The artist William Kent worked in isolation for half a century in order to produce a fantastical universe out of wood, slate and satin. The inhabitants of this universe included insects, sea monsters, giant safety pins, and outsized rubber chickens. Their creator gave them shelter and purpose. In return, they helped carry out one of the century’s most radical and bizarre projects of transformation.
From 1964 until the day of his death forty-eight years later, the sculptor William Kent lived and worked—these two words being in his case nearly redundant—in a barn attached to a small house near the rural town of Durham, Connecticut. The anonymous and desolate walls of this barn were the most common face he presented to the world. The building was so withdrawn, so marooned upon itself, that many passersby assumed it was abandoned.
There was, in fact, little reason to think a person lived there. A truck was parked in the driveway, but it was so battered it might as well have been on blocks. A garden grew in the summer, but from the road it appeared wild, the work of a feral Robinson Crusoe if of anyone at all. In winter the snow was a blanket of isolation, and the squat compound seemed a caravel crushed into the sea-ice.
Several years after Kent died a woman bought a print of his at a Connecticut art gallery. Learning from the gallerist a few details about the maker’s life, she realized that as a child she had been a neighbor of this house on Howd Road. She knew that an artist had lived there, but she couldn’t remember ever having seen him. She recalled only the desolate barn and, on summer evenings, the sound of someone playing the piano inside.
The interior of this barn, from which melancholy piano music no longer issues, is otherwise unchanged since the time of Kent’s death. It is his most complete self-portrait. It is also a ruined civilization, seemingly sunk to the bottom of the sea or lost in the jungle, buried by the same explosion that brought it into being.
It is a large, low building bathed in wood dust. Until recently, a wooden board carved with the words FUCK Y'ALL greeted visitors, sincerely and with ill humor, rather like the curse over a Pharaoh’s tomb. Directly facing the door, still, is a giant carving of sunglasses and a nose in striated layers of wood. Next to it, the angel-like wings of a maple seed, one hundred times larger than life and splayed open, stand atop a three-foot-tall corkscrew striped in brown and black. To the right, a sagging shelf with opera LPs covers the entrance to a dimly-lit room Kent called “the office.” In it can be found his desk and a thicket of wooden sculptures, some six feet tall and others seven feet across, in a dozen shades, shining even in the darkness, the whorls dense and warm. In the dark the art resembles a primeval monster born from an apocalyptic garbage heap. There are lines of piping and garden spigots; heroic busts of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck; a towering pair of scissors, the blades partway open and impaling a crushed plastic milk carton. That this miscellany is entirely sculpted out of wood makes it doubly alien.
To the left, the artist’s studio, just as he left it, with a final unfinished piece, an organic half-shape about four feet across, resting on the worktable. The worktable is low because in his last years Kent worked from a wheelchair. All around, low to the ground at what was once his eye-level, hang disturbing plastic toys tied to strings with little nooses. More sculptures everywhere: a long fish with a propeller for a tail; a man-sized rubber chicken; a glorious spiral-form, lacquered and polished, emerging from an untouched chunk of telephone pole.
At the back of the studio is a door, on which Jackie Onassis’ face has been spray-painted in the middle of the Texas Star. Above and below is written, in big stenciled letters, FRIENDS ARE NICE. The door opens outward and reveals a great set-piece. It’s a huge room, nearly twice the size of the office and studio combined. A path leads down a narrow tunnel and then divides into two curving arms. In the center and on all sides stand the sculptures. Easily over a hundred, all of gargantuan size and all made from varnished wood, they stand around in curious arrangements, almost meaningful, the surviving monuments of some fallen city like Tikal or Atlantis. A folksy figure with a wide-brimmed hat—maybe a World War I doughboy, maybe a minstrel show character—grins from a macabre white-painted face, and holds on his forearm a massive flea carved in fanatic detail. At his side, a wooden woman with a painted wooden skull-face and a flaring, wooden, floral-print dress waits her turn to walk the runway at an infernal Miss Universe competition. Nearby, a coven of man-sized squid wait in silence for another flood. In the center a series of cancerous shell-beans tumesce upon contorted bases. Arrayed in mysterious patterns there are organic shapes and huge carvings of crushed cans, a battalion of shoe-horns, blown-up variations on a lady’s slipper, and two renditions of a hot-water bottle, the uneven pooling of the water across the sac incised into the wood with obsessive care.
The entrance into the Great Room is marked by a fanfare of color from the hundreds of prints stacked along the walls. They trumpet their pinks, greens, blood-reds and royal blues; their grays with liminal washes of azure, violet, puce, and fuchsia. They are printed on sheets of rice paper as well as on different kinds of patterned fabric—often on a scale as monumental as the sculptures—and their backgrounds, integral to the art, dance in and out of the printed images. The eye glides across tie-dye fabric, psychedelic vegetation, lugubrious Victorian wallpaper, silver satin, spring flowers for a girl’s dress.
