William Kennon creates finely detailed urban landscapes, both real and imagined. His artwork has appeared in many exhibitions and won numerous awards. Kennon has had a profitable association with the Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York City and was featured prominently in its “New York Classicism Now” show in 2000. That led to a “New York Realists Now” show at the Galerie Albert Benamou in Paris, where Kennon was subsequently given a solo exhibition. He is affiliated with a number of arts organizations, among them the Art Students League, the Allied Artists of America, and the Society of American Graphic Artists.
Terry Stoller spoke with William Kennon in July 2014 about his arts education, his experience as a set designer, his experimentation as a visual artist before focusing on realism, his “obsession” with composition, and his process with regard to specific works, including the importance of structural elements and the opportunity for poetic expression.
Terry Stoller: You studied comparative literature as an undergraduate and then went on to art school about a decade later. At what point did you decide you were going to give yourself over to becoming an artist?
William Kennon: It’s all rather complicated. When I enrolled in college, I started as a music major. And that was my primary interest. I’d always loved to do visual art, to draw, but I really wanted to be a pianist and composer. My first two years in college were in the music program, and it required a lot of credits. After two years, I changed my mind. I didn’t think I was going to make it in the music field. So I thought, Let me focus on visual art, which was something I had been very interested in and missed doing. But I couldn’t major in the visual arts at that point. I was halfway through my college career, and it required too many credits. And I wasn’t crazy about the kind of visual art being produced at the school, which was Washington University in St. Louis. I’d always had a fascination and fondness for Old Master painting. I decided to take as many art history classes as I could. But the art history major required more credits than I could pack in for two years. I looked around and found comparative literature, which required far fewer credits. I love literature, and was fluent enough in French to read it, so I thought I’d do comp lit. I was able to get my credits in and have time to study other things I was interested in too—other subjects in the humanities and ceramics and photography, which I really clicked with, so to speak.
I’ve read that you work from photographs. Did the study of photography start you off on that aspect of your work?
I don’t know if it started me off, but it certainly was influential and crucial. When I started drawing as a kid, I wasn’t the kind of artist that went around with a sketchbook and sketched everything he saw. If something made some kind of impression on me, I wanted to copy it. I was particularly interested in portrait photographs. I would copy these portrait photographs meticulously. That’s basically how I taught myself the skills that I had. It was all very much based on realism. I guess that interest in realism was there pretty much from the beginning; studying photography was a continuation of that. I had so many impressions during the day of different things that interested me that I wanted to make into art. I started carrying a camera around. I basically used the camera as a sketchbook.
Your work is not like photorealism, though.
No. Photorealism looks very clinical to me, and I have no interest in that. Photographs are a useful tool for me. I don’t feel wedded to them, but they are a way of amassing a lot of information—and not making detailed sketches. I’ve often done architectural paintings that require a lot of noodling windows, and sometimes there are certain decorations and other things on them. If you take a snapshot of those details, you can look at it later and figure it out as you go along. Photographs are useful, but I feel great freedom in using them. I often change the compositions, the lighting—everything changes. The photograph helps me with structuring the drawing from which the painting ultimately derives.
You did scenic design in the eighties and early nineties, but why did you wait till 1993 to go to art school?
Well, what happened in between was graduate school. I got a master’s degree in art history. I got an academic scholarship to Columbia, and I thought, I’m not turning this down. I had the opportunity to study art history and to come to New York City in the early eighties. I studied the art I was interested in, which was Renaissance and Baroque art and some nineteenth and twentieth century art as well.
After being in New York for a year, I met my partner, David Greenspan, and he was starting out in theatre. David trained as an actor, but he was beginning to write and act in his own plays—in these hole-in-the-wall places in the East Village. I got immersed in that scene, and it was really fun because it was so raw and everybody was young and everything was on a shoestring. David said, I need this kind of prop and this kind of set for this piece. Do you think you can help me out with that? So we started working together, and we did a lot of shows downtown—in places that don’t exist anymore, like Limbo Lounge and HOME for Contemporary Theatre and Art (which is now HERE). Then Joe Papp came to see one of his shows—which I had designed as well—and really liked his work and gave him the opportunity to work at the Public Theater. I went along for the ride. David was in residence there in 1990-91. He did three shows that season, which I designed, and another show the next year, which I also designed.
As a set designer, I was very interested in abstract things. I would do things that weren’t realistic—well, realistic enough that they could function. For instance, David wrote a scene in a kitchen between a young man and his aunt, and she’s fiddling around the kitchen, cooking things and washing dishes. But David’s work has an intellectual, kind of removed from reality quality to it—some of it does. It’s very abstract in its own way, lots of repetitions and looping. It’s not naturalistic playwriting. So I felt very free. In fact, I thought it would be inappropriate to do something very naturalistic. For this particular piece in the kitchen, from The HOME Show Pieces, I designed a stovetop, which I built out of wood. It was a Shaker kind of stovetop; however, it had no stove underneath it. I suspended it and other kitchen items from fishing line, which was invisible from a distance. All these things would be floating in this dark space and spotlit. It was very magical.
