This is the first in a series of a quarterly letters, which will cover painting shows in greater New York
If you want to experience the New York art scene from afar, watch James Kalm’s videos. Kalm tirelessly travels the city documenting art openings and exhibitions from Manhattan to Brooklyn. His videos are a selective, but fairly accurate portrayal of gallery going in New York.
James Kalm is actually a psuedonym. Kalm is really a Brooklyn painter named Loren Munk. In his new exhibition titled Location, Location, Location at Lesley Heller Workspace, Munk, the painter, continues his documentary enterprise on canvas, portraying the history of the New York art scene, block by block. You’ll find a who’s who of New York’s most celebrated artists noted in Munk’s paintings but you’ll also find hidden histories, artists’ artists on every street. Tongue in cheek, across one canvas Munk paints “There are over eight million paintings in the NAKED CITY, this is only one of them.”
Munk’s canvases explore spatial and temporal proximity. He plots the density of various artistic populations, each name and address engraved on a painted nameplate. Colored lines connect the nameplates to locations on neighborhood maps. In contrast to the thinly washed maps, the nameplates and connecting lines are thickly brushed. This painterly attention suggests that, for Munk, the energy and vitality of a place comes from the people who populate its space. Places may morph and change over time but our memories of people who lived there and the effects of their actions remain with us.
Two legendary New York artists, Willem de Kooning and Milton Resnick appear together in two of Munk’s paintings, East 10th Street (2005-2006) and Members of the Artists’ Club 1952 study, 2010. Both artists have work currently being shown within walking distance of one another: De Kooning at the Museum of Modern Art and Resnick’s paintings from the 1970’s and 80’s at Cheim & Read in Chelsea.
The two artists were friends and major figures in the 10th Street scene of the early 1950’s. One artist, de Kooning, courted success and has become an enshrined old master. His place in the art historical canon is assured. The other, Resnick, remains on the fringes of art history. He abhorred the idea of a canon and was actively hostile to art world agents: galleries, critics, and museums. Resnick was invited but refused to join the now famous “Irascibles,” whose photo in Life Magazine became the face of the Abstract Expressionist movement. [i] Resnick’s refusal left him in relative anonymity, while de Kooning participated, putting himself solidly on the track to fame. Despite their differences in status both artists continued to produce important work, and it is a rare treat to view their paintings in such proximity.
In the MoMA retrospective, de Kooning’s ascendancy is complete and merited. His achievement, nearly eighty years of painting, is staggering. The visual wealth of his work continues to fascinate both artists and museumgoers. De Kooning’s dynamic and frank investigations in paint tackle a wide range of classic subject matter, appealing to nearly every kind of artist and viewer. He painted photo realistic still lives in the 20’s, abstract still lives in the 30’s, urban landscapes in the 40’s, portraits in the 50’s, the American open road in the 60’s, the water and light of East Hampton in the 70’s, and final, uneasy meditations in the 80’s.
In comparison to the De Kooning show, the Resnick exhibition, titled The Elephant in the Room, includes a comparatively smaller selection of works and is arguably a collection of Resnick’s most mature and powerful paintings. Expansive and dense, the paintings are meditations turned violent. They are odd contests – both painter and painting sharing a common enemy: the artist himself. The artist must be destroyed, his will defeated by that of the painting, for it to live. [ii] A close look reveals the character of each painting’s struggle. Fire B (1975) shows evidence of scraping, lashing, and flagellating, while Edna V (1973) is marked with evidence of quick jabs. The surface of Straws (1981) seems to reveal a waving gesture, as if Resnick were bidding the painting leave. Each battle reached a fevered pitch towards the center of the painting. Denser paint from shoulder to head height creates an odd after-image, a shadow blast of the artist himself.
“I don’t think many people understand what it takes to paint a picture, say sixteen feet long, where there are no little people in it, no houses, no mountains. How do you paint a picture without all these things that make a picture? I go and put some paint there and at a certain moment it is like I am buoyant. It has an expanded height, a quality in which I feel I’m lifted. I say, ‘Now I have to hold on to this feeling.’ So I walk around and say, ‘No, I haven’t quite got it.’ I put it here and I put it there and then suddenly I hit it again and that reinforces the feeling and then it goes on. It’s like a day spent with futility. And then that grows and the months and days and pounds grow at the same time ‘til I feel as if I can actually hang by the emotion of applying paint…”
Milton Resnick [iii]
De Kooning battled to bring life to his paintings as well, but his paintings remain windows to look into, rather than beings that populate the room. Even in his most abstract canvases, he was a painter of carefully considered pictures. De Kooning’s mark-making can be violent too, but there is also pleasure and attentiveness – de Kooning makes pictorial use of each painterly incident. Easter Monday (1955-56) and Gotham News (1955) are both encyclopedias of painterly facture – drips, slashes, scrapes, juicy drags of the brush that feel free and spontaneous but are also meticulously composed.
“The painting’s energetic and lucid surfaces, its resoundlingly affirmative presence gives little indication of a vacillating, Hamlet-like history. Woman appears inevitable like a myth that needed but a quick name to become universally applicable. But like any myth, it emergence was long, difficult and (to use one of the artist’s favorite adjectives) mysterious.”
Thomas Hess [iv]
De Kooning maintained that “Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented,” and his paintings evoke the observable world. In contrast, Resnick’s paintings question what it means to paint – to stand and deliver paint to a surface. Discussing his work, Resnick asked rhetorically: “How far do I have to go before it is so dense, so compact, nothing will escape?” [v] De Kooning’s paintings bring you in closer. Resnick’s back you against the wall.
Resnick and de Kooning, shared a belief that art lay in the exploration in, and the possibilities of materials and process of painting. Their process was both the subject and the method of inquiry. Although their paths through life and art diverged dramatically, both artists saw the act of painting as a catalyst, the source of the surprise, wonder, and power of art, and gave themselves over to it. De Kooning described this condition as the search for a “slipping glimpse.” Resnick referred to himself as a mere “straw in the wind.”
If eight million paintings have been created in New York over the last century, de Kooning and Resnick have certainly made some of the most important, emblematic, and moving. Looking at Munk’s paintings we realize they have plenty of good company, including Munk himself.
Loren Munk, Location, Location, Location: Mapping the New York Art World, Lesley Heller Workspace, September 7 – October 16, 2011.
de Kooning: A Retrospective, Museum of Modern Art, September 18, 2011 – January 9, 2012.
Milton Resnick, The Elephant in the Room, Cheim & Read, September 22 – October 29, 2011.
[i] Interview with Milton Resnick in Geoffrey Dorfman, Out of the Picture: Milton Resnick and the New York School. pp 77-78.
[ii] “The painting has to become stronger than you are.” Milton Resnick, Milton Resnick: The Elephant in the Room. Epigraph.
[iii] Interview with Milton Resnick in Geoffrey Dorfman, Out of the Picture: Milton Resnick and the New York School. p. 89.
[iv] Thomas Hess, Willem de Kooning, Braziller, 1959, quoted in Dore Ashton, The Life and Times of the New York School, Adams & Dart, 1972, p. 214.
[v] Interview with Milton Resnick in Geoffrey Dorfman, Out of the Picture: Milton Resnick and the New York School. p. 89.