The prints are spoils of war, plundered from Madison Avenue, the temples of Luxor, the churches of New England, the cabinets of eighteenth-century naturalists. Re-workings of Puritan tombstones have replaced the names of the dead with slogans like DO YOUR DUTY, or COLD TURKEY, or just SHIT, or BALLS or, in one in which the grave angel is a self-portrait holding a coke bottle, WHO AM I THAT I SHOULD HAVE A MOUTH. Elsewhere there is a filthy assault of pseudo-advertising (I LOVE MY MAGIC CUNT BECAUSE IT BROILS AND BARBECUES BETTER THAN CHARCOAL) and a sober banner from Tacitus (THEY HAVE MADE A DESERT AND CALLED IT PEACE). To one side is a brilliant print of the moon, surrounded by constellations, hermetic diagrams and the Egyptian cat-goddess Bastet. LEAVE THE MOON ALONE! it reads, and it is meant to be an angry letter to NASA. We should get our grubby human feet off that ancient surface, Kent thought, before we ruin it like everything else.
Kent has also left, as one of his calling cards, huge penises on many of the prints, running the gamut of symbol and sign, representing whales, missiles, and a man’s head, his scrotum a cravat dangling beneath the neck. Some of these cocks even have wings on which they sweetly soar in little pastoral scenes, accompanied by butterflies and bluejays as in the petrified pagan mosaics of Pompeii, that other microcosm buried by an unforgiving volcano.
The barn is a forest, an unfinished cathedral, a country. The metaphors, like the works, encourage continuous dilation, until we are forced to say that the barn is a planet, or even a distant and self-contained star-system. The deity who made it lived a frugal life in the connected house, sleeping in a narrow bed and eating out of a run-down kitchen. He owned a truck, power tools, a sizable collection of opera recordings on both CD and LP, and, until the amputation of a leg kept him from playing the pedals, a baby grand piano which, anticipating its owner’s fate, was also short a leg, and needed to be propped up in the back by a car jack. The studio and barn, in which he carved every day, and in which he regularly wandered, admired, and reorganized, were his kingdom and his prison.
Rise and Fall
William Kent’s career took place underground, only occasionally bursting up onto the surface world. His biggest explosion occurred in the early 1960s, when his strange sculptures and prints garnered some attention. It was thought they were like pop art, and they were, although they were doing something other than pop at the same time, something that made the connoisseurs of pop and op and concept quickly turn their backs. Kent had an upstart Madison Avenue gallerist, Richard Castellane, whom he depended upon and hated, and in whose gallery he showed alongside early pieces by Robert Smithson and Yayoi Kusama. He had good notices in the Times and Art News (“Largely of wood, sometimes hewn from a single block, they have the spooky air of horrible statements coolly made”), and he was dismissed by Arts Magazine (“By sheer repetition, these shapes should denote what used to be called ‘obsessive imagery,’ but they remain quite leaden and unevocative”). He was honored on the radio during the 1963 newspaper strike by the critic Brian O’Daugherty (“An original American eccentric, the kind that comes about only once in a great while”). The abstract expressionist and UFO-chaser Budd Hopkins went to one of Kent’s shows and reported that it was (and this in New York in the 1960s) absolutely wild.
In 1964 Kent exhibited a print at the Brooklyn Museum and in 1966 he showed the same piece (LEAVE THE MOON ALONE!) at the Whitney. Since 1961 he’d been the curator of the Slade Ely House, a small gallery in New Haven, Connecticut, which had flourished under his influence. He was financially secure enough to leave the basement where he’d been living and buy the barn in Durham, the first house he had ever owned.
In 1965 he had a show of crass “Erotic and Patriotic” prints at the Castellane Gallery. It was well-reviewed, although in retrospect it contains his most period-specific works, with attacks on the sexualization of society and the militarization of government. His work was purchased by some of the most important collectors of the era, including John Powers, Richard Brown Baker, and even Walter Chrysler, Jr., who had been suspected of knowingly donating fake paintings to a museum for the tax write-off, and who was widely regarded as a cheapskate by artists. Chrysler haggled down the price of one of Kent’s best sculptures to $400.
Kent had embroiled himself during this time in attention-getting fights with the New Haven Arts Festival, Yale, and the New York Times’ advertising department, all having vaguely to do with the dignity of art and the freedom of speech. He got a passing mention in the first serious book on Pop Art, written by Lucy Lippard in 1966. He was a quick hand at the printing press and typewriter, and his flirtatious, scurrilous, unintentionally lovable polemics flew out to friends, enemies, and the institutions he was eager to topple. His critics dismissed his massive wood sculptures as Cigar-Store Indians; he loved the insult, and wore it as a badge of honor. He played himself as city and country, loner and upstart, cynic and patriot, bumpkin and autodidact. He was, in short, a great many crucial American figures consciously and unconsciously distilled into a single emblem which had just appeared above the first horizon of public recognition.
And then, although still far from reaching the sun above, he fell to earth. He was fired from his job, apparently because prudish members of the Ely House board were offended by reviews of his “satirerotic” sex-and-violence show, but also, surely, because he openly reviled the amateur painting associations that met there. Not long afterward, his New York sales dried up, the number of shows dwindled, and his always-sour relationship with his gallerist curdled. His correspondence slowed, his trips to the city dwindled, and he couldn’t hold down a job.
