Painter Jonah Kinigstein, 99, stayed figurative when the artwork world went summary : NPR

Painter Jonah Kinigstein, 99, stayed figurative when the artwork world went summary : NPR

Painter Jonah Kinigstein, 99, stayed figurative when the artwork world went summary : NPR

Jonah Kinigstein, 99, has been making artwork since he was an adolescent. A few of his work satirizes fashionable artists comparable to Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock, seen within the portray behind him.

Matthew Schuerman/NPR


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Jonah Kinigstein, 99, has been making artwork since he was an adolescent. A few of his work satirizes fashionable artists comparable to Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock, seen within the portray behind him.

Matthew Schuerman/NPR

Within the Nineteen Fifties, Jonah Kinigstein was on the verge of creating it huge in New York’s artwork world. He gained a Fulbright to Rome. His work bought into the Whitney Museum’s annual present of up to date artwork (the precursor to the Whitney Biennial). And he was taken in by one of many greatest gallerists within the metropolis, Edith Halpert, who had represented legends comparable to Jacob Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe and Ben Shahn.

As soon as, when Life journal ran a profile of Halpert and 9 of the artists she was selling titled, “New Crop of Portray Protégés,” Kinigstein was amongst them. In truth, in the primary photograph, he stood immediately behind Halpert. However then, because of altering tastes within the artwork world, he fell into obscurity and couldn’t persuade anybody to provide him a gallery present.

He nonetheless saved portray … and portray … and portray some extra. Even right now, at age 99, he stated he spends two to 3 hours a day in his studio on the third flooring of his Brooklyn home.

“I stand up, eat breakfast, after which I’m going upstairs and I do my portray, you realize?” Kinigstein stated.


His portray model has gone by means of a number of adjustments all through his life, however he calls himself a “figurative expressionist.” That’s, he paints individuals, however they’re usually distorted and grotesque, set in opposition to backgrounds which can be surreal and fantastical. His topics are saints, rabbis, impresarios and showgirls — individuals who both appear to be struggling or appear to be having fun with different individuals’s struggling. One portray is of a haggard St. Anthony misplaced in a forest, his clothes in tatters. One other one exhibits smiling amusement seekers in entrance of a Coney Island funhouse, which can or will not be the actual Hell.

“I used to be born in Coney Island, and I keep in mind sure issues,” he stated. “These giant figures and folks ready in line. … It is form of making enjoyable of the factor, but it surely’s critical on one other facet.”

Born in 1923 in Brooklyn, Kinigstein was raised within the Bronx by Jewish-Russian-Polish immigrants. As an adolescent, he realized he had a knack 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 along with him to assist paint the residences. And he would say, as he launched me, ‘Hey, I am portray with an actual artist,’ ” Kinigstein stated with amusing.


After highschool, Kinigstein attended The Cooper Union, a personal faculty for artwork and engineering that on the time was free to all college students who had been admitted. However earlier than he may end, he was drafted into the Military for World Battle II, the place he labored in a photograph topography unit.

A number of years after being discharged, he moved to Paris to stay and paint on the Left Financial institution. Then again to Manhattan, when he started his artwork profession in earnest.

The rise of abstraction

For years after World Battle II, the kind of figurative artwork that Kinigstein practiced co-existed with summary expressionism — e.g., the drip work of Jackson Pollock or the colour discipline artwork of Mark Rothko. However because the Nineteen Fifties wore on, summary expressionism gained the day.

Artwork historians level to quite a few components behind the rise of non-objective artwork, but it surely largely needed to do with the devastation of World Battle II.

“All type of modes of artmaking that had appeared to work prior to now, a type of figurative mode of exhibiting individuals in ache or in anguish — it did not look like it may actually seize the form of basic sense of existential dread,” stated Rebecca Shaykin, an affiliate curator at The Jewish Museum in New York, who organized an exhibition about Kinigstein’s gallerist Edith Halpert in 2019.

To Kinigstein, although, the twilight of figurative artwork meant it was much less and fewer possible that he would ever make a dwelling as a painter. The rejection stung.

“I made portray after portray. And I at all times felt, you realize, I used to be doing my finest,” he stated.

Kinigstein married and had two kids whereas persevering with a profession in business artwork. He designed retailer home windows and in addition Bloomingdale’s first-ever collectible buying bag. (He was later inducted into the Nationwide Academy of Design.) And he saved portray.

He additionally started to attract cartoons: satirical and biting, like one thing out of a nineteenth century political journal, besides his lampooned the artwork institution that promoted summary portray.

One in all them is predicated on a well-known Rembrandt portray, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp. Besides the cadaver on the mattress is labeled “figurative portray” and the boys round him, slicing him up, are members of the artwork institution that promoted abstraction within the Nineteen Fifties.


This cartoon, based mostly on a well-known Rembrandt portray, lampoons the artwork institution’s promotion of summary expressionism within the mid-Twentieth century.

Jonah Kinigstein/Fantagraphics

A number of instances, Kinigstein took these cartoons to New York’s gallery district, SoHo, and pasted them onto constructing partitions and lamp posts. Some passersby would get into arguments with him, whereas others would take them down and ask him to signal them.

“That might be the grist for Jonah’s mill: his means to go on the market and protest by means of his artwork,” his second spouse, Eileen Muken Kinigstein, stated.

Ethical objections

To Kinigstein, summary portray took no expertise, no ability, no means to watch the world. There was additionally an ethical element — he refused to alter the way in which he painted just because it wasn’t fashionable.

“I noticed a man proper in my entrance of my eyes going from actual, actual portray to, you realize, he laid the portray down on the ground and he began to splash round,” he stated. “I could not discuss to that man. I actually could not discuss to him.”

In 1961, Kinigstein designed this buying bag based mostly on an outdated French tarot card for Bloomingdale’s division retailer, which was selling a “L’Esprit de France” import honest. Shops ran out of them inside every week.

Matthew Schuerman/NPR


disguise caption

toggle caption

Matthew Schuerman/NPR


In 1961, Kinigstein designed this buying bag based mostly on an outdated French tarot card for Bloomingdale’s division retailer, which was selling a “L’Esprit de France” import honest. Shops ran out of them inside every week.

Matthew Schuerman/NPR

Lately, although, Kinigstein is lastly getting some recognition. In 2014, Fantagraphics, arguably the foremost artwork comics writer within the U.S., got here out with a group of his cartoons, The Emperor’s New Garments: The Tower of Babel within the ‘Artwork’ World. Editor Gary Groth knew he needed to publish them the day he opened Kinigstein’s submission.

“They had been clearly not drawn by an adolescent as a result of they displayed a stage of craft,” Groth stated. “They had been all so terribly well-drawn. After which I seemed on the content material, and each single one among them was a ferocious assault on summary expressionism.”

Groth visited Kinigstein in Brooklyn and took a tour of his studio, which is full of tons of of work standing on their ends, like enjoying playing cards. That is when he determined to do a second ebook, this one centered on Kinigstein’s work.

The consequence, Unrepentant Artist: The Work of Jonah Kinigstein, appeared in June. It’s uncommon additionally as a result of it has a double backbone: open it a technique and you’ll see Kinigstein’s horizontal work; flip it over and open it from the opposite cowl, and you’ll see his vertical ones.

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

Summary expressionism is lengthy since gone, adopted by Pop Artwork, Minimalism, Postmodernism. Now, figurative portray is form of coming again. However that is not why Kinigstein is doing it.

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

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