A truck was parked in the driveway, but it was so battered it might as well have been on blocks. A garden grew in the summer, but from the road it appeared wild, the work of a feral Robinson Crusoe if of anyone at all. In winter the snow was a blanket of isolation, and the squat compound seemed a caravel crushed into the sea-ice.
Several years after Kent died a woman bought a print of his at a Connecticut art gallery. She recalled only the desolate barn and, on summer evenings, the sound of someone playing the piano inside.
He sometimes went out looking for them after storms. It is his most complete self-portrait. It is also a ruined civilization, seemingly sunk to the bottom of the sea or lost in the jungle, buried by the same explosion that brought it into being. It is a large, low building bathed in wood dust. Directly facing the door, still, is a giant carving of sunglasses and a nose in striated layers of wood. Next to it, the angel-like wings of a maple seed, one hundred times larger than life and splayed open, stand atop a three-foot-tall corkscrew striped in brown and black.
In the dark the art resembles a primeval monster born from an apocalyptic garbage heap. There are lines of piping and garden spigots; heroic busts of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck; a towering pair of scissors, the blades partway open and impaling a crushed plastic milk carton. That this miscellany is entirely sculpted out of wood makes it doubly alien. The worktable is low because in his last years Kent worked from a wheelchair. All around, low to the ground at what was once his eye-level, hang disturbing plastic toys tied to strings with little nooses.
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More sculptures everywhere: a long fish with a propeller for a tail; a man-sized rubber chicken; a glorious spiral-form, lacquered and polished, emerging from an untouched chunk of telephone pole. It stands in conversation with a safety pin, a hot-water bottle, and, directly behind, a half-peeled banana.
In the distance more shell-beans loiter by an enormous onion. The door opens outward and reveals a great set-piece. A path leads down a narrow tunnel and then divides into two curving arms. In the center and on all sides stand the sculptures. Easily over a hundred, all of gargantuan size and all made from varnished wood, they stand around in curious arrangements, almost meaningful, the surviving monuments of some fallen city like Tikal or Atlantis.
A folksy figure with a wide-brimmed hat—maybe a World War I doughboy, maybe a minstrel show character—grins from a macabre white-painted face, and holds on his forearm a massive flea carved in fanatic detail. At his side, a wooden woman with a painted wooden skull-face and a flaring, wooden, floral-print dress waits her turn to walk the runway at an infernal Miss Universe competition. Nearby, a coven of man-sized squid wait in silence for another flood.
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In the center a series of cancerous shell-beans tumesce upon contorted bases. The entrance into the Great Room is marked by a fanfare of color from the hundreds of prints stacked along the walls. They trumpet their pinks, greens, blood-reds and royal blues; their grays with liminal washes of azure, violet, puce, and fuchsia.
They are printed on sheets of rice paper as well as on different kinds of patterned fabric—often on a scale as monumental as the sculptures—and their backgrounds, integral to the art, dance in and out of the printed images.
The prints number in the thousands, framed and unframed, rolled up and unfurled, on rice paper and dozens of different fabrics. The prints are spoils of war, plundered from Madison Avenue, the temples of Luxor, the churches of New England, the cabinets of eighteenth-century naturalists.
To one side is a brilliant print of the moon, surrounded by constellations, hermetic diagrams and the Egyptian cat-goddess Bastet. We should get our grubby human feet off that ancient surface, Kent thought, before we ruin it like everything else. Some of these cocks even have wings on which they sweetly soar in little pastoral scenes, accompanied by butterflies and bluejays as in the petrified pagan mosaics of Pompeii, that other microcosm buried by an unforgiving volcano. The barn is a forest, an unfinished cathedral, a country. The metaphors, like the works, encourage continuous dilation, until we are forced to say that the barn is a planet, or even a distant and self-contained star-system.
The deity who made it lived a frugal life in the connected house, sleeping in a narrow bed and eating out of a run-down kitchen. The studio and barn, in which he carved every day, and in which he regularly wandered, admired, and reorganized, were his kingdom and his prison.
In the s he had a studio in the basement of the Slade Ely House where he was the curator. A mallet and chisel where his main tools. A cigarette almost always dangles from his lips in early photographs. His biggest explosion occurred in the early s, when his strange sculptures and prints garnered some attention. It was thought they were like pop art, and they were, although they were doing something other than pop at the same time, something that made the connoisseurs of pop and op and concept quickly turn their backs. Kent had an upstart Madison Avenue gallerist, Richard Castellane, whom he depended upon and hated, and in whose gallery he showed alongside early pieces by Robert Smithson and Yayoi Kusama.