He disappeared into the woodwork from which he’d emerged, and allowed himself to be consumed by the dust-storm of anger which had loomed near him since birth. He severed his relationships with friends, and quarreled away allies. The people who remained loyal to him through it all he tried to turn against one another by telling them conflicting and sometimes libelous stories. He sank into consuming poverty, alleviated only by a job at a box factory and, later, by a meager social security check. The few people he would talk to were forced to listen to him rail about the ass-faced stupidity of the New York art-world, but when they tried to organize shows for him elsewhere, he would balk at their provincialism. An enthusiastic dentist offered to organize an exhibition of his work in New Jersey in 2001. Kent, who had had only one serious show in the previous three decades, wrote back: “I frankly do not think New Jersyites are quite up to my sometimes monumental carvings (they have been called that) . . . You do not have a literate, cultured, knowledgeable audience in NJ. The NY art world is the center. There is nothing else.” It almost goes without saying that for the rest of his life he seems to have set foot in the City once a decade, if even.
He worked in growing isolation, and an alien empire rose and fell inside his barn. Wooden sculptures, unbought and unseen, became a deserted field of monuments, an untrafficked Roman Forum. His life and work—or more precisely, the impossibility of telling the difference between the two—constitute a major statement about the nature of the bond between the human being and the objects humans create. It is a cry of pain against the tyranny such bonds exercise over the relationships human beings have with one another, and about the isolation that they produce. How Kent came to make this lonely world governed by this lonely philosophy, and why it was his art that took him there, is the true subject of this essay.
Among Kent’s masterpieces is a towering sculpture, carved from a single block of wood, that makes a mockery of the language one needs to describe it. It is an American Eagle bearing the head of Donald Duck and the tail feathers of a steampunk machine-raptor, and its exquisite talons perch upon a battered trash can that is mounted, for some reason, on two huge snow tires—all still carved from that same single piece of wood. In front of the statue, but still on its base, lies a football-sized egg carved from milk-white alabaster, a zipper running along its top. Joan Baer, a fiercely kind and stubborn art-collector who befriended Kent in the last decades of his life, once asked him why the egg had a zipper. He looked at her with his scarified seriousness and said, “how else are you going to get out?”
Early Encounters with the Enemy
William Kent hated his childhood, as he seems to have hated every stage of his existence upon the face of this earth. His life began in 1919 in Kansas City, Missouri where he was born with the name William Maurice Williamson, the son of Harvey M. Williamson and May Belle Williamson, née Posey, and the elder of their two children. William Kent was not close to anyone from these early years, as he would be not close to almost anyone for his entire life, but with his mother and brother the ambivalence sometimes shaded into love. Later on, there would be unanswered letters from May Belle, asking him, time and again, when will you come home, please write, no news from you in a while, hope it’s not as cold there as here. They are short, heavy with compassion but laconic, in some profound sense almost mute, and they are invariably signed, “Lovingly, Mother.”
About his father there would be no such patience. He was a drunk and a philistine and, depending on who was hearing the story, a wife-beater. When he died, Bill’s only question was whether there was any money to be had. He recalled, years later, his father yelling at him for reading all day, accusing him of being lazy. This accusation seems to have rankled him like nothing else at an early age and forever after: he became conscious of the opinion, so hateful to him, that the work of culture was no work at all.
And yet Kent was also forced to admit, when he occasionally awakened the interest of a journalist late in his life, that his father had encouraged his precocious talent for music. In a Connecticut magazine, some twenty years ago, he conceded that his father had bought him an upright piano and, in the midst of the Depression, paid fifty cents a week for music lessons from a certain Ms. Peach.
Among the few other stories Kent told about his early years is one that is almost mythical in form: this is his first encounter with art, the moment when, as Rilke describes it, an artwork announces to its viewer, you must change your life. Bill Kent, then of course still Williamson, went to the Nelson-Atkins museum in Kansas City to take a children’s sculpture class along with his brother. The way he told the story to Joan Baer suggests that he was a little boy, maybe eight or nine, but in fact the Nelson-Atkins didn’t open until 1933, when he was fourteen, and it was at the time two separate museums. Nevertheless, an uncharacteristic modesty in the story is somehow convincing: he recalled that his brother had done better than him during the class. It was afterwards, when he was free to wander the galleries, that the real epiphany arrived.
Kent generally said very little, and especially little about those things that were good or beautiful. So what it was exactly at the museum that affected him is purely speculative. He could have seen Poussin’s crowded Triumph of Bacchus, with its golden chariot and sculptural centaurs; Caravaggio’s sickly and lewd John the Baptist, his scrawny adolescent leg displayed almost up to the shadow of his genitals; a muscular Rodin study in wax of a seated man; the alien, flattened face of an ancient Cycladic idol; and, most exciting to imagine, the twelfth-century Guanyin Bodhisattva, a life-sized sculpture in polychrome painted wood, showing the Buddhist deity of mercy impassively seated, one leg down and one up, upon a carved base, also of wood, in imitation of a swirling mass of rock. It is possible, if improbable, that the young William Williamson might have somehow learned that this was the image of a goddess whose Chinese name translates to hearing the cries of the world.
After his visit to the museum, William Williamson went to his local public library and asked for all the books on art. They had, so he recalled with his usual disdain, exactly one. He may have treasured that book, but he never dwelled on those kinds of details.
In spite of this experience, music was the first artistic career he chose to pursue. In this, unlike in sculpting, he was something of a prodigy. Fellow sculptor Leo Jensen told me he was under the impression that as a teenager Kent would work as an accompanist to touring singers: they would bring their own pianists up to Kansas City, and then he would travel on with them through the Midwest. In later years he liked to play the piano parts to Lieder, even without a singer to accompany.
