East City Art Reviews—Kenneth Victor Young: Exploring Space

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on March 11, 2021

I kind of stumbled into this way of painting by finding a tool that would give me this result.  The painting technique was wet in wet.  Painting in wet produced haloes around these objects which looked like outer space, or inner space.[1]

Kenneth Victor Young at work, 1973. from Recent Paintings by Kenneth Victor Young exhibition brochure (1973), Van Vechten Gallery of Fine Arts, Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee. Photo courtesy of Bethesda Fine Art.

This month, two concurrent exhibitions feature the later work of Kenneth Victor Young including a physical one at CONNERSMITH and another, both physical and virtual, at Bethesda Fine Art who represent the artist’s estate.  Both exhibitions also mark the fourth anniversary of the death of this remarkable but relatively little known Washington DC painter on March 23, 2017.  At his death, at 83, his fifty year career was spent  painting, teaching, and designing exhibitions. He was born in Louisville, KY in December 1933, the same year as Sam Gilliam and in the same city where they both grew up.  They met at the University of Louisville where Gilliam got his MFA, while Young earned an undergraduate degree in physics and later studied design.  After serving in the Navy, he worked as a scientist at Dupont in Louisville.  At that point, having first enrolled in a graduate program in chemical engineering, his conversations with art and humanities students, including Gilliam among others, led him to become a fine arts major.  He arrived in Washington DC in 1964 for a job as Exhibition Designer for the Smithsonian Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History).  He was among the first African-Americans to have been hired for a position of this kind.  Young also worked with the former United States Information Agency (USIA) designing and installing exhibitions which enabled him to travel to Italy, Egypt,  and other African  countries.  These assignments gave him a lifelong love of travel that had a profound effect on the development of his work as an artist.[2]

Taking its title from the quotation above, the CONNERSMITH exhibit Kenneth Victor Young: Inner Space/Outer Space is small, but beautiful.  Comprised of nine modestly sized paintings, the earliest (1977) is the only acrylic painted on canvas in the show.  The latest work is from 1994.  The canvas is one of the few works that have titles, this one Ode to Sun Ra.

Kenneth Victor Young, Ode to Sun Ra, acrylic on canvas, 46” x 55”, 1977.  Photo courtesy of CONNERSMITH gallery.

The title references Young’s love of contemporary jazz.  Sun Ra, the adopted name of African-American jazz musician Le Sony’r Ra (born Herman Blount) whose wildly experimental music, poetry, art, “cosmic” philosophy, and adaptation of ancient Egyptian mythology (Ra was the name of the oldest form of the Egyptian Sun god) made him especially attractive to Young.  Indeed, much of Young’s art was directly inspired by music, among his favorites being Julius Hemphill and Miles Davis for whom he painted Triptych Miles Davis, 1972, a painting featured in a show at the Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery in New York early last year.[3]  In a brilliant and sensitive essay that appeared in the catalogue to that exhibition, art historian and Young specialist Sarah Battle pointedly described how that influence can be seen in Young’s paintings.  The “orbs of color [in his paintings] differ in opaqueness, shape and quantity,” she wrote.  “The variations and repetitions compose orchestrations of lyrical colors that successfully illustrate the achievements of any solid jazz solo.” [4] This is certainly evident in many of the paintings that date from this period and later in Young’s career, the orbs being a motif that appears in his work around 1968, but persists well into his later life.  Examples of these works on unprimed canvas are among the paintings in the current physical exhibit at Bethesda Fine Art, including a violet and black one titled Free from 1972.  Young rarely titled his work, but when he did, the reference seems always to reflect something meaningful to the artist on a personal level.

Kenneth Victor Young, Free, acrylic on canvas, 55” x 58”, 1972, on view at Bethesda Fine Art.  Photo courtesy of the gallery.
Kenneth Victor Young, Untitled, acrylic on paper, 22” x 30”, signed on reverse, 1979.  Photo courtesy of CONNERSMITH gallery.

Nevertheless, of the nine works in the CONNERSMITH show, eight of them are acrylic on paper and six of them, all from 1979, completely lack the orb motif and are especially light and lyrical in the handling of the veils of color that make up these images.  As Sarah Battle also observed in  her essay, Young’s long and serious interest in science, and particularly in physics is also a major source of his imagery—something that is evident in the entire career, but especially through the end of the 1970s.  All untitled, the six acrylics at CONNERSMITH are rich in coloration, but are composed of delicate, translucent layers of diluted acrylic, used like watercolor on dampened paper.  Rather than the thickly painted abstract landscapes he began to paint around 1980, or even the pulsating of the orb paintings of the 1970s, these conjure outer realms, gaseous nebulae in deep space moving and evolving perhaps into stars over aeons of time.  They seem to represent cosmic origins, the aim of much contemporary study in advanced physics.  All are untitled to allow viewers to associate these clouds of color however they wish.  The forms in these paintings overlap to create a sense of space, and evoke a feeling of deep perspective primarily with Young’s use of light and shadow.