That’s quite different from the kind of work you’re doing now.
As a visual artist, I’d vacillate a lot, too. When I was young, I always wanted to do something different from what I’d done before. When I was really young, I liked to do the meticulous copies of photographs. Then when I got a little older, when I was in high school, I became really fond of the artist Paul Klee. I began noodling around with Paul Klee kind of stuff. Then I went to college and started learning about the Old Masters. After I left Columbia, I was looking around for some totally different kind of influence. I became interested in Matisse, and I did these huge paintings of flowers and flowerpots and all these things with big bold colors, almost like Matisse cutouts, but of objects.
This was in the eighties, while I was designing the sets. I didn’t aspire to a career as a set designer, but I’ve always had an interest in organizing a composition, whether on canvas or in the space of a stage. Everything was about composition—the paintings and the set designs. That’s a constant in my work, this almost obsession with composition.
After a couple of years of these big Matisse-like, bold color paintings, I thought, I don’t know where to go with this. I’m going to go in a completely different direction. I started working abstractly with a very limited palette of just whites and grays. All the color was gone. I decided to paint on wood instead of canvas, and I began drilling holes in the wood; so I would have these kind of milky paintings full of holes. Then I would sometimes glue things to the surfaces. I did a few years of this kind of work. I didn’t know where to go with those either. I felt I was painting myself into a corner.
This was in the early nineties. I’d left set design. I had the opportunity to study set design in a serious way after the Public Theater, but I didn’t want to do it.
Was that because of the collaborative nature of theatre?
I think it’s because I always wanted to be painter.
Even before you wanted to be a musician?
When I was young, I wanted to be everything. I wanted to be in the arts. I love literature, and I thought, Maybe I’ll be a writer. I wrote poetry when I was a kid.
So I did these very abstract, milky paintings, felt I couldn’t go any further with those and thought, You know what? I want to get back to my early days and explore what fascinated me about visual art in the first place—and that was realism. I had a great reverence for traditional art making. I didn’t feel as connected to what was going on in the twentieth century. I thought, I’d really like to learn the nuts and bolts of this. I’d like to study art, but I can’t afford to go to art school. I was working in a restaurant, praying to God that I could make $60 a shift. And besides, realism seemed taboo in art schools at the time.
And there was the Art Students League, which is a great place. The thing about the League is that it’s very affordable. Part of the mission there is that they want anybody who wants to learn how to make art to be able to do so regardless of their financial situation. They have work study there and scholarships, but the classes are very inexpensive. Back in the mid-nineties, when I started going, when I was making very little money, I could still afford to do a studio class that met for three and a half hours a day, five days a week, and cost only $150 a month. I went to learn to draw the figure and to paint. I always felt painting was really tough. Drawing wasn’t so hard for me. I had more of a natural facility. But painting was something I literally spent years learning how to do—by that I mean more realistic painting, rather than just pattern work like the Matisse-influenced paintings I’d done before. I spent about seven years at the Art Students League honing my craft, and at the same time, I was painting on my own. I was painting landscapes and cityscapes. Those resonated for me in some way, partly because I was interested in landscape painting as an art historian.
In the “New York Classicism Now” catalog, a description of your work suggests that you combine realism and romanticism and come up with your own vision. Do you agree with that?
Yes, I mean the catalog—. The man who put the show together, who was a curator at Hirschl & Adler Galleries, had picked a bunch of artists that he liked. And he had very definite tastes. He liked more classical, to some extent, nineteenth century academic work. I think he responded to my work, in particular that courthouse, because it was a Beaux Arts building. I didn’t set out to paint a Beaux Arts building. It’s just that the courthouse was right across the street from my studio, and I saw it every day, and I loved it. It was this iconic thing floating out there on its own block, like Moby Dick. I painted it many times. He saw one of these paintings and loved it. He responded to the architecture because it was of a bygone era.
You’ve had painting titles that say “from my studio roof.” Was the studio in New Jersey?
Yes, it was in Journal Square in Jersey City. It was the first apartment David and I got together, in 1984. We lived there for more than fifteen years. The painting in the show was painted there. I had some photos pinned up on the wall, but I could also look right out the window for reference. I’ve painted five or six paintings of that courthouse.
And the roof is part of the painting.
I didn’t want just the Beaux Arts building. I wanted to do something with the composition. The roof was great for that. There were all these different chimneys on the roof, and I could manipulate those. I moved everything around many times. I could have the courthouse as a background to these chimneys on the roof. I could interplay dark and light. If it was raining, I could do reflections. The courthouse, in a way, was an excuse for a composition. That’s the way I work.
