Painter Jona Kenigstein, 99, Remained a Symbolist When the Art World Became Abstract: NPR


Jonah Kenigstein, 99, has been making artwork since he was a teen. A few of his work parodies up to date artists comparable to Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock, which is obvious within the portray behind him.

Matthew Schurman/NPR


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Jonah Kenigstein, 99, has been making artwork since he was a teen. A few of his work parodies up to date artists comparable to Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock, which is obvious within the portray behind him.

Matthew Schurman/NPR

Within the Nineteen Fifties, Jonah Kinigstein was about to make it huge within the New York artwork world. He was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Rome. His work had been entered within the Whitney Museum’s annual exhibition of latest artwork (a precursor to the Whitney Biennial). It has been hosted by one of many metropolis’s largest galleries, Edith Halpert, which has represented legends like Jacob Lawrence, Georgia O’Keefe and Ben Shahn.

as soon as when life The journal printed a profile of Halpert and 9 of the artists she was selling with the title, “New Crop of Portray Protégés,” Kinigstein was amongst them. Actually, in the principle photograph, he stood immediately behind Halpert. However then, because of altering tastes within the artwork world, he misplaced his obscurity and couldn’t persuade anybody to provide him a gallery present.

Nevertheless, maintain drawing…and drawing…and drawing some extra. Even at present, at age 99, he says he spends two to 3 hours a day in his studio on the third ground of his Brooklyn house.

“I stand up, have breakfast, after which I am going upstairs and paint, ?” stated Kinigstein.



His portray model went by way of plenty of adjustments all through his life, however he calls himself a “pictorial expressionist”. That’s, he paints individuals, however they’re usually distorted and weird, in opposition to surreal and fantastical backgrounds. His topics are saints, rabbis, exalted and showgirls – individuals who appear to undergo or appear to benefit from the struggling of others. One of many work is of Saint Saqr, who’s misplaced in a forest, his garments in tatters. The final two amusement seekers seem smiling in entrance of the Coney Island amusement home, which can or is probably not actual hell.

“I used to be born in Coney Island,” he stated, “and I keep in mind sure issues.” “These huge personalities and other people ready in line… It is type of a mockery of 1 factor, but it surely’s critical in one other.”

Born in 1923 in Brooklyn, Kenigstein was raised within the Bronx by Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants. As a teen, he realized he had a expertise for artwork by drawing with chalk on the sidewalk. His father, a home painter, used to brag about him to his co-workers.

“I used to go together with him to assist paint the flats,” stated Kenigstein, laughing. “And he would say, introducing me, ‘Hey, I am portray with an actual artist. ‘”



After highschool, Kinigstein attended Cooper Union, a non-public artwork and engineering college that was on the time free to all admitted college students. However earlier than it was over, he was drafted into the Military for World Warfare II, the place he labored in a photo-topography unit.

A couple of years after his discharge, he moved to Paris to reside and paint on the Left Financial institution. Then he moved again to Manhattan, when he started his inventive profession in earnest.

The rise of abstraction

For years after World Warfare II, the kind of op artwork practiced by Kinigstein coexisted with Summary Expressionism – for instance, Drip work of Jackson Pollock or The Artwork of Coloration Sphere by Mark Rothko. However because the Nineteen Fifties wore on, Summary Expressionism received out.

Artwork historians level to many components behind the rise of non-objective artwork, but it surely largely has to do with the devastation of World Warfare II.

“All kinds of art-making patterns that appeared to work up to now, a type of metaphorical pose to point out ache or anguish — it simply did not seem to be it may actually seize that type of basic sense of existential dread,” stated Rebecca Chaykin, affiliate curator at The Jewish Museum In New York, which was staged Exhibition on Edith Halpert’s Kinigstein Gallery in 2019.

However for Kenigstein, the twilight of the op-ed meant that he was much less and fewer more likely to make a residing as a painter. stinging rejection.

He stated, “I did drawing after drawing. And I at all times felt, , doing the most effective I may.”

Kenigstein married and had two kids whereas persevering with his profession in business artwork. He designed retailer home windows and in addition Bloomingdale’s first ever collectible procuring bag. (he was later inducted into the Nationwide Academy of Design) and continued to color.

He additionally started drawing cartoons: satirical and scathing, like one thing out of a nineteenth-century political journal, besides that he satirized the artwork institution that promoted summary portray.

One in all them relies on a well-known Rembrandt portray, Anatomy lesson by Dr. Nicholas Tulp. Besides the corpse on the mattress was referred to as a “figurative portray” and the lads round it, who lower it, are members of the artwork institution that promoted abstraction within the Nineteen Fifties.



This cartoon, primarily based on a well-known Rembrandt portray, satirizes the artwork institution’s popularization of Summary Expressionism within the mid-Twentieth century.


Jonah Kenigstein / Fantagraphics

A number of occasions, Kinigstein took these caricatures to New York’s Gallery District, SoHo, and pasted them on the partitions of buildings and lampposts. Some passers-by had been preventing with him, whereas others would deliver them down and ask him to signal them.

“This would be the major issue of Jonah’s mill: his capability to exit and protest by way of his artwork,” stated his second spouse, Elaine Moken-Kenigstein.

Ethical objections

For Kenigstein, summary portray required neither expertise nor talent nor capability to watch the world. There was additionally an moral element – he refused to vary the best way he painted just because it was not standard.

“I noticed a man proper in entrance of my eyes go from an actual, actual drawing to, , put the portray on the ground and began splattering,” he stated. “I could not speak to that man. I could not actually speak to him.”


In 1961, Kinigstein designed this procuring bag primarily based on an outdated French tarot card for the Bloomingdale division retailer, which was selling the “L’Esprit de France” import honest. Shops offered out inside every week.

Matthew Schurman/NPR


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Matthew Schurman/NPR


In 1961, Kinigstein designed this procuring bag primarily based on an outdated French tarot card for the Bloomingdale division retailer, which was selling the “L’Esprit de France” import honest. Shops offered out inside every week.

Matthew Schurman/NPR

Not too long ago, although, Kinigstein is lastly getting some recognition. in 2014, fantagraphicsarguably the premier writer of artwork comics in the USA, has come out with a set of his personal cartoons, The Emperor’s New Garments: The Tower of Babel within the realm of “artwork”. Editor Gary Groth knew he needed to publish it the day he opened Kinigstein’s submission.

“They had been clearly not drawn by a younger man as a result of they confirmed some degree of talent,” Groth stated. “They had been all terribly effectively drawn. After which I appeared on the content material, and each single one in every of them was a vicious assault on Summary Expressionism.”

Groth visited Kinigstein in Brooklyn and toured his studio full of tons of of work standing on their ends, like enjoying playing cards. That is when he determined to jot down a second e-book, this one centered on Kenigstein’s work.

The consequence, Unrepentant Artist: The Work of Jonah KenigsteinAnd the It appeared in June. It’s also uncommon as a result of it has double spines: open them in a single route and you’ll see the horizontal panels of Kinigstein; Flip it over and open it from the opposite cowl, and you’ll see the vertical cowl.

“Portray was really his old flame,” Groth stated. “And I liked his work.”

Summary expressionism is lengthy gone, adopted by pop artwork, minimalism, postmodernism. Now, figurative portray is type of making a comeback. However that is not why Kinnigstein did it.

“What I paint is what I like to color,” he stated. “And I do not paint for anybody.”

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