Paul Jenkins

The Redfern Gallery

Born in 1923, Paul Jenkins has been exhibiting his paintings regularly since his first solo show in 1954, yet in recent decades his work has mostly flown under the critical radar. Even his moment of pop-cultural notoriety, when his studio and painting method were lent to the macho but sensitive character played by Alan Bates in Paul Mazursky’s 1978 movie An Unmarried Woman, is nearly forgotten—as such moments usually are, with any luck.

One reason for this neglect may be the difficulty in categorizing Jenkins’s work, which has much in common with both the Color Field painters and the Abstract Expressionists of his generation yet finally seems truly allied with neither group. Like the former, Jenkins eschewed the emphasis on the painter’s touch, the roughed-up tactile surface typical of many second-generation Abstract Expressionists, but he also shied away from the ethereal color stains preferred by Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, though sharing with them a method based on the manipulation of poured paint (and of the canvas itself).

But undoubtedly there is another, more significant obstacle to a more thoughtful reception of Jenkins’s work—consensus taste. He cultivates a richness of color, a volupté, that to many eyes today must seem unbearably overripe, almost obscene (all the more so when, as in the case of his most recent solo show, the work is hung densely). In comparison, the luxuriances of, say, Howard Hodgkin or Jules Olitski look almost mild. By and large, abstract painting has anchored its claims to seriousness in a principled rejection of hedonism—a sensualistic impulse that is undoubtedly inherent, insofar as abstract painting means, fundamentally, playing with colors, forms, and materials without regard for anything else. This means that abstraction has developed precisely by working against itself, pitting austerity against a native tendency toward indulgence. Leaving austerity out of the equation, Jenkins tells us something about abstraction that we may not want to know.

This is not to say that Jenkins’s paintings come without their claims to meaning. The whiff of New Age spirituality about some of the titles here (Phenomena Solstice Encounter, 2003; Phenomena Solar Way Journey, 2004) will put some viewers off, but Jenkins has a right to it, as the effects he seeks in his paintings are none other than the ones that mystical poets have sought for centuries: “Shattered and refracted light, indefinite depths, weightlessness . . . and synthesizing these sensations and affects, an all-consuming clarity,” as Kenneth Rexroth once put it. In a way, abstract painting is the art most perfectly suited to evoke these, because it can convey sensations without representing (and thereby establishing a distance from) the bodies that experience them. The cascades of concentrated color in works such as Phenomena Everest Realm, 2006, or even the relatively restrained Phenomena Approach of Silence, 2007, are all flame and water—nothing solid yet always material and intense. There’s a clear sense of the primaries (and white) at the basis of their coloristic tropisms, but these rarely appear in their pure state, always shifting, interfusing, and refracting; likewise there is always the sense that the paintings have an underlying architectural structure, though one that remains elusive. In this way, the works’ apparent excess of visibility remains linked to a manifestation of the invisible.

Barry Schwabsky