Your paintings often have a lot of sky. Is that something you focus on?
Yes, very much. One of the questions you sent me was about choice of subject matter. I put down nature and structure. Then I put clouds, trees, water, and architecture. I like architecture because it’s a structural component. I feel the artwork has to have a very strong structural foundation, or it just falls apart.
You’re referring to the structures in your works like Pier 40 and Loading Dock.
Yes. I like rectilinear structural elements, which are basically man-made elements—buildings, things with right angles. Things with sharp, hard edges. Scaffolding to build something on. The drawing develops out of those structural elements. My real interest is to imbue that clinical drawing with poetic significance. I have the opportunity by painting clouds and trees and water to impart that poetic quality—or try to, to the best of my ability. I like to leave a lot of sky open because I can do all sorts of things with the sky—with the light, with the clouds. [Kennon gets a print of Loading Dock, which he has also done as a painting.] The reason I’m bringing this print up now—the plate is 18 by 18 inches. It’s pretty large. I’ve done the structural stuff down here with the loading dock. That’s all aquatinted; a lot of work went into that. But I purposely left the sky area blank. When I ink the plate, I go in with a brush, and I paint the sky separately each time, and each sky is different. Sometimes I’ll do it in color. When I print them, they’re all one of a kind. They’re really monoprints. I call them monoaquatints because they’re each unique.
Living near the waterfront seems to be good for your sensibility as an artist. It holds attractions.
I’m attracted to solitary things. If I see a solitary structure, that’s an attraction. I’m attracted to things that have been battered by time and still managed to survive. Loading Dock was inspired by a beautiful old structure at 69th Street on the Hudson, this rickety thing that’s still sticking out of the water. And Pier 40, which is down on Clarkson Street, had this old steamer at the end of it for years called the Lilac. It was basically deserted. It disappeared one day, and now it’s at Pier 25 at North Moore Street. I saw this old boat at the end of the pier, one cold night when it was snowing. There was nobody out there, and it was very lonely. I looked out, and there was this boat at the end of the pier, and I thought, That’s my painting. I can do a painting from that. And I did. And then I did prints from it.
The composition really resonated with me. This lonely thing smack in the center of a composition. I must have taken thirty photographs of it. I went closer. I went farther. I went from one side to the other. I looked as much at the dock and the building as I did at the boat. What it would do from different angles. I shot it at different light, at sunrise, at sunset, in the middle of the day—all the different kinds of lighting potential the scene had. The paintings are very different because the light is very different in them.
The light is something that I don’t get from the photographs generally. I get the architectural structure very much from the elements that I photograph, the nuts and bolts that are there. That’s kind of the easy part. Creating a strong structure for the painting comes fairly easily to me. I do a small drawing, making sure the perspective is correct; then I square it up on the size canvas I want. I spend a long time deciding how large I want the painting to be, the exact proportions of the canvas. I stretch it exactly to the inch. I go in with a rag and some turpentine and paint, and block in the structural elements. I can do that part of it really fast. Then it’s months and months of figuring out the color, the temperature, the time of day, the mood. All these things have to come out of me very slowly. I grope toward the painting. The drawing part is easy for me.
Even the tiny architectural details?
Yeah, in a way. Because those are literal. But there is some back and forth. The light and the color—I often don’t know what I’m going to get. And sometimes I’m very impulsive. Like this painting here [he points to a large painting hanging over his desk], which is mostly salmon color. The sky originally was that bluish underneath. It was a daylight scene, and the tree was bright green. It was a whole different situation. It was like a sunny day, and I thought, I can’t stand it anymore. It looks too pretty. It doesn’t have any pathos to it. So I just went in, and in the space of ten minutes, I covered the whole thing with this orange. Then I spent hours pulling out the orange with a rag to reveal what’s underneath, figuring out the pattern. I know it doesn’t look like clouds; it’s meant to be clouds, but it’s really the blue sky coming out from behind.
Is it a scene from this side of the Hudson River?
No, this is all made up. A lot of them, I make up. When we were in Montauk about thirty years ago, I saw this old telephone pole against the sky. It was all battered. I took a picture of it and put it in my picture file. And someplace else I saw this huge tree all covered in vines. I took a photo of that. I’ve got files and files of photos, and periodically I go through them and pull out five or six different things, and I arrange them on the table and say, OK, let me make a composition out of this stuff. Or, I’ve got these three elements, I need something else, and I don’t have it. I’ll make it up or go find it. So I was going through my files. I pulled out the tree—that looks interesting. Maybe I can use that. And then the telephone pole. So I had these two, and I thought, These could have a dialogue together. I arranged them, and I did my first painting of this scene, probably fifteen years ago. It was a daylight scene, morning light. It was much cheerier. There was no water in it. It was just a road. It was really too sunny for my sensibility, so I put it aside.
