Paul Behnke – a Champion of Painting

Portrait of Paul Behnke in the studio with Gloria’s Guardian, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 62 x 60 inches, photo courtesy of Robin Stout.

Paul Behnke is a champion of painting – and he does it with evident gusto. His paintings come from idiosyncrasies, life experience, and a process that begins as intuitive, mixed with periods of sharp critical gaze. His paintings have evolved from early contained and minimalistic bold-color geometries, to more recent chaotic forms and layered complexity, at times almost explosive.

You were born in Memphis, TN, resided in NYC for a long while, and now based in Taos, New Mexico. Tell me a bit about this journey – how has painting and involvement in different art communities played into it?

I moved to NYC, for the second time, around 2010, with the intention of making work and becoming involved with the art community in Bushwick. There was an excitement and a very generous vibe in the community. I met Julie Torres who is now the co-director of LABspace in Hillsdale, NY, and she included my work in some of the curatorial projects that she was working on at the time.

Julie knows everyone and I slowly began to meet people through my connection with her. Around this time I was also exploring the community in Philadelphia and became friends with Jim Erikson and Karen Baumeister. With Jim and Karen and a few others I began doing pop up shows on South Street and eventually had my first one person show at the Rosenfeld Gallery in Old City.

I was living and painting in Ridgewood, Queens at the time and became acquainted with Kathy Markel. She visited my studio and took a few things on consignment. This led to a solo show at her space in Chelsea where she was also kind enough to let me curate a show called Eight Painters that included artists from Memphis, Philly and Bushwick and led to other opportunities and a deeper involvement with the NYC community.

Almost two years ago my wife and I moved to Taos. I didn’t move here for the art scene. Robin and I had talked about living in Taos since the early 90s. We took advantage of her job going virtual due to COVID and decided to take the plunge. I was looking at it as a year-long, self-funded artist’s residency in New Mexico, but now we have decided to stay here for another year and explore more of New Mexico. I think it’s been good for my work to be away from the city for a bit. It’s much easier to block out everything here and focus only on my painting.

Most of the painting in Taos is geared toward the tourist market, but recently I’ve become acquainted with Lauren Dana Smith who is organizing a group of (mostly) painters in the Taos Abstract Artists Collective. I’m excited to see where that leads. Another force in the Taos art scene is Ann Landi, of Vasari 21. She’s a mover and a shaker and I’m keen to see her ideas for the community come to fruition.

John Yau wrote in a review from 2013 (Hyperallergic) that your paintings feel “distinctly urban”. Did you have an urban essence in mind when you painted this series at the time?

No. That wasn’t my intention, but I consider it a perfectly valid reading. I think everything one sees, consciously or unconsciously is just as likely as not to appear in the work. My concerns at that time were formal elements and their opposition or antagonism to one another. Color and process played a huge role as well as structure and the slapdash.

Of course, when I made those, I was immersed in an urban environment and I’m sure those sorts of arrangements found their ways into the compositions.

Paul Behnke, Blue-Green Bow Street, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 50 inches.

Brett Baker asked you in an interview for Painter’s Table – what accomplishments remain for painting? That was in 2014. In light of multiple substantial changes we have collectively experienced since, I would like to revisit this question.

I still sort of feel like I did then. I think painting is good when it deals with the personal obsessions and the idiosyncrasies of the painter and that societal and cultural changes and the political are only interesting when the painter has directly and thoughtfully experienced and internalized them. Otherwise, I think of the art as a knee jerk response and too easy. A painting should convey a unique response to the world, otherwise it becomes a sort of shallow preaching. Journalism does a much better job of analyzing and responding to societal circumstances.

I think painting does the most when it communicates like trees through an unseen root system that connects sympathetic viewers and convinces them of the artist’s response to the world. And maybe in turn that can begin to affect change in a viewer. I think it’s a very subtle, slow and quiet form of communication or influence. That’s what I respond to most in painting and what I hope for my own. I think that’s all painting needs to do and that’s a lot. Accomplishments are for goody two shoes and over achievers.

In galleries and contemporary art museum these days we appear to experience an eclectic mélange of figurative and abstract art, probably unlike most periods in the past when one or the other “ruled”. You seem to be a champion of abstract paintings. How do you see your own body of work within current abstract painting and what are your thoughts on what seems to be a current appetite for figurative art?

I don’t know if I’m a champion of abstract paintings as much as I am a champion of painting. The lack of a dominant genre is a good thing – a freeing thing for painters. It allows painters the freedom to respond to impulses that will lead them to their own vocabulary, aims and content. When the lines are blurred, new possibilities open up. These facilitate the painter’s ability to refine and present a more personal, idiosyncratic voice.

