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Kenney, Leo (1925-2001): Painter of the Spirit of the Circle

HistoryLink.org Essay 5350 : Printer-Friendly Format

The painter Leo Kenney, born in Spokane, came with his family to Seattle in the 1930s. Seattle Art Museum director Dr. Richard Fuller gave him a solo show at the museum in 1949 -- when he was just 24 -- and he remains one of the youngest artists ever to have received this recognition. He experimented with mescaline in 1962, and his artwork changed to represent the art for which he is best known: psychedelic circle paintings that he considered representations of nature. This biography of Leo Kenney is reprinted from Deloris Tarzan Ament's Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002). Note: All unattributed quotations are from Deloris Tarzan Ament's interview with Leo Kenny on February 17, 1999.

Painter as Prodigy

While most other Northwest artists were relatively mature before their work was recognized, Leo Kenney was a prodigy. He was 19 when he had his first solo exhibition, 20 when Dr. Richard Fuller, founder of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), bought his painting, an egg tempera on masonite, titled The Inception of Magic for the museum's collection. He never needed to go in search of a New York gallery. When Morris Graves's New York art dealer, Marian Willard, saw paintings by Kenney in Graves's collection, she invited Kenney to show with her.

The talent was innate and intuitive, since Kenney, like many of his artist contemporaries, was largely self-taught. His work developed rapidly because of focused, around-the-clock practice of his art in his late teen years.

Over the course of his career, his style evolved from Surrealistic figures to circles that radiated transparent color in a feathery finish, to jewel-toned geometrics floated in an effervescent ocean of light that Kenney called "living geometry." Seeing his paintings, it is easy to believe his assertion that "I've never seen the real world as others see it."

An Artist's Childhood

Kenney was born at 2:50 a.m. March 5, 1925, in Spokane, the second son of Raymond and Doris Kenney. He was six when the family moved west:

"We came to Seattle because of the Depression. I have great memories of nature as a child. Every Sunday we would go to the Olympic Peninsula. Beaches always spoke to me. I like the feeling of emptiness. I love to walk on beaches. They used to remind me of ballrooms. On a beach you feel as you do in a desert -- it changes all the time in its emptiness."

As a child, he copied pictures from magazines. "Anything from a calendar girl to Maxfield Parrish," he recalled. "I learned a great deal from magazines. When I was young, that's all the art we had." He was introduced to Surrealism by virtue of the fact that "Dali was in the Hearst paper nearly every Sunday."

He excelled in art classes. "By seventeen, I was sure I was going to be an artist, although I had only the haziest notion of what that meant, and I'd never met one. I thought of them as mostly dead."

When his family moved into a brick apartment building at Summit and Olive Way, Kenney enrolled in Broadway High School, where watercolor artist Jule Kullberg taught art in so inspiring a way that she influenced a generation who studied with her.

"All of a sudden I got really interested. I was on my way toward something," Kenney recalled. Carrying his box of Prang watercolors everywhere with him, he often managed to spend as much as five hours of a school day working at his art. He also learned about oil painting. Kenney describes his high school paintings as "still lifes, bouquets, and Victorian houses."

He was fond of the work of Ohio painter Charles Burchfield, who moved from early fantastic visions of landscape to darker realism, in which he invested buildings with haunting moods. "I was already painting before TV came along. It influenced everyone -- especially if they were visually oriented. I was very influenced by movies, especially film noir, with its black-and-white scenes, and odd camera angles. The Maltese Falcon was my favorite."

Things Get Rough

Kenney's world was shaken in 1942 when his father died. He was 17. His older brother, Jack, had been drafted. His mother was selling men's haberdashery at Frederick & Nelson. Kenney ran away from home, spending three months in Los Angeles, where he worked as a busboy at the Hollywood Athletic Club.

In October, he became ill, and he returned home to Seattle. He suffered a case of mumps so serious that he spent much of the winter in bed, his weight at one point dropping to 70 pounds. When he had recovered sufficiently, he returned to classes at Broadway High School, and took an evening job as busboy at his uncle's Pioneer Square restaurant, the Pioneer Cafe.

