Just the other day, I was deep in the bowels of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I thought of Paul Resika. I had met him briefly many years ago, when I was a graduate student and he was a guest critic. In the middle of a group critique he mentioned that he visited the Met every week. And then he swung around, pointing his finger and fixing his gaze: “Why aren’t you?”
At the time I was in my mid-twenties and could think of several hundred other things I’d rather be doing than regularly planting myself in front of old master paintings at the Met, especially the Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot landscapes he was so fond of. His weekly habit seemed like an act of filial devotion, an homage to the tradition of the masterpiece that I was doing my level best to expunge from my head.
Still, something nagged at me — that I wasn’t taking my education seriously, or that I was somehow selling myself short by not continually exposing myself to great art, which Resika recommended as some sort of aesthetic vitamin D. Whatever the reason, his challenge was something I never forgot.
Resika came to mind the other day because I was reflecting that, if time were not an issue, I could now envision myself visiting the Met every week and never tiring of it; at some point in the intervening years, the art of the past had morphed from a roadblock to a gateway. The achievements of the masters, while remarkable, no longer felt like the byproducts of divine intervention, but of fallibly human stabs at perfection.
Even the term “master” appeared to do the artists of the past a disservice; while acknowledging the unquestionable mastery of their art, its authoritarian connotations open the door to a their-way-or-the-highway mindset. Perhaps it is better to think of them, from whatever century or continent, as tribal ancestors who may or may not approve of what you’re doing, but who would understand your struggles and failures because their experiences mirrored yours.
I think this is what Resika was trying to tell us: that familiarity would break down our preconceptions and cultivate a fertile relationship with the history of our art form.
Paul Resika is now the focus of two exhibitions in Manhattan: at Lori Bookstein’s Chelsea gallery, which opened Thursday night (and which I haven’t had the chance to see yet), featuring his new paintings, and downtown on the Lower East Side, where Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects is holding a “microspective” titled Paul Resika: 8 + 8, 8 Paintings from 8 Decades. (The Bookstein show is called Paul Resika: 8 + 8, Eight Recent Works.)
Resika (b. 1928) came up with the Second Generation Abstract Expressionists and, like many from that group, studied with Hans Hofmann. But rather than furthering the cause of paint as paint, which eventually took a reductive, formalist turn, Resika, along with Jan Muller, Louisa Matthíasdóttir, Robert De Niro, Sr., and others who had studied with Hofmann, carried on with paint as paint, but also with paint as the builder of images. While Muller delved into legend and myth, Resika, De Niro and Matthiasdotter, along with her husband, Leland Bell, who was self-taught, were more attuned to the everyday and often, though not always, worked from observation.
After his studies with Hofmann, Resika literally followed the footsteps of his idol Corot, painting in the same locations in France and Italy where Corot created his atmospheric landscapes. While the artists with whom he was affiliated could be viewed as hopscotching past the New York School to draw inspiration from Matisse, Picasso and the School of Paris, Resika was the one who went the most native.
From the eight paintings in the Steven Harvey show (actually eleven — there are three others in the back room to fill out the exhibition, two from the 1980s and one from the late 60s) it is clear that Resika was never intimidated by his influences, but breathed them in until his lungs burst.
The most curious work, “The Visitation” from 1958, is a gender-bending rendition of the Annunciation, with a white-winged, fully naked female angel presenting herself to a seated male nude. We can detect Corot in the umber-and-olive coloration and sketchy brushstrokes, but there are also reflections of Gustav Moreau, Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca and Balthus, to name but a few.
The picture, however, is distinctly and strangely Resika’s own, a quirky allegory of the practice of painting. The male nude is holding a set of brushes, and a large canvas leans against the doorway of the shed between him and the angel, who appears to be simultaneously inspiring him and posing for him. The scene is entirely benevolent, bespeaking a guileless receptivity to whatever influences are floating in the air.
It is difficult to trace Resika’s development because a studio fire in 1971 destroyed nearly all of his early work. While the two paintings on display that precede and follow that grievous setback — a landscape from 1967 and a self-portrait from 1974 — are still entrenched in tradition, the latter work flaunts a surprisingly unfettered sense of color.
In the 1980s, Resika combines freely applied, highly saturated paint to architectonic structures suggesting boats and fishing shacks on Cape Cod, which is where he spends his time when he is not in New York. The blocky geometry of these works affords him a straightforward platform for his consummate colorism, with layered pigments glowing as if with their own light.
In the luminous “Provincetown Pier” (1988), the shapes fit together like a key in a lock, while a red horizontal stroke defining the side of a boat threatens to blow the composition apart. A small window on the fishing shack in the center of the picture is painted matte black on an otherwise glossy surface; seen at a raking angle, this tiny rectangle looks like a hole cut out of the canvas; straight on, it becomes a void punctuating a deep but hazily floating shadow.
As he progresses into this century, his work takes a more abstract turn, but it still bears the legacy of a lifetime of close observation and bravura painting. In “Dream of Jack’s Island” (2006), a cluster of simplified, very green trees are haloed by daubs of pure white that quickly recede into the overcast bluish-grayish-greenish sky. Though barely noticeable, these accents pop the trees off the picture plane through an expert manipulation of the vocabulary of paint.
While a more recent piece, “Three Sails” (2009-2010), can come off as schematic, the latest work in the show, “Bill’s Pickering” (2012), is entirely organic and almost totally abstract, with a bright orange field that bores into your retinas as swipes of yellow-green and maroon swim through the light and heat.
The abstraction of “Bill’s Pickering” brings Resika’s art full circle, to the Neo-Cubism of “Composition, April ’47” (1947), done when he was 19 years old and still studying with Hofmann. The eight decades represented in this show prove that Resika never settled into a comfortable niche or doubled back to something he already knew; now in his eighty-fifth year, he is painting with complete abandon.
Resika is among the last of the true believers. He committed himself to painting before the idea of making a picture became clouded by irony, distancing and recycling. He had nothing but his talent and his passion, which he followed with an extreme single-mindedness, brooking no doubt about painting’s purpose and efficacy.
Seen from the other side of the culture wars, his work, which had been neglected for many years, no longer seems out of step or heretical. It can be taken for what it is. From the evidence of this exhibition, Resika’s indifference to passing fashions has led him from the entanglements of history to an explosive regeneration — a trippy heedlessness earned through decades of experience, a profound sense of self fusing with the energy of eternal youth.
Paul Resika: 8 + 8, 8 Paintings from 8 Decades continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 10.
Paul Resika: 8 + 8, Eight Recent Works continues at Lori Bookstein Fine Art (138 Tenth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 9.
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