Don Resnick: Lessons in Seeing

Odon Wagner Contemporary
Jun 3, 2016 6:59PM

By Tom L. Freudenheim, New York, January 2012

The best art —whether visual, musical, or literary—manages to grab us with a feeling of immediacy and private recognition of something very specific that gradually fuses with a realization what we’re experiencing is actually universal. I found this overwhelming power of Don Resnick’s vision while sitting in my gazebo at our Massachusetts farm—acknowledging that while I was seeing the spatial relationship between trees and forest, their colors and geometry had been altered for me because I had spent time contemplating his paintings and drawings. As an art historian and museum worker I have long preached about artists’ visions altering our own ways of seeing. So it’s always gratifying to acknowledge when that happens to me, rather than prescribing for others. 

In what is probably a questionable approach to looking at art, I’ve always been leery of getting friendly with artists, fearing that my personal relationship would somehow distort my reactions to the art itself. And yet when I first saw Don Resnick’s drawings in a small 2008 exhibition at the Century Association, I somehow felt I wanted to meet this artist. Something about the warmth and intimacy of the works suggested that a gentle, refined, and interesting person must have made them, although I knew nothing about him. I mentioned this to the Century’s curator, Jon Harding, who told Don Resnick of my interest; the artist then wrote me a note of such unassuming grace that I knew I must meet him personally. We made a lunch date and I found the man himself a reflection of what I saw in his work—or perhaps it was the other way around. I thought it might be the beginning of a lovely friendship; little did I know that this would be my only meeting with Don Resnick. So writing about his work is kind of bittersweet for me, mixing what is now a deeper understanding of the range of his achievement with a sense of personal loss. But an exhibition essay ought to commemorate artistic success rather than private sadness. 

While my initial encounter with Resnick’s art was via small scale, nuanced, black-andwhite bits of nature, it’s obvious that this is an artist of a much wider range of feats, of which the landscape oils are equally remarkable. There’s a huge body of work here, and probably for reasons of organization there are the inevitable groupings of works by medium and type, as well as from all sorts of places, both American and foreign. Lest that mislead the viewer into place recognition, I would suggest that in Resnick’s paintings we’re experiencing meditations on—rather than descriptions of—places that inspired the artist’s observations. “I’ve been there!” is the first response, and yet “there” is somehow also everywhere, and Maine may appear pretty much like Long Island, while barns aren’t presented as historic structures in which we distinguish vernacular architectural types. We may move from European locales to Africa, or to North Carolina woodland, from seascape to landscape, but we’re always in the midst of a Don Resnick painting. Hints of a Constable sky, or of Bonington and Turner views and spatial organization (in turn reflections of 17th century Dutch painters) never deflect the works from their own individuality. Unlike so many of the notable American landscape painters (e.g., Church, Durand, Homer, Kensett—all of them, like Resnick, Centurians), whose work is associated with specificity of place, Resnick seems more involved with painting itself and less with its potential descriptive qualities. Although the work is certainly far from that of his more fashionable Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, he shares with them, and with so many other modernist artists, the ethos that paint and painting have their own intrinsic merits, independent of their descriptive potential.

Checking out the physical qualities of these paintings can also be instructive. Resnick’s amazingly rich color palette and apparently endless variations of thinly-layered paint suggest Frank Stella’s description of his own work as “a flat surface with paint on it—nothing more.” While eschewing motley and heavily impastoed de Kooning-like brushstroke passages, Resnick does give us occasional Guston-like paint applications, reminding us that if we look closely at a work of art, abstraction appears in many guises. That should come as no surprise if we look at earlier works (not in the current exhibition), in which Resnick experimented with abstract, grid-oriented, modes not unrelated to Torres-Garcia, Gottlieb, and Tomlin. Indeed, there’s a clear relationship to their suggestions of a secret symbolic language waiting for the deciphering of our own visual Rosetta Stone. That he was wholly comfortable with this kind of painting can be understood in his move back to abstraction late in life. Another aspect of this—surely a reflection of Resnick’s training with Oskar Kokoschka and Raphael Soyer—can be seen in the generally highly formal organization of most works. I believe that this explains a great deal about the immediate appeal of Resnick’s paintings—behind these apparently “casual” meditations on things seen is a carefully calculated geometry that assures the viewer visual comfort. 

It probably does Don Resnick an injustice to attribute such consummate skill primarily to training as a painter and subsequent proficiency in the varieties of his art. As his voluminous journals reveal, Resnick was a deeply contemplative and intellectually sophisticated man, given to recording his introspections and reflecting his wide range of reading. That’s not necessarily as evident in an individual painting as in the oeuvre viewed whole, which isn’t the purpose of this exhibition. But there is a rich trove of watercolors which deserve attention as well, from the Klimt-like forest vignettes—almost Byzantine mosaics—to the exquisite “portraits” of leaves, which never pose as botanical studies, but are as personal as the several actual portraits that Resnick occasionally produced. The drypoint etchings abound in very subtle layered linearity, with occasional bits of intense light/shade contrasts. Even with the range of often surprising, occasionally gaudy, colors that Resnick seems to have invented for his paintings—or seen with an eye more trained than ours?—this is a body of work that’s delightfully nuanced, more often than not gentle and even tender. 

Which brings me back to Don Resnick’s lovely and rich drawings—my first encounter with an artist I wanted to know personally, even if I wasn’t quite sure why. After all, enjoying the art should have sufficed. Should I flatter myself to believe that in some coded way I was able to recognize that there was an engaging and interesting person behind art that I admired? Probably not, since I only recently became aware of those other aspects of the man. The random choice of a 1989–1990 journal reveals citations from G.K. Chesterton and H.L. Mencken, Edvard Munch and Nietzsche, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Mary Baker Eddy, Leo Rosten and Thomas Traherne, Plato and Robert Herrick. But they really serve as grist for the mental mill of Resnick’s own intellect, which he worked out in journal writings that disclose a fertile mind grappling with conflicting world views while attempting to make sense of art’s place in both his world and ours. That none of this is directly evident as we experience Resnick’s art is a tribute to his understanding that the drawings, prints, watercolors, and paintings must stand on their own. That they do so triumphantly is Don Resnick’s legacy and his gift to us. 

- Tom L. Freudenheim, New York, January 2012

Odon Wagner Contemporary