It was well-reviewed, although in retrospect it contains his most period-specific works, with attacks on the sexualization of society and the militarization of government. He got a passing mention in the first serious book on Pop Art, written by Lucy Lippard in He was a quick hand at the printing press and typewriter, and his flirtatious, scurrilous, unintentionally lovable polemics flew out to friends, enemies, and the institutions he was eager to topple.
His critics dismissed his massive wood sculptures as Cigar-Store Indians; he loved the insult, and wore it as a badge of honor. He played himself as city and country, loner and upstart, cynic and patriot, bumpkin and autodidact. He was, in short, a great many crucial American figures consciously and unconsciously distilled into a single emblem which had just appeared above the first horizon of public recognition.
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And then, although still far from reaching the sun above, he fell to earth. Not long afterward, his New York sales dried up, the number of shows dwindled, and his always-sour relationship with his gallerist curdled. A long alley of shell-beans leads to stranger monuments: a huge pair of shears shaped like the Easter bunny, a spiraling mathematical helix, the phantom onion again. He severed his relationships with friends, and quarreled away allies.
The people who remained loyal to him through it all he tried to turn against one another by telling them conflicting and sometimes libelous stories. He sank into consuming poverty, alleviated only by a job at a box factory and, later, by a meager social security check. The few people he would talk to were forced to listen to him rail about the ass-faced stupidity of the New York art-world, but when they tried to organize shows for him elsewhere, he would balk at their provincialism.
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An enthusiastic dentist offered to organize an exhibition of his work in New Jersey in You do not have a literate, cultured, knowledgeable audience in NJ. The NY art world is the center. There is nothing else. He worked in growing isolation, and an alien empire rose and fell inside his barn. Wooden sculptures, unbought and unseen, became a deserted field of monuments, an untrafficked Roman Forum. His life and work—or more precisely, the impossibility of telling the difference between the two—constitute a major statement about the nature of the bond between the human being and the objects humans create.
It is a cry of pain against the tyranny such bonds exercise over the relationships human beings have with one another, and about the isolation that they produce. How Kent came to make this lonely world governed by this lonely philosophy, and why it was his art that took him there, is the true subject of this essay. It is an American Eagle bearing the head of Donald Duck and the tail feathers of a steampunk machine-raptor, and its exquisite talons perch upon a battered trash can that is mounted, for some reason, on two huge snow tires—all still carved from that same single piece of wood.
In front of the statue, but still on its base, lies a football-sized egg carved from milk-white alabaster, a zipper running along its top. Joan Baer, a fiercely kind and stubborn art-collector who befriended Kent in the last decades of his life, once asked him why the egg had a zipper. William Kent hated his childhood, as he seems to have hated every stage of his existence upon the face of this earth. William Kent was not close to anyone from these early years, as he would be not close to almost anyone for his entire life, but with his mother and brother the ambivalence sometimes shaded into love.
About his father there would be no such patience.
He was a drunk and a philistine and, depending on who was hearing the story, a wife-beater. He recalled, years later, his father yelling at him for reading all day, accusing him of being lazy. This accusation seems to have rankled him like nothing else at an early age and forever after: he became conscious of the opinion, so hateful to him, that the work of culture was no work at all. And yet Kent was also forced to admit, when he occasionally awakened the interest of a journalist late in his life, that his father had encouraged his precocious talent for music.
In a Connecticut magazine, some twenty years ago, he conceded that his father had bought him an upright piano and, in the midst of the Depression, paid fifty cents a week for music lessons from a certain Ms. Kent was well-read in Classics and much else besides, as this print with a line from Tacitus indicates. Where did he first encounter Tacitus? And where the flamboyant skull-imagery of New England tombstones?admin.apsitedown.com/the-new-palgrave-dictionary-of.php
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Among the few other stories Kent told about his early years is one that is almost mythical in form: this is his first encounter with art, the moment when, as Rilke describes it, an artwork announces to its viewer, you must change your life. Nevertheless, an uncharacteristic modesty in the story is somehow convincing: he recalled that his brother had done better than him during the class.
It was afterwards, when he was free to wander the galleries, that the real epiphany arrived. Kent generally said very little, and especially little about those things that were good or beautiful. So what it was exactly at the museum that affected him is purely speculative. It is possible, if improbable, that the young William Williamson might have somehow learned that this was the image of a goddess whose Chinese name translates to hearing the cries of the world. After his visit to the museum, William Williamson went to his local public library and asked for all the books on art.
They had, so he recalled with his usual disdain, exactly one. He may have treasured that book, but he never dwelled on those kinds of details.