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.
This is the second half of a two-part feature. The first half can be found here.
The New World
What leads a man to flee the company of others into the wilderness of himself? Hermits, or temporary hermits, sent off on journeys of initiation or enlightenment, by choice or by punishment, exist in nearly every culture of the world. They are the negative balance, the defining contrast, to the clan, the village, the ziggurat, the train-tracks and roadways. And not only contrast, but also continuation, for an isolated human does not exist naturally, to use a word that, with the march of time, grows ever more confused and meaningless. No person is born alone in the wilderness—you can get there only by accident or by choice.
In 1964 the sculptor William Kent withdrew from his life in the world, and began a new one in his barn. There are the obvious reasons why he did this. He endured a string of setbacks and humiliations. He was fired, arrested for soliciting gay sex, and he lost his connections in the New York art scene. There are certain obvious psychological explanations: he suffered from an undimmed anger no doubt already present in the womb. He was prone to depression and hatred.
But there may be another reason for this withdrawal, the deeper cause and context for these others. It is best described as: Kent wanting to create a new world within the shelter of his mind. In the overly completed reality around him, the only contribution Kent felt he could make was to attack and destroy. If he were to travel, like a colonist, to a new planet, he could begin again, bring with him all of his memories and his knowledge, and rescue all the exiles from the looming apocalypse. This was not simply fantasy for Bill Kent, and it is not just idle speculation on my part. I believe it was a considered experiment which profoundly shaped his aesthetic and the massive ideas behind it.
It is an experiment that took shape over half a century and in three phases, each leading naturally and massively into the other, such that they might best be described, in the language of geology or biology, as epochs. The first epoch is animalian, and especially arthropod. The second epoch, a shorter, transitional phase, is about humans in metamorphosis, people grafted onto animals. And the final phase, which could have come about only in isolation, is artifactual; it concerns human objects, especially human objects in a state of dislocation.
The obsession with insects in the early 1960s is the gateway to the rest of Kent’s career: in sculpting them, he learned to love detail, to think of the world not, like a modernist, in terms of distilled shapes, but rather as a fantastical agglomeration of sharp edges, articulated joints, of complex and irreducible patterns. His locusts and butterflies are distinct species taxonomically; the detail makes it possible to identify not only classes, but individual genera and species.
In contrast, his humans are intentionally incidental, unimportant. He seems to have refused to carve human faces, preferring to paint them in a highly simplified fashion onto his sculptures (“he could carve every nick on a bug’s ass,” said Dalia Ramanauskas, “but not a face”). Nevertheless, Kent’s sculptures became increasingly human as the years went on and he entered the second, metamorphic phase of his mature work. In the early Sixties, he experimented with a beautiful series of half-man, half-insect chimeras. He obsessively made prints and sculptures in which handsome athletes (football players, hockey players, ski-jumpers) appeared alongside butterflies, as if these were the totem animal, or perhaps the foil, for the male body. He carved a shining statue of a football player holding an outstretched butterfly like a shield against the world, and later an astonishing piece in which a man is either being overpowered by, or dancing with, a giant praying mantis. The man’s huge hands are swollen and flattened by the effort, as if, after centuries, our species finally evolved the right appendages to dance with an insect. In another work, called Nature Lover #4, a reclining figure with a painted harlequin face slides a perfect wooden finger into the pocket of his wooden jeans, a trick as fine as the flesh-on-flesh of a Bernini marble. In his right hand he balances an immense grasshopper, and looks at it with kindly curiosity. Meanwhile a fat caterpillar crawls lewdly through the man’s scissored legs without seeming to rupture the idyll. These figures, Lewis Carroll-like, stand alongside still more enchanted creations, naked and abstractly muscled, merging directly into butterflies and eels.
The culmination of this metamorphic period is an anguished and absurd self-portrait, Portrait of the Artist Self-Crucified, in white pine, walnut, chestnut, mahogany and iroko. The main figure has nailed his left hand to a cross, and is naked with his pants around his ankles. A caterpillar crawls over his right shoulder while another caterpillar, larger than the first, stares at him from a slight remove with an inscrutable, bifurcated, caterpillar-face. A great painted Death’s Head Hawkmoth, the eponymous skull visible on the thorax, stretches its wings over the victim’s genitals.
