by Alan Bisbort
photos by Tom Hearn
Exclusive to pleasekillme.com
In the early to mid-1960s, printmaker and sculptor William Kent was on the same cultural radar screen as pop artists like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein. His work was sold by the trendy Castellane Gallery on Madison Avenue and included in one of the Whitney Museum’s annual events. The right gust of critical wind would have vaulted William Kent into the front rank of American artists.
However, around 1965, Kent slammed the door in New York’s face, left his position as curator of New Haven’s John Slade Ely House and moved into a former chicken barn in rural Durham, Conn. For the next 50 years, he worked in all but self-imposed exile, living alone and carving out his own idiosyncratic vision through a work regimen that would have exhausted any ten lumberjacks. He had concluded, as he once instructed me, “You do your art and die.”
Happily, the deafening 50-year silence that has greeted the name William Kent in New York has just been broken—loudly, proudly and decisively—by “My Life Ruined By Sex,” an exhibition of erotic prints and sculptures currently on view at the Museum of Sex . Kent’s erotic works at the Museum of Sex are big, brash and in your face. Indeed, the first thing you see, upon entering the gallery, is a giant carved hand extending a middle finger. Also here are sculptures depicting erect bananas and some sort of penis battering ram, and prints with titles like “Cunt of Ages,” “Balls,” and “Sex Education,” that unflinchingly examine the obsessions of sex, politics, religion and violence in American life.
But look a little more closely and you will see the work of an unrivaled world master who lived for his art and died making it. On display, along with his prints and sculpture, are some of his tools and pieces of the 200-pound slates into which he carved his images, then inked and printed them onto every conceivable material, from rice paper and satin to wall paper, table cloths, bed sheets and shower curtains.
Three days before his death at age 93 in August 2012, Bill Kent was working on another giant sculpture. It remains, lying on its side, where he last left it in his barn studio, a mute testament to a life devoted to art.
I met Bill Kent in 1999 when I was writing an article on “Connecticut Masters” for Connecticut magazine. The idea was to find five “masters” of various arts in the state and write a profile of each. After being introduced to Kent by fellow sculptor Marvin Beloff, I realized he was in a league all his own. I practically begged the editor of the magazine to let me write a separate, longer profile of Kent and not lump him in with the silversmith, weather vane maker and tattoo artist who were also included in the piece. This seemed suddenly inappropriate somehow. You simply could not walk into the barn where he lived and worked for the first time and NOT be overwhelmed by the presence of artistic mastery.
Over the next 13 years, I wrote about Bill many times for various venues, sometimes just making up reasons to do so and then conning editors into allowing me to do it. Sometimes I just used one of Bill’s slate prints to illustrate my weekly column in the Hartford Advocate (with Bill’s permission, of course, and full credit given to him) just in the hopes that in that tiny way I was keeping the smallest portal to the outside world open for him. It was never a case of “oh, this poor suffering artist needs our help”. He, in fact, hated that “poor old man, curmudgeon, recluse” perception of him. This attitude, he said, implied that the work was “not good enough to sell, probably not commercially viable in the first place, because everyone knows that if an artist is good, he sells.”
But none of that ultimately mattered because in addition to being the greatest artist I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, Bill was also the most self-contained human being I’ve ever met. He wasn’t plagued or paralyzed by self-doubts, so he didn’t allow the world’s inattention to slow him down. He could have allowed the bitterness to fester and stop him—and if you asked him about it, he would unload a lifetime’s worth of frustration for your elucidation—but he had bigger fish to fry…or carve. One of his favorite quotes was taken from a poem by e.e. cummings: “Honesty is the best poverty.”
In the last decade of his life, Kent unenthusiastically enlisted the aid of art agents, with mixed success. He gave up the effort when one of them booked him at an “outsider art” exposition. “I seem to be ‘outside,’ so to speak, because my work is so highly finished. People look at it and say, ‘Oh, it’s craft work.’ Craft work? That’s crazy. Look at a piece like this,” he told me, while pointing to a breathtaking work from 1961 of a man kneeling with a wasp and praying mantis on his back, all carved from one piece of black walnut. And another work, from 1964, of a mahogany hand holding an alabaster cricket. And another, from 1968, of a water faucet with a chain flowing from its spigot—all made from one piece of cedar. Still another, from the same year, of an eagle with a duck’s face seated on a trash can that has tires so realistic you have to feel them to be sure they’re wood; at the duck’s feet is a perfectly rendered egg in alabaster, a zipper running along its top. “They don’t seem to accept this as art,” he said. “That’s what I’m up against.”
Bill Kent viewed contemporaries like Johns, Warhol and Lichtenstein as “the fashionable interior decorators of our time. When they teach modern art in the Yale School of Design, you know it’s finished, a dead style. I can remember when I came to Yale School of Music in 1944; modern art had not touched Yale. They had a guy there called Eberhard, who said he studied with Rodin. That was the style they worked in at that time—tempura painting from the Renaissance to the late 19th century. All of a sudden, they flipped over and went modern when Joseph Albers came in the 1950s.”
There is some solace to be had from the fact that Bill Kent went out in the manner and place that he wanted—still working every day in his barn studio in Durham, still planning future sculptures, surrounded by a lifetime’s worth of art that never, but should have, sold.
In a way, it was a miracle he had the last six years of his life to work at all. In 2006, he suffered a debilitating circulatory condition that resulted in the amputation of his right leg above the knee. One would think this would convince an 87-year-old artist to throw in the trowel, but Bill Kent was undeterred. Fueled by his own irascible determination and his artistic vision, he spent the his final six years doing what he’d done since he decamped from New Haven in 1964 to his Durham barn.
Though he was, literally, on his last leg, he just kept going. He did his art and died.
Alan Bisbort is a member of the board of directors of the William Kent Charitable Foundation dedicated to helping indigent artists.www.williamkentfoundation.org.