In 1938 he enrolled in a Kansas City Junior College. After getting his Associate’s Degree, he enlisted in the Navy Reserve. Some acquaintances claimed to have heard from others who claimed he had said he he was present for the D-Day landings and saw heavy fighting in the advance across France. The paperwork shows that he served for less than two years at a supply depot on the Great Lakes. An art dealer named Monique Knowlton claimed, in a long-ago article, to have heard that he had learned how to carve in the navy, but she’s the only one to say so. As an adult he had two tattoos: a fly on the back of his hand, and a snake undulating over his forearm. Some acquaintances heard he had gotten them in the military, but Joan once asked him, did they come from the Navy? and he answered No, with no further elaboration. Later he would add that he regretted the decision to get them at all.
At the end of his tour Kent was hospitalized for several months, and finally given an honorable discharge in March of 1942. His papers declare him medically unfit for reenlistment due to “psychoneurosis, anxiety, neurosis.”
He enrolled at Northwestern in 1942, studied music, and obtained his B.S. without (so the university archivists report) appearing in a single yearbook or club roster. He kept the programs from operas and concerts he had been to; otherwise, almost nothing remains. Somehow he appeared at Yale University around 1945 or 1946, intent on becoming a composer. He studied at the school of music, taking classes with Paul Hindemith, whose work he had long admired. An unimpressive transcript remains in his papers, but even this is not unclouded by doubts, especially since the Registrar at the School of Music has no record of a William Williamson ever having been enrolled. He may have only been an auditor; he may have been enrolled but then flunked out. Some of his promoters would later claim he had a Masters in composition; but in his own laconic blurbs, he only ever says he studied at the School of Music. He produced a small corpus of music around this time, chamber pieces, a symphonic work, two operas, several piano sonatas that a pianist friend performed on a tour through the provincial recital halls of Mexico.
Around this time he began to experiment in visual art. The exact reasons are not clear. Perhaps the images of the Nelson-Atkins, lying dormant like cave paintings behind his eyes, were rediscovered in his mind. He would later claim that he felt his talents as a musician and composer were being sapped by his academic training (I also suspect his pride may have suffered under Hindemith’s infamously harsh teaching). For the rest of his life, he would rail against the pernicious influence of academies on the arts. He was proudest of the fact that he was, as a visual artist, entirely self-taught.
The first sculptures he attempted are elegant but derivative: high-modernist renditions of organic forms. He was and always would be fascinated by natural forms, and instinctively began creating animals, especially abstracted birds, cats, primates, and fish. (One of these fish, a series of strange loops linked by lines of poured concrete, I first saw with Joan Baer. I told her, “it looks a little like a revolver.” She laughed a remonstrating laugh and said, “But it’s a fish”)
These early pieces are, to use a normally pleasant word with opprobrium, tasteful. His early work is modernism already as mannerism—halfway towards being what it has now inescapably become, the aesthetic of high-end hotel lobbies and luxurious corporate skyscraper suites. Kent’s handsome mammals might pass for Art-Deco hood ornaments. The difficulty and sublimity of the later work, the high Kentian style, will have to do with its utter tastelessness, its complete rejection of the conventional standard of the pleasing in the work of art—not, however, to shock, but to ridicule and, ultimately, to sadden.
In this early period, the work is restless. Looking at the pieces one can see: he wants to do it all himself, and so he makes mistakes, experiments, follows paths wherever they might lead him. He changes medium constantly. He plays in poured concrete, stone, slate, ceramic. He paints, with infelicitous results. He starts to mount unusual pieces of driftwood onto polished bases with more success. He works in marbles and granites, but moves more and more toward wood. He starts working in bigger and bigger sizes. In 1947–48 he makes his first print, a stylized owl in three pieces—two tapered ellipses for the wings, a bulging circle for the head—printed with a mimeograph machine onto a piece of blue-patterned wallpaper.
It is at this time that he starts going by the name Kent—first William Williamson Kent, then just William Kent. It is associated with the sculpture and printing, in contrast to the music, from the beginning. His neighbors say that someone had told him William Williamson was not a good name for an artist. Dalia Ramanauskas, a painter from New Haven and Leo Jensen’s wife, says it was because he hated his father, a theory which another friend, Gianni Mosca, corroborates. Joan Baer, who used to be married to a painter, says with a shrug that lots of artists from the 50s and 60s changed their names. Kent was nothing if not a mystifier: he never officially made the change, and the mailbox in Durham listed Williamson and Kent, as if two confirmed bachelors (for that’s what they called them in those days) were cohabitating.
In the 1950s he lives in the basements of Yale faculty members in exchange for doing custodial chores. He shows his early work at ladies’ charity events. One of the first is a home showcase and walking tour organized by the New Haven association of Wellesley alumnae for the benefit of the Connecticut scholarship girls. “How America Lives—in New Haven,” the event is called. There is a blue-inked brochure from the show pasted into the scrapbook Kent starts keeping at this time. It is one of the first entries:
Here’s the Lore on Tour Four!
Fun for the fund once
again in merry May
The New Haven Wellesley Club
Presents for the Scholarship Fund
A Home, Garden,
and Hobby Tour
On the inside leaf there is a listing of the homes: “Some like them modern, some like them old, some like tradition, others choose the bold. But whatever type of home you like, you’re sure to find it, wending the Wellesley way.” Kent, presumably falling under the hobby rubric, shows with two other artists at the home of Mr. and Mrs. James M. Osborn on Edgehill Road: “Williamson Kent, a Midwesterner, is both painter and sculptor, with a tendency toward the abstract in his approach.” He swallows his pride and pastes it into the scrapbook.