It is cryptic, but a message is just discernible. The body in its natural form is in a continuous state of transformation. It is surrounded by metamorphic animals passing through their malleable existence. But once the human being starts to create, that is, once he becomes an artist, he is tied down to his own creation; he is a prisoner, self-crucified (In a letter to his friend Dave Jones, Kent says it is the public that has crucified the artist, but his anger was evidently so myopic that it blinded him even to the message he’d sought to transmit with his own title). His companions in transformation, caterpillars, butterflies and moths, start to separate themselves from his body.
When the insects disappear from Kent’s work, they take the flesh-and-blood body with them, and only the made things, the crosses and their brethren, remain. Here begins the third phase, the period in the barn, the civilization unto itself. Crushed cans, milk-bottles, shoe-horns, calipers and vise-grips, all rendered in monumental proportions and in luminous wood. He continues to make self-portraits in this period but, instead of being dominated by insects, they are made only of objects: Kent realizes himself as a hollow suit of clothes, a loose shirt and a pair of jeans and heavy boots, the folds of cloth rendered with a sensuousness of detail, an absolutely incomprehensible display of skill, normally associated in the history of sculpture with the cloak of the Madonna and the skin of Daphne. But the human, or rather his body, is missing: these clothes hold no person inside them. In one sculpture, this simple outfit shrouds a torso made from an immense electrical switch; in another, its empty insides are prostrate, crushed beneath a gargantuan clothes iron. The detritus of human life is reincarnated in burnished whorls of wood, in shining lacquer, in a loving, desperate, hopeless magnification of every crack and wrinkle.
Kent worked almost exclusively with disproportionate things. I learned, to my surprise, that the models for many of his late carvings were not the things themselves, but models of those things, toys or ornaments. His carvings of a lady’s high-heeled slipper are based not on an actual shoe, but on a little plastic keychain toy, with plastic beads that rattle inside it. His large carving of a wristwatch was modeled not from a wristwatch, but from a wall-clock that looks like a giant wristwatch. His friend Brenda Brody told me that for as long as she had known him he had a rubber chicken hanging above his work table. One day, for no apparent reason, he started a monumental carving of a chicken. Joan Baer added that the rubber chicken had insufficient detail for the size of the sculpture, so she was dispatched to the Chinese market to get a dead chicken, and he used the real chicken to give depth and precision to his carving of the fake one.
Everyday objects are a major concern of the art of the Sixties and the art of the present. But the attitude of Kent is profoundly different from that of a Warhol or Oldenburg. He does not have the worldly cynicism of the former, nor the performative aspect of the latter. His sculptures, even at their most absurd, refuse to become meta-art. They do not question the means of production, or play on the commodification or mystification of objects in the art market. In fact they are an attempt to render the fashionable subjects of object-art in a most antiquated fashion: as participants in the cosmic drama of myth.
The myth behind the work might be written something like this. The creatures of the earth and sea once lived the joy of continuous transformation. They were at harmony with the universe for the universe is change, and their essence was flux. They wore many masks, but only to change their faces, not to hide the face beneath. They regularly shed their skins and wove cocoons and won floating petals for arms. They did not even notice when they died because they were reborn into the eggs they had laid. Only humans were averse to change, for they could not tumble into the unknown, leap from a flower, or fall into death without being seized by fear. And so they began to create for themselves protection against change and chance: walls, homes, medicines, laws and prisons. But soon they realized that they could no longer fully control all of these protections, that in fact, the protections themselves began to take on a life of their own, dictating the terms of the future they were meant to chase away. And so, humans, in the Kentian allegory, learned an ambivalent truth: from now on, their creations had taken over the principles of change, and deployed them across the surface of the world on an unprecedented scale. The humans discovered with shock that they were now prisoners to these creations. They had completely lost their own capacity for change and yet were still slaves to change, only that they experienced it now vicariously through the evolution of material society, through fashion, technology and history.
