Artists I Love – Neil Jenney

Neil Jenney

From 1982-1994 I worked on getting my Master of Fine Art degree from San Jose State University in California.  I took a number of high level art theory and criticism seminars where studied intensely studied the recently past and current styles in the art world.  Foremost among those at the time was Neo-Expressionism.  There were many compelling artists working in this style that I liked, including David Salle, Robert Longo, and Eric Fischl.  In addition we studied other strains, including the Pattern and Decoration movement, which I liked quite a bit.

One artist I discovered at the time stood out to me.  He stood out because he was was not part of these or other contemporary movements. He was completely unique; sophisticated, astute in his subtle social and political messaging and unabashedly contrarian in his relationship with current art. His name is Neil Jenney and he is the next artist in my ‘Artists I Love’ series.  Links to the other artists in the series can be found in the menu above and in a list at the end of this post.


Window #6, oil on panel with painted wood frame, 1971-1976

What you see here is one of the signature paintings of his career.  It’s a detailed oil painting of a landscape, but not one where you can see much. It’s as much about what you can’t see as what you can.  It’s seems to be a window high up in a room, you are looking out, but what really is out there? You can’t see much, just the tree and the sky. But you can also see something that doesn’t seem to fit. A cloud that almost looks like a marshmallow. It’s way too perfectly formed to be a real cloud so what is it?  Good question.  Too bad you can’t see more, right?  Or wait, maybe not seeing more is what makes you think more intensely about what isn’t there. Maybe your imagination is engaged.  Maybe it’s great art because of that.  I think it is.

But let’s go back a bit to get a little better glimpse of the ideas behind his work.


What you see below is a bad painting.  It’s bad on purpose to make a statement. Back in the late 60s a new genre came into being called ‘Photorealism’.  Artists took a photograph of a scene and painted it to an extreme level of accuracy. They actually enhanced the scene often to be even MORE realistic than the photo.  Neil Jenney hated this trend. He understood the technique took some skill but for what purpose?  To just recreate a photograph? He saw it as soulless and trite. He said to a friend that instead of having a bad idea and doing it well, “it would be better to have a good idea and do it terrible!”  Which is exactly what he did.  He called it good drawing, bad painting.


Saw and Sawed, acrylic on canvas with painted wood frame, 1969

Here is an example of the art Jenney was seeing when he decided to go in the opposite direction.


Robert Bechtle, Alameda Gran Torino, 1974, oil on canvas

He continued in this vein for a few years and was rewarded with his work being designated as ‘bad painting’, not as a derogatory critique, but as a positive statement about a new sort of realism.


Birds and Jets, Acrylic on canvas with painted wood frame, 1969


Threat and Sanctuary, acrylic on canvas with painted wood frame, 1969


Girl and Doll, Man and Mirage

What do all these have in common besides the ‘bad painting’ technique?  They are all about a relationship between two things.  The purposeful lack of details in both the paintings and the titles were Jenney’s ingenious way of being a social and political artist without being pedantic or propogandistic. His message is a starting point of an idea, a hint towards a concept that the viewers have to figure out for themselves.  It’s one of my favorite attributes of great art and he does it immaculately in these paintings.


The good paintings were a result of two things. One, the limits of doing ‘good drawing, bad painting’, and two, the plethora of artists who had started to do similar work.  Jenney is a contrarian and really dislikes doing what the crowd does.  The combination of those two things caused him to decided to do ‘good drawing, good painting’.  He started doing very detailed and highly accurate realistic paintings.  But, as in the bad paintings, he does not spell things out. He just gives clues.  The good paintings are as much about what is not seen beyond the frame as it is what is in the frame.

It also is about the relationship between words and images, as are the ‘bad paintings’.  It’s another element that resonated with me, as you can tell by how prevalent words are in much of my work.


Meltdown Morning, 1975, oil on board with painted wood frame

It’s not the best reproduction but in the distance on the right you can see the hint of yellow. That could be a sunrise but it could be a nuclear accident.   There is power in the ambiguity and simplicity, as well as in the contrast between nature and man.


North America Acidified, oil on panel with painted wood frame, 2013

A beautiful scene of nature, but the ominous title says something else might be going on.


Atmospheric Formation – Rabbits, oil on panel with painted wood frame, 2005

Sometimes it’s just light hearted play Jenney indulges in.


Morning, Evening, oil on panel with painted wood frame, 2012

I love these images because they just say so much about perception and how minimal it can be and one can still know exactly where you are and what time of day it is.


Ozarkia,  oil on panel with painted wood frame, 2012


North American Aquatica, Oil on Panel with painted wood frame, 2006-07


Modern Era, Oil on panel with painted wood frame, 2006

I think this is a very sophisticated critique of modern art. Not pedantic or overly weighed down with opinion, but in it’s simplicity one can see the disdain.

Improved Picassos

Here’s an idea for a sure fire way to be criticized: Decide you can improve upon the paintings of the perhaps the greatest artist of the 20th century.  Jenney decided to do just that.  He happened to see someone in the Port Authority terminal in NYC selling painted reproductions of Picasso paintings. He bought one from him and decided to improve it, fixing what he saw as incomplete or bad passages in the art.  Then he framed them how he would like to see them, instead of the way he saw them framed in the famous museums of the world.

It’s a cheeky and pretentious effort to do something like this, but Jenney didn’t care about what others would think. He wanted to ‘fix’ them so he did. Other people didn’t like it? Too bad for them.  I have to admit I really love that ‘in your face’ attitude he has. It’s liberating for artists to see this and realize decisions about our creativity are ours to make, not someone else’s.

He eventually commissioned the artist who did the original copies, Ki-Young Sung, to paint specific Picasso pieces he had always wanted to rework.


Improved Picasso – Boy and Horse, original on left


Improved Picasso – Marie Therese Leaning, original on right


Improved Picasso – Igor Stravinsky


Improved Picasso – Bathers


Improved Picasso – Woman



Neil Jenney is my favorite type of artist, maybe because I feel a kinship with his outsider status. Outsider doesn’t mean uneducated, unsophisticated, or untalented. It simply means the artist does not fit in, either on purpose or by virtue of place, time and style, with the prevailing trends of art at the time.  He or she can still be quite popular among collectors and other art people, but it’s a popularity based more on genuine admiration for the work than on any commercial or social advantage one might get by having a piece by the artist.



Photo courtesy of artist

Links and Resources

Improved Picassos – The Creators Project, 2016

An Artist Reluctant to Sell Himself – NY Times, 2013

The Painting of the Future –

West Broadway Gallery and Jenney Archives

Lofty Ambitions – Neil Jenney Frames Himself –

You can see and read the entire ‘Artists I love’ series here or by going through the list below.

Fall/Winter 2016

Winter/Spring 2015

Summer 2014

Winter 2012/2013

Winter 2011/2012

Article © 2016 Marty Coleman |

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