New York

Milton Resnick

Robert Miller Gallery

At first glance, the ten paintings in Milton Resnick’s recent exhibition might look dark, clotted, and vague. It was only in moving around and among them that they began to reveal their strenuous, suggestive, and delicate aspects. Each painting is titled Monument, and all but one feature tombstone-shaped objects hovering on the painted surface. (In the exception, a horizontal rectangle floats above a cloudier vertical one, suggesting a clumsy block-letter i.) These upright oblong forms are rounded at the top and are outlined in various ways, by huge globs of black paint or by more colorful brushwork. They can also suggest doors, boxes, croquet hoops, or ghosts in the Pac Man arcade game. They are totemic forms, both legible and abstract, simple shapes around which the artist grapples at the extremes of awareness with the difficult and fundamental issues of his medium.

In Resnick’s paintings, hues and strokes that resemble smeared mud or overturned piles of decaying leaves, when looked at from another angle, reveal intense shades of blue, maroon, or green. Such brilliant colors seem perceptible only in contrast to the haze and murk of his canvases, in a way that approximates the astonishing variations of the organic world. What is remarkable in Resnick’s painting is the coexistence of these qualities—vibrant and muddled, stark and confounding. The ultimate effect of such dark and heavy work is surfaces that are thoroughly responsive to light.

As one surveys the vast surface of one work, the view suggests what we might see flying over a strange planet, a plangent and detailed landscape composed of stretches of furious, crisscrossing brushwork and matted slurry flecked with wrinkled clusters of dried pigment. Parts of the surface seem eroded, rubbed down, and muted in tone in comparison to the more light-infused passages. It is difficult to tell precisely how these varieties of texture were accomplished, but what is not in doubt is the attentive hand working at so many levels in the process of developing the “Monument” paintings. Just when we feel that our inspection of the surface reveals a random process and an unconcerned maker, we find evidence of a minutely detailed deliberation: a tiny blob of color that spirals off the surface, or a droplet-sized section where a dull outer skin of oil paint has been peeled like a scab to reveal a moist, vibrant interior. Or where one quick gesture has been made using a brush sparingly laced with lighter paint. And just how is it that tiny glints of green and yellow emerge from a brushstroke the overall color of dust? Or that an opaline azure can just be glimpsed beneath a swath of silt gray? An openness to surprises like these is the best part of the experience of painting, and in Resnick’s case these surprises seem endless. And they are all too varied for us to think that the care that has gone into them isn’t infinitely meticulous. The artist has remarked that “Paint is like a storm, and I’m a straw lost in this strong wind. Paint is the master.” Yet this exhibit reveals the artist, now eighty-one years old, belying his own words at every moment, exerting his presence forcefully even within so enveloping a medium.

Tom Breidenbach