The brochure conveys us onto a carpeted floor, before a plate-glass window giving onto an impossibly green lawn. There is a flash of pearls in the light, and there is a short, muscular man out of place, and in the thick of it. Kent is surrounded by a groundswell of pride and prosperity; he sees elevation, patronage, culture everywhere. Yale is a rich and famous university drawing important and interesting artists and intellectuals. New York is nearby, and the slick set professes a love for abstraction; Picasso is now as suitable for postcards as Monet or Vermeer. It may never be a good time to be an artist, but if such a thing exists, this is the time. There is money, and art carries prestige. Kent finds it disgusting. He hates the culturally minded, well-intentioned ladies—society ladies with two-left hands, he calls them in one of his prints—although they are the only people who might actually support him in New Haven. He seems to ignore the fact that many of those very ladies actually like him, and the files of his correspondence are filled with sympathetic and supportive letters from a Betty, a Virginia, and more than one Phyllis.
He was already starting to show some of his demented anger, anger so unworldly and disproportionate that at the end of his life it would look anchoritic, perhaps even saintly. But what is truly remarkable is that in spite of this strain of bitterness and anger, he cut a trail of admiration and confidence everywhere he went. The sculptor Leo Jensen still recalls the first day they met. He was working at his day job, setting up window displays for the shops on Chapel Street. A short, stocky man approached him, his shadow covering the shop window, and he said with a sneer, “oh my, you are talented.” But he said it with such charm and nonchalance that they couldn’t but become friends.
Leo and his wife Dalia paint a happy portrait of an earlier Bill Kent. He had a loyal circle of friends, including the painter William Skardon, with whom he would trade letters his whole life. He was sarcastic, of course, he was angry, but he was something else too. He radiated a confidence and independence, he seemed to float free in the world, liberated from the weight of others’ opinions. All his life an accomplished gardener, he once brought the recently married couple a great sheaf of lilacs. Leo reminded me that people are attracted to artists like moths to the flame, and that artists must be wary. “People were attracted to Bill’s personality, and to his charisma,” for he was certain of his own superiority. “You see him walking down the street and you say, ‘that’s somebody.’”
And there was an appealing solidity to him, most in evidence when Leo Jensen began showing his work in New York, and Kent was the only one of their ragtag circle of New Haven artists not to get jealous. He was never sick and the work with heavy materials like wood and stone had made him physically very strong. “He was a little more delicate in his psyche,” Leo said. “Extremely delicate in his psyche,” Dalia corrected.
In the 1950s he and Leo often went hopscotching in New York, that is, they bounced between the little storefront galleries along the Upper East Side, trying to convince the owners to take their work on spec. On one of these bohemian adventures, Kent managed to convince Eugene Burrell, a gallerist at Madison and Sixty-Ninth, to take one of his large wooden figures. Burrell owned an elegant operation, with muted lighting and four descending steps from the front door, all in white marble. One of the massive, rustic, animalian Kent sculptures must already have been out of place, but it was much worse when, warped by the dry gallery air, the carving split open to the very heartwood with a thundering crack. An important client who was visiting the gallery at the time ran out in a panic, thinking a handgun had gone off in the building. Leo and Bill were called immediately to retrieve the cracked sculpture, and Burrell, no doubt in a fancy suit, berated the bumpkin bohemians as they lifted it onto their corroded truck-bed. When they got into the truck-cab, Bill turned to Leo and said: Well, he was dancing around like a queer with a buck up his ass.
Another time they went into New York to push work on Phyllis Kind, a woman from Chicago who owned a gallery overlooking Prince Street, on the third floor. Bill brought with him the famous escape-zipper alabaster-egg stuffed into a bag (the Donald-Duck-eagle-trash-can sculpture did not yet exist). He went into the gallery while Leo waited in the car like a getaway driver. He came back a short time later and started spewing his usual invectives, the she can’t tell art from shit and its variations. There was a pause, and then: When I came down, I pissed in the elevator.
A Natural History of Secret Star Systems
In New Haven, Kent lived and worked between the unfinished walls of minor underworlds. He took a part-time job at Yale University Press, where he learned how to print, ink, lay out pages, and blow up photographs. He was in every visual thing handy and a quick study, and in every visual thing he was a thief in the night, an insurgent, a guerilla, for he studied so that he could appropriate and eventually sabotage, to take everything he learned and make it a part of his private project. He and his friend Dave Jones founded an imprint together called the Philistine Press. They used the Yale Press equipment, after hours, to print polemics and ribald poetry.
In 1954 the two of them created an opera, or rather, a slide-opera, meant to be performed in the comfort of the home using a record player and slide projector. The piece was composed and written by Kent, the art produced by Jones. A series of slides illustrates the key scenes; a narrator reads out the plot, and then, at the right moments, cues up the record needle and lets the music (scored for a declaiming tenor, flute, oboe, violoncello, and harpsichord) lift the listener out of his surroundings. Someone else simultaneously advances the slide projector.
