Marjorie Minkin

I’ve had one of Marjorie Minkin’s full scale paintings on Lexan, entitled “Lepidoptera” (2000, 84 x 36), in my gallery, in my home, for the last 11 years, where it can be seen with other pictures by the Color Field painters and those by the so-called New New painters, as well as by others like Bob Goodnough, Bram Bogartt and Eduardo da Rosa. Whatever the hanging, Marjorie’s picture always jumps out. It’s so palpably present. To really “get it” though, I have to stop and give it my whole hearted attention. It’s in a different “key” or register than the others. And after all, it does feature real transparency, real high lights, real shadows, and real space. It’s totally physical and very plastic looking. Tall and thin, it twists in the middle in a kind of contrapposto. Dominant is a gorgeous liquid green- almost turquoise – in different saturations. There are many unpainted, transparent areas, and the edges are blurred by casting rippling, warm, grey shadows on the wall. There are violet and green blobs, some iridescent, at the top and the bottom. These set off a riotous middle. Running through the center is a crackling, expressionist riff carried by brilliant yellow blobs. The whole comes to us as a focused energy, a living presence, analogous to eye contact. It is this direct personal expressiveness, this drama, this edge, which keeps the work so vividly real.

Also, “Lepidoptera” readily suggests representational images, what Piri Halasz calls “multi referential imagery”. In Marjorie’s case, these emerge miraculously from her utterly free form, improvisational painting. In the center is a cartoonish face, highly agitated, fearful, somewhat battered; a kind of everyman in extremus. An alternate reading is an owl-like face. The whole is a relaxing torso or a squirming jellyfish. There are doubtless other readings too. These images make the work more elusive and distinct.

Marjorie is one of our most original painters and has created many wonderful things over the past 30 years. What makes her work important? I’d say first, she has drawn the logical conclusion that the new plastic paint suggests a plastic support as a way to make a more physically homogenous art work. This has been on the agenda of post war, avant garde painting at least since Ron Davis’ all plastic pictures of the later 1960’s. The 1930”s work of Irene Rice Pereiro should be mentioned here too. Of course many modern artists have loved plastic going back to Naum Gabo in the 30’s, in Germany. Marjorie remembers seeing two shows of his work in New York. She also mentions the work of Linda Benglis. But these were both sculptors. Marjorie might be said to have taken plastic painting furthest by bringing forth an all plastic relief painting, as a new genre for our time.

Secondly, in her most recent plastic relief paintings, she has realized what might be called the “Holy Grail” of the Color Field painting. Back in the 1960’s, Jules Olitski put it this way: he wanted to spray color in the air and have it stay there. (Olitski was just then starting to use the spray gun as his main applicator.) This vision, of pure color and paint suspended and self-subsisting in space might be said to be the “Holy Grail” of Color Field painting. One sees this same impulse in efforts to dissolve the support/background, which can be traced back to Pollock’s painting on glass. It is also present in the paintings on mirrored plexi by Lucy Baker and Jules Olitski. It appears again in Peter G. Ray’s recent paintings on aluminum. Marjorie’s recent “Holy Grail” pictures go beyond these others in that they are not contained or limited by geometry. Indeed, they don’t even have the sense of an enclosing shape; paint and color self subsisting.

Marjorie was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts and grew up in nearby Brookline. Her father died when she was seven, but her mother remarried and to a kind man who became a second father to her.

Marjorie loved to draw as a child, and, at 7, her mother took her for classes at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where she quickly fell in love with the painting collection, especially the impressionists. Subsequently, she attended Brookline High School where her teachers turned her on to the work of Picasso, Braque, and Hans Hofmann.