The War Years

Kenney was sweeping the sidewalk in front of the cafe one night when a reporter came running around the corner crying out that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. "I'd never heard of Pearl Harbor. I thought it was some place in Alaska." World War II had broken out. Kenney was dumbfounded when, the following week, his Japanese friends were taken from Miss Kullberg's class in the middle of a school day. "It was the awakening of my social consciousness," he recalls. He volunteered for work with the Air Raid Patrol in the area around the Cornish School. "Our job during blackouts was to bang on any windows with light leaks, which we did with unnecessary fervor."

Kenney, who used to say that he was an average student at best, dropped out of high school on his 18th birthday. He was promptly called up by the draft. When he went in for his physical exam, he was rejected, not on account of his height (5 feet, 2 inches), but because he was seriously underweight and because of his inability to follow the directions for calisthenics.

He went to Long Beach, California, where he worked as an assembler at Douglas Aircraft. "I was very good at it," he recalled confidently. As part of the job, he learned to read blueprints, a skill that proved useful in his later working life. Living a block from the beach, he discovered that morning fog in southern California could be as thick as that in the Northwest.

He returned to Seattle in 1944, and took a job in the shipping room of the Hardman Hat Company. By day, he swathed hats in tissue paper and tucked them into boxes, adding them to the columns of boxes that surrounded him. In his imagination, the columns resembled ancient classical landscapes. Columns and the crisp folds and flow of drapery were making regular appearances in the paintings to which he was devoting his nights. He loved Surrealism, especially the work of Giorgio de Chirico. He experimented with work in which he would start with a random form and "just see where it took me."

In an interview years later with Sheila Farr, Kenney recalled explaining the technique to Richard Gilkey, who questioned what he was going to do with the head of a muse plunked randomly onto the canvas. "What I'm going to do is invent a world to go around her, for her to inhabit. I'm pulling her out into it like an obstetrician" (Farr).

At the time, he preferred egg tempera, a water-based medium that uses egg yolk as an emulsifier. He painted on panels prepared with a smooth, absorbent gesso ground.

When his mother remarried and moved to Long Beach, Kenney moved in with the family of a friend, Jack Griffin. With unflagging teenage energy, he routinely painted through the night in the basement room he shared with Griffin. Griffin was so impressed with Kenney's work that he took a few paintings to Frederick & Nelson's Little Gallery, hoping for a show. Unable to afford frames for his work, Kenney cut imaginative mats for them. He got the hoped-for exhibition at the Little Gallery in 1944.

The gallery manager showed the paintings to Clifford Wright, who worked the front desk at the Seattle Art Museum. Wright was wowed. He arranged for Kenney to have an exhibition in the hallway of Helen Bush School.

The Inception of Magic

Kenney's breakthrough painting was a symbol-laden Surrealistic work he titled The Inception of Magic. Small shapes float out of the womb of a central shrouded white form, which opens like a nexus of psychic energy. Every line flows in a rippling curve. The central figure is defined by drapery rather like the mantle that traditionally covers the Virgin Mary in the Catholic iconography of Kenney's youth. "The whole painting grows out of the primeval soup at the bottom -- it's the microcosm of the ocean in this container," Kenney reflected.

Clifford Wright took the painting to the museum to show to Dr. Fuller, who promptly paid Kenney $100 for it and added it to the museum's permanent collection. On one of the rare occasions when Mark Tobey and Morris Graves went together to the museum, Wright made certain that both of them saw the new work by the promising young painter. He reported their reactions to Kenney. Tobey said, "This young man should take all this technique and use it to paint something." Kenney reports that he pondered that statement for a long time. Graves said, "It's beautifully painted, but it has no soul."

Dr. Fuller's purchase was Kenney's first reassurance that he might have a career as an artist. He was so elated over the sale that he quit his job, and spent the winter in Long Beach. There he painted a triptych, The End of the Golden Weather, populated by Surrealistic figures rendered in gouache on paper.