Kent never spoke this story aloud, although he comes closest in a letter to his friend the painter Skardon, who had just sent him a drawing based on one of Kent’s own insect-sculptures. “What a lovely caterpillar?” he writes, “It looks just ready to turn into something wondrous.” The being just ready to turn into something wondrous was, I think, the principle explanatory mechanism for Kent’s life. He, in his stubborn, bitter, self-destructive anger, in his sadness over success and sex, could not change, but he could change the world, and if it changed, it might finally change him too, and restore him to that state of transformation that was his insect-Eden. Like Sir Thomas Browne, he wanted to re-imagine nature as artifice, that is, to take living heartwood, and make it into a representation of a crushed bottle. And, in that sense, he wanted to dramatize the fact that objects can change, can be re-made, can have a second life, rising up like a pair of wings out of the first. The grain of the wood is in this respect all-important: polished to a sheen on the multiple surfaces of the object, it is another reality co-habiting our own, and it is a record of change over time (tree-rings, after all, are the wrinkles of a tree). Kent’s crushed bottle is a crushed bottle, but the tree-rings draped across its faces are emanations of a lacquered sun; they are valleys and mountains; they are an alien alphabet that reads, like a star-burst, from center to circumference. The patterned fabrics showing through the prints play the same function: they imply a second, secret aesthetic order, hiding behind and transforming the bluster of the surface object.
All of this is accompanied by a cutting ridiculousness. A friend of mine memorably called it the Samuel-Beckett fuck-you. Months of work and craftsmanship to re-create, in precious hardwoods, a crushed can, a smashed boot, a toy shoe, a limp rubber glove? Why not a horse? Why not a saint? Why not the Virgin Mary? Why not, at the very least, a dragonfly, as earlier? Because, Kent seems to say, this is all we have. His late art is of the anthropocene, where there is only the human. Nearly nothing on the planet stands beyond the circle of our transforming influence, including ourselves, trapped in a prison of artifacts. In the work of many artists from the Sixties one has the sense that this revelation is a bit of a joke, something amusing, silly. Kent, although his art was often playful, saw it as magically serious.
In a folder containing some of his most personal mementos, including the transcription of an Elizabethan poem and photos of his beloved cat Antigone, there is a quote from a biography of Louis IX, Saint Louis, written by Paul Kendall. Kent has carefully typed it on a sheet of greenish paper. In the words of another person he finds a rendition of his own myth and motto:
In his life can be descried, repeatedly, variations on one of the grandest patterns of human existence: withdrawal and return. A human organism, emerging from the shelter of untested hopes and dreams, collides with a worldly reality for which he is unprepared. Cruelly wounded in spirit, an object of mockery or a victim of indifference, the organism shrinks into withdrawal. In this darkness it recharges its confidence by achieving a durable faith, a truer sense of realities outside the self, and thus rearmed comes forth to measure its strength against the world.
He could enact a principle of change and transformation in his barn. He could be a prime mover, not merely a passive figure watching the ballet of things swirl around him. But for this he needed to withdraw, to find a clean space for his act of creation. He had suffered the jealousies and desires that things create, but he thought by being in this barn he might resist them. He brought with him the things that had also been discarded by the whirl of the bigger world. Hence the fact that the models for his sculptures were almost never the things themselves, but rather dysfunctional mutations of those things. Not a working bottle but a crushed one, not an actual shoe but rather a toy slipper too small to fit a woman’s foot, not a wristwatch but a ridiculous and useless novelty clock shaped like a giant wristwatch: the hermits and lepers of the object-world, the side-show freaks, the currency long out of circulation. And he built them into a city where, once again, they could change, take on new meanings and purposes, acquire a context, enter circulation, compensate for his own petrification in bitterness, and, when the time was right, collectively heave up a shining polished wooden middle finger at their happier brethren, the functioning shoes and bottles going about their business on the outside.
Lessons for the Old World
In spite of his misanthropy and physical isolation, William Kent was a political man. He read newspapers and listened to the radio and considered himself a concerned citizen. In fact, despite his isolation, or perhaps because of it, he had little of the detached cynicism common to some of his art-world contemporaries. For him it was always fiercely personal. He believed that the American dream had been betrayed, and he meant this in no simplistic or selfish way. He meant that the principles of individualism and independence enshrined in the Constitution had been destroyed by greed, the lust for power, and the crass exploitation of material and sexual desire. He thought, furthermore, that all of the cerebral debate about the cause of the nation’s ills was at best hypocrisy and at worst a hazy veil that abetted the corruption of its citizens. He hated the pious moralizing of the left as well as the right, and although he was in most ways a liberal, he made prints showing twee city slickers wiping away crocodile tears for Vietnam; their hands are fashionably, conspicuously tattooed with peace signs. He was terrified by the suppression of protests and riots; he hated HUAC; he opposed intervention in Vietnam as early as 1963; and he thought Congress run by circular, self-congratulating, self-perpetuating morons (one print purports to be an NY Times headline: NATION IS IN GOOD SHAPE / LEADERS OF CONGRESS SPEAK! / KEY FIGURES IN CONTROL!).
