New York Times Exhibition Review


How Prints Got an Artist in Hot Water

The last time William Kent, an 81-year-old artist who lives in Durham, exhibited his slate prints in New Haven, it was 1965. The last time Mr. Kent created one of his slate prints — a process that requires the precision of a sculptor, the strength of a weightlifter, the satiric vision of Jonathan Swift, and the patience of Job — it was 1977.

The last thing Mr. Kent expected in the year 2000 is that someone — in New Haven, no less — would want to exhibit his slate prints, consigned to obscurity beneath dust — and cobweb-laden tarpaulins in his barn.

That someone is Johnes Ruta, curator for the past 12 years of the eclectic and unusual installations at York Square Cinema in New Haven, one of the state’s best art-house movie theaters. The show, “Carved Wood and Slate Prints by William Kent” opened last week and will run through Oct. 1, 2000.

Mr. Kent’s surprise derives in part from the fact that in the years since 1977 he has turned his promethean energies to wood sculpture and become — in the words of Sandra Swan, a gallery owner in Cape Ann, Mass. — “the greatest living carver of wood in the world; there’s not even anyone close.”

It also derives from the fact that the last time his slate prints were shown in public, all hell broke loose for him in New Haven.

Indeed, because of the fallout from a 1965 exhibition called "Sex and Violence, Or Erotic and Patriotic Prints,” Mr. Kent lost his job as curator at the John Slade Ely House in New Haven. The scandal created by his slate prints coupled with Mr. Kent’s being a thorn in the side of the city’s art establishment — the same year, he led a boycott of Yale-sponsored New Haven Arts Festival — made him persona non grata.

“I really asked for it, didn’t I?'” Mr. Kent said, his laughter bittersweet at the distant memory. '”In 1961, I’d persuaded the Ely House trustees to open their space to artists year round instead of one day a year for the hobbyists in the Paint and Clay Club. I made a professional gallery out of the place.

“But the trustees were retired businesspeople, and some busybody told them I was making dirty pictures in the basement. They believed it. Of course, they never actually saw any of the prints. I stirred up a lot of trouble and it all hit me at once. I was fired. But what could I do? I had no money. I couldn’t fight them.”

What Mr. Kent did was move to Durham, convert a barn into work space and monk-like living quarters, and set to work, seven days a week, for the next 35 years. His surprise at the prints’ resurrection was shared by Mr. Ruta, who’d been led by a Kent admirer to the barn in Durham to see the wood sculpture. Upon entering the barn, though, Mr. Ruta noticed the riveting slate print, Sunt Lacrimae Rerum, a 1966 work created from Colonial-era tombstone rubbings.

“There are tears for things,” Mr. Kent said, translating the Latin inscription. “It was the same when I made it as when Lucretius said it in 200 B.C.”

This giant, elegant print is one of the few the artist has up in his barn, a reminder of his former incarnation as a printmaker. Mr. Ruta asked to see others, and Mr. Kent obliged, pulling aside his mottled tarpaulins. Mr. Ruta was overwhelmed by what he saw, and somewhat saddened that such remarkable work could be out of the public’s view.

“Bill Kent’s slate prints, and his sculpture, for that matter, has been neglected by mainstream galleries,”said Mr. Ruta, who is also an art historian, art consultant for a New York gallery and a community arts activist in New Haven. “Nonetheless, all of his work has strong technical qualities and polish; satiric impact, daring and humor, as well as imaginative insight, compassion and originality.”

Many of the slate prints that got Mr. Kent in hot water 35 years ago will be on display at York Square.

These include The Society for the Abolition of Sex, inspired by a photograph of members of the Society of Colonial Wars in the State of New York (the U.S.A. on their seal, Mr. Kent explained, stands for “United Sex Appeal.”); American Victory, a highly charged work of patriotic eroticism; Come and Take It (Joint Chiefs of Staff) and Leaders of Congress, both based on photographs; Bloody Sword Flag of Texas and First Tri-Color Flag of Texas, two prints inspired by illustrations from a book called Romantic Flags of Texas.