The opera was printed, by the Philistine Press of course, in a massive edition of two huge folio volumes, bound in Chinese grass cloth covers, with elaborate illustrations, prefaces, afterwards, and instructions. It tells of King David, alone and in flight to the hills of En-gedi. He comes across a Philistine, and sings to him episodes from his life: the love for Jonathan, the dance before the Ark, the betrayal of Absalom, the mockery of Michal. The Philistine, a skeptic (well, a philistine), makes a fool of the Psalmist and his worries. The premise and the title bring together the Bible and an old Vaudeville set-up called “The Arkansas Traveler.” A city-slicker arrives at a redneck’s shack and starts telling stories from his life, but the hick quickly undercuts him with sarcastic jokes and, at the punch lines, plays a tune on his fiddle (usually “The Arkansas Traveler,” which we now know as I’m squishin’ up a baby bumble-bee . . .), cueing laughter from the audience.
But the opera is not just the opera: there’s an entire reality surrounding it. Kent, it seems, couldn’t conceive of his art without inventing an entire civilization to buttress it. In the printed opera there are inserts and foldouts and an elaborate appendix, with nearly a dozen essays by different critics—all alter egos of Kent, of course. There are old illustrations of frontier scenes and animals; there is a gruesome sequence of Davy Crockett stories containing some of the most racist stuff you’ve ever read (Davy Crockett and a negro squaring off over a spittoon; a belabored anecdote about paying a traveling preacher to “wash,” that is baptize, negroes). There is a long essay on the Arkansas Traveler’s place in the history of American theater, accompanied by images of historic playbills mimeographed directly from the Yale Theater Collection. In the “responses to the show” section, Kent prints, among others, a “letter” from a psychoanalyst who, after seeing the opera, offers to give Messrs. Kent and Jones much-needed sessions at a “quite reasonable” rate.
Amid the polemics and foolishness, the opera and its apparatus present a vision of the workings of culture, Kent’s first attempt at an idea that would become the backbone of his art. The opera is designed so that a viewer becomes, in a manner of speaking, possessed by it. He becomes the vessel through which it (on record and in slides) passes. To become such a viewer—to have such an experience of art—means to make yourself a sophisticated marionette, an inanimate object, which is then brought to life by the artwork (this last part is what fails to happen, according to Kent, when you just watch TV or maybe even read a book). To enter culture properly is to will yourself into a discerning passivity, to demote yourself from animal to artifact in order, finally, to re emerge into a personhood so big it resembles an entire world, a whole society. Already in 1954 William Kent was engaged in the project that would occupy him for the rest of his life, building a civilization in the wilderness of the self. And what’s more, offering it as a guide to others: you too can have a universe, one that is yours and that yet pours into you from the outside.
Kent was, as much as he liked to pretend otherwise, an ideas man. He buried himself in difficult reading and thinking. He was not articulate in the usual sense of the word, and sometimes pretended to be a kind of know-nothing, but his terse notes and letters show him deep into, among many other things, Ellman’s biography of Joyce, the operas of Szymanowski and Janáček, the art history of Africa, Japan, Europe and colonial America, Theosophy and Aestheticism, Boswell, Elizabethan poetry, Walter Pater, Robert Burton, the Bhagavad Gita, Gertrude Stein. He took particular pleasure in antiquarian commentaries on animals. He read in old zoological manuals and world-chronicles for their baroque and doubtful descriptions; he printed excerpts alongside reproductions of his own work. He loved Dürer’s highly serious and extremely inaccurate drawing of a rhinoceros. He frequently cited in his self-printed catalogues a passage by the seventeenth-century naturalist and wonder-describer Sir Thomas Browne. “I cannot tell by what logic we call a toad, a bear, or an elephant, ugly, they being created in those outward shapes and figures which best express the actions of their inward forms.” He read in Browne the same ideas that came to the fore in his slide opera, that the world becomes what it is through its rebirth in culture: “Art is the perfection of Nature; were the world now as it was on the sixth day, there were yet a chaos. Nature hath made one World, and Art another. In brief, all beings are artificial, for Nature is the Art of God.”
He kept at animals but gradually lost interest in vertebrates. He carved a number of immense insects with fearsome precision: every hair and segment of their grotesque bodies is rendered. They signal a major shift in his work toward a powerful and sometimes ghastly attention to detail. No more archetypes or masks, but the creatures themselves. From the arthropods he was led to another phylum, the mollusks, and in particular to the class Cephalopoda, the squids, octopodes, and cuttlefish. In August 1956 he carved a five-foot tall squid in tulip and mahogany. And then another, and another, and another. Then an octopus, a cuttlefish, another squid. These were followed by cephalopods of unknown genus, creatures chimerical and confused, imaginary variations on a taxonomic theme, a series of mad-scientist experiments from the bottom of the sea. Soon he began carving the Nature Lover series—in which humans and huge creatures, often insects, seem to be dancing, courting one another, and on the verge of fusing into a new kind of being.
It is about this time that Kent also became a serious printmaker. He invented his own epically laborious technique. He would collect discarded blackboards—the old kind, which are essentially huge sheets of slate—and carve images directly into them, as if they were bas-reliefs (he made bas-reliefs, too, and sometimes used them as print matrices). After intricate carving by hand (for the most complex pieces, he sometimes used a sandblaster), he would lift the huge slates onto sawhorses and ink them with the images face up. He laid rice paper or glowing fabrics on top, pressing them firmly onto the matrix, like in the traditional Japanese style, but, in a key variation on the Japanese technique, he would lightly wet the paper after it had been applied to the stone, causing the paper to mold itself into the slate. He would reinforce the molding by lightly pushing the paper against the carved edges with a shaving brush. When he lifted the print, the paper remained ever so slightly raised, as if it, too, were a three-dimensional piece of sculpture. With the rice-paper prints, he sometimes achieved effects of astonishing subtlety: curves of the paper are raised up on two, sometimes even three different levels. With the fabric, the technique was slightly different, but the even brushing of the fabric onto the inked stone achieves an incredible saturation of almost pure and alien color which has not faded in over fifty years.