After graduating high school, Marjorie considered enrolling at the Boston Museum School but decided that it was too traditional, too focused on the human figure. She wanted something freer and more experimental. She also wanted to pursue her academic interests. So she chose to major in art at Skidmore College, a small, private women’s college (now co-ed) in upstate New York. One of her teachers there was Arthur Anderson who had had a Bauhaus training. The Bauhaus was an art school that existed in Weimar Germany from 1919 to 1933. It was founded by abstract artists along with architects. (Bauhaus means school for building.) The curriculum didn’t revolve around the human figure but began instead with the basic visual elements like line, shape, color, texture, and form. The Bauhaus saw abstract art as a new beginning. Marjorie felt right at home in Anderson’s class. Anderson had studied with the famous Bauhaus painter and professor, Joseph Albers, who believed that expression thru color was abstract art’s raison d´etre. Albers also produced the widely used study kit, “Theory of Color”. Anderson invited Albers to come and speak at Skidmore and Marge got to meet him. It was in these years at Skidmore that Marjorie became fully aware of her passion for color.

When Marjorie had taken all of Anderson’s courses and those of the other good teachers, she changed her major to philosophy. She was interested in metaphysics, ethics and psychology. After graduating Skidmore, she pursued her graduate studies in philosophy at Boston University. Her master’s thesis was entitled “The Psychological Basis of Aristole’s Ethics.

Then Marjorie realized that her studies in philosophy were taking her away from her first passion: painting. She felt she was living too much in her head. She returned to painting full time. At this point, she was making three-dimensional constructions. In 1970, she made a Plexiglass table sculpture which she put on an old turn-table. She put a type of 3M transparent tape on it which refracted light and changed the colors as the sculpture rotated. In addition, she also made an experimental painting. The first layer was a painted canvas. Then she put mirrored mylar over it and wiped off part of the mirroring in places to reveal the painted canvas underneath.

In 1972, she decided to study at the Boston Museum School which had changed a lot since she had first considered going there. It had become more free and open. She did a 4 year program in 2 years, getting her diploma in 1977, and winning a scholarship to travel to Europe in 1979. In 1979 she went to Italy where she was most impressed by the frescoes of Giotto in Padua. She also went to southern France to see the impressionists and Matisse.

At the Museum School she worked with Sandi Slone who, at that time, was the most exciting and forward looking among the young painters I knew. She had embraced acrylic gel and was painting on the floor with broad brooms. Although Marjorie didn’t see Slone’s work until 1977, she did find Slone a stimulating teacher. More important, she says, was seeing exhibitions at the museum across the street from the school where, as Curator of Contemporary Art, I was often featuring the art of the Abstract Expressionists and especially the Color Field painters. In 1979 Marjorie and I met. She invited me to her studio. At that point, Working on the floor; she was painting long sweeps of color on lightly sized canvas. She’d also used a bit of modeling paste, which gave her picture subtle texture changes. She was already moving beyond the purely stained paintings of the classical Color Field school and Morris Louis which had at first inspired her.

Marjorie soon became one of an informal group of artists and myself who met in different studios for group crits. These artists exhibited as the “Boston Painters and Sculptors” at the Federal Reserve Building in 1985. The group evolved into what later became known as the New New painters. Marjorie has shown 7 times with the New New in museums both here and abroad. The N.N.P. loved the work of the Color Field painters; Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Friedel Dzubas, Jules Olitski, Jack Bush, and Larry Poons, they were the N.N.P.’s living exemplars. Of course, they also loved the work of the founding generation i.e. Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists.

Of the great Color Field masters of the previous generation, Marjorie was most drawn to the paintings of Morris Louis with their light filled color, simplified drawing and fluid, improvisational paint pouring. But from the first she wanted something more tactile. The next sign of this impulse to physicality was her adoption of the use of acrylic gel. Attending the Triangle Workshop in Pine Plains New York in the summer of 1982, she saw the work of a number of abstract painters working with the gel. They prompted her to do likewise, sparingly at first, but soon more boldly.

In 1983 the critic Clement Greenberg was invited by the Boston group to come and visit their studios. When at Marjorie’s, he suggested that she try to organize her paintings by shaping the whole as an elongated diamond she did so. And it turned out that the diamond shape seemed to demand heavier gel still. This was her diamond series of 1982. One of these, “I Am Curious Yellow” was, for me, her first masterpiece. It is both monumental and lushly sensual.

