks like Salient. Areas of bare but not raw canvas are left visible in the later work, surrounding or threading through color that is matte rather than enameled. Clarity of contour and the cleanness of unrevised paint characterize the work, so that Jenkins can say of it: “it always looks as though it just happened.” This is similar to Frankenthaler’s idea that “a really good picture looks as if it’s all happened at once . . . it looks as if it were born in a minute.”1 Elsen twice likens simpler pieces by Jenkins to Ellsworth Kelly, but this is right off the point. What is needed is a comparison of Jenkins with Frankenthaler and Friedel Dzubas, both of whom poured paint contemporaneously.

I remember being told that when Sidney Janis was working on his book Abstract and Surrealist Art in America, 1944, most artists hoped to be classified as Surrealist rather than abstract. The prestige of Surrealism has waned considerably since then, and this poses a problem for Elsen who does not want anything to interrupt his continual flattery of Jenkins. He points out that Jenkins appreciated the Surrealists’ confidence in the unconscious mind, but rejects them as largely literary and finds their interest in the absurd antithetical to Jenkins’ solemnity (my word). What Elsen does not mention, because it would neither please the artist nor advance the work, is decalcomania, one of the automatic techniques of Surrealism. Invented in 1936 by Dominguez (and used occasionally by Breton and Tanguy), it consists of pressing paper onto ink or paint to obtain unexpected runnels where the paint is wet and textured patches where it is sticky. It produces effects which, as Rubin observes in Dada and Surrealist Art, suggest “exotic flora, mineral deposits, spongy growth” and these words are, coincidentally, a good description of Jenkins’ grottoes. The elaborate flow and coalescence of liquid paint in Jenkins’ work between 1953 and 1955 are evocative of the great cavities of the body, underground caves, and galactic clouds and arms. The interchange of the intimately subcutaneous and the astronomically remote is, of course, similar to the microcosm-macrocosm iconography of late Surrealists, such as Masson (Anatomy of My Universe) and Matta (Psychological Morphology).

Technical virtuosity and a picturesque imagery characterize Jenkins’ art. He works at a distance from his paintings, shielded by adroit procedures from the autographic revelations of gestural painting. There is no sign of the hand in terms of pressure or direction of stroke, so the paintings become detached and ornate images of flux. H. W. Janson, in a discussion of “The ‘Image Made by Chance’ in Renaissance Thought” paraphrased Alberti’s definition of artists as “people with a special predisposition to discover chance images, to find incipient resemblances in random shapes.”2 Janson adds Vasari’s account of Piero di Cosimo’s use of clouds and marked walls to suggest imagery and Leonardo’s prescription for producing a landscape by contemplating chance marks on walls. The idea is picked up in the 18th century by Alexander (Blot-Master) Cozens and, of course, the line from Cozens, via Victor Hugo’s drawings to Surrealist automatism is familiar. Jenkins’ work depends on this traditional link between fantastic landscape and improvisatory technique. Hence the resemblance of his canvases to imperial and cyclic paintings by Thomas Cole or John Martin. Jenkins strives for the infernal, the luxurious, or the catastrophic.

Jenkins divided his time between New York and Paris in the ’50s (like Norman Bluhm, Sam Francis, and Joan Mitchell) and in Paris was influenced by Michel Tapié. As writer and dealer Tapié set up a movement, Art Autre, intended to be ruthlessly modern in content and improvisational in style. Jenkins published a book of his fragmentary texts in English.3 What was congenial in Tapié was his interest in art styles as the signs of new worlds. He considered painting as a form of landscape, of inner or outer space, as exemplified by Wols, Mathieu, Fautrier, and Michaux (who appears three times in Elsen’s text as Michaud). The visceral and cosmic analogies of decalcomanic traces, as well as the aerial burns of fumage, were taken out of graphic scale and into the larger domain of painting by Tapié and his artists. The evocation of new worlds and imagined spaces links late Surrealism and Tapié’s blend of Surrealism and Tachism. Jean Dubuffet, discussing the anatomy-universe analogy in the work of Alfonso Ossorio, observed that materials “skillfully directed . . . are capable of reproducing, on their scale, all the mechanism of the creation of worlds.”4 Instead of discussing Jenkins in such a context, however, Elsen has another reputation-enhancing theory, supplied by the artist himself. Jenkins read Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy in 1953. For Elsen this is another meeting of great minds, but this too can be viewed as another example of the links between Jenkins and romantic Surrealism. From the ’30s alchemy was under continual discussion by the Surrealists, but Elsen pays no attention to all this and keeps the field down to Jung and Jenkins. He quotes Jung on the alchemist’s view of water and then adds: “To this day Jenkins uses water to correct ‘errors’ made during the process of his painting with acrylics.” So what?

The elevated but nebulous style of this book can be shown by a quotation on the subject of grisaille.

The new mysteries sought through gray cause the artist to refer to Goya. “You know that painting in the Louvre by Goya of a woman standing straight on. There’s a silver gray in that painting that I always used to go and look at. And it had dignity, it had violence, it had arrogance, it had many things for me. And I think that maybe what I am trying to do is approach that Goya gray or that Goya silver.”

What does this mean except that Jenkins sounds like a man who wants to be photographed with a celebrity. It is time for a moratorium on the use of Goya’s name; it is continually used to promote, flatter, and aggrandize later and lesser artists. Another example of the immodest self-reference is one last quotation from the artist. “The wing span motif which appears constantly in my work is to me what the square is to Albers. . . .”

Lawrence Alloway



1. Helen Frankenthaler, Interview with David Sylvester, BBC, London, 1961.

2. H.W. Janson, “The ‘Image Made by Chance’ in Renaissance Thought,” in Essays in Honor of Erwin Panofsky, ed. Millard Meiss, New York, 1961; reprinted in Sixteen Studies by H. W. Janson, New York, 1974.

3. Paul and Esther Jenkins, eds., Observations of . . . Michel Tapié, New York, Wittenborn Inc., 1956. For an early statement of his position, see Michel Tapié, Un Art Autre, Paris, Gabriel-Giraud et fils, 1952.

4. Jean Dubuffet, Peintures lnitiatiques d’Alfonso Ossorio, Paris, 1951.