The painter, Milton Resnick, died one year ago on March 12th, 2004. A memorial was held on the anniversary of his death at St. Marks On the Bowery. Two brief remarks from critics:
ďÖ He really was a major force at a crucial moment in the history of recent American artÖa giant of a legendary period.Ē ó Karen Wilkin.
ďThere arenít many painters like him left, so in love with painting, so uncompromising, so disconcertingly truthful. I admired him and his work greatly. It was the passing of an age.Ē ó Lily Wei
Resnick was also an artist who could talk extemporaneously for hours on what mattered to him. As became apparent at the memorial, his audiences remembered his remarks over many decades. Excerpts here have been culled from the book, ďOut Of the Picture: Milton Resnick and the New York School,Ē published by Midmarch Arts Press in 2003. This book, transcribed, compiled and edited by Geoffrey Dorfman, consists of interviews, talks at the Studio School in New York (often in the form of meditations,) a portfolio of selected paintings, and pointed debates with Ad Reinhardt and the art historian, Leo Steinberg, among others. Midmarch Arts Press is located at 300 Riverside Drive, N.Y., N.Y., 10025, phone:212-666-6990: email@example.com.
Out Of the Picture: Milton Resnick and the New York School
Iíd fallen asleep thinking I was much too tired to go on working and if I went on working, Iíd lose it. Iíd get a better hold of it in the morning; feel stronger. But I looked and looked at it and it seemed to me there was nothing to do.
I spent all morning getting very sad about it all, feeling that something very important happened last night and that now itís there but I canít find it somehow so my life is always going to be a kind of failure. Iíll never get anywhere.
Someone came up the stairs ó Ruth Hageman, and I let her in and she said, ďYou look very gloomy,Ē and I explained how I felt and she said, ďWell, I understand why you canít work anymore on that painting,Ē and I asked, ďWhy?Ē She said, ďYou just painted yourself out of your picture.Ē ...So I went around telling people, ďYou know, I did something very important; I painted myself out of my painting.Ē (laughter) Well, it took somewhere; it got repeated; as a matter of fact de Kooning said it somehow and got it written about.
Milton Resnick in his Broadway studio
At any rate, nobody listened to me very much. Or if they did they would say I was poetic and that was perfectly all right with them. I never really took to that...I didnít feel like a lunatic ó I wasnít that disconnected; I felt that if I could reach out, I could touch. It seemed to me that in taking the miracle out of it, in taking away the experience of it being strange ó not thinking of it as a peculiar experience that I had about geography and my room and the floor and all that ó that what I had to do in order to reach my painting was to ascend. I had to go up...Whether it was lifting myself or lifting what I saw in the painting, didnít seem quite clear at that time. In order to find a way to be more sure about these things, I began to try lifting what I saw. Being that I never really could convince myself that I could have wings, I could at least convince myself that I could try lifting what I saw. Of course, you can do anything with what you see. But if you give yourself the task of seeing in the way of lifting or ascending, you somehow begin to think about seeing itself. You see in a way that you would not normally be required to see. Although these things were all failures, there was a series of paintings that clued me about some things. Finally it reached the point, about ten years later, I painted a few paintings and with one of them ó not a very large painting, I called it Upstairs Landing ó I almost felt that I did climb. I made it seem very ordinary and I said to myself that all I really did was reach an upstairs landing. I didnít want to say anything more ridiculous than that.
What you have to do is disavow yourself from any sense other than ascendancy. Thatís the only direction you could possibly have towards painting. Thereís no other direction at all. Thereís no other space in art. Thereís no other way in which you can find yourself except in somehow feeling it. And by holding to this feeling you can once again reach out and guess and miss ó and sometimes hit. And this contact you make when you hit is all-important. If that contact holds, and you hold, then you are washed by that and all the technological shit thatís in your mind gets thrown out. You have a chance. And it takes everything ó every pore ó every molecule within you to hold ó and you donít know if youíre going to live or die; I mean things happen to you then. And you must refrain from trying to grasp for the outcome of it. Certainly not whoís going to review you or something. Itís got to be out of your mind; youíve got to refuse it. Thatís quite something to do.
...A lot of things have been going on a long time.
You want to bring it to an end?
No, I just want an answer as to what the quality of this virtue is.
Just that it exists. Just that the feeling of virtue is an upward feeling; a feeling of ascendancy. Painting, when it has this ascendancy ó this lift ó is better painting; it has that virtue. It has some meaning if you want to speak about it as something higher, something overcoming death in some way; maybe that would be its virtue; that anything, as long as it ascends, overcomes death. But anything on a line, on the horizon, dies.
Are you saying that the process is more important than the product? That itís more important that people do it than that what happens to it after itís done?
Yes. ...But you have some confidence that I donít have. That something that becomes my experience stays with me is something Iím not sure of. I donít have this confidence that you have. You think if you kiss somebody that this experience will last you forever.
You mean you have to keep regaining it?
About three years went by and I had become exhausted ó really at the end of my rope almost and I thought I couldnít last much longer... and at the very end when I thought of giving it all up, suddenly I thought it was good. I knew that I now understood something about it and I painted it as easily as you can imagine. I just had no trouble painting it and it became a very important painting. I called it Mound ó I donít know why.
With Mound, a new experience became very important to me and the reason that I felt that I should have known it from the first ó when I said that I painted myself out ó is that it was always there for me to see; that the way a picture works, itís not so much how you put a picture together as how the picture puts you together...In fact I discovered something very important; that if you change paint from what it is, you destroy something very important about paint but more important than that is that you donít change. As long as you can change paint, you donít change. For you to change ó for paint to do something to you ó paint must stay constant. The act, the doing, the taking up of paint and putting it down ó the immediate impact upon your psyche or soul that occurs when you do that ó has so much danger in it. Itís such a magical important act in your life. Why it is so important and how it does act upon you has to be realized. You have to cope with it. You have to make a point of understanding that. Much more important than anything else about art is what happens when you do that, and what happens to you. And nobody, of course, talks about that.
Itís absolutely irrelevant what galleries and critics and people who buy your paintings think. They just donít have any possible idea of what happens to you and theyíre really not that interested. As a matter of fact, they hate the idea that anything really happens to you. They want you to be a genius and thatís it. They donít want anything to have happened; they want you to be born and be that special person with that brand on you ó ďgenius,Ē and thatís it. You have to be wonderful and thatís all there is to it. Then, anything that you happen to do gets to be part of that wonderful thing that you are. But what is of a great deal of importance to you is what do you do when you paint? How does it change you? What does it make of you? Because you are certainly not the person who should be painting a painting. None of you are. None of us are. We cannot live without our place in the things and the place in which we live does not make room for painting. We are doing something contrary to our place and time and as long as we remain what we are all we can do is indicate our opinion. In other words, art becomes our opinion about ourselves, our times, our place; and that, of course, is not really painting.
Painting has to become what you really are doing and not what you are reacting to outside of it. And to do that, a great deal of changes have to happen to you. The only way I can tell you what the most important change is, is that the unity, the thing that you say makes the painting ďwork,Ē ó if you still say things like that, I donít know ó but it has to happen to you. You have to become complete in some way; a universe, a complete thing in yourself in order to reach across and breathe some unity upon this thing that youíre faced with. If you intentionally avoid that unity within yourself, then you will intentionally avoid doing that in your work. You can say that if thereís no unity in your work, then you have deliberately made yourself into that kind of a person. You donít want that unity in your work. Youíve made some kind of satisfactory arrangement with your culture. You stand guard with your culture. Your culture demands that you bring some kind of crisis to your work and therefore you cannot bring any unity to it. In order to bring crisis into your work you have to bring it to a state of expectancy. In other words, you have to leave your work in the state of mind of being a question. Nothing in the world excites the culture today so much as a question. A question seems very appropriate to whatever you have in mind. Allowing your work to remain questionable is a way of satisfying your cultural condition.
There is some other form that you contain within yourself that is not will or purpose, and when applied to art serves you best. If you systematically apply to the art that you create, the aggression of the world that turned you towards art in the first place; if you, in turn, become the aggressor towards your canvas, the thing that youíre doing; if you, in turn, work your will upon this thing that you want ó you will then cause a dissatisfaction in this life that you create.
So now; how did God produce this world? Did he do it with will? With his intention? How did he do it? The fable is that he breathed upon us. In his breath, his wind, came moisture and things began to grow. The moisture of God is all that is needed to set the thing going. An interaction of youth. A message of hope. Nothing physical.
How do you intend for your breath to become a work of art? The only way I can see it is that you prevent your breath from becoming a structure. As soon as your breath takes on the form of a room, you are a carpenter; youíre not God. Youíre committing a structure, an aggression... the only thing that has any importance is that your being, your breath, your life, lends to this thing a timelessness; a feeling that you see it as it will be and canít be in any other way. It doesnít change; it doesnít move.
