4.16.18 — The Not So Great Outdoors

Late in life, Milton Resnick could finally confront his demons. In 1986, nearing seventy, he began to work small while mixing his own paints—two solutions to an outsize need for control and a shortage of recognition and cash.

It might have come as a disappointment or a relief, after so many big paintings as the scene of equally titanic struggles. For nearly twenty years, they had approached monochrome or sheer black, but with thick brushwork that refuses any restriction to surfaces and uniformity. In a heated argument back in 1961, Ad Reinhardt had MutualArtwarned him against “work that’s too available, too loose, too open, too poetic.” Resnick might have been taking that advice to heart or arguing back.

Besides working small, he was also indulging in color. Maybe color was at the heart of his work all along, even when it added up to mud. Now, though, he allowed different colors to appear side by side. They also opened the door to imagery. Work from the early nineties has bits of still-life now and then, but mostly figures in a landscape. Whatever are they doing there?

A stickler for “pure painting” would have had to ask. So do over fifty works on paper, as “Apparitions, Reapparitions” at Miguel Abreu through April 25. Everything about them is as murky as Resnick’s earlier impasto. The figures appear as sharp flesh tones and color against mostly green and an earthy red, but this is not the great outdoors. They may be male or female, resting or fighting, naked or clothed. By his death in 2004, he had added another motif, roughly an X, as if crossing them all out.

Resnick, the gallery notes, had his studio just across the street on the Lower East Side, and it is hard to keep his biography out of the picture. Born in 1917 in what was then, for a few more weeks, the Russian empire (but now the Ukraine), he escaped Bolshevism, anti-Semitism, and civil war with his family in 1922. Milton Resnick's Dying for Love (Miguel Abreu gallery, 1989)He was at the core of Abstract Expressionist New York and exhibited with his older peers. I caught Resnick in 2001 at the gallery that also represented Lee Krasner—and he is still on the roster of a leading Chelsea gallery, Cheim & Read, with paintings from the early 1980s on board showing only recently, through March 31. Yet he had on again, off again solo shows and had to live down the label “second-generation Abstract Expressionist.” One can read entire books on the movement without catching his name.

He may have found in the 1970s a way to reconcile Minimalism and gesture. Yet he still came off as out of fashion or out of touch. He was plainly expressive, but as clotted as cream. Could the late work offer a fresh point of entry? It maintains his competing brushwork, but more clearly. It also adds, in the angels or demons, a metaphor for his difficulty.

The landscapes can be sunlit or fiery, if not exactly welcoming. Figures stick to the foreground, set horizontally, refusing a greater depth. In one, a naked man and woman stand off to the side, as if uncertain where to go. If this is Eden, they might be glad to leave it behind. The show has two or three earlier works, closer to the entrance. They look all the more ambitious once one knows that Resnick put them, too, behind him.

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