As a teen, Paul Jenkins worked with ceramicist James Weldon which led to a fascination with glazes; Jenkins cultivated and eventually achieved a similar effect in his paintings by mixing oil and enamel on canvas in the 50s. In 1937, Jenkins attended classes at the Kansas City Art Institute where he painted his first series of watercolors he called interior landscapes, inspired by caves in the Ozarks. After serving in the US Naval Air Corps for 2 years, Jenkins moved to New York to study with Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Morris Kantor at the Art Students League from 1948 to 1952. During those years, Jenkins met Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman.
In 1953 Jenkins left for Paris where he discovered and was struck by the color density and luminosity in abstract oil works termed ébauches by Gustave Moreau and pastels by Odilon Redon. He began to experiment with poured paints in various thicknesses on canvas and paper and found this technique achieved a luminosity of color which in its own way was comparable to that of Moreau and Redon. The next year, Jenkins added Winsor Newton pigments and chrysochrome, a viscous enamel paint, into his poured paintings, further enriching their color density and incandescence. The next major development in technique came in 1959 when he began using an ivory knife to guide the flow of paint. That same year, he also began to title his paintings Phenomena followed by a key word or phrase. A film on Jenkins’ technique titled The Ivory Knife: Paul Jenkins at Work was shown at the Museum of Modern Art and received the Golden Eagle Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1966.
In 1954 Jenkins had his first solo exhibition in Paris where he met Martha Jackson, whose New York gallery included Jenkins in a group show the following year. In 1956, Martha Jackson Gallery held a solo exhibition of Jenkins’ work at which Divining Rod, was purchased for the Whitney Museum of American Art. Jenkins had another 9 solo exhibitions at the Martha Jackson Gallery from 1958 to 1973. He participated in Recent Drawings, 1956, at MOMA and in Nature in Abstraction: The Relation of Abstract Painting and Sculpture to Nature in Twentieth-Century American Art, in 1958 at the Whitney. Throughout the 1950s, Jenkins was involved in both the New York and Paris art worlds, getting to know fellow artists Jean Dubuffet and Mark Tobey in Paris and Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Ad Reinhardt, and Robert Motherwell in New York. In the spring of 1956, Jenkins visited Jackson Pollock at his studio in The Springs, East Hampton. In 1957 Jenkins traded his Parisian studio for Joan Mitchell’s studio on St. Mark’s Place in New York.
Throughout 1960s, Jenkins continued to travel in Europe and worked in both New York and Paris. In 1962 he participated in group exhibitions at 3 museums in Paris and at the Whitney in New York. In 1963 Jenkins was included in group shows at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Guggenheim. That same year, Jenkins got a loft on Broadway in New York from De Kooning and used it as his studio until 2000. In 1964 Jenkins traveled to Japan for an exhibition of his work at the Tokyo Gallery and worked with the Gutai in Osaka. Jenkins continued to visit and exhibit in Japan through the 1980s. Jenkins was awarded the silver medal in painting at the 30th Biennial of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC in 1967.
The artist had his first American museum retrospective in 1971 at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the San Francisco Museum of Art, organized by Philippe de Montebello and Gerald Nordland. In 1972 the Corcoran Gallery of Art held an exhibition Paul Jenkins: Works on Paper which traveled across the United States for the next two years.
Paul Jenkins’ work can be found in many public collections throughout the United States and Europe, including the MOMA, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim in NY; the National Gallery, the Smithsonian, and the Hirshhorn in Washington, DC; and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.