... If you see a glass of water and drink it, itís like an understanding between you and what you see. It was water, it was beneficial, and it wonít do you any harm. If someone mentions to you that this harmless looking transparent liquid is a deadly poison you see it very differently. It doesnít look like water to you anymore... But if you see something and you donít even know what it is, then you see it...What condition brings that on? How is it possible to do something in such a way that you see it all at once, at the same time, and you see it as if you never saw it before, and you see it as if you will never see it again? ...And the most difficult thing to do is to remove the idea of the job from what youíre doing. To be able to see what youíre doing means to remove this impossible job; its one intent and purpose...You are not really in a position to reach out and touch this timeless place. Your brush doesnít reach there; your paint doesnít go there. As soon as you set yourself up in the position of transferring paint from one place to another, your whole culture invades you. It tells you all about the history of art...
If you take the case of the fable, ďJack the Giant Killer,Ē ...your sympathies would naturally arise in favor of Jack instead of the giant... Jack, after all, did it to please his mother. The giant really was doing it to please himself. What makes you sympathetic to the idea that Jack is a more worthy person than the giant, I donít know. I think the giant is more like the artist than Jack is, donít you? Now, thatís a very simple case. Iím really trying to get at whatís truthful about the most ordinary things...
There is no release from the uncertainty within you unless there is a collaboration, a correspondence between other people and you; that there is some relevance; that there is some truth in what you do...How do you do anything like art unless you learn something? And of course the first thing you learn really, without anyone telling you, just as in the case of ďJack and the Giant,Ē is that you canít learn anything ó that art is not a learning process. It is the very reverse of learning. It is the unhinging of your soul from your sight.
ÖIt would be as if you were walking down Eighth Street and you came to Sixth Avenue and you turned the corner and suddenly the world is rushing three times as fast as it was on Eighth StreetÖ
Painting is ó when you are together in an internal sense ó a correspondence between what you are and what you see. Itís a moment when something is holding together in such a way that it is a universe in itself. It approaches as much completion as it possibly can. Within this is a test and also a judgment upon yourself, your capabilities, your promises, and the part that you play in the world. And nobody else can test that for you. Certainly not the Museum of Modern Art. (pause)
...From the very beginning art meant something very important to the people who made it. It was a correspondence of the emotions to what you saw; it wasnít knowledge. You were being at one with something eternal; something outside of yourself. And no matter how many fake things have been brought in to suit other conditions, it doesnít mean that that isnít true. That is still true. And just because a lot of shitís been put in the way of truth doesnít mean that truth is not in that way of seeing. The trouble is that every time thereís something good in this world, the shit comes first. It gets there right away.
Do you think that art creates some kind of order, in any sense? When you talk about structure; I mean, do you favor order or disorder?
Disorder. But completeness... Well, I wouldnít call it [a Jackson Pollock} accidental, which people do tend to say. So I would agree that, in that sense, they [Pollock's] are not accidental but that they are part of painting. Whether you want to bring that to some idea of ďorder,Ē for some purpose that I donít understand, itís all right with me.
I think, in the beginning, painting was meant to do something that was very difficult to do ó to retain, in some form, what the mind keeps thinking exists but doesnít see. I donít think that itís ever changed from that idea. The idea that you actually can only paint what you see is a very irreligious idea. Itís like overcoming what painting has always been. And the reason itís irreligious is that it came about as an academy. It became a State thing. The religions never wanted an art where you paint only what you see. Itís only with the academy in France that they said, ďYou paint exactly what you see.Ē Itís irreligious art. Itís meant to be that what you believe in is what you see.
Milton Resnick with "Swan"
It seems to me, you come very close to saying that you suspend your associations or symbolisms with anything that you see or hear, in order to get to the nature of what is.
No, because I donít believe Iíve come to that. If I did, I may not try for it. Because I wouldnít really be that interested in it. What I brought up to begin with... is very simple. It has nothing to do with the nature of things. Itís the tampering with this nature, and what itís doing to me. Iím tampering with this nature. I donít have to understand this nature. What Iíve done is touched this nature so that itís touched me. Itís changed me; itís done me in. Thatís whatís interesting to me. Thatís why Iím really doing it; because that excites me.
Thereís a marvelous story that I once read about two Chinese friends. One of them became very ill and hunchbacked and dwarfed with shriveled arms. It was terrible looking at him and his friend couldnít stand it but never spoke to him about it. He thought it would be offensive to mention that he was looking so terrible. At the same time he found it very puzzling that his friend seemed so cheerful and never felt very unhappy about his condition. So one day he finally did speak. He said, ďMy poor friend, you look so terrible,Ē and all that, and his friend said, ďYes, and someday my arm might become a butterfly.Ē Thatís really marvelous; donít you see it? Itís the changes that occur in you that are marvelous, not what happens to Matisse.
Logos 4.2 - Spring 2005