I don’t like most of the work that I see so, naturally I hope my work is not at home with the prevailing model. I see my body of work as something like a plumb line that measures and explores depth, rather that surface area or distance. It’s about all of those things that painters typically love – like paint, opposites and variation, color interactions and tension, all of those formal, technical elements. But my main goal is to present a unique response to the world as I see and experience it and to convince the viewer of its validity. It’s a way of working that’s not necessarily trendy. The connections that are made with other artists and viewers are fewer but stronger. The contemporary painters that I feel the most kinship with, or whose visions I’m the most sympathetic to are painters like Deb Ramsay, Sabine Tress, Karl Bielik, Markus Lüpertz, Pam Evelyn, Joanne Greenbaum, Jonathan Messe, Chuck Webster, Brenda Goodman. More historically that list would include Bram Van Velde, Bob Thompson, Roger Hilton, Phyllida Barlow and Ernst Wilhelm Nay.

As to the idea of figurative art being in vogue : these fashions are circular and out of the artist’s control. They don’t mean anything in the studio.

Paul Behnke, Lauren’s Thunderbird, 2021, oil on canvas, 62 x 60 inches.

In your interview with Brian Edmonds for Figure/Ground in 2014, you have recounted the evolution of your approach to color, including the interplay between black/white/color. Let’s look at your recent work in that context, specifically at the relationship between your drawing and painting. For instance, in your sketchbook you draw Pygar’s Wings with a limited palette of black-white-red, while you paint The Hornet with black, red, pink, orange, blue, green. What are your thoughts there?

I do love color, but have always thought of it as a tool rather than an end in and of itself. Some aspects of my practice seem to need it while others don’t.

The sketchbook drawing/collages are meant to be quick and almost thoughtless. Their purpose is to corral a chaotic, disparate subconscious and to work through themes and imagery quickly. A minimal palette and tools facilitate that. Even the sketchbook works that are a direct response to a specific event, as in the Madai drawings, are made stronger due to the restraint that those limitations impose.

The paintings like Hornet seem more generous, they include more and are complete statements made of content stirred up by the drawings.

Paul Behnke, Zarathustra, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 62 inches.

Paul Behnke, Super Seraph, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 64 x 60 inches.

The sketchbook seems to be central for you. It seems to me that it’s not only a place where your creation process starts, enabling you the most freedom to experiment, but it also stands on its own as “art” in a book form. What would you like to share about its place in your work and thought process?

I think you’re right. That seems to be where the value lies in the sketchbooks. I would also say that in addition to acting as a catch all of imagery and responses, the drawing / collages often play the role of fortune teller predicting future directions and possibilities.

Looking closely at some of the pages in your sketchbook I can see collage of a specific landscape, photos of people, a tiger, and titles like Tarzan and the Leopard Woman. In your website you also include your source materials such as books on Pompei,stills of German silent film, an image of a warrior angel from New Mexico. My question is twofold: Can you describe a specific example to give a flavor on the role of source material in your process? And going back to abstraction and representation – can we find Tarzan’s tiger in your paintings?

Well, a specific example could be a Biblical character like the Seraph or Lazarus or Pygar the blind angel from the movie Barbarella. The source material is very important in developing a personal voice, in providing structure and hierarchy to the compositions, as well as determining the degree of a form’s abstraction. My particular source material and how I interact with and interpret it, is everything in shaping a vision or direction for the piece. Once I arrive at a symbol or image that acts as a mental anchor, I know the painting can be finished. 

To date I’ve never used imagery as specific and readable as Tarzan’s Tiger in my paintings except for a brief period right before I left the east coast when I included recognizable collage elements (like a Star Trek insignia) in the work. Currently I think those elements are abstracted to a nearly unrecognizable degree.

Paul Behnke, 2021, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman 1946, Sumi-ink, photocopy and charcoal on paper, 14 x 22 inches.

Where do you think your work is heading now in your studio?

I think the sketchbook drawings are a good indicator of where the new work might go. I can’t get the word chaos out of my head in the studio and I think the drawings, with their text and careless approach, may be a small step towards my version of that. 

Right now more seems to be more.

Paul Behnke, Seraphim, 2021, oil on canvas, 60 x 62 inches.

Paul Behnke was born in Memphis, TN, and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in painting from the Memphis College of Art. Behnke’s paintings have been exhibited widely in the United States and internationally. He has had solo exhibitions in New York, Heidelberg, Philadelphia, Saint Augustine, and Memphis, as well as group shows in San Francisco, Honolulu, London, Dublin, Paphos, Glasgow, The Netherlands, Cernay-lès-Reims and New York. His work has been reviewed in Hyperallergic Weekend, The New Criterion and The New Republic.  Behnke’s writings have appeared online at AbCrit: A Forum for Debate on Abstract Art, at The Painters’ Table and in print in Gamut a Southern regional art magazine, and No. Magazine. He was the co-editor of Shad Runn a self-published art-zine in Memphis, TN. He has edited Structure and Imagery: A Contemporary Art Blog since 2011 and was the co-director of Stout Projects an exhibition space in Bushwick, Brooklyn from 2015 – 2017. Behnke is currently based in Taos, New Mexico.

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: