In 1957, in his “Introduction” to The New York School: second generation, Paintings by Twenty-Three Artists (The Jewish Museum, March 10 – April 28, 1957), Leo Steinberg wrote:
“The great construction of Renaissance art is a demolished site, there’s nothing to do but tamp down the debris and build anew with found rubble.”
More than half a century later, while there is far more rubble to build on, the situation remains largely the same. Since the advent of photography in the mid-19th century, painting has been a heavily contested field, constantly pressured and squeezed by other media. The real miracle—and it is one that museums have largely been reluctant to acknowledge—is the number of remarkable painters working today.
At the same time, the goal for the strongest painters remains largely the same; they want to achieve autonomy. Which means they are not looking for sanctuary in an all-encompassing narrative, such as the “death of painting.” Instead of being interested in scripting the end of art, they are focused on making paintings that achieve a degree of self-sufficiency. This is certainly true of Paul Behnke, an abstract artist who, by his own admission, has “no preconceived image or colors in mind when [he begins] a piece.”
Without any hint of irony, Behnke embraces the legacy of improvisation central to a number of the Abstract Expressionists. In his high-key, color-saturated paintings of planar forms and flame-like wisps, he wants to celebrate an imaginative space in which light and solid, translucence and opacity engage in a lively, open-ended dialogue. While Behnke’s paintings may evoke rooms and still-lives, they never become representational. He doesn’t abstract from life, but begins with paint and color. This is the key to his work. The final composition emerges from the act of putting paint on and scraping it away, of finding the painting.
And yet here, where he might veer perilously close to certain tropes we associate with Abstract Expressionism—the wrought surface, for example—Behnke (who uses acrylic) nimbly bypasses that pitfall.
It seems to me that Behnke, like a number of older artists that I hold in high esteem, decided to work his way through a history of painting that was based on his own study, rather than trying to develop a style that was keyed to the moment. He wasn’t interested in making a brand, but in discovering what can be put into paint.
On the day I went to his studio, Behnke had put up a diptych, Big Narcissus (2011), which consists of two square canvases abutted together. In keeping with the myth of Narcissus—the proud and beautiful young man who falls in love with his own reflection and dies––the squares mirror each other, but, in Behnke’s painting, not perfectly.
The square on the right has been divided into four differently colored rectangles (green, Indian yellow, gray and pink), which range from narrow and plank-like to one that is slightly taller than wide. The arrangement evokes a room with an Indian yellow wall and a gray floor. The green and pink feel as specific as the wall and floor, but are less identifiable. This is particularly true of the pink rectangle, which extends into the adjacent canvas on the left.
The canvas on the left consists of four planar forms, but to a large extent only three colors (pink, gray, and orange red, with the feathery traces of a blue undercoating visible along the left edge of a pink form). The different-sized planes seem to be stacked on top of each other in a shallow space. And yet, even as I write this, I recognize that the orange-red vertical rectangle on the far left is completed by the narrow pink rectangle whose right edge is tinged with light blue. These contradictions are what pull our attention back into the painting, causing us to try and sort them out.
Compositionally speaking, this is one of Behnke’s strengths: utilizing a vocabulary of simple, rough-edged geometric forms, which evoke such familiar sights as a room, but – at what feels like precisely the right moment – he confounds any straightforward reading that viewers might have of Big
Narcissus and his other paintings. And once you begin noticing the gaps – both big and small, between the familiar and unfamiliar, the decipherable and the inexplicable – other events, possibilities, and questions come to mind.
By undermining our ability to read his paintings, Behnke slows down the act of seeing, reminding us that there is a kind of looking that exists beyond the utilitarian compulsion to identify what is within our range of vision and, in doing so, possess our immediate experience. In that sense we cannot possess Behnke’s paintings because we cannot apply a name to what they are about. And because of that, they open up an imaginative space where we are able to look while reflecting upon the act of looking. In Big Narcissus, is the pink rectangle—the only form in both parts of the diptych—contemplating itself?
Happy Val Lewton’s Day is titled after Val Lewton (1904 – 1951), the film producer and screenwriter whose writing credits include Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943) and Isle of the Dead (1945), which was inspired by paintings by Arnold Böcklin, one of Giorgio de Chirico’s favorite painters. Lewton is the thinking’s man’s horror film screenwriter, who eschewed the obvious in favor of dramatizing the psychology of fear.
Behnke’s painting is a red ground dominated by a large black planar form. A small greenish triangle seems to be rising from behind the top left corner of the black plane, setting in motion an extreme scale shift. No matter where
our attention goes in the painting, we are drawn back to the small green triangle. It pushes the red ground away from the black form, opening up an unseen (or hidden) space behind it, while suggesting that there is more to the painting than what is immediately visible. This is the very essence of a Val Lewton film, particularly the three in which he teamed up with the director Jacques Tourneur.
At the same time, Behnke adds his own particular twist by titling his homage Happy Val Lewton’s Day because, if his personality was anything like his films, it’s hard to imagine Lewton being a particularly happy man.
By opening up an imaginative space in which viewers both look at the painting as well as reflect upon what they are looking at, Behnke addresses a central issue in painting, which is the porous and often paradoxical relationship between what is revealed and what is concealed. Reality is not simply a matter of surfaces. The artist’s use of high-keyed, saturated color embraces the poles of harmony and dissonance, stability and flux.
The layers of paint, the scraped and sometimes brushy surfaces each tell its own story. Calm and frenzy, as well as precariousness and balance, coincide in these distinctly urban paintings. Rising up from the bottom edge, the planes of color are simultaneously architectonic and domestic, pyramid stones and tabletops. Admittedly, I am being fanciful here, but that is because Behnke’s best paintings are capable of igniting the viewer’s imagination, of setting it off in an unforeseen direction. And it is that ability to free us from our humdrum routine, while enabling us to muse upon it that makes these paintings necessary.
Paul Behnke’s paintings are on show at The Rosenfeld Gallery, Philadelphia until 30 September. A link to the gallery website is here.