At this time, Marjorie was one of several painters in the group who got the idea of compensating for the inevitable yellowish cast, which the gel of that time took on as it dried, by playing it off against true yellow (as well as silvers, whites, silvers and violets). This certainly was the strategy in “I am Curious Yellow” and it was also present in Jill Nathanson’s pictures of that time. I showed Nathanson’s version along with Marjorie’s “I Am Curious Yellow” in a show I organized in 1983, at the Danforth Museum, called “Abstract Art in New England”. Both pictures stood out as the freshest and most forcefully present. (A little later, another member of the group, Roy Lerner, took this same route to artistic breakthrough.) Marjorie and her colleagues were here straining against the then existing limits of the acrylic medium. A little later, Mark Golden of Golden Paints was able to develop a non-yellowing gel.

Marjorie did a dozen or so diamond pictures but, right after the Danforth show, she started to feel that the strongly stamped out diamond shape was too confining. She wanted more freedom and more openness. It was at this point, in 1985 that she turned again to Plexiglass. She loved its transparency and the freedom to shape it with heat. At first she attached a shaped sheet of plexi to a painted canvas. Then in 1985 she discovered Lexan which is especially durable. It’s an industrial plastic used in ships, skyscrapers and airplanes.

Marjorie starts with a rectangular sheet of Lexan, heats it to make it malleable, then does her shaping, creating protrusions and depressions. This inevitably subverts the rectangle of the sheet and creates an irregular support shape. The result is a transparent, free form, sculptural relief which she then paints on spontaneously, working on tables, pouring and splattering on either or both sides of the Lexan. Over the past 25 years, Marjorie explored the possibilities of her new genre: attaching the Lexan to a canvas and painting one side or the other or both; painting on a single sheet or combining multiple layers of them; and assembling smaller sheets into wholes. She has also gone from presenting the shaped Lexan unpainted, to flooding it with paint. Sometimes she has used monochrome, stressing the shape, but more often she has exploited the interplay of color, paint, transparencies, shadows and highlights. She has evolved a vertical, torso-like shape which can be tall and thin or broad and breast plate-like, or shield-like. A great example of the latter type was recently shown in the exhibition “Abstract Expressionism and After” at the Flint Art Institute in Flint Michigan. There were many wonderful pictures there but this “shield-torso” seemed to be the most powerful of all, at least in my one visit to the show.

In my view, Marjorie hit a new level of mastery, in her late 90’s Lexans, when she began painting more free form. Suddenly everything began to move, becoming fluid and organic. It was at this point that she became locked in, focused. Since then she has done two separate lines of work: paintings on canvas and paintings on Lexan, a practice which she continues until today. It’s notable that the pourings on Lexan often collect in the depressions creating a distinctive, web-like, intensely colored drawing. And all of this has meant inventing her own elaborate craft/technology to heat, shape and paint the Lexan.

In the late 1980’s, Marjorie was invited to work with the foremost hologram makers, Holographic North in Burlington Vermont. She decided to make holograms of some of her Lexans which she intended to place within the pieces themselves. Here again she was searching out new technologies and possibilities, new effects of color, light and space. In the end, she wasn’t satisfied with the results, but she intends to return to holograms in the future.

