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August, 2009

D. Wigmore Fine Art, 730 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan,
Through Sept. 25, 2009

*An abbreviated version of this review appeared in ARTnews, September 2009.

A maker of frankly beautiful paintings since at least the 1950s, 86-year-old Paul Jenkins remains somewhat enigmatic. Though he was in the thick of the New York art scene by the late 1940s - when he attended the Arts Students League, and knew Pollock, Newman, and Rothko - and was shown by Martha Jackson as early as 1956, Jenkins has never enjoyed the same art historical status as Helen Frankenthaler or Morris Louis, for example, with whom his work might easily be compared. This excellent exhibition, drawn from works in Jenkins' own collection, provides an opportunity to consider why. Though he was pouring paint at much the same time as Frankenthaler and Louis, he never adopted their use of unprimed canvas, and so his paint remained on its surface rather than soaking into it. He thus failed to satisfy the ne plus ultra criteria of Clement Greenberg's formalist theory. That such theory should have enjoyed the influence that it did when the paintings in this show were being made seems rather absurd nowadays, particularly when confronted by an exhibit that makes Louis, at least, seem somewhat formulaic by contrast. It is true that Jenkins' technique - pouring, pooling, and subtly manipulating acrylic paint with brushes and knives - has remained remarkably consistent since he made the first pictures here, but the dynamic, coloristic, and emotional range that he achieves with it is impressive indeed. Compare the simple graceful clarity of Phenomena Prevailing Wind (1963) - which is like a single element of the pictorial vocabulary that Jenkins evolved for himself - with the overwhelming complexity and almost claustrophobic color density of Phenomena Lasting Dawn (1977) - in which dozens of such elements are played off against one another - and you begin to understand the real stature of this artist.


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