Paul Jenkins. American, 1923 - 2012

The abstract expressionist Paul Jenkins endows his paintings with spiritual qualities.

Artist Statement

I do not stain and I do not work on unprimed canvas. This is more significant than it may appear. Staining or working on unprimed canvas results in an inkblot-like effect where the paint penetrates the canvas and spreads out on its own. When I work on primed canvas, I can control the flow of paint and guide it to discover forms. The ivory knife is an essential tool in this because it does not gouge the canvas, it allows me to guide the paint.

Paul Jenkins

Paul Jenkins
from D. Wigmore Fine Art, Inc.

Paul Jenkins was born in Kansas City, Missouri. His early interest in art was furthered at the Nelson-Atkins Museum (then the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery), where he was drawn to the Eastern collection, particularly the Buddhist frescoes and sculptures of China and India. As a teen, Jenkins worked with ceramicist James Weldon, which led to a fascination with glazes, a result Jenkins achieved in his Fifties paintings by mixing oil and enamel on canvas. For four years beginning in 1937, Jenkins attended classes at the Kansas City Art Institute where he painted his first series of watercolors he called "interior landscapes" inspired by caves in the Ozarks. After serving in the US Naval Air Corps from 1944 to 1946, Jenkins studied playwriting at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh and then moved to New York to study with Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Morris Kantor at the Art Students League from 1948 to 1952. During those years, Jenkins met Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman.

In 1953 Jenkins traveled to Europe, settling in Paris which he continues to alternate with his home in New York City. While visiting museums in Paris, Jenkins was struck by the color density and luminosity in the abstract oil works termed ébauches of Gustave Moreau and the pastels of Odilon Redon. Jenkins began to experiment with poured paints in various thicknesses on canvas and paper and found this technique achieved luminosity of color which in its own way was comparable to that of Moreau and Redon. In 1954 Jenkins added Winsor Newton pigments and chrysochrome, a viscous enamel paint, into his poured paintings, further enriching their color density and incandescence. The next major development in Jenkins' technique came in 1959 when he began using an ivory knife to guide the flow of paint. That same year, he also began to title his paintings Phenomena followed by a key word or phrase. A film on Jenkins' technique titled The Ivory Knife: Paul Jenkins at Work was shown at the Museum of Modern Art and received the Golden Eagle Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1966.

In 1954 Jenkins had his first solo exhibition in Paris where he met Martha Jackson, whose New York gallery included Jenkins in a group show the following year. In 1956, Martha Jackson Gallery held a solo exhibition of Jenkins' work, from which John I.H. Baur purchased Divining Rod, 1956 for the Whitney Museum of American Art. Jenkins had another nine solo exhibitions at Martha Jackson Gallery from 1958 to 1973. Jenkins participated in Recent Drawings 1956 at the Museum of Modern Art and in Nature in Abstraction: The Relation of Abstract Painting and Sculpture to Nature in Twentieth-Century American Art in 1958 at the Whitney Museum. In the late Fifties Jenkins exhibited in museum invitationals at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, PA and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Throughout the Fifties, Jenkins was involved in both the New York and Paris art worlds, getting to know artists such as Jean Dubuffet and Mark Tobey in Paris and Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Ad Reinhardt, and Robert Motherwell in New York. In the spring of 1956, Jenkins visited Jackson Pollock at his studio in The Springs, East Hampton. In 1957 Jenkins exchanged his Parisian studio with Joan Mitchell's studio on St. Mark's Place in New York.

Throughout the Sixties, Jenkins continued to travel throughout Europe and worked in both New York and Paris. In 1962 he participated in group exhibitions at three museums in Paris and at the Whitney Museum in New York. In 1963 Jenkins participated in group exhibitions at the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Also in 1963, Jenkins obtained a loft on Broadway in New York from Willem De Kooning that he used as his studio until 2000. In 1964 Jenkins traveled to Japan for an exhibition of his work at the Tokyo Gallery and worked with the Gutai in Osaka. Jenkins continued to visit and exhibit in Japan through the Eighties. Jenkins was awarded the silver medal in painting at the 30th Biennial of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC in 1967.

Jenkins had his first American museum retrospective in 1971 at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the San Francisco Museum of Art, organized by Philippe de Montebello and Gerald Nordland. In 1972 the Corcoran Gallery of Art held an exhibition Paul Jenkins: Works on Paper which traveled across the United States for the next two years. In 1973 Harry N. Abrams in New York published a monograph titled Paul Jenkins with text by the distinguished art historian Albert E. Elsen and in 1983 published Paul Jenkins, Anatomy of a Cloud. Jenkins has continued to maintain an active exhibition schedule of group and solo exhibitions across the United States, Europe and Asia. The Palm Springs Desert Museum held a Paul Jenkins retrospective in 1981 and the Butler Institute of American Art had an exhibition of recent work in 1997. Paul Jenkins was elected to the National Academy in 1997.

Paul Jenkins' work can be found in many public collections throughout the United States and Europe, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; the National Gallery, Washington, DC; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California.

Paul Jenkins, Painter of Abstract Artwork, Dies at 88
New York Times, June 17, 2012
Randy Kennedy

Paul Jenkins, a colorful Abstract Expressionist who came of age during the heyday of the New York School and for several decades carried on its highly physical tradition of manipulating paint and canvas, died on June 9 in Manhattan, where he lived and had continued to paint until recently. He was 88.

He died after a short illness, said his wife, Suzanne.

In the late 1940s, joining a wave of aspiring painters moving to New York, Mr. Jenkins used the G.I. Bill to study at the Art Students League and soon met Jackson Pollock and befriended Mark Rothko. In 1953 he resettled in Paris, but maintained a lifelong connection with New York.

