New York City has been home to many well-known artists who have played a role in the story of 20th Century art. In a four-story brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn—a block from Prospect Park—I was able to sit down and speak with painter Kendall Shaw. At 88 years old, he may have slowed down, but he remains an artistic and intellectual force to be reckoned with. He is also an engaging raconteur. Frequently, his answers to my questions took us on a circuitous path to a response, but never without touching on intriguing material. Shaw’s background and development ran parallel to the history of both America’s cultural and political journey.
Before entering the parlor floor sitting room (the building was previously a rooming house), I passed a Stuart Davis print in the vestibule. There was an O. Louis Guglielmi painting over the mantelpiece. Several of Shaw’s Cajun Minimalist panels were hanging on the walls. They are from the body of work that will be featured in an upcoming two-person exhibit at the Hudson Guild Gallery in Chelsea. The show, Dialogue, curated by Jim Furlong, places Shaw’s paintings in visual discourse with the monoprints of Danny Simmons.
A glance into the kitchen revealed a painting comprised of shaped canvases, along with counters covered with papers and catalogues from Shaw’s long exhibition career. A stack of LP records attested to Shaw’s interest in the ragtime and stride piano that his father played. Jewelry, masks, and plants were positioned in a variety of locations. They added to the mixture of decorative motifs that attest to a life begun in Louisiana, which then took root in New York City’s cultural scene of the 1960s. During this time, he began exhibiting at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, and joined the teaching ranks of the Hunter College art department.
The different aspects of Shaw’s life collided as he acquainted me with his story, both personal and artistic. There were, however, several constants. They were his passion for art, science, community, and justice.
Shaw was born in New Orleans. The diverse ethnicities of his home city, as well as the inequalities of the Deep South, were a major impact. The colors, light, and sounds would evidence themselves in his painting—as would the ebullient spirit of Mardi Gras.
Shaw frequently noted that he had lived in the world shuttling between the poles of two different sensibilities—Dionysian and Apollonian. His grounding in science and devotion to art would at first seem at odds. But Shaw made it clear that both elements were integral to his core.
Sharing the trajectory of his studies in science from 1945-1951, Shaw consistently punctuated his sentences with the aside, “I always made art.” He spent time in the Navy during World War II, which he described as “a major education.” With his background at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Emory University, and Tulane University (where he received a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, with Math and Physics as a minor), Shaw related that he could have secured employment working in a facility where research on the atom—for the purposes of bomb-making—was taking place. He knew instinctively that the job wasn’t the path for him. Instead, he moved on to Louisiana State University, where he studied Organic Chemistry. There, he also took painting classes with O. Louis Gugliemi.
“Art was a revelation,” Shaw told me. When Gugliemi spoke about “an artist’s integrity,” it resonated with Shaw’s paternal Quaker lineage. Their values were about consensus, respect, and community. Shaw verbalized repeatedly about individual action, particularly in relationship to a citizen’s responsibility to speak out against moral wrongs. He shared several emotional stories about growing up in the midst of segregation, and the pain that he felt about the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. In 1964, he commemorated their sacrifice in the painting Down Home Blues. His sensibility has always been skewed to a political reading (“Most of my friends were Trotskyites,” he said with a smile.). He made a point of letting me know that in 2011 he had been demonstrating at Occupy Wall Street.
Shaw’s grandmother, Emma Lottie, was an outspoken suffragette. She influenced his development with her narratives that featured feminism, social justice, and individuality. She died while he was serving in World War II, and he told me that he wanted to “bring her back,” so he did a group of pieces entitled, The Emma Lottie Series. It was in this context that in order to embody memories of his grandmother, he incorporated glitter, tiny jewels, mirrors, and buttons. Despite being mixed with paint, they were the kind of matter that was traditionally considered feminine.
While his father’s side of the family inspired a progressive path for Shaw, his mother was aghast at his choice—at age 26—to travel to New York City to study with Stuart Davis. However, Shaw had made up his mind. He bought a train ticket and was on his way up north, with fifty dollars in his pocket.
Our dialogue about his art trajectory was often circuitous, as Shaw jumped off into thoughts that emanated from his scientific grounding. For Shaw, they were infinitely enmeshed.
“We are bundles of energy,” Shaw stated emphatically. “We are atoms. Molecules. Energy is rhythmic, and rhythm over rhythm over rhythm makes patterns.” He continued intently, “The universe is measurable. It’s not chaotic. Yet there’s so much we cannot prove. We have to accept it.”
His physics background prepared him on a visceral level for the philosophy of Mark Rothko, whom he studied with at Tulane University in the late 1950s. Here he received a Master of Fine Arts, while also forging a close relationship with the artist Ida Kohlmeyer—whom he called “an extraordinary artist.”
For Shaw, Rothko “renewed painting.” It was about making something that was “alive” and “provoking feelings.” Rothko confirmed Shaw’s realization that, “Art is life and not simply a wall decoration.”
This related to his Modular paintings of 1965, as well as the Cajun Minimalist paintings of 2012. Contemplating the canvases, Shaw said, “I like feeling. Color is filled with feeling. Rothko taught that to me.” Shaw explained his process of using eight coats of paint to reach his desired effect. He said, “Mint and oregano are close, but they taste very different. What’s the emotional difference between this red and that red? Comparing pigments, you can see that everything is energy. It is the grand hum of the universe. Everything is bound energy.”
Moving into the metaphysical realm, Shaw asked rhetorically, “What is a painting? What is an atom? I like the relationship of how a painting interacts with a wall. Paintings include the wall. They are part of the wall. Rothko said, ‘My paintings aren’t big, they’re human.’” Shaw then pondered about how paintings relate to people when they are standing in a room. “I’m concerned about unifying,” he said. “I think I want painting to be transcendental.”
Examining issues of “humanity” is essential to Shaw, who refuses to be limited to a single vocabulary. He used stories from the Bible as a basis for the Let There Be Light suite. He called them “Surabstract” paintings. Particularly intriguing was The Concubine from Bethlehem (2010), based on a passage from Judges 19 that deals with sexual violence and dismemberment.
As we took a break from our conversation, Shaw, the Southern gentleman, offered me a glass of lemonade. We then ascended the stairs, where on the next floor I was able to view Shaw’s output from the early 1970s. It was from the period when Shaw was active in the Pattern and Decoration movement (P&D), along with Joyce Kozloff, Robert Kushner, and Miriam Schapiro.
The next level up brought us to Shaw’s studio. He spoke about the panels he was working on with the help of his assistant, David Vigon. “I want a reaction from the work,” he said. “A provocation of feeling. It’s about making something alive.” While he searched for a specific work in his flat files to illustrate a point, I looked at his painting, Another to Care For, his 2011 version of the Garden of Eden. It featured small, coupled figures of various sexual combinations. “Painting is very mysterious, like life,” he pronounced.
One of Shaw’s teachers was Ralston Crawford. From him he learned, “You can’t fight every battle. Choose your weapon. And most importantly, have convictions and stick with them.” Shaw told me that he chose painting as a reaction to Crawford’s advice.
Similar to the great jazz musicians of New Orleans that Shaw admires, he went from riff to riff—on art, life, and politics for hours. It was a jambalaya of stories. He said pensively, “We grow as people. We’re such complex personalities. Our culture isn’t dying. It’s just transforming.”
It had grown dark and it was time for me to go. Then, as if to leave me with one more thought to contemplate, he said,
“Art can take me out of my hell—to heaven. Art is about freedom.”
Photo: Courtesy of Kendall Shaw