It would be tempting to attribute his early color palette, which ran the gray scale from pearl to charcoal, to night work in a room with no windows, or to the influence of leaden Northwest skies. But the truth is otherwise. "I was very impressed when I read that Tobey had said that in the Orient, color is for children. A ridiculous remark, but his casual utterances carried weight for a beginning artist like me." (Tobey was probably referring to clothing. Customarily, children's kimonos are made in bright colors; whereas adult kimonos come in muted tones.) Wanting to be "safe and serious," Kenney painted with no color other than gray for several years.

A Community of Creators

He returned to Seattle again in the spring of 1946. A young painter named Richard Gilkey was home from the war, having suffered a breakdown in the Philippines. "Everyone was very excited about Gilkey's painting," Kenney recalled.

Kenney and Gilkey shared a $35-a-month apartment in the Kennedy Building, next to the University District post office. Jack Lenor Larsen lived there, in an apartment where he'd set up his loom. Poet Theodore Roethke was in and out of the building, and Kenney often ran into Morris Graves in the Laundromat across the street. Tobey lived a few blocks away, on Brooklyn Avenue. Kenney didn't know Tobey, who was 25 years his senior, "except to shake his hand once." Kenney was too shy to approach the famous painter, but Gilkey managed to meet him by sitting on Tobey's front steps until the artist emerged.

It was a time of rich ferment in Seattle arts. William Ivey, a Marine veteran, had just returned from studying painting with Clyfford Still in San Francisco. "We had never seen abstract expressionist paintings like Ivey's," Kenney said. "They were very large. No one up here did big paintings at that time."

Early Recognition

Kenney entered the Seattle Art Museum's 1948 Northwest Annual Exhibition, and was thrilled to have both of his entries accepted. His painting Third Offering was awarded First Prize, the Lowman and Hanford Purchase Award. "It was after de Chirico, my favorite twentieth-century painter," Kenney said. "I got all my fanciful perspective from him." His work stood out from the "floral still lifes by the millions" that he recalls as a strong presence in the Northwest Annual Exhibitions of the 1940s.

In addition to having his painting bought for SAM's permanent collection, Kenney was invited to have an exhibition at the museum. That happened in 1949, when Kenney was 24, one of the youngest artists ever to receive a solo show there.

Kenney recalled 1949 as "a hot summer." He had begun doing portraits, commissioned first by Betty Bowen, whom he painted in tones of gray. She got commissions for him from other patrons, including Joanna Eckstein and Hector Escabosa, then president of I. Magnin. After he finished the Eckstein commission, Kenney sent her three yellow roses because "I had done her portrait badly. I made her eyes brown, and they were blue as cornflowers! She was very nice about it. I never corrected the color, despite promising that I would."

In truth, Kenney didn't like doing portraits. He left Seattle to escape them. He went back to work at Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, spending his painting time working in gouache on Chinese paper, turning out visionary heads, and vessels, and a series of Night Swimmer figures. By June 1952, he'd had enough of aircraft work. He went to San Francisco in search of a job. The search went badly. "I couldn't find a job even as a busboy."

He had given himself until July 4 to land work. When that day approached, "I was ready to throw in the towel. I was out of money, living in a cheesy hotel, and very depressed at the thought of moving back to Long Beach. I went out one last time, and walked down Maiden Lane."

Landing a Job in the Art World

Passing a gallery whose window held paintings he found poorly and awkwardly done, he retrieved a portfolio of his own work from his hotel room and took it in to show the proprietor. When he heard that Kenney was job hunting, the proprietor sent him to Gump's, where he himself had formerly been head of the art department. Gump's was the preeminent West Coast purveyor of Asian art, including some of museum quality.

In 1933, when SAM opened, Dr. Fuller had bought from Gump's a pair of larger-than-life Chinese stone guardian figures, and a pair of stone camels -- figures made for the spirit path leading to the tomb of a Chinese dignitary -- to stand outside the new museum. (Reproductions of the camels still guard the entrance of the original building in Volunteer Park, rechristened the Seattle Asian Art Museum. To protect them from deterioration and the elements, the original stone camels and guardian figures were placed inside SAM's downtown building. The camels have been adopted as symbols of the museum.)

