Phenomena When I Looked Away, 1960
Paul Jenkins was an American painter who came to maturity during the reign of the Abstract Expressionists. Born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1923, he studied at the Art Institute in his hometown from 1938 to 1941, and then served as an apprentice at a ceramics factory. Afterwards, he moved to New York City to attend the Art Students League under the G.I. Bill. He remained until 1952, befriending fellow artists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, but choose to move to Paris after a year to escape the dominant influence of Abstract Expressionism. While abroad, he discovered the effects of staining a canvas as opposed to painting on it – color by flow instead of application. This interest was sparked by his earlier work in ceramics, translating the luminous effects of glazing to a new medium.
Upon his return to the United States in 1956, he encountered the works of the prevalent American Color Field painters Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, after which he fully took to the technique of staining. Jenkins applied oil paint or thinned acrylic to primed white canvas, typically starting at the corners, and manipulated its flow by adjusting the canvas’ position, sometimes also using blade-like devices to direct the paint further. He normally used bright, bold colors in his works, all of which he gave titles that began was the word “phenomena” beginning in the 1960s. His works are indeed phenomena – something that is impressive and extraordinary.
In a 2009 review of his work, Roberta Smith described his paintings as “too beautiful for their own good.” Jenkins worked in this mode for the entirety of his career. He was the subject of two major retrospectives at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the San Francisco Museum of Art, both in 1971, but he received the greatest critical attention in 1978 when his work was featured in the movie An Unmarried Woman. Starring Alan Bates, the movie chronicled the life of a Manhattan artist; the works supposedly done by Bates’ character were actually those of Jenkins, who reportedly spent weeks coaching the actor in the finer points of his working process. Jenkins died in New York City in 2012 after a short illness.
Randy Kennedy, “Paul Jenkins, Painter of Abstract Artwork, dies at 88,” The New York Times, June 12, 2012