Paul Jenkins Biography

Paul Jenkins




William Paul Jenkins was born — during a lightning storm, according to his official biography — in Kansas City, Missouri, 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.) Jenkins worked weekends at a ceramics factory, where watching the master mold-maker’s handling of shape and color, had a profound effect on his ideas about painting. In the late 1940s, joining a wave of aspiring painters moving to New York, 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 Jenkins 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, 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.”

Jenkin’s 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 his work from the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, Roberta Smith wrote in The Times that Jenkins’s paintings were “more a popular idea of abstract art than the real thing” and “too gorgeous for their own good.”

By the 1970s and 1980s, 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 1971, the Museum of Fine Arts Houstan and the San Francisco Museum of Art organized a retrospective Jenkins’ work. But he received far more exposure in 1978, when his paintings had a starring role in the Paul Mazursky movie “An Unmarried Woman.” Alan Bates played a smoldering, heavily bearded Manhattan artist and Jenkins spent weeks teaching 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,” Jenkins said in 1964. “It’s a big gamble, and that’s why I love it.”

Paul Jenkins died in New York City on June 9, 2012

This biography was drawn from the New York Times obituary of June 17, 2012