Studio Visit: Max Estenger and his latest works at John Molloy Opening Thursday March 6th

Max Estenger’s exhibition of new paintings will open Thursday, March 6th at 6pm at the John Molloy gallery.  A beautiful fully-illustrated 28 page catalogue and an interview with Jocko Weyland is available in both book and digital format.

(Cover photo courtesy of the artist)

I have to say it was really a pleasure visiting with Max Estenger. As is known of Max, he is counted among the most intellectual of artists.  He keeps a wonderful art, politics, and design blog that you should obviously check out.  Evident in his gaze, it is his passion that makes him so enveloping. How fortunate are the students of our New York City public school system to have this gifted artist teaching art for the last decade. He must be one of those teachers (like Mr. DeSilva the music teacher at Mont Pleasant High School—RIP) that a student will remember for a lifetime, even if they should never lift another brush again. His knowledge is shared with an excitement, unencumbered by the pompous proclamations of a burgher. That didn’t surprise me a bit, upon entering his studio I immediately made the connection of a kind of cultural transcendence. What I appreciate about Max’s work is that which is aesthetically appealing in his work, is also at its heart.

Beyond Modernity, taking it all with us and specifically being who we are in all of that, requires a perspective that is at once dealing with the vacancy created by the contrasted qualities of the phenomenological, and the objective—discovering the qualities of truth in all things. The son of Cuban exiles who first came to Miami in 1962, and then high-tailed it to Los Angeles (where he was born), Max’s Cuban-ity is a part of his Humanity. Humanity is whole, all else is part. In the mailai of discovering a sense of self, a sense of individuality arising from one’s cultural heritage, a lesser evolved method of discovery would have us rely on those parts, bypassing the hierarchical importance of the Whole. Assimilation then becomes a bad word. With his work Estenger has specifically addressed the bypassed with a particular sensitivity through the use of materials. He understands that paradigmatic emergence comes about through a process of reconciliation, a process of discovering truth, which is ‘no more’ than having the tenacity to investigate the heretofore unspoken, perhaps indescribable—creating discourse where none previously existed, whereby unearthing the overlooked, creating an evolved sense of Wholeness.


Tell us about the journey you’ve been on through your career?

Like I said, I started with See-Through Paintings, which were wood stretchers covered in clear plastic over wood, and then two smaller painted canvases. After that in 1993, I did a group of paintings that I called the Un-Paintings which included the use of metal in my work for the first time. These were paintings without paint. Then in 1994-95 I moved on to these OSHA Safety Color paintings; I used enamel oil colors to make these paintings. So that was also these different materials, with steel and painted steel, and then the work went into more three dimensional realms.

I moved into making sculptural installations at Steffany Martz Gallery for my second show . The main piece was called Perfect Day and it was this huge clear poly-vinyl wall with a creepy little orange doggie door. People thought it was interesting, it received a full page review in Art Forum and Flash Art. And then I thought I was going to be the King of New York (laughs). Not really. So, ‘let’s follow that right up the next year with another show…let’s do the same kind of piece.’ And this show didn’t do so well, and that started my own disappointment. That piece had two doors… it was based on John Wayne Gacy’s floor plan… you know he hid the bodies under the floor boards.  That’s not a detail I included in the works description. But it was called Civilzation and was also this huge clear-vinyl structure but instead of being vertical this was a horizontal piece. It was like a crawl space. A couple of years later the Martz Gallery closed.

After that I did these very big color paintings, I got into using lots of color. They obviously were much simpler than the kind of more complex work I had been doing but it was the first time I could just experiment with color and not worry so much about the form. I also did a group of sheetrock sculptures which were very, very raw.

In his return from a ‘self-imposed exile’, Estenger continues to pursue the space in between. As was said of his work in 1997, ‘not as void, but as a gas’ (Artnet); a space to occupy, rather than escape. So where is Estenger now, in terms of his practice? Well, his career started with the See- Through paintings where he covered clear transparent plastic over the wood supports thus activating the whole room. And today, in his own words he has “a continual interest in what a painting can be and moving this dialogue forward. There’s also the continuing development of abstraction. I’m happy to re-emerge in this moment.”

