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Milton Resnick, Understanding Eden

by Diana Manister

It was told in the Bible. A man fell. He bit into knowledge and fell...How do you fall without falling completely? What do you bring as knowledge to a blank canvas? How do you begin?

This reference to Genesis made by Milton Resnick is cited in Out of the Picture, Milton Resnick and the New York School, a new book from Midmarch Arts Press, consisting of the recently deceased artist’s lectures, interviews and panel discussions collected and edited by Geoffrey Dorfman, who shows admirable humility by taking himself “out of the picture” and letting Resnick deliver himself in his stunning apophatic manner.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell explained that in our time the masks of God are discarded as manmade inventions, the sentimental cliches of more naive ages, leaving the invisible creative force of nature, of which they are the visible symbols, unrecognized. As a consequence of the destruction of the deities, Campbell says, our culture is deficient in images that can guide us back to living in accord with our world, as icons brought the pious into unity in less secular times. Can a modern human achieve the at-one-ment of Eden? Or the harmonious consciousness of the religious mystic? And what image, if any, can an artist paint to express this state, once achieved? Albert Einstein, who himself was on a quest for unity, wrote:

How can cosmic religious feeling be communicated from one person to another if it can give rise to no definite notion of a God and no theology? In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.

Resnick is often labelled a mystic, without any definition of what the term means besides the use of hashed Easternisms that compare his paint textures to “waters of the Tao” or some such. Dorfman’s book presents the artist in depth, in his own words, a rare occasion of a mystic talking about his vision. In accord with basic mystical insights, religious and secular, Resnick sees the reconciliation of opposites as the main desideratum for an experience of inseparable unity with nature. In the Talks he says:

No one escapes that moment of innocence when the world attacks him and installs within him the spirit of opposites...As long as everything within you is saying yes and no, dark and light, with big earth-shaking ideas, you come nowhere near art, I think. Light and dark don’t exist for us as artists. Light is something given to you and you’re allowing it to pass through.

In the apophatic tradition, Eastern and Western, the mystic suspends all beliefs and disbeliefs in order to perceive reality directly, without the intermediary of ideation. Phenomena are experienced with immediacy and total engagement, with no sense of separate identities, no notion of self/other. Naming, which substitutes a concept for experience, is a barricade to seeing, a false separation, a fiction in which the world breaks into parts. In one of the Talks in Dorfman's book, Resnick tells his students:

As soon as you see what you’re looking at you have a name for it. You don’t see it. The whole process of your thinking is not to see. You overcome sight by thinking...Each of us has a universal within us. There’s always that making of parts-but it doesn’t touch the universal within you.

Resnick named one of his painting Leaving Color, not because it had none, but because in the non-ordinary consciousness of direct seeing, the separate identities of colors were irrelevant. Achieving the prelapsarian state requires rebirth, seeing everything for the first time. D.H. Lawrence, another secular mystic, exclaimed, “Non cogito ergo sum: I do not think, therefore I am.”

Suspension of the will to dominate nature is the only way to heal our separation from it. Resnick quotes with admiration a technique Arshile Gorky employed to avoid imposing his will on his pictures. Gorky said that whenever he decided to put down a line, he put it in another place. Spontaneity outran his will; his personal self was set aside. Resnick try to steer his students to this willess, unthinking unity: When you don’t know how to pick up a brush, you don’t know anything; at that moment you’re an artist. I’ll simply say if you know less, you’re better off as an artist.

Rare and generous are Resnick’s descriptions to his students of how he actually paints, what a non-ordinary state of mind he achieves and his tips on how to get there:

Something else is necessary for polarization to be alleviated or discharged. You must be able to focus; that is that the left and right, the north and south, all the opposites within you must find a point - a place, a wall, a curtain in front of you, upon which you can focus this polarization. This place can be, by coincidence, you canvas...falling changes into suspension...the canvas is no longer being worked on. The canvas, or rather the place that coincides with the canvas, is working on you. You are being worked. If you fail to respond in this way, you cannot remain suspended; you fall. It is the suspension of individuality....

