Paul Jenkins Biography

Paul Jenkins




William Paul Jenkins was born  in Kansas City, Missouri, on July 12, 1923. As a boy, he met both Thomas Hart Benton and Frank Lloyd Wright, both of whom piqued Jenkins' interest in the visual arts (despite Wright's suggestion that he pursue agriculture instead). Visits to the Asian art collection at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art as a teenager left an indelible impression on him and contributed to his art theory throughout his career. He worked weekends at a ceramics factory under James Wheldon where watching the master mold-maker’s handling of shape and color had a profound effect on his ideas about painting, and led to his enrollment in summer courses at the Kansas City Art Institutem. He was ejected from the classes after eating part of a still life.

Following graduation from high school he enlisted in the U.S. Maritime Service and entered World War II as a Naval airman, which allowed him to apply for the G.I. Bill after his discharge in 1946 from the military. He briefly studied playwriting at the Carnegie-Mellon Institute, but his continued interest in visual arts led him to move to New York in 1948, where he enrolled at the Art Students League. There, he met Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, whose theories in regards to Abstract Expressionism greatly influenced Jenkins. In 1953 he resettled in Paris, and would continue to divide his time between there and New York for the rest of his career. 

In regards to his style, his work was described as "chance-driven," a Pollock-like style in which he allowed dripped paint or ink to roll, pool and bleed on the canvas, physically working the fabric “as if it were a sail". He became known for employing an ivory knife to guide the flow of paint, creating what was described by Stuart Preston, in The New York Times in 1958 as “Abstract Expressionist rococo.” In the mid 1960s he worked with Fernand Mourlot to create his first series of lithographs, emulating his painting style on the stone, and later worked with Abrams Original Editions, Sword Street Press, and Atelier Franck Bordas, as well as continuing collaborations with Atelier Mourlot.

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 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 partially drawn from the New York Times obituary of June 17, 2012, as well as the artist's own website