“The bloody sword flag was from 1836, to commemorate the taking of Mexico’s land,” said Mr. Kent. “President Polk did the same thing L.B.J. did in the Gulf of Tonkin, provoking an incident as an excuse to start a war. The history books gloss that over.” Asked for the theme that unites his slate prints, he said, “My outrage is at the politicians and the double talk. It’s still with us today, of course. People have been removed completely from the political process.”

Some of the titles of other prints from the 60s and 70s reveal the artist’s perspective: Society Ladies, My Life Ruined By Sex, Abolish HUAC, Integration (Jackie in Blackface), Smile When You Go Under, Honesty Is the Best Poverty, Yale Go Home, Joe Hill, Brecht, and Portrait of an Artist as Target.

Despite their topicality, the prints are not ephemeral. Though an undeniable anger resides at their heart, they are built to last. Masterfully rendered and highly refined in technique, they smolder with a timeless power, like the satires of Juvenal or Swift, the prints of Daumier or Goya.

As Mr. Ruta put it, Mr. Kent’s slate prints “are provocative, daringly satirical, as historically timely now as when they were produced.”

Mr. Kent started making art in 1949, only after he left Yale, where he had studied music with Paul Hindemith. Mr. Kent began by carving limestone and marble, then moved to small slate flagstones, which he turned into bas-reliefs, with no thought of making prints from them.

The flagstone carvings grew larger, especially after he found a demolition company in West Hartford with a supply of blackboards, three feet by six feet. He went to work in earnest, for the next thirteen years doing little else but making giant slate prints. He carved or sandblasted the images into the surfaces of the 100-pound blackboards, lifted the slates onto a washstand, and applied ink with a brayer. He placed the surface of the print material on the inked slates.

After each print was made, he washed the slate down and did it again, with new colors and new print material. Starting with rice paper, he moved to material that allowed for larger prints — some as tall as seven feet — anything from fabric to pre-printed wallpaper and shower curtains.

“The prints are really monoprints,” he explained. “I never did the normal thing of numbering consecutive editions. Unlike lithographic plates or copper engravings, these slates never deteriorate. You can print tens of thousand without hurting the surface. I don’t remember how many I made of each. I still have 10 or 15 of about 80 different slate prints. I also have all the slates, but I can’t lift them anymore. They’re interesting in themselves, as carved stone bas-reliefs.”

Despite their obscurity now, Mr. Kent’s slate prints were well-received in New York’s art circles in the beginning.

His ethereal work Leave the Moon Alone was included in the 1966 Whitney Annual Show, hung alongside prints by Philip Guston, Jasper Johns, and Robert Motherwell. He had a dealer, his work was included in scholarly art tomes, and earned friendly notices from The Herald Tribune (“large, highly amusing and inventive prints that look like Pop posters but really go deeper in their social significance and satiric overtones”) and other newspapers.

He seemed poised to enter the upper echelon of American artists, those whose works were purchased by museums, institutions, and collectors.

But by 1977, Mr. Kent stopped making slate prints. “After 13 years, and hundreds of these prints, I was tired. I had done what I set out to do,” he said. But the full truth was that he had found another medium: wood.

Mr. Ruta’s recent interest in the slate prints has sparked the artist’s reconsideration of these old works.

“The prints I made in the 1960s,” Mr. Kent said, “still seem relevant to me, and that’s why I think the art is good. People didn’t understand satire then. They still don’t. They don’t understand the difference between erotic and pornographic, either. But the sources of my inspiration go back to 530 B.C., to Greek and Roman culture. Of course, these same people would say the classic erotic art was dirty, too.”

He paused and added, with some satisfaction, “This show has real punch to it. It’s not just pretty pictures. I can’t believe no one has shown these prints since I was fired. I’m glad Johnes wants to show them, but can he really get away with it?”

— This article by Alan Bisbort was originally published 3 September 2000 in The New York Times.