Marjorie’s oldest son, Mike Gordon, is the guitar player for the rock band, Phish. On his prompting she did 3 backdrops for the band. Here is Marjorie’s description of them: “the first was a 32 foot long canvas which had grommets on the top. It could be suspended at a venue, rolled up, and then unrolled and hung again at each subsequent venue. I was a painting with big sweeps of transparent color using a lot of iridescence. The next two stage sets were both on Lexan, 8 feet by 32 feet. Each was made up of 8 sections of 4 x 8 foot pieces. Each section was painted with acrylics and iridescent paint with areas left transparent. When the theater lights with their colored light filters shone on the backdrops, the color changes were amazing. Seeing my painting that way encouraged me to work further with the effects of light on my pieces. The last and fourth set was made of three sections of white scrim-each more than 30 feet long. I used fluorescent paint that dried clear but were brilliant colors when illuminated by the black lights. (I painted these scrims in my studio at night with black lights on which were delivered to me courtesy of the band by a theater lighting company). A combination of black lights, theater lights, and colored light filters were used during performances. When the lighting engineer wanted the scrims to be plain white backgrounds to use with the theater lights and filters, he just turned off the black lights and my painting “disappeared”. The band stopped using these stage sets when they started playing in huge arenas”.

Then, in 2007, Marjorie worked with Mike to create 22 “sound pieces,” Lexan paintings, which, thanks to a sound system installed in the back of each one, emits a musical chord becoming louder as you approach it. Marjorie says, “they were conceived as an interactive multimedia installation named for Mike’s CD “Inside In”. (The CD was based on the music for a movie Mike made.) The installation is called “Another Side of In.” The sound in each piece was taken from different songs on Mike’s album. There were 22 sounds and 22 pieces in all. The idea was to play all the art pieces like instruments creating new visual and sound environments as the viewers interact with the pieces”. The installation was shown in 2006 at the Firehouse Gallery in Burlington Vermont. A group of these sound pieces were shown at the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation. I only saw the latter viewing. But that was enough for me to see that the combination of sound, light and painting worked wonderfully together heightening the expressive presence of the paintings. Here again, Marjorie is pushing boundaries, appropriating more reality, becoming more embodied. Here is the affirmation of the individual creative self, which is Modern Painting stretching back to Giotto.

Ten of the sound pieces were shown at the Children’s Museum in Boston in 2010. Marjorie remarked to me that the need for the hardware in the back of the sound pieces prompted her to make her relief paintings project even more i.e. be in deeper relief. They’re like small scale stacked breast plates and make a powerful sculptural statement while remaining painting. And they are also great without the sound.

Marjorie’s most recent Lexans, which I’ve already mentioned, are perhaps her most amazing yet. They are a layering of four to six shaped sheets of Lexan. She first shapes each piece, then assembles them attaching them temporarily. Then she disassembles the whole and paints each piece separately. Finally they are reassembled and fixed with Lexan rivets. The assemblage projects 10” or 12” into the room. The edges of the many pieces create a delicate tracery throughout. The shape of the whole is indeterminate, liquid, hovering before the wall like an apparition. Shadows tend to gather at the bottom floating free the painting. There is no sense of a picture plane or frontality or limits of any kind. The whole creates its own space, which, at the same time, is expansive. The color is richer and sometimes more saturated. I’m thinking explicitly about “Shades of Mind”, 2012, 65” x 33” x 10”. Transparent, reflective, iridescent, weightless, and with many of those rhythmic, soft, warm shadows which I’ve come to love. The saturation of the purple is a miracle. The whole is a “painterly, chromatic event” with a minor calligraphic counterpoint within the mass of hue giving it its edge. As with the others in this series, one color dominates.

Simultaneous with these “Holy Grail” paintings. Marjorie is doing a series of paintings on single, long (8’) horizontal sheets of Lexan. Light, airy, these billow out from the wall and stress transparency. They have both masculine punch and a feminine lightness and delicacy. Best of all is their sense of lyric movement. They remind me of early Frankenthaler but more embodied, yet also, more ethereal.

As always, Marjorie has continued to do large scale paintings on canvas. And here too she’s better than ever. For some time her canvases have taken the form of 5 or so swelling curvilinear swaths of color juxtaposed and bumping up against the edges of each other. But now she is wholeheartedly into the new metallic, iridescent paints. She says her Lexans have influenced her canvases and this certainly seems to be case. Both are her most extraordinary works so far.

Kenworth W. Moffett