Leo Kenney: Amaranth, 1983, gouache on Chinese paper, 27 x 27 1/2 in.
Note: click on images below to see a larger version.
Leo Kenney (1925-2001) was an artist
with a remarkable vision. Yet his
work can now hardly be seen anywhere,
even in the locales where he worked
and was best known.
Occasionally, it seems, an artist and
the artist's art are born out of time
and place. Sometimes the artist is
ahead of his time; in other cases, the
work, which might have gained notice and
repute in another environment, comes
too late or into the wrong scene and
withers away in a desert of inattention.
So it is with Leo Kenney, it seems.
Had he appeared in Paris in the 1920s,
or even New York in the 1940s, with
the same ideas, his surrealistic and
abstract phases might have found ready
audiences among critics and collectors.
As it is, outside of the Northwest,
he seems largely forgotten -- a fate
which deprives most of us of his work,
given the present system of museums,
galleries and book publishers, which seem
to be strongly driven by pop, celebrity and
grant-mongering, the days of épater les bourgeois
far behind them.
self-taught; in a later era, he might
have been promoted as an Outsider as in
'Outsider Art' even if he did not do
time in jail or an asylum. However,
his early work, although unschooled,
bears a strong resemblance to the usual
suspects of the Surrealist Movement of
a generation before (though of course
Dalí was still holding the torch
and indeed flogging the remains of the
movement into a popular personal style
through the good agencies of the likes
of LIFE; the relics of that
effort can still be seen at certain
malls.) But in the '40s and '50s
Surrealism seemed to have been defeated
by Abstract Expressionism; Pollock
contested the pages of LIFE
with Dalí and it was suggested
that he was the greatest living artist.
Rothko told someone he was creating
the art of the next thousand years.
The grand victorious counteroffensives
of Pop Art and Conceptualism were a
long time away.
Out in the Northwest, however, which
was then further away from the Big City
than it is today, people must have been
impressed with Kenney's work regardless
of the fashions of the times, because
one of his first known major efforts,
at the age of 19, resulted in a sale --
to a respectable museum. People in
Seattle hastened to link him to the
'Northwestern School'. At this time his
palette was dark and highly restrained,
which I am given to understand was
customary in those regions in those
days, perhaps in accord with its famed
weather. Although he belonged to the
generation which came of age during
World War 2, he was too small (5'2") for
military service, thus missing out on
a possibly useful credential in the now
bygone days of flannel-shirted artistic
macho. Instead he labored in defense
industries, working on his art at home
in the evenings.
Kenney's art went through distinct phases. He
started out with complex, carefully constructed
works in the Surrealist mode, in which we see
distorted objects in unfamiliar surroundings,
weeping masks and statues, bodies floating through
dark seas, long Chiricoesque vistas, and so on --
a familiar collection of Surrealist paraphernalia.
A particular characteristic of Kenney's from the
beginning was the use of some forms reminiscent
of Christian imagery, like chalices and fish, and
of plantlike form. When he draws the human body,
it is often immersed. One can carry on about these
as symbolic references to Christianity, but others
think, and I agree, that for Kenney the form itself
was an idea in and of itself, and had spiritual
valence as such.
Leo Kenney: Northern Image / Muse III, 1948, oil on canvas, 29 5/8 x 29 1/2 in.
Leo Kenney: Relic of the Sun, 1961, oil on linen, 52 x 32 in.
In any event, at a certain point in the early 1960s, Kenney
turned rather suddenly toward simplification and
abstraction and began to concern himself with
glowing geometrical forms, especially but not
exclusively circles. These were considerably at
odds with his former work (although there are a
few transitional forms) and to some extent with the
Northwestern School of that time.
Leo Kenney: Feather-Waterbloom,1963,gouache on Chinese paper, 41 5/8 x 23 1/2 in.
interest in luminous circles was occasioned by an
experiment with mescalin, but I have grave doubts
about the efficacy of drugs in the enhancement of
artistic practice, especially isolated experiences.
He certainly did not go in for the flowing,
supposedly drug-induced Art Nouveau of the period's
hippies. Of course, circles are well known to
shamanistic practice with or without drugs; they
are thought to possess magical or at least hypnotic
powers, and to represent the 'life, the universe,
and everything'. Maybe circles were always circling
Kenney. In any case he made a transition into the
realm of mystical abstractionism, just as some other
abstractionists had done before him. This is the
part of his work which I find most remarkable.
In the glowing-circle phase, the form is developed
in various directions, sometimes looking mechanical
like a dynamo or a chart of planetary objects, at
other times having a distinctly biotic style. Yet
others appear to be maps or flowcharts, or diagrams
of the chakras. Almost invariably they vibrate with color.
Leo Kenney: Seed and Beyond VI, 1969, gouache on Chinese paper, 17 3/4 x 21 3/4 in.
Leo Kenney: Petal, Wings, and Light, 23 x 34 in.
Leo Kenney: A Breath of Light, 1968, gouache on Chinese paper, 20 1/8 x 17 1/8 in.
Later, apparently feeling that the circle form was
too restrictive and perhaps too static, he made a
series of assymetrical paintings composed mostly
of linked parallelograms. These, to my mind, are
generally less powerful than the circle-focused works.
If it was the result of calculation, it wouldn't
be the first time the movements of the spirit were
'sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought.' But
(one is replicated here) you may find them more
interesting. The title of the one illustrated,
'Two Part Invention', refers to the compositions of
that name by J. S. Bach, of whose work Kenney was
an ardent fan, often playing recordings of it while
he painted. (Compare Feininger, another geometrist,
another rather neglected genius, whose admiration for Bach
extended to fugal compositions.) Another
escape from the circle was its partial dissolution
into the mentioned biota: seeds, leaves, petals,
organismic form in general.
Leo Kenney: Two Part Invention, 1983, gouache on Chinese paper, 37 1/4 x 29 1/2 in.
Partly because of the labor which his work required
-- however abstract and mystical, it continued
to be meticulously detailed -- and partly due to
health problems, Kenney's production slowed down
significantly in the 1980s and '90s. Without new
work, there were no shows for collectors and fans
to attend and nothing for critics to write about.
And so he never went over into the big time. Indeed,
thirty years later, and more than a decade after
his death in 2001, he appeared to me only as a
used book, the catalog of a 2000 retrospective in La Conner,
Washington, waiting hopefully to catch my eye in the one-dollar
box at Strand; from its pages, just about everything in
this article is taken. It's a good book, containing,
apparently, a substantial portion of Kenney's work,
and can still be obtained via Amazon and other
booksellers. There are also some other images out on
the Net here and there. Might he be rediscovered?
The book mentioned above:
Last sightings, and an obit:
An interesting online magazine, with a sharp review of a book
about the artistic world of Leo Kenney and his peers:
Photographs of the artist:
Two paintings on a gallery site:
Eleven paintings on a gallery site:
Bloggist sees influence (1 painting):
All artwork images reproduced on this page are under copyright of the
artist or assignee unless otherwise noted.
Mary Randlett: Photograph of Leo Kenney with Neighbor, 1965