Kenney was hired instantly into Gump's display department. He began work the next day. He did so well that he was named display director a year and a half later. When he left six years later, it was to become display director for W. & J. Sloane in San Francisco. He left that job in April 1960.

During these years, he painted little. Part of the reason had to do with a 1954 exhibition of his work at the Ziville Gallery in Hollywood. The gallery, which Kenney describes as "small and elegant, in a wooded neighborhood," was run by Erven Jordan, remembered as "a sophisticated Swedish gentleman" who made documentary films. Kenney says, "The critics came, but no one else could find the gallery."

The extraordinary effort he expended in preparing for a show that netted no sales quashed his desire to paint for the next eight years. From 1954 to 1960, he completed only one painting. Following his mother's death in 1955, he began work on a large, elegiac oil, Night Blooming Vessel.

After a long hiatus during which he had not lifted a brush, Kenney quit his job to focus again on painting. He spent the winter of 1960 in Bodega Bay, California. In 1961, he completed The Sleep of the Dove. Painted in oil on linen, it is unusual for Kenney in two respects: for its vivid color -- a saturated red -- and for its crisp delineation of line. An Asian-style depiction of a white dove against red ground, it is also his only bird painting, and it is a knockout.

The Trip

Not until 1962 did Kenney have the experience that changed the direction of his work to the paintings for which he is best known. At the age of 37, he experimented with mescaline. His art was never again the same. Figures and representational images disappeared. In their place appeared a long series of paintings that were variations on an inner circle radiating misty echoes like the reverberations of a gong. They are elemental forms, drenched with archetypal resonance; symbols of source as well as pure studies of light and form.

He was quick to deny any mystical intent. "None of my paintings have any relationship to religion. I don't believe in the oneness of man as it's usually associated with Northwest painting," he said. "I believe in the duality of man. Sun and moon are always going to be there; everything else is intellectual."

That should not, however, be mistaken for a denial of content, which resides in the forms whether or not the meaning is readily grasped. Symbols speak to a preverbal part of the mind. "People don't understand that it makes no difference that one doesn't know the precise meaning of each figure or symbol," he said. "The artist often does not."

Kenney recalls 1963 as his "most prolific year. I completed forty gouaches and drawings in San Francisco." He had begun to work by laying down a color wash on Chinese paper, and -- contrary to his earlier practice -- to plan the compositions.

Kenney sent a group of paintings to the Seattle Art Museum for Dr. Fuller's perusal. Dr. Fuller, who had scaled back his purchases compared to the museum's early days, was noncommittal. But Don Scott, the preparator who unpacked the paintings, thought they were superb. When Kenney visited Seattle for two weeks that August, Scott selected paintings to exhibit in the new gallery he was planning to open. Kenney's September 1964 show at the Scott Galleries scored a solid success. He moved back to Seattle, this time to stay.

A Changed Seattle

He found the city changed. "Everything changed for Seattle after the World's Fair," he said. "That's the year art got off the society page. We were all humiliated before that, because you'd never find it in such a place in New York. And galleries began to open." He particularly recalls the home Terry, Tucker & Shields designed for Zoë Dusanne, where work by Klee, Kandinsky, and Léger hung on the walls alongside work by local artists.

Over time, he began to stack the circles in his paintings into ascending pillars that suggested illuminated chakras, with a body implied. His art was a perfect fit with the psychedelic consciousness of the late 1960s and early 1970s. His paintings were frozen light shows, freeze-framed like an instant of stopped time, that allowed an out-of-time glimpse into the profound beauty of an inner reality that manifested as light.

His work stands among the most purely beautiful imagery ever to emerge from the Northwest. Small wonder that at age 42, he began to attract national attention. The National Institute of Arts and Letters recognized him in 1967 with a display of his work at the Academy, and an award of $2,500. His paintings were chosen for inclusion in a traveling exhibition titled West Coast Now.

