My friend, Carl Plansky, died of a heart attack on October 10th. Carl, who founded Williamsburg Artist Materials, was also my collaborator in the early years of R&F.
Carl and I met in 1985 at Torch Art Supplies where we both worked. Our first conversation on meeting was about lead white paint and opera (more about that later). The main thing is that we were both painters who had a great fascination with the mechanics of the paint itself.
I was Torch’s encaustic paint maker at the time. Carl had just gotten his mill from Milton Resnick in exchange for making Resnick’s paint for him. On one visit to his studio on Devoe St. in Brooklyn, I watched this person who was a cross between an alchemist, an artisan, and a mad painter stand at his stove stirring litharge (lead monoxide) and linseed oil in a beautiful copper pot that anyone else would have displayed as a prize ornament. He was making black oil, the primary ingredient in Maroger medium. Elsewhere, some wax would be melting on a hot plate and the remains of the last color he had made was still smeared on his mill. This was the pre-professional Carl. Always looking for a magical ingredient, he also contracted lead and cadmium poisoning – but then, many an early alchemist nearly did themselves in with mercury and arsenic.
The professional Carl was still grounded in his studio but saner and savvier. He spoke the language and understood his customers – fellow painters – like very few manufacturers could. That quality made his paint an underground sensation long before it appeared in the stores. Complex mixes, usually the bane of mass-produced paint, were inspirations he got while painting. On another visit, he pulled me over to a canvas and showed me a color he had just mixed. It had a somber green top tone and a luminous blue-green undertone. “I think,” he said off-handedly, “I’ll call it Courbet Green.”
When Torch Art Supplies went out of business, Carl convinced me to continue making encaustic paint on my own. We talked daily and worked on each other’s problems. He would give me business advice. I would research where to get pigments. We compared notes on ways of making paint and shared formulas for mixes. We bought materials together.
Self-Portrait as Montserrat Caballe, 1995. Oil on linen, 84 x 72 inches
In 1989, Carl suggested that I try developing an oil stick, in part because he wanted to use them in his own work. The sticks then on the market were too hard. He wanted a soft painterly stick. That was the birth of Pigment Sticks, which, by the way, was the name he gave them.
What I said about Carl speaking the language of painters is an understatement. Although he had a very low-key manner of speaking – a little diffident, like someone musing from an armchair – he spoke (and wrote) with a mix of practical sense and poetry, an irresistible poetry of similes and references to older painters and traditional paint makers. His Persian Rose was “like an old world rose…with a heart of orange.” His Mars Orange was “brilliant and mellow like freshly shined copper.”
Unlike most other makers of paint (including me), Carl managed to bridge the world of the artist and the businessman. He had studios in New York City, Budapest, and by his factory in upstate New York. His painting and his making paint were almost one and the same. His canvases were covered with thick expressionist gestural strokes that hovered tantalizingly between being paint or subject. They were painted with the intensity of someone whose attention never seemed to be divided.
Aprile Millo, 2009. Oil on linen, 68 x 58 inches
His last show was his boldest ever. It was all about the opera divas who he adored. He painted them and he painted himself dressed up as them. He named his Montserrat Orange paint after the famed soprano Montserrat Caballé. One of his last paintings, of another famed soprano, Aprile Millo is scheduled to hang in the Metropolitan Opera House’s famed collection of portraits of great singers. The presentation ceremony would, no doubt, have been the greatest moment of his life.
But don’t regret, my dear Carl, you have not died. You have simply passed into legend.
Self Portrait 2005