When I began making prints, I would riffle through my slides to see if I could make a print out of a painting. I found that painting and did a series of prints on this image. Then I thought, Now, I’m ready to do a painting from the prints—and we needed something for this wall above the desk. (I guess I’m really an interior designer.) It’s got to resonate with the color of the desk, so it has to be warm. And it has to fit this space of the wall, so it’s got to be these dimensions—40 by 78 inches. I took the composition, which I had previously made into an aquatint, and stretched it—cinemascope—and left all this space in between because I wanted a horizontal painting. I didn’t know quite where I was going with it, but it all came together.
Is there a narrative impulse in your work? For instance, Jefferson Market in the Rain?
I don’t think of them as narratives. I wanted to do the Jefferson Market Library. I liked the building. I was thinking of Hirschl & Adler at that point. The curator there liked these older Beaux Arts buildings. I thought, I’ll paint something that he’d like. Here’s this interesting building. It’s very much of a different era. It’s got a vertical thrust, which I like, because the city is so vertical. (I always like verticals, like Gothic cathedrals, which I love. They’re stretching to God, and that’s part of romanticism.) I thought, I want to make it a vertical painting and really stretch it as much as I can. And I want to do something that’s got a lot of water and reflection in it because I’ve always been fascinated by water and reflection. And I also want to do something that will free me up, where I won’t have to stay so meticulous. I thought, Here’s a great opportunity—the building is red—to do this reflection thing with the red and the warmth, and then the coldness of the rain on the other side.
This was in the compositional stage that I was thinking that way. I had the figures in mind when I did the drawings. I thought, I want to put some figures in because I don’t generally put in figures, and I feel I need them. It can’t be a deserted city. We’ve got the cab lights and all that; the implication is there are people. And I wanted something that would really push that building back. There would be a dialogue between things. I made the figures silhouettes in black. There’s this contrast of the black against the red. I feel I solved it that way.
Can you talk about the relationship between the actual thing and your rendering of it, in terms of mood?
I want to take a visual opportunity, something structural and architectural from which to create a composition, and imbue it with some sort of life and poetry. The painting part of it is giving the thing life and light. It’s about what I want to express. If I didn’t have the structural elements, they would be abstract paintings. I don’t think that’s enough for me. I often don’t know what I’m trying to express poetically. I have to feel my way to it. That’s why sometimes the day scenes will turn to night scenes, or vice versa. All I know is that something is working visually, or it’s not working. Sometimes a sunny scene becomes a rainy scene. Generally things get rainier and moodier and cloudier and wetter as I go along because that feels more and more like me.
The printmaking comes afterward. Where do you do your printmaking?
I prefer to do my printing at the Art Students League. One of the reasons is that you have everything laid out for you. You have all your acid baths and things. And I’m in a roomful of people whom I’ve gotten to know through the years. We can talk and look at what each other is doing and bounce ideas off each other and get input. It’s a very nice atmosphere. I’m not really a student there anymore. I just go there to work. But I’m in the class, and the instructor is a friend of mine, and he’s taught me a lot. It’s a nice situation, and also there’s the structure. I go there in the morning. The class is from 8:45 to 12:30, five days a week. It’s nice having that in my schedule, and I really get things accomplished.
The Westbeth Graphics Studio is a good place to print editions, because generally you’re there by yourself and can set up the press the way you like it and get into a rhythm of inking and painting without being interrupted. But I find the actual creation of the plate easier to do at the League.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about your work?
One other thing I could say about my painting—and I’m not quite sure why—is that I don’t like to see brushstrokes. I’m very careful to smooth out any brushstrokes. I don’t want you to think about the surface of the painting. I want you to be in the scene, like you’re looking through a window into the scene. It’s more of a classical way to look at things. If you’ve got texture on the surface, if you’ve got brushstrokes, that locks you into that surface. Like Van Gogh—so much of his work is about the surface. It’s tactile. There’s texture that you want to feel. And I was never interested in that. I want something that’s much more ethereal. There are painters who do very impasto, kind of painterly painting, and I like their work a lot, but it’s not in my personality. I always want to cover my tracks. I don’t like you to see how it’s made.
Finally, would you like to say something about Westbeth?
I love Westbeth. David and I were very lucky to get in here. We were on the waiting list for ten years. We lucked out with this apartment. It’s very small. In New Jersey, we had a six-room railroad flat; then we came to one room. But how can you beat living in this part of New York City? And I have the opportunity with the gallery. Jack Dowling is such a great guy, and he ran that gallery so well. He had a real genius for putting shows together. I consider him a friend. I’m happy to be living in a place where you don’t have to explain yourself. You feel at home. There’s a community here.
To see more of Kennon’s artwork, go to williamkennonartist.com.
All images courtesy of William Kennon.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2014 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council