Marian Willard, who represented Tobey and Graves in New York, saw Kenney's paintings at Graves's home. Impressed, she arranged a New York exhibition for Kenney at the Willard Gallery. By the time of his 1968 show at the Willard Gallery, word was out. Alan Watts bought one of his paintings, and another was selected to illustrate an essay by Joseph Campbell in the journal of the Society for the Arts, Religion and Contemporary Culture (ARC Directions). The show scored such a solid success that Willard immediately wanted to schedule an encore.

The Seattle Art Museum, catching up to the acclaim, slated a solo Kenney exhibition for 1973. A parallel exhibition at the Foster/White Gallery, in Seattle, was a sellout show.

Kenney achieved meaningful paintings with psychedelic imagery while other artists with similar experiences fell short because, unlike most of them, his mescaline trip was a one-time experience. Nor did he vitiate his creative energy with narcotics. Alcohol was his drug of choice, and it extracted a toll of its own, compromising the steadiness of his hand, and causing a slow overall deterioration of his health.

Weighted down by the pressure of painting for shows, he said no to a second show at the Willard Gallery, although he continued to show locally. He called his 1977 show at the Foster/White Gallery "the prettiest show I ever had. Everything sold; all the paintings, all the prints." (In fact, many of the paintings were sold before the show opened. Because he needed income, Kenney had sold them as they were completed, and borrowed them back for the show.) Kenney did not ordinarily do prints, but Donald Foster (1925-2012) had one of the paintings, Dial of Spring, reproduced as a print especially for that exhibition, in an edition of 50. (Dial of Spring is printed on StarWhite Cover Vellum #80. Prints were $150 unframed, $175 framed. It was the first print ever commissioned by the Foster/White Gallery.)

At a time when Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism ruled the art market, Kenney's ecstatic outpourings of soft color stood as a reminder that expressionistic painting need not assault the senses, and simplicity need not exclude meaning. "I am a very reticent painter," Kenney said of himself. "I'd make a great minimalist if it didn't kill me from boredom."

Weary of working with circles, and wary of becoming a formula painter, he began to experiment with angled geometric shapes. "I thought of those little forms (hexagons, parallelograms, squares) as an alphabet and with them I would write these new paintings," he explained to Sheila Farr (Farr). He abandoned oil and tempera to work in gouache, a medium whose fluidity permitted him to heighten the effervescent effects of light characteristic of the Pacific Northwest's shimmering marine air.

Health Difficulties

In 1982, Kenney broke his hip in a fall. Frail and in pain, he could no longer stand for long hours to paint. A decade later, coming out of a 1st Avenue shop, he tripped over a stack of the Seattle Gay News and broke his other hip. It happened at a time when he was already weakened from invasive surgery for cancer.

His reputation and his health fell into a decline from which he was rescued by attorney Merchant Pease, who pressed a lawsuit to help Kenney win a settlement for his injury and assembled an archive of slides and documentation of Kenney's career.

Jake Seniuk, director of the Port Angeles Fine Art Center, worked with Pease to assemble an exhibition of Kenney paintings completed subsequent to his 1973 retrospective exhibition at SAM. In 1996, the Port Angeles Fine Art Center show Leo Kenney: Geometrics reminded the art world of Kenney's mastery of color and the delicacy of detail with which he imbued the crisp forms.

In 2000, the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner mounted the most complete retrospective exhibition of Kenney's work, curated by Barbara Straker James. Celebrating the Mysteries spanned 50 years, showing for the first time the full development of Kenney's work. Leo Kenney died in Seattle on February 26, 2001.

Although they are light-years removed from landscape paintings, Kenney's themes are nonetheless based on the natural world at microcosmic and macrocosmic levels. "I don't paint nature, I paint about nature," he insisted. The statement could be echoed by nearly every major artist of the Northwest School.

Sources:
Sheila Farr, Celebrating the Mysteries: Leo Kenney, a Retrospective exhibition catalog (La Conner: Museum of Northwest Art, 2000; distributed by University of Washington Press); Deloris Tarzan Ament Interview with Leo Kenny, February 17, 1999.


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Leo Kenney (1925-2001)
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