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b. 1945, United States

Neil Jenney Biography

'I had two striking realizations: one, that even if I produced the worst paintings possible, they would not be good enough; and two, that idealism is unavoidable.' —Neil Jenney

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A maverick of twentieth-century American art, Neil Jenney pursues realism as a style and a philosophy. He strives to return to the classical ideal of truth and to integrate form and content, while eschewing what he has described as the decorative, expressive qualities of modern abstraction. Adopting the binary of 'bad' and 'good' painting, Jenney challenges notions of taste, subject matter, and the accurate representation of life and culture.

In his first two years at the Massachusetts College of Art, Boston, from 1964 to 1966, Jenney created hard-edge paintings and Minimalist sculptures, showing an advanced understanding of contemporary art. In the winter of 1966 he moved to New York and began his 'funk style' sculptures (1966–1969), including the Linear Series, groups of alluminum bars displayed on the wall or floor; the Volumetric Series, irregularly shaped masses of fabric formed over chicken wire; and a series that has been referred to as the Environmental, Multimedia, or Maximal works, still-life arrangements featuring found materials. However, as critics were beginning to identify Jenney as an 'Earth' or 'Process' artist, he was growing dissatisfied with his sculptural practice and began to paint again.

Jenney began to make the Bad Paintings in 1969, 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.' The Bad Paintings often bear dichotomous titles, such as Moms and Kids (1969), Girl and Vase (1969), and Dog and Food (1969–1970), and often feature large areas of canvas filled in with green, blue, or brown acrylic paint, thinly applied in untidy strokes. In the Bad Paintings, Jenney sought to indicate narrative truth by depicting elementary relationships between people and things.

His interest in the many permutations of realism, however, led him to pursue this same goal through an opposite approach: the Good Paintings. Ongoing since the 1970s, the Good Paintings are hyperdetailed, heavily stylised studies of the North American landscape, each surface flawlessly rendered. More recently, in the New Good Paintings, Jenney has expanded his scope to include other geographic locations, creating vistas that are as disorienting as they are clear. Glimpses of rivers, tree trunks, rocks, and sand are surrounded by heavy black wooden frames, which, by recalling decorative moulding, allude to Leon Battista Alberti’s metaphor of the painting as a window, which has guided artists’ understanding of perspective since the Renaissance. Jenney’s frames, which he added to the Bad Paintings after introducing them in the Good Paintings, serve as theatrical foregrounds, while the works’ titles, stenciled on in a capitalised serif font, help place the viewer by referring to specific locations. Around 2012 Jenney began to purchase and commission copies of Picasso paintings made by a street artist near the Port Authority, subsequently touching up the colour and adding frames to them. In 2015 he exhibited a selection of these Improved Picasso paintings (2012) at his West Broadway Gallery, which he opened with the stated mission to 'exhibit Realism and Abstraction of the Idealised sort.'

Jenney’s refined use of paint and colour, as well as the precise linework of his drawings, recalls that of the Hudson River School painters, who presented the virgin landscape as a spiritual, utopic realm. Similarly, Jenney’s work addresses themes of universal significance, such as the cultural role of the artist, climate change, and notions of societal progress.

Text courtesy Gagosian.

Neil Jenney
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Gagosian contemporary art gallery in 980 Madison Avenue, New York, United States
Gagosian Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, New York, Paris +6
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