He despaired of nuclear holocaust, his symbol for which was a dead cricket. His friend Brenda Brody explained to me that Kent believed that pet crickets were especially susceptible to radiation poisoning after Hiroshima. His print “Hiroshima” depicts one such exquisite creature splayed tranquilly on its back; in another sculpture, a twenty-inch-long cricket carved from pure alabaster is held precariously in a huge wooden hand.
But his politics were not only built on anger and hatred. He admired the Founding Fathers, and especially George Washington, who is the subject of a monumental print (“The Nation which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave”—which may have appealed to Kent’s interpersonal philosophy as well). He loved Kennedy, or perhaps the idea of him, and created a remarkable sequence of prints based on the iconic photographs of the assassination, rendered in shadowy outlines and with gaping abysses of color where a living being ought to be. The coffin floats between the ghostly outlines of the marines; Jack Ruby shoots Lee Harvey Oswald while the U.S. Marshals have turned into a swirl of gunmetal blue; tiny JFK, jr. gives his famous salute while trapped in the central panel of the old Texas flag.
The Kennedy assassination series is yet another profound study in the powerlessness of humans before the world they’ve created. The Kennedy family is trapped in its own iconography, isolated from the flow of history. In Kent’s hands the iconic images of American history look like planes flying through the fog, searching without instruments for a place to land.
Kent thought of himself as a true American, in both style and substance. The two were, I think, inseparable to him. He deplored the idea of a slick, rootless art. He wanted things to be grounded in a real tradition, to belong to a community of images and ideas. In one of his very few official comments on art, for a sculpture exhibit he was a part of in 1965, he wrote:
The problem is to be American—and to be individual, and to reject the past fifty years of International Art which is now fossilized in the Art Schools and the University Art Departments of this country. I have gone to early American carvings out of pine and oak and tulip wood for a basis—the ship’s figurehead, the wooden Indians of the cigar stores.
Pine, oak, tulip, the figurehead, the cigar-store Indian. American wood, American myths, American genres. He wanted his sculptures to be, among other things, material histories of America. Like his prints depicting Kennedy, they were to evoke time and the isolation from it, the ignorance of it, that is the American condition. They are built of the same wood as the whaling ships and clapboard stores and football grandstands, but they look either like the creatures these institutions destroyed or the steel and plastic wonders that, in turn, destroyed them. They suggest unending metamorphosis over which we have no control, the shedding of one chrysalis after another, not least in the continuous pressure of time and temperature on wood, the way it cracks and falls to dust. The Northwest Indians had to rebuild their great house-poles every generation; Kent said that any cracks that developed in his sculptures were part of the art and should be left alone. (Nevertheless, he often repaired the pieces in his barn when they wore down or split in two). His works are histories of forgetting, and in that sense, the most American histories of all.
In the 1970s, to support himself, Kent found work at the nearby box factory. He eventually became one of the designers, making elegant patterns that folded efficiently into three dimensions. He took a certain measure of pride in his work, showing off his designs the way Kafka once read aloud insurance reports at family gatherings. But he could not contain his snobbery in this blue-collar environment: “I have been very worried—really almost paralyzed for the last few years,” he writes to his former dealer Richard Castellane in the late 1970s, “Recently they have been remodeling the office & tried to move my work-room to the die-room (4 table saws in it, plus 6 red-necks, & a rock music radio!) I rebelled & said NO WAY. I will quit if you do. So—they are building me a separate room w/air conditioning & I can have my own classical music-radio.” He was terrified that he would be fired before he became eligible for social security; he was not, but was forcibly retired at the age of 68 and left with an income of $500 a month.
After he left the box factory, Bill Kent took to an unyielding regimen. He rose at five in the morning to begin work. In winter he lit a wood stove to heat his studio, although it sometimes took hours for the room to warm up. On very cold days he also used a kerosene stove with three open burners. He would let them burn high and bright as his flammable life’s work stood within reach of a stray spark.