Progress and change in art is always a negation of the use of art for some end other than its own end.—Ad Reinhardt

What can a painting be? First, we should consider the influence of Ad Reinhardt, who Max considers the ‘last painter’. From Estenger’s essay for the show “After Reinhardt: The Ecstacy of Denial” (1991) Estenger wrote that Reinhardt’s mission was to “…purge art of all extra-aesthetic associations (without concomitantly embracing Clement Greenberg’s prescriptive essentialist and historicist conceptions of art.)”

The raw materials you’re working with, what makes them appealing to the human eye, why are they so sexy?

They take something that we might think is unaesthetic, and combine it with something that is—the colors. It transcends its humbleness, or its slickness on the other hand. Sometimes you can make work that is more appealing visually—like perhaps my color paintings—but then they might not be as interesting as stuff like my newer work. But there is still a seductive quality about them—leaving some of the stainless steel or canvas exposed, unpainted. Artists like Morris Louis, I like his use of raw canvas, though my forms are a little tighter.

The modernism of abstraction, the leaping off point for Estenger, from that same essay, is to see that “painting is not a timeless enterprise,” and has been since the 1990s (when the essay was written) challenged to find its “…meaningfulness (after Reinhardt)… [is] contingent upon its ability to suspend all claims to timelessness.”

Our senses are timeless, but what they evoke is not. Between the Color Field, and the Gestural painters what they discovered were realizations, for which illusion and narrative helped to express. For an artist to free his work from the conditions of illusion, and narrative they must point to a sense beyond that which arises from self/individual. There is one sense which transcends everything to this single moment. Estenger’s aim is to do just that through the use of the materiality of these new works, evoking the sense of Truth.


Since the beginning of modernism, there have been two tendencies: one was oriented towards color as initiated in the work of Van Gogh, the other tendency was centered on the liberation of form. These two tendencies were continued throughout the 20th Century in the work of Matisse who obviously was working with color and Picasso who’s Cubism was the fulfillment of Cezanne’s quest. In the period after WW2, you had Abstract Expressionism and its two wings—the Color Field painters like Rothko and Newman and the Gestural wing of Pollock and deKooning. What Estenger’s new paintings do is synthesize both tendencies through his in-depth exploration of form and his renewed use of a vibrant and jarring color brought about by his use of spray paint.

There is something to be said about not just seeing how things are made, but seeing their natural humble beginnings. The transcendence of raw canvas, the stainless steel, the raw wood… in your work I’m seeing a process happening. There is always that mystique with a beautiful finished something—you don’t know how it is done. And that can be appreciated certainly, but there’s something, like getting to know someone on a very authentic level. As if they have peeled back those layers. It is much more rewarding to know someone at that level, you feel like you have your lover, for real, you have your best friend, for real. Because you know and see everything. An artist who is showing everything, rather than ‘here is this fabricated very industrial object.’

There’s still this idea of The Hand. It still looks put together, it didn’t just come through Jeff Koon’s factory.


In your new work, how do you face the challenge of “engaging the beholder in an intimate temporal relationship and making the art of seeing a painting a much more physical concentrated activity than perhaps ever before”?

Ad Reinhardt’s Black Paintings dealt with abstract but were still behind the frame paintings… still looking through the picture, it was still an illusion. I Consider him the last painter. After him comes Robert Ryman. What Ryman does, painting is no longer about creating an image, whether it was a woman or a square. Now the painting was just about this object, called a painting. And what is painting… it is pigment across a flat surface. The work that most interested me: ok, here he used a 5″ brush, he went this far and stopped—so you see his whole process. He’s a very crucial figure. Ryman also gets into fasteners, how a painting, the hardware, is hanging on a wall. And so now the painting becomes this object. It’s not a re-presentation of something. Whether it is the Mona Lisa, or whether it’s squares or triangles of Mondrian. Now it’s a thing, an actual thing. This is where my work comes in. In my own naiveté, that’s where history comes in. He inspired a lot of artists with his ideas of paintings as objects. All of this is the milieu of this work.



MARCH 6 – MARCH 29, 2014

49 East 78 St. Suite 2B