Early on he adopted a tactile, chance-driven method of painting that privileged almost every technique over brushwork. Dribbling paint Pollock-like onto loose canvasses, he allowed it to roll, pool and bleed, and he sometimes kneaded and hauled on the canvas — "as if it were a sail," he said once. His favorite tool for many years was an elegant ivory knife, which he used to guide the flow of paint.

The billowy, undulating results could look like psychedelic landscapes or what Stuart Preston, reviewing his work in The New York Times in 1958, described as "Abstract Expressionist rococo." Influenced by the theories of Jung and by the visionary imagery of Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, Mr. Jenkins described himself as an "abstract phenomenist," and from the 1960s on, all his paintings' titles began with the word "Phenomena."

"I have conversations with them," he said of his paintings, "and they tell me what they want to be called."

His work attracted collectors and museums in the United States, but he had a stronger following in Europe, where, with his flowing hair and beard — a friend said he looked like Charlton Heston's Moses — he seemed to embody an old-fashioned archetype of the avant-garde artist. In a 2009 review of work from the 1960s and '70s, Roberta Smith wrote in The Times that Mr. Jenkins's paintings were "more a popular idea of abstract art than the real thing" and "too gorgeous for their own good."

William Paul Jenkins was born — during a lightning storm, according to his official biography — in Kansas City, Mo., on July 12, 1923. As a boy, he met both Thomas Hart Benton and Frank Lloyd Wright. (Wright suggested that he should think about a career in agriculture rather than art.) He worked weekends at a ceramics factory, where watching the master mold-maker's handling of shape and color, he said, had a profound effect on his ideas about painting.

By the 1970s and '80s, his art career had provided him with a glamorous life, divided between France, where his work graced a Pierre Cardin boutique, and New York, where he kept an airy loft near Union Square that had previously belonged to Willem de Kooning. The first lady of France, Danielle Mitterrand, once visited the studio, and the party he gave for her was attended by guests like Paloma Picasso, Robert Motherwell and Berenice Abbott.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Jenkins is survived by his daughter, Hilarie Jenkins.

In 1971, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the San Francisco Museum of Art organized a retrospective of Mr. Jenkins's work. But he got much more exposure in 1978, when his paintings had a starring role in the Paul Mazursky movie "An Unmarried Woman," in which Alan Bates plays a smoldering, heavily bearded Manhattan artist. The paintings supposedly done by the Bates character were actually his work.

Mr. Jenkins spent weeks teaching Mr. Bates how to approximate his methods of paint-pouring and canvas-wrestling, a way of making art that he described as tempting fate.

"I try to paint like a crapshooter throwing dice, utilizing past experience and my knowledge of the odds," he said in 1964. "It's a big gamble, and that's why I love it."


The paintings of Paul Jenkins have come to represent the spirit, vitality, and invention of post World War II American abstraction. Employing an unorthodox approach to paint application, Jenkins' fame is as much identified with the process of controlled paint-pouring and canvas manipulation as with the gem-like veils of transparent and translucent color which have characterized his work since the late 1950s. Born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri in 1923, Jenkins later moved to Youngstown, Ohio. Drawn to New York, he became a student of Yasuo Kuniyoshi at the Art Students League and ultimately became associated with the Abstract Expressionists, inspired in part by the "cataclysmic challenge of Pollock and the total metaphysical consumption of Mark Tobey." An ongoing interest in Eastern religions and philosophy, the study of the I Ching, along with the writings of Carl Jung prompted Jenkins' turn toward inward reflection and mysticism which have dominated his aesthetic as well as his life.

Dr. Louis A. Zona, Director
The Butler Institute of American Art

born 1923 Kansas City, MO
died 2012

View his work in public collections

Paul Jenkins on artline
Paul Jenkins, "Phenomena Matsumi Chant" (1962).
Paul and Suzanne Jenkins/D. Wigmore Fine Art

Space, Color and Light
New York Times, July 9, 2009

Paul Jenkins's career began in the 1950s, in the wake of the Abstract Expressionists, was spurred on by Color Field Painting and has been going ever since. The artist, now 85, is widely known, if not always critically admired, for flowing, billowing veils of color that dazzle with their formal acrobatics and luminous jewel tones. But his work isn't seen in New York so often. This exuberant show offers a rare opportunity for total immersion.

Working with his signature ivory knives, Mr. Jenkins makes colors leap, overlap and splinter, pitting them against whiplash lines and stark white backgrounds that also add luminosity. His extravaganzas have always been too gorgeous for their own good. They are more a popular idea of abstract art than the real thing, which is why they made sense in the 1978 movie "An Unmarried Woman" as the work of the painter played by Alan Bates.

The paintings at Wigmore, from the 1960s and '70s, show the artist at the height of his powers. They abound with highly abstracted intimations of nature — wind, water, clouds, rocks, changing light and plant and flower forms. The relatively small "Phenomena Matsumi Chant" (1962) announces an affinity with Georgia O'Keeffe that makes perfect sense, once you think about it.

But the paintings are also, equally, nothing more than the sum of their flamboyant facts. The standout in this regard is "Phenomena Shooting the Sun" from 1978. Dominated by orange and grape tones and an astounding transparency that enables you to savor every pour of color, it builds on Morris Louis's work but takes many more liberties.

And there are several other canvases of audacity of color and gesture that — like them or not — can stop you in your tracks. Let me recommend "Phenomenon Oracle Arch" (1969) and "Phenomenon Wanderland Express" (1976). ROBERTA SMITH

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