He carved all morning, listening to classical music or public radio. He stopped at lunchtime for a frugal meal (although he was not as frugal as he sometimes claimed: he often told people he ate only a single meal a day, but those who knew him well said that was not true). In the afternoons, he played the piano, wrote letters, clipped articles from magazines and newspapers, and read. As he got older, he also began to watch television—first rarely, then more and more. He became completely bald and shrunken; complex waves of wrinkles ran across every surface of his body, transforming it, by life’s end, into a gnarl of unhewn wood, as if the transformation of nature into art were counterbalanced by his own regression from human to plant. There was still great strength in his torso and arms, and he continued to work largely unaided, although he came to rely more and more on power tools for work that he had earlier done with a mallet and chisel. He seems to have stopped making new prints in the early Seventies and stopped working in stone still earlier, so that the last four decades of his life were devoted exclusively to wood carving.
Working at a steady clip, between two and ten massive sculptures a year, he made his heroically large renderings of everyday objects and his Rube-Goldberg fantasias. There was Donald Duck on the trash can, Mickey Mouse on a corkscrew battering ram, the calipers, crushed cans, forks, shoe horns. Sometimes he created more abstract shapes, combinations of spheres, helices, wheels, and prisms, occasionally with a fully realized work boot protruding from some unlikely terminal. In the 1990s, nature made a return in his shell-bean sculptures. He began by carving naturalistic bean pods, and had soon made a series of fantastical creations in which the pod shape was distended, swollen, compressed and twirled across multiple planes: a monstrous and bewitching play of curves, in layered planks of differing woods, creating layers of color.
In his old age Kent once again began to acquire a small following. His neighbors, the Millers, were in consistent contact with him. He would visit and ask them for advice on power tools, or about navigating changes to the local electricity providers. Their children would come over and play in his barn while he worked and, later, would help move him in and out of a wheelchair. A number of Connecticut art enthusiasts tried to champion his work, foremost among them the remarkable Joan Baer, once a Chelsea loft-dweller, then a Central Park West commodities trader and, finally, a Connecticut art collector. Her relationship with Kent became tormented and deeply intimate. “Bill Kent was the only man who has made me cry in years,” she said.
He was right up to the end a devastating person. He had a true gift for giving offense, and regularly attacked the people who helped him most. If he perceived someone to be interested in his work, he would bristle and his guard would go up, as if seeking to put the prospective buyer through a crucible.
At the same time, he must have been one of the most laconic artists of the twentieth century. In the era when art became hyper-verbalized, he seems to have spent most of his life saying nothing, just nodding or grunting gnomic responses. A woman once asked him how he got the wood to be so smooth. I rub it with my ass, he said. That day: No Sales.
The little he did say managed to imply a great deal. When I first started asking Joan Baer about Kent’s life, she hesitated; she said she never really asked him very many questions, and he rarely volunteered answers. But as she began describing him to me, the memories gradually coming forth unbidden, she interrupted herself in surprise to say, “I really did ask him a lot of questions! But not every day, over many years!”
He seemed to play many cunning and inscrutable games with his interlocutors. He told half-truths and outright lies with regularity, or rather, in his laconic way, inclined his head or gave a noncommittal nod that seemed to suggest conclusions he never quite spelled out. He griped endlessly about how people did not buy his work because they were cowardly and mediocre, but then he also told the Millers that he couldn’t understand why someone would ever buy one of his erotic pieces. Someone who buys that has problems, he said about a phallic sculpture.
Talking to those who knew him in his final years, I heard an incredible number of starkly contradictory stories and different interpretations of his art. I told Bill this reminded me of a World War I soldier and he nodded; he said it was a minstrel-show character, or at least he implied it; I think it was supposed to be an insect-repellant salesman. Several people I spoke to claimed they were the only friends he had never seriously fallen out with; but they all seemed to think that he had fallen out with everyone else. He kept them all compartmentalized, trying not to have them meet one another, and he presented to each one a slightly different Bill Kent. He let them each construe their own interpretation of his work and life; he would either mutely endorse it or, in the most unexpected moments, tear it to pieces.
In fact, with almost everyone he had a falling out. He became furious at Joan when she reprimanded him for his childish behavior towards two curators who were helping to organize a substantial exhibition of his work in New Haven. They did not speak for two years, although he would continue to send her letters seeking her opinion on potential buyers. His former dealer Richard Castellane continued to send him letters, but he became convinced that Castellane was withholding color photographs he owned, and in his late letters he keeps demanding them back, even after Castellane pleads that they were sent months ago. He also started compiling at this time an anti-résumé, containing a list of his rejections along with choice excerpts from the form letters (“too craftlike,” “keep in touch”). He wrote to Castellane asking that he send him the list of rejections from the time when he acted as his gallerist. When Castellane suggested, in one of his replies, that Kent had an unhealthy fixation on his own failures, the mouth of hell swung open.