Kenneth Victor Young, Untitled, acrylic on paper, 22” x 30”, signed on reverse, 1979.  Photo courtesy of CONNERSMITH gallery.

Returning to the works at Bethesda Fine Art, both in the gallery and online, a work like Free (above) shows the energy of the orb paintings from the 1970s.  Sarah Battle discusses Young’s technique in making these works.  In order to get the greatest freedom of composition, Young worked on the floor (see opening photo) stepping around and in the canvas as the image came into being.  He only stretched the canvas after it was completed and in ways that allowed him to crop the composition as he pleased.  This freedom allowed Young to get that sense of dynamism and energy from the gesture seen in the work.  Looking at the photo from 1973, one can’t help but think of similar ones taken of Jackson Pollock two decades earlier.

This places Young in a position not unlike that of Sam Gilliam, that is, while clearly identified with the Washington Color School, in 1968 both artists pivoted toward a gestural, even expressionist technique—Gilliam with his first drip paintings on unstretched canvas, and Young with paintings like the ones now at Bethesda Fine Art.  The deeply personal and emotional expression that emerges from looking at Young’s work connects him, I would say, with abstract expressionism as much as the Color School.  He always felt himself “on the fringes” of that movement, with clear reason.  Yet, unlike Pollock, he worked slowly, usually over two to three days on one painting.  Battle cites two other quotations from 1973 that help to illuminate his process and the ways that he saw the patterning of the orbs in his paintings as reflecting both the structures of the microscopic world of inner space as well as the cosmic one of outer space:

I put the color down with a brush on raw canvas…I use acrylic dyes.  I spray water on it and thin it in places…I take a sponge and take out the excess water in other places.  Edges are important to me—the edges of the forms and shapes; the edge of the stretcher.  Beginnings and endings are important to me…

These in-between spaces hold up, giving format and liquid quality to the canvas surface.  I equate this form of accident with patterns that happen with living things.  The life of the color holds within it a mood quality that I feel is human… [5]

In a reversal of the usual pattern, as he aged, Young’s painting process thickened rather than loosened.  Practically a rule in art history concerning the “old man’s style” where we see artists working more loosely and thinly than in their early years, in later works, Young displays an increase in texture and thickness of application of the medium overall.  This is evident in a few of the later works in acrylic on paper in the CONNERSMITH show, like Time and Space, 8 x 10 inches, from 1984, and is especially evident in the even later works at Bethesda Fine Art, both on canvas and paper.  Many of those later works such as Blue Nile River (2010) depict undulating forms that wave horizontally or diagonally across the surface.  In some Young achieves an impasto technique, building up the acrylic in thick textural layers.  Some, like an Untitled from c. 2000 are almost monochrome, with a distinctly landscape feeling.

Kenneth Victor Young, Untitled, acrylic on paper, approx. 23” x 31”, c. 2000.  Photo courtesy of Bethesda Fine Art.

Although it’s a bit complicated, I strongly recommend visiting both galleries physically to see these works firsthand.  Many more than are actually on the wall at Bethesda Fine Art are viewable online at HERE.  In this way, a clearer understanding of the trajectory of Young’s work, and its significant place in the history of painting in Washington DC, can be more fully appreciated.

Kenneth Victor Young: Inner Space/Outer Space, CONNERSMITH, 1013 O St. NW, Washington DC 20001.  Through March 2021.  Open by appointment.  202-588-8750.

Washington Color School (featuring Kenneth Victor Young), Bethesda Fine Art, 4931 Cordell Ave., Bethesda, MD 20814.  Hours Tuesday 12-3; Thursday- Saturday 12-3 by appointment. 240-800-3628.

[1] Kenneth Victor Young in an interview with Kriston Capps in Washington City Paper, June 1, 2017. https://washingtoncitypaper.com/article/190708/late-artist-kenneth-young-is-finally-getting-his-due/

[2] USIA was an independent cabinet level agency established in 1953 to “tell America’s story” to the world and to promote public diplomacy.  Known as the United States Information Service overseas, it established libraries, operated Voice of America broadcasting, and brought cultural events of various kinds to worldwide audiences.  It was disbanded in 1999 and folded into the Department of State.

[3] Kenneth V. Young, 1968 – 1972, February 20 – April 2, 2020 with illustrated catalogue, Edward Tyler Nahem, 2020.  The exhibition was made possible with the cooperation of the artist’s daughter, Leslie Young, and loans from Bethesda Fine Art.

[4] Sarah Battle, “Orbs of Color: Kenneth Victor Young’s Legacy as a Color Field Painter,” in the catalogue to Kenneth V. Young, 1968-1972, Edward Tyler Nahem, 2020, p. 14.

[5] All references to Sarah Battle are to the essay cited in n. 4 in the Edward Tyler Nahem catalogue, 2020.