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Ronnie Landfield – Notes on Ken Showell

In 1963 when I was sixteen years old and a student at the Kansas City Art Institute I heard about Ken Showell and I saw some of his landscape paintings. I met Ken Showell – more than thirty years ago, after I returned to New York City from California in the summer of 1965. We met sometime in late 1965 or early 1966, I was eighteen or nineteen and Ken was in his mid twenties. Ken had graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1963 and got his masters degree from Indiana University in 1965, I'd attended the Kansas City Art Institute, the San Francisco Art Institute and the University of California at Berkeley, but I dropped out in '65. We were in New York City to pursue serious careers as painters.

For most of 1966 I shared a loft in lower Manhattan at 6 Great Jones Street with Dan Christensen. Ken Showell who lived across the street with his wife and daughter in a loft on Broadway visited us all the time. Ken was like a fixture in the place. Ken and Dan (friends from the midwest) would drink a lot of beer and Ken would talk enthusiastically and endlessly about his paintings and his painting techniques, his drawings, his job, other artists he'd met, shows he'd seen, things that were happening, gadgets, air compressors, spray guns, the color black and its endless permutations always with boundless energy and with good cheer.

That was a very complex and complicated time. Searching for recognition, and a place to show and someone to represent your work was generally gruesome and terribly competitive. When we were poor, struggling for recognition, unknown painters, discovering the art scene, carving out our place and being a part of the creation of the scene as it unfolded in the sixties was a seemingly endless struggle. At times it was every man for himself.

When Max's Kansas City opened on 17th Street in 1966 it quickly became the hangout for the downtown artists and Ken Showell quickly became a fixture at Max's and then in 1969 at St. Adrian's another artist bar on Lower Broadway near the old Broadway Central Hotel. In those days Ken Showell was an abstract painter at night and a social worker by day. He supported his family and his artwork by holding a full-time job with the Social Services department as a case worker seeing clients in the field. I never heard him complain about the drain on his energy or the time that the job took out of him. Ken loved to talk, he loved people and he seemed fascinated by all the disparate and desperate people and places the job took him to. Ken also loved to paint and he was prodigiously prolific producing scores of large canvasses and smaller ones as well as dozens of works on paper. Ken also loved to drink and he seemed to consume beer by the truckload.

In late 1966 I introduced Ken to gallery director Dorothy Herzka (later Dorothy Lichtenstein), and she included Ken Showell in a group exhibition at the Bianchini Gallery on 57th Street (Feb. 1967). Dan Christensen, Peter Gourfain and I were the other artists in the show. We were all invited to participate in the 1967 Whitney Annual that year on the strength of the Bianchini exhibition. At the time not much of our work was selling and the prices we were asking were very low.

In those days Ken Showell was painting colored fields stacked on top of one another like horizontal stripes on generally vertical rectangles, with webs of colored lines on top of the stripes. The lines were thin and multicolored and graph like, angled and crisscross. I don't think Ken sold anything and eventually Ken's wife and daughter left New York and returned to the Midwest.

Sometime in 1967 or 1968 Ken had a one man show in Paris at the Yvon Lambert Gallery. Eventually he began to become better known and began selling paintings as the scene heated up but Ken Showell seemed to be having a very difficult time selling his work and gaining serious recognition with the galleries and the media.

In April 1969, David Whitney invited Ken Showell to have a one man exhibition at his new gallery in the fall of that year. The David Whitney Gallery at 53 E. 19th Street, opened with a group exhibition in September 1969 that included Ken Showell. During the fall of 1969 color photographs of that group exhibition appeared in Life magazine in an article on the new art galleries opening up in downtown Manhattan. Ken Showell had his first one man show in New York at the David Whitney Gallery in November 1969.

During the early months of 1969 Ken Showell began the series of abstract spray paintings which he would become best known for as a painter. He would take large sheets of raw canvas or canvas that was thinly tinted and crumple them into seemingly random clumps (but in fact with a sensitive and canny painter's eye) and lay them in shapes across the floor of his studio. With an array of spray guns and a powerful air compressor he would spray the canvasses in a wide range of color and density creating various colored areas on the canvas. He would let the canvas dry and then stretch the paintings onto flat rectangular stretchers of various sizes.

The finished, stretched abstract paintings captured the essence of traditional still life painting reminding me at times of Cezanne with a wide variety of seemingly realistic compositions and yet they were completely abstract. They were abstract still-life paintings of a kind that were original, unique, and in many cases very beautiful. The pictures were a combination of process, tradition and experimentation. Resulting in a totally new and original point of departure for the art of still life painting. At the time these pictures were included in a multitude of important group exhibitions around the U.S. Ken Showell's pictures were often characterized by the term Lyrical Abstraction.

Ken Showell's first exhibition at David Whitney's Gallery in November 1969 (when he was thirty) was a continuation of this series of works and also represented Ken's first serious success as a painter. For the first time he sold well and he was able to have at least two years during which time he concentrated exclusively on making paintings. Ken had shows in St. Louis with the Joseph Helman Gallery, in Cleveland at the New Gallery, in Dallas at the Janie C. Lee Gallery and his work was included in exhibitions in Europe and in California.

In November 1969 Ken Showell joined me and the painter William Pettet in moving into a 6 story loft building in the neighborhood now known as Tribeca. During that period I saw a lot of Ken, especially because we were all moving in and getting the building and our respective places together. Bill Pettet and I were also showing with the David Whitney Gallery.

For all of 1970 and about half of 1971 Ken continued to paint his colorful, sprayed still life abstractions, he went to Chicago briefly to make a print, but otherwise he stayed in New York and produced a lot of work. I would hear his compressor going until late at night and then again the next day. I visited him fairly often as he would also drop in on me as well.

However in late May 1971 Ken found a smaller loft on Walker Street and with the money he received from selling his lofts and fixtures to the owners of the soon to open Spring Street Bar, he moved. Ken also found work as a bartender and he worked at several local artist bars during the early seventies. Ken continued to drink heavily in those days and I kind of lost track of Ken during that time, I know that when David Whitney closed the gallery in 1972 Ken never found another dealer to represent him in New York.

Sometime around 1975 or 1976, I ran into Ken and he told me he was thinking about being a photographer - shooting slides and transparencies for artists and galleries. I asked Ken to shoot my new pictures and he came by. That began a new association between us. Over the past twenty years Ken Showell took most of my slides and transparencies.

Eventually Ken stopped drinking and he stopped smoking but he never stopped painting and of course he loved to talk and to see exhibitions and go to museums and be a part of the art world. I remember when Ken told me that he was painting landscapes again - that must of been in the late seventies, and I thought of those pictures I'd seen back in Kansas City in 1963. Ken was suddenly very excited about his own paintings again and I was happy for him.

Over the years we would talk and I was pained that Ken didn't have gallery representation. He was so serious about his art, and I urged him to try to