I cannot conceive of a more stupid—rude—insulting letter than that which you wrote me on March 20. If you can state that my “peculiar nature” likes to be rejected, it marks you as a very very insensitive type, with an advanced stage of senility.
Who the hell do you think you are. I will not be treated as if I were some halfwitted artist who can be lectured and patronized. You slandered my name in that Boston Globe article several years ago, and held me up to ridicule, saying I was so depressed that the NY dealers would not handle my work.
Fuck off buster, with your pious moralizing. Stick it back up your ass where it came from. At the age of 83, I have had 40 years of 100% rejection from the official art world, and you seem to think I have deserved it!
This list of rejections has been praised by many sophisticated people as showing up the coldness and indifference to the kind of work that does not fit into the current fashionable styles.
From now on, keep your mouth off my work and my good name. This is final: give me the info I asked you for or never contact me again as long as you live. You acted as my agent, and I deserve to know who you contacted and what the results were, so I can add these assholes to my REJECTION LIST.
P.S. If you think that liking my work, as you profess, makes my balls tingle—NO. Only if you put your money where your mouth is—and you have not done it for years and years and years.
The letter is typed, and signed, in blue ink, with an immense, childlike
It is a testament to the continued survival of his strange charisma that, in spite of these frequent outbursts and the games of self-pity and recrimination that led to them, there were still nearly a dozen persons who maintained contact with Bill Kent. After his death, nearly all of them would say he had changed their lives.
In 2011, Hurricane Irene hit Connecticut, and the neighborhood lost power. The Millers have a generator on their property, but Kent, by then 91, had no heat or electricity. The fire department was dispatched to pick him up and bring him to the high school, which had been set up as a temporary shelter for victims of the storm. The Millers, deeply concerned for all the most obvious reasons, asked friends of theirs, also staying at the shelter, to look out for him. The friends called to say that Bill was doing wonderfully. What a delight he was, so charming, and so interesting! “Our Bill?” asked the Millers, over the phone.
Two months later, there was another storm, and the power was again cut. He called Alicia Miller to say that it was cold in his house, and he needed to go to the shelter. Had he called the fire department, she wanted to know. He had, but they hadn’t come. It’s a small town, and Alicia called the dispatcher. They’re on their way, but he only called fifteen minutes ago, the dispatcher explained with some exasperation.
This time, the Millers came to visit. They found he had become a celebrity. Word had spread since the last emergency evacuation, and this time the shelter residents were on the lookout for the sculptor. He gave the Millers a tour—this is my cot, this is the bathroom, this is where we eat—and he introduced them to his new friends. He was having the time of his life.
But as soon as power was restored he told them he couldn’t wait to go home. And it was good that he did: during the storm his beloved cat had gotten stuck under the stairs. When Kent finally heard the moaning, he had the stairs ripped out immediately.
“On May 5th, they chopped off my right leg,” Kent writes to Castellane in a letter dated May 30, 2006. It had become gangrenous, probably a consequence of smoking for decades. Still at the Gaylord rehabilitation facility, he apprises Castellane of his latest rejection: “I also received a message from Demelio Gallery ‘no go.’ I am used to that after all these years. Wait until I die and the price of my work will go up because there will be no more—even now they will say ‘all this work was done by a one-leg artist!’”
In the event, he was to live almost six more years after the operation. He used a wheelchair and prosthesis to get around. Friends brought him food, and he was briefly on meals-on-wheels, but he hated the cooking and he preferred, as much as he could, to shift for himself. (In the Fifties, incidentally, he had made a series of elongated bowl-like sculptures. He always insisted that they were not, under any circumstances, to be used as actual bowls. After he died, Joan discovered he had used one of them to store his onions.) He continued to sculpt, making the necessary adjustments. The workbench in his studio was lowered so that he could reach it sitting down. He had hung a half-dozen plastic toys, including dismembered bits of dolls on strings from the ceiling. He then had these attached to extra lines so that he could reach them in a wheelchair. Even now, a visitor to the studio is constantly bumping his sternum against hanging doll corpses.
He saw to his legacy. He created a foundation to inherit his work and home; his supporters started a modest website; they had him featured in local magazines. They nominated him for an award in New Haven, which he won. He found this last little prize okay, even though it wasn’t in New York (for the City had become a fantastic idol, a distant mirage on the horizon). Sometimes he saw to his legacy, too; he would point to certain photographs of himself—I like this one—as if to say, but not quite aloud, use this one in the future.
His last finished work is a sculpture of his own prosthesis. The execution is not as luminous or elegant as the earlier pieces; it is the product of diminished forces. But it is the logical conclusion to the long evolution of his art, the final surrender of the human to the artifacts that move through the world on his behalf. The prosthetic leg is the last of his self-portraits, which were all along studies in continuous self-erasure. This, finally, is a portrait of the artist without the artist.
In August of 2012 he entered a final phase of decay. He was working on an abstract carving in his wheelchair, and he would say to visitors, I won’t finish this piece, or then, it’ll be my last piece, or, I think I will finish it after all. Joan reconciled to him and spent many hours seeing to his needs. He told her one day that he didn’t want to die in the hospital, that he would rather just take a lot of pills. Joan told him that she had heard that there was a painless way for the very elderly to go: when you’re ready, just stop eating, and fade slowly away. He touched her hand and said, thank you, thank you.
On August 14th, he went down to the studio and made a few passes at sculpting. That night it took two hours to get him from the wheelchair into bed. The next morning he looked comatose. That afternoon his former neighbor Rich came by, and his eyes suddenly opened.
“How you doin’, buddy?” Rich asked.
“Oh, Rich, I’ve been trying to reach you,” he said.
Then he looked around, noticed Joan and the nurse, and asked, “what happened?”
“I think you had a little stroke,” Joan said.
“Do you want anything to eat?” the Nurse asked, “Soup, maybe?”
“Yes,” Bill replied, “but not Progresso.”
When he had finished eating he slumped down into his chair, and they took him back to bed using a Hoyer lift. He had grown thin, but he was already heavy with the dead-weight of the dying. Deposited upon the bed like a deterioration of river-silt, he was swept up by a shallow current of sleep and carried, within a day, to death.
Things that Cry
Joan Baer, who was more deeply entwined with Kent than perhaps anyone else at the end of his life, told me once, “this was not a labor of love. I did not love Bill Kent. I respected him, and I respected his commitment to his art, but I did not love him.” Nevertheless, she became deeply enmeshed in his life and work, as were many others.
There was a small ecosystem of persons keeping Bill Kent alive. He honed the fragility of the artist to a razor-edge, and in some ways, his apparent independence was a tragic symbol of dependence, of the fact that you almost cannot really strike out on your own and survive. He came very close, many times in his life, to having to choose between his art and his survival, and when others came to his rescue—when he managed to sell a work, or someone just brought him dinner—he made a statement through his humiliation and anger. “Bill Kent lived so impecuniously that he had no recollection of past generosity,” Brenda Brody told me. He needed generosity, but he could not abide it.
You cannot be your own man even if you’re doomed to try—that is one dark lesson from the work and life of William Kent. Anyone who says otherwise is peddling a falsehood, a mystification. After all, what does it mean to be self-made, to have made your own way? It means others believed in you; it means money changed hands to your advantage; it means acceptance from your chosen community came at some point, somehow. To leave all that behind requires as much explicit permission, even more, perhaps, than to belong. Bill Kent is a late reminder that once there were those who asked to be freed from the world; their mere asking, although perhaps clouded by self-righteousness, misanthropy and Romanticism, required a distinct, one hopes not useless, form of courage.
His life was as clearly demarcated by what he did not do as by what he did. It may even be said that he pursued his deprivations as an integral part of his art, cultivating them along with the festering desire to have those things he wouldn’t allow himself to have. He only briefly held a real job, he never made very much money, he never attained much recognition—though in his own unusual way he craved all three. He never went to Europe, and though he had nothing nice to say about that tired old continent and its pretentions, he would have loved it. Kent at the Louvre and the Uffizi, Kent laying his hands over the bronze fountains of Rome or on the cool, barn-like austerity of Romanesque churches. Kent standing before the immense crucified Christ of Matthias Grünewald in Colmar, the direct ancestor of Portrait of the Artist Self-Crucified. But he never took a trip abroad, nor to California, nor even at the end to New York.