Love and Perversion
The wood-monsters and slate-prints of the early 60s brought Kent some success: they attracted the upstart gallerist Richard Castellane, who showed them at his gallery on East Seventy-Sixth Street. There came reviews, the occasional sale, attention from collectors. His job at the Slade Ely House in New Haven had originally been essentially that of a caretaker, but he convinced the board he could be a curator, and he organized a number of well-received shows. But Kent was still Kent, and he refused come into the City when Castellane asked him to have lunch with an important potential patron. When Castellane came up to see him in New Haven, Kent often refused to say anything at all.
He looks distinctive and powerful in photos from these years. He’s balding and has a wide, rather unattractive face, but his short torso is swollen with strength, his arms are cocked like hammers, his head has an elliptical smoothness, and a cigarette dangles defiantly from the tight rosebud of his mouth (“he had a sweet little tiny mouth,” Joan once said to me, in a voice which unconsciously withdrew into a whisper).
He is, in other words, a picture of vigor and form, approaching the height of his art. He receives letters sprung with amazement; it is palpable to his friends that there are great things in store. When he is awarded a small grant, raising him from poor to slightly-less-poor, the first thing he does is mail his friend Dave Jones $200 to make another slide opera. He commands a certain measure of respect with his position as curator of the Ely House gallery, and he has, finally, a house to himself and a great barn to fill with sculptures, some of which have sold on Madison Avenue.
But in everything he does, there is still some fundamental unease. His letters are always a little touchy; he is always about to blow up, even though he apologizes more often. This is even more the case with his art. His charisma is transposed into a darker key in the sculptures: it is still perceptible, but it has become eerie, unsettling.
One reason for this unease emerged only at the very end of his life. Kent, in a wheelchair, was talking to Joan Baer about his time in the navy. He explained, offhandedly, that there had been a foreign doctor who could help people like him get out of the service. What kind of people? Asked Joan. He pronounced every syllable with exaggeration, and as if in French: ho-mo-sex-u-el.
So it was that Bill Kent came out of the closet in the final weeks of his life, at the age of 93. But everyone seems to have known that he was gay, even if they knew better than to talk about it with him. In the late 1950s he became close with a female painter and sculptor in New Haven named Sheilaugh Coulter; some of his male friends started teasing him about his relationship, and in a fit of fury and shame he immediately broke it off.
His acquaintances talk about his homosexuality with sympathetic circumspection, as if still afraid to raise his anger. Some of them paint him as timid when it came to sex, modest, ashamed. His neighbors report, with an unconscious modulation of tone, having seen him walking chastely with another elderly man in the late 1990s. Others claim he was an insatiable homosexual who used to haunt the Sterling Library men’s room. This was the William Kent with a scatological and venereal sense of humor, with an unhewn roughness to his personality, with a magnetic and crude will.
In his official life, insofar as such a man has an official life, there was a veil of equivocation. When Nathan Hale, another sculptor, asked the Philistine Press to publish a hateful screed about the conquest of the art world by the Little People—that is, by the Fairies—Kent refused with surprising meekness. “The trouble is,” he writes by way of self-justification when Hale accuses him of shying away from controversy, “I have what we may describe as a sympathetic interest in Homo-dom. No I am not a fairy—there are many degrees of this anomaly. I just feel that the majority (even all) of these people do not deliberately choose to be what they are (that is a common misperception among heterosexuals).” It is degenerate, he goes on to clarify, but it’s not their fault.
It is everywhere present in the art, and yet nowhere. That a man with such an autistic lack of subtlety would be capable of hiding anything is surprising, and yet the sex is oddly, well, asexual. Double Male Bathers is an early sculpture in sandstone, in which two pairs of legs with two pairs of simplified male genitals and rectangular blocks for torsos stand side-by-side. They do not face or even seem to touch, but maybe they are about to jump into a pool together. He loved the male athlete, playing football or hockey or ski-jumping. In many of the smaller prints such hunky figures abound. But they don’t have much to do with each other; in fact, they’re usually solitary, though they are almost always accompanied by butterflies, who seem to be Kent’s private totem for the athlete.
Most of the overtly sexual prints, meanwhile, are actually heterosexual, or rather, anti-sexual. Their typical format, although not by any means their only format, is to juxtapose a scene of domestic or Romantic bliss with a fiercely erotic image borrowed, exactly, from an ancient Greek vase. In one print a nuclear family is going about its business shopping and pushing a baby in a pram while below, unbeknownst to them, two virile Greeks with their Priapic members are about to gang-rape a woman, who may or may not be enjoying it. AVOID THE TRAP OF MARRIAGE, reads the slogan, and one wonders, which part of the print is the trap? SECRETS OF ATTRACTING GIRLS / BOYS! / MEN! / STRONG-MAN SEX APPEAL / DYNA-PLEX METHOD says another print: in this one, ladies lay about and men cut soft-core poses on either side of an ancient fertility god who is masturbating an immense mushroom rising between his legs.