Out of the Picture, in the book’s title, refers to a dramatic incident in the artists life. After finishing a painting he felt ennervated and empty. A friend dropped by his studio and they discussed Resnick’s mood. “You’ve painted yourself out of the picture,” the friend said, making a remark that Resnick took as a revelation. He knew he had achieved a realization of transcendence, a resolution of the division of painter/painting, in-here/out-there, human/nature. No longer separate from the external world, he had been back in Eden. It was a vision of indivisible wholeness:

You can only glimpse this place that you have contacted if you see it completely. If you see it partially you don’t understand it...But if at the moment of your contact you can also glimpse or see with your peripheral vision the entirety of what you have contacted, then the suspension is possible...If I don’t see everything, I don’t see anything.

The teaching method he used was often the classic via negativa: it’s not that, it’s not that. The Arthurian knight beginning the quest for the Holy Grail was required to enter the forest at a point where there was no path, because formerly traveled paths would fail him. The five Talks Resnick engaged in with his students at the New York Studio School form a large part of the book. They bristle with the students’ anger at the artist’s reluctance to tell them what to do; they wanted him to prepare their paths, and he would not do it. He seems to ramble, he gives them questions in the form of Zenlike koans, he points to the moon and they look at his finger instead of the radiance.

Several reviews of Dorfman’s book have shown similar impatience and misunderstanding of Resnick’s brilliant use of the aphophatic tradition. We have precious few modern practitioners of it in an age when soundbites and advertising copy manipulate our actions and shape our styles. (Resnick practiced what might be called apophatic brushwork too; he painted over everything that wasn’t “it” until what remained was seen to be numinous.) Teaching by indirection, suggestion, personal anecdotes, he exhausted himself in each talk, ending only when he was too tired to continue. He was sometimes rude; but then, Zen monks are beloved by their disciples whom they ocassionally smack with bamboo sticks! A small shock may jar the student out of his comfortable mental habits into fresh insight. The gesture is a gift.

Dorfman’s book is not a detailed biography, and therefore presents only sketchy information as to Resnick’s reading: Bergson, Kierkegaard, principles of yoga. His wisdom however was clearly learned not out of books but in an intense original struggle. He was explicit about not following any program; avoidance of concepts and directness of seeing became moral imperatives.

Resnick’s statements however have echoes in both Eastern metaphysics and Western philosophy. Plato said great truths can never be apprehended with the mind; Kant wrote of the transcendental; Heidegger recommended “releasement towards things and openness to the mystery.” Nowadays physics sounds a lot like mysticism too. The “weird science” of quantum mechanics is only an experiment away from proving one fundamental force of nature subsumes all other forces. The uncertainty principle of particle physics treats observer and observed as one event in which both participate. Norman O. Brown writes:

Contrary to what is taken for granted in the lunatic state called normalcy or common sense, the distinction between self and external world is not an immutable fact, but an artificial construction. The erection of the boundary does not alter the fact that there is, in reality, no boundary. The net-effect is illusion, self-deception, the big lie. (Love’s Body)

This lie is the alienation of existentialism, a philosophy Resnick never bought into although it dominated intellectual life in the 50s. Even when he sometimes lost the feeling of “going home,” as he described the unitive state he achieved when his painting went well, he approached each studio session with the hope of getting back to the original garden.

Known for his so-called abstract paintings, some nearly monochromatic, in his later years Milton Resnick returned to figuration easily, undeterred by labels. In these late paintings, space is as unbroken as in his allover paintings; lines do not divide; there is no separation of figure and ground. People, trees and serpents are momentary forms the ground takes, one substance, inflected. Human figures like the unforgettable Sphinx sink before the viewer’s eyes back into the ground of being, sans name, sans ideas, sans will, sans everything.

American art has lost a radiant mystic, our Adam, who found his way back to Eden by entering the forest where there was no path and who tried to help others find their own ways. Gentle, giving, ill-tempered, resentful, sometimes fallen, sometimes suspended, now a torrent, now a peaceful pond, Milton Resnick, our Basho.

Copyright © 2004 Diana Manister