Drawings & Paintings
A maverick in twentieth-century American art, Jenney shifted his focus from abstract painting and sculpture in order to pursue a new type of realism, adopting the binary of “bad” and “good” paintings. He began to make the Bad Paintings in the 1960s, referring to them as such after Marcia Tucker’s exhibition Bad Painting at the New Museum in 1978. These purposefully sketchy, gestural works poked at preconceptions of taste and connoisseurship, and, according to Jenney, were “good concepts painted badly.” With them, he sought to indicate narrative truth through the depiction of elementary relationships between people and things. The Good Paintings, ongoing since the 1970s, pursue this same goal, but through an opposite approach. Using oil paint on wood panel, Jenney produces flawless, heavily stylized studies of the North American landscape, each surface so detailed that it seems to surpass reality. And most recently, in the New Good Paintings, he has expanded his scope to include other geographic locations, creating vistas that are as disorienting as they are clear.
The current exhibition, his third with Gagosian since joining the gallery in 2011, includes one painting from each of these three key phases in Jenney’s career, as well as a selection of drawings that further reveal his social and artistic concerns. First, in Moms and Kids (1969)—a dichotomous title typical of the Bad Paintings—children play on swings and a seesaw while their mothers watch from a bench nearby. A fence separates the children from a black road, and the larger area of the canvas is filled in with fresh green acrylic paint, thinly applied in wayward, untidy strokes. Next is Ozarkia (2014), a late Good Painting, which shows, in smoothly blended oil paint, a long branch, rocks, and the gleaming surface of water, a horizonless view so crisp that one can almost feel the cool mountain air of the American Midwest to which the title refers. Lastly, a New Good Painting titled Modern Africa (2016) evokes the dry climate of northern Africa, depicting a staircase and a ramp-like fragment surrounded by sand, with footprints and a long shadow suggesting human presence. All of the paintings are displayed in heavy black wooden frames designed and made by Jenney. The frames recall the crown molding often used on window trims, alluding to Leon Battista Alberti’s metaphorical window, which has guided artists’ understanding of single-point perspective since the Renaissance. Jenney’s frames, concurrent with the Good and New Good Paintings, and added to the Bad Paintings retrospectively, serve as theatrical foregrounds, while their respective titles, stenciled on in a capitalized serif font, help place the viewer by referring to specific locations.
In the Good Paintings and the New Good Paintings, “good” is both a formal and a conceptual label; Jenney’s refined use of paint and color recalls that of the Hudson River School painters, whose natural vistas presented the virgin landscape as a spiritual, utopic realm. Similarly, Jenney’s work addresses themes of universal significance, such as the artist’s cultural role, climate change, and notions of societal progress. He communicates these topics in his drawings as well; in Liberty Contemplating the Nuclear Age (2003), a woman wearing a crown and holding a stone tablet, like the Statue of Liberty, sits in front of a curtain, staring into the future of the nation.