Kenneth Young’s vibrant abstractions capture the spirit and energy of the Washington Color School, and though he spent his career somewhat independent of the group, his bold application of saturated pigment place him firmly at its philosophical core. Young’s signature technique involved painting wet on wet — resulting in hazy fields of punctuated colors that bleed into one another. These pigments are laid directly onto unprimed canvas, a staining technique that he shares with other members of the Washington Color School such as Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis. The artist described his process in a late-career interview: “Painting wet in wet produced haloes around these objects, which looked like outer space, or inner space.” (1)
This conflation of the macro and the micro — looking in and out, both at one’s psyche and the universe itself — also aligns Young with the precepts of Abstract Expressionism. His all-over fields of layered color often bleed to the edges of his surfaces, drawing the viewer into their seemingly endless depths. Young begins with the lighter tones. With these he creates thin washes that soak directly into the canvas to create a hazy glow. He then layers darker tones onto this luminous base, creating an intriguing depth of field.
Young was more interested in the metaphysical aspects of painting than his other Washington counterparts. His daughter describes Young’s thinking as such: “He was all about the physical earth, and space, and things that are beyond—energy, and how that ties into life and the afterlife.” (2) His canvases reflect this preoccupation, and can be read as balls of universal energy, like matter before the Big Bang or after the hazy dust of the great beyond.
Kenneth Young was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1933. He met Sam Gilliam at the University of Louisville, where Young studied physics and design. He served in the Navy in the 1950s and worked in industry for a few years before relocating to Washington, D.C. in 1964 to take a job as an exhibition designer at the Smithsonian Institution. He was also employed by the Foreign Service, and traveled widely to assist with international exhibition design. Young was greatly affected by these travels, citing time spent in Egypt and Italy as foundational to his artistic development.
Young and his new wife stayed with the Gilliams while they settled into D.C., and he met the artist Jacob Kainen through his work with the National Museum of American
History. Through Gilliam and Kainen Young was introduced to the wider group of Washington Color Painters, and he became friendly with others such as Thomas Downing and Howard Mehring. He and Downing shared a love of jazz, and the two would often sit together to listen to music.
Like Gilliam, Young received some criticism for painting abstractly as a Black artist. The Civil Rights activism of the 1960s was heady and important, and many felt that artists should use their platform to further the cause, with a focus on societal problems rather than formal or metaphysical ones. But also like Gilliam, Young was sanguine about the subject: “An artist is an artist, and his color has nothing to do with it.” (3) Paradoxically, Young’s dedication to abstraction makes him attractive to today’s nascent artists.
Young began painting in earnest in the 1960s and by 1968 had truly met his stride. He was given a solo exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1973 and exhibited in galleries and museums regularly through the early 1990s. A recent reexamination of pioneering abstractionists, and especially artists of color, has led to a kind of renaissance for Young’s art. He was included in Washington Art Matters II at the American University Museum’s Katzen Arts Center in 2014, and subsequently represented by local commercial galleries. He will be given a solo exhibition at the University of Maryland in 2018 and a full retrospective at the American University Museum in 2019.
Young retired from the Smithsonian in 1994, after 30 years with the institution. He died in 2017 in Washington, D.C.
1. Kenneth Young, quoted in Kriston Capps, “Late Artist Kenneth Young Is Finally Getting His Due,” Washington City Paper, 1 June 2017.
2. Leslie Young, quoted in Capps, 1 June 2017.
3. Kenneth Young, quoted in Capps, 1 June 2017.
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