David Reed recently published a piece in Art in America about his encounter with Milton Resnick as a teacher and mentor. I’ve been a long time fan of Resnick’s work but have never taken the time to learn more about his influence on other gifted artists. Reed’s piece has been on my mind for several days now, and some of the anecdotes are just too good to not share, especially with fellow painters. (The full article is here.)

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That first day Resnick told us that we had to decide between two ways of being painters. You could either “climb the ladder of art, struggle and sacrifice to make great works,” or “get on the moving belt, just move, you and the painting which equals your brain.” It took me a long time to figure out that he disapproved of the first and approved of the second. He told us that, as younger painters, we should put on “the shirt of Abstract Expressionism.” Each of us would then have to admit, “I canʼt understand this shirt. It doesnʼt fit my mind.” Only that way would we get on the moving belt.

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He also exhorted us: “The space of the world is not the space of the mind.” “Follow the painting all the way. Be in it; forced along with it, you will change. Thatʼs art.” “Willpower must be separated from painting. Get inside and let the painting grow.” “Painting is different from knowledge.” “The soul is a vacuum. Let it be filled.” He said that the forms, indeed the entirety of the painting, should be open enough to let energy in but not open enough to let it out. He spoke of struggling with a painting, and hoping that, when he finally got it right, when the final mark was made, this mark would unsettle everything. If this mark was right, the painter would feel the floor shake and the walls tremble then fall. Everything would collapse, until only the painting would be left standing in the midst of the rubble.

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Visiting a Matisse exhibition, Milton noticed that all the paintings least resembling a Matisse were from the collection of the artist. He called these the “studio paintings”: paintings done as experiments, attempts to break new ground. Milton made a distinction between studio paintings and paintings done for the market. Today, he insisted, there were too few studio paintings. When he was a young artist, before there was a market, the paintings that did not contain new discoveries were just thrown out. Immediately I decided I would only make studio paintings. I have always tried to stick with this commitment, even though it’s not practical.

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What I learned about painting culture from Milton sustains me now, but I’m not sure why. I’m often slow to understand. Perhaps I’ve finally had enough time to chew over his words until at last I comprehend a little more. What is it that I have learned? Not ideas. Milton taught me not to rely on ideas. I have not learned a sensibility, nor how to express myself. I guess the closest way of describing what I learned from Milton would be to call it a way of working. But not “working” in the usual, positive sense, since that only gets in the way. Painting is more about a way of not knowing, and of not knowing for as long as possible while still working. It’s not something to brag about. But it is very important to me and crucial, I think, to making good art. Sometimes I find myself quite surprised to feel so loyal to this pursuit of painting, which is so hard to describe and impossible to justify. Can one, should one, make sacrifices for something like that? I’m surprised that I meet young painters who are still willing.

Here are a few more insights into Resnick, these coming from Geoffrey Dorfman in remarks delivered at a memorial service for Resnick when he died in 2005:

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Because he had gone through the experience of his own generation, and witnessed the premature termination of their aspirations in a haze of smoke, and drink, he cautioned young artists. Because he realized, and indeed – never stopped talking about – the anxiety of making art; that you were involved in an activity that may have no end, where your every acquisition was provisional and probably discardable, and where the more you proceeded, the less fit you were for anything else: the less fit you were to run a business, the less fit you were to work for anyone else, the less fit you were to be a parent, the less fit you were to lead, the less fit you were to follow, and even the less fit you were to teach!

Like Balzac’s Frenhoffer, who said that “too much knowledge leads to a negation,” you began to get the uneasy feeling that the innocent love of art that came to you as a child was developing into something serious, and the energy was a nervous energy, and you began to have the uneasy premonition that you were actually gambling with your life. You’d feel this when the picture began to appear. The excitement provoked the thought of an exit, to take a walk, to turn on some music, maybe eat, get a cup of coffee, seek out conversation – anything to alleviate the confrontation. And it was this anxiety that permeated every stroke of the brush on your canvas, that made you seek relief and diversion, and turned you away from your task.

Your task, as Milton saw it, was to do something wonderful, to maybe become something wonderful, because that might be a necessary precondition for the former, and that by these means you would either live forever or, of course, go on with your pathetic self-deception. And no amount of rejection or acceptance by the world was going to change that.

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Milton felt painting was not about structure, that painting occurred prior to that, and that trying to cram irrelevant knowledge into a beginner’s head created a ball of wool that would only have to be unraveled later anyway. He maintained that the function of a school was not medicinal,it shouldn’t alleviate pain but rather inject the pain of art into you, and show you why the pain was necessary. He’d say, “I come to you like a snake.” He was against mastery his whole life, and he was against the whole idea of ‘the master,” and especially the aura of the master.

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I think of Milton as a painter first and always, but also as a teacher, and that is the greatest contradiction, or maybe irony, of all. Because he certainly wasn’t a natural. As his friend Yektai wrote so eloquently, “Whenever I brought a problem to Resnick, he always made it vaster.” He wasn’t a teacher in the sense that he had knowledge to impart. He didn’t think of painting as knowledge at all but, as he put it, the “unhinging of your soul from your sight.”

I don’t teach art and never have. I also am keenly aware that I never had a teacher that approached the on-the-spot tough love that Resnick gave to his students. But his legacy of insights still speaks to me.

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