He had no family, and what little he had he removed himself from. He did not, it seems, ever fall in love, though maybe he came close with the man who wrote the love letter and now denies it. For a little while he seemed to have no more loyal friend than the broke painter William Skardon, yet he rejected the closeness that might have resulted even from that relationship, preferring to communicate mostly by letter. Skardon wrote him right after his daughter was born, inviting him to come see the baby. Twenty-one years later he wrote to say “here my daughter is having a baby and you haven’t even met my daughter.” In the end Kent could not even bring himself to attend Skardon’s funeral. He wrote the daughter he had never met to say, simply, “I was unable to make it to NYC on a Monday. Job obligations, you know.”
His life was fundamentally non-participatory, a blanket abstention among the ayes and nays of life in a democratic society, an abstention that I can’t but imagine cost a great deal to renew so regularly. It is an irony, but not a contradiction, that he believed fervently in the ideals of a society to which he refused to belong. His few obituaries signaled the “Erotic and Patriotic Art” show as his high watermark, the moment when he fought for free speech and went down fighting the good fight. This show with its garish morality was actually an aberration in his life, which was chthonic, lived from the depths.
One hopes he held his real memorial service in the hours before his death, and wrote in that moment his own obituary. He was the only one capable. In the early twentieth century, when recording technology was still a novelty, there were certain preachers who recorded their own funeral sermons, commanding them to be played in the church so that they might hold forth beyond the grave. Kent, like all makers, did something similar, although his sermon was, by some kind of half-conscious choice, largely unintelligible. He never bothered to provide, or rather, was constitutionally incapable and could not provide, a commentary. His print of the Texas battle flag is just an arm and a cutlass to a viewer who doesn’t know to link together the lone-star-state revolt and the trauma of Kennedy’s death in Dallas during the centennial of the Civil War. An obscure reference in one of his publications to an ancient Japanese wood carving is actually a clue to a sculpture with which the reference has, seemingly, nothing to do. The questions are the kinds we are tempted to ask of hieroglyphic writings: why are hunky athletes always watched over by butterflies? And is that also why a Death-Moth covers the genitals of Portrait of the Artist, Self-Crucified? And if so, who is the caterpillar? As with hieroglyphics, we may be asking them in completely the wrong way. These questions are multiplied by the astonishing size of the output. He made 567 large sculptures and hundreds of smaller ones. He carved 246 slates, from which he pulled thousands of prints, sometimes as many as one hundred in a single month. Kent’s imagination was mythical and dilated, and it expressed itself in signs and symbols of cosmic dimension. It is on this plane that his real and most forbidding monumentality lies.
But that is not all. The problem is not so much that Bill Kent had a private language, but that he was suspicious of language itself. For him true creation, the creation that restores mutability to the world, was mute, or rather, it spoke simply by coming into being. Only destruction and self-promotion (itself a form of destruction) resorted to language, for language was, in his cynical view, mere justification. And so he could only speak intelligibly when expressing despair or anger: hence the brutality of the slogans which decorate (disfigure is perhaps the right word) his prints.
But words were, thankfully, the least part of his output. He almost never talked, perhaps because he knew that the opening of the mouth was for him the prelude to social catastrophe. Kent’s inability to give voice to his extraordinary fascination with the beauty of the world lends his work its peculiar sadness, its premature eulogizing quality: the thing cannot be praised, and there is a suspicion, a fear, that therefore it cannot even be appreciated. Take one of his prints on classical themes: SUNT LACRIMAE RERUM it reads, a quote from Virgil. Aeneas speaks these words when, arriving in Carthage, he’s led to a temple and sees the sack of Troy, the central catastrophe of his life, painted on the walls. For these things, there are tears, he says, or, depending on how the Latin is translated, there is a world of tears. Virgil doesn’t need to mention that the painting Aeneas confronts is beautiful, for the intensity of Aeneas’ sorrow testifies to the perfection of the thing that evokes it. And so it is too with the Kent print: the lines from Virgil (although at the end of his life Kent thought they were from Lucretius) are suspended in a circle of brilliant and saturated red which, in turn, is framed, in blue, by the urn and weeping willows of New England tombstones. The ensemble rests on a copper satin that shimmers with every change of light. It resembles a barbaric Scythian burial ornament, the burnished satin stolen from a primeval sunrise. In another version of the same print the satin is a pale silver, the moon to this one’s sun, for every sequence and series in Kent’s barn aspires to be a complete cycle of cosmic transformation and earthly loss.
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.