There is a print of a fish that just says EAT ME! As if that were all you needed to know about sex, or about fish anyway.
As always with Kent, the lack of subtlety is a powerful mask behind which cosmic forces are at play. Is the crass materialism of modern sex the opposite of the Greek Mysteries, or a continuation of them? May it in fact be that as a finely tailored suit or an underwear ad arouse us, nothing perverse is happening? Quite the contrary: the deep source of human sexuality, its origins not in biology but in ritual, is made apparent. Kent’s work implies that the exercises of the dynaplex and the cut of a dapper suit are our initiation rites and cultic vestments. When we have a fetish in the modern sense we erect, once again, like long ago beside a hut, a fetish in the original sense. Sexual desire, so distinct from the sex-act, is secretly the work of culture, the domain of objects, not of persons. Maybe Kent condemned it, but he saw it as overarching, inescapable. Kent’s shame at it was St. Augustine’s: he feared what it might cause him to do, and he could never forgive himself for it.
In 1965 Kent was arrested in New Haven, apparently for soliciting sex in a men’s restroom. The records themselves have gone missing and, since the charges were ultimately dismissed, there is nothing on hand in the Connecticut state archives. Some sources say it was a clumsy embarrassment; others insist it was an inevitability, something he almost craved. Either way, the arrest seems to have terrified him. When, in his late 80s, he had to go to the DMV to reapply for his license after a car accident, merely being in a government building so unsettled him that he had to excuse himself and void his bowels.
There is a single love letter I know of written to Kent. I discovered it buried in the files of his correspondence. It is delightful and disgusting, extremely explicit and, at the same time, strangely coy. The man who wrote it was a sometime collaborator of Kent’s who now lives in a prosperous Connecticut suburb and has a wife. I went to his home for lunch and, while his wife was out, confronted him about the letter. He claimed it was a forgery. When I pressed him a second time he said that maybe parts of it were his, but others were surely an act of defamation. The few other letters from him in Kent’s archives are familiar, but no longer intimate. They are rude, angry, and jealous. Kent tells him he’s become a “fuckin bourgeois,” and he replies to Kent: “whatever you do – laugh, jump, read, write, stoop, stomp, cry, fart, roll your buttocks, contract your sphincter, stink, sculpt, carve, suck, fuck – whatever you do – I don’t give a damn!” And just like that the record of Kent’s sexual life becomes so overt that it, like the sex in the art, passes beyond transparent and becomes completely obscure.
In March of 1965, Kent was fired from the Ely House. This was in part because the board had seen reviews of the “Erotic and Patriotic Art” show and thought it sounded pornographic and unseemly, and in part because he had done his best to make life miserable for the amateur artists’ groups that used the gallery for their meetings. A few months later, in November of that year, he was arrested. The matter was quickly resolved, but his lawyers billed him $250 for their services; a bill shows that in 1968 Kent still owed $100 to his lawyers. In the interim, his dealer Richard Castellane closed his gallery and left the art business to go to law school. No gallerist stepped in to pick up Bill Kent. Under 1969, his accounts ledger reads: no sales.
In these four years, under these difficult circumstances, Bill Kent underwent a great withdrawal from the world. He was never a complete hermit, but he became an overwhelmingly lonesome creature. His correspondence from the Sixties fills several fat folders, whereas his letters from the Seventies fill just one, as do all his letters from 1980 to 2012. Even true believers in his work, like the wood sculptor Marv Beloff, would come to his door and knock, only to be rebuffed by the piano playing defiantly inside.
The Millers, a family of Jewish Christmas-tree farmers who lived across the road, were some of the few to maintain contact with him during those years. He let two generations of their children come into his studio and run around while he carved, even as his closest associates from former times were left standing at the door listening to him play Chopin. He talked shop and power tools with the Millers, and even went, once, to their annual summer cookout, where Alicia Miller recalls that he spoke with animation to another elderly man from the neighborhood until the food was ready, at which point he took his own plate and went into the house. Only after his departure did she realize that he had absconded with most of the dessert table.
Bob Miller, who was a little boy when Kent moved to Durham, eventually took over the family business and the family house, which now contains one of the world’s great William Kent collections. He gives us, among many other things, a crucial sonic memory. From across the road, he could hear opera playing loudly out of Kent’s windows. Suddenly the music would be interrupted by the tap-tap-tapping of a chisel on the wood. Then the opera would reassert itself as Bill Kent paused to look at his work. Then the percussive tapping would begin again, foregrounding itself to the detriment of the music. Then came the climax of an aria, struggling to overcome the sculpture. And then, as the record ended, there came, undeterred, resurrected, the methodical tap-tap-tapping on the living wood.
This was the only outward sign of a prolonged act that was at once political protest and spiritual meditation. Like the Christian hermits who withdrew into the desert in order to create a new form of consciousness, Bill Kent began in 1964 the continuous work that would constitute his summa: a massive treatise, in wood, on the destructive bonds between the self and the world that the self creates, and on the possibility of using creation to transcend the miseries that creation itself engenders. The authoring of this would take him almost half a century.
Part Two of this piece can be read here.
Matthew Spellberg studies the literature and anthropology of dreaming at Princeton. He also writes on opera and architecture. His work has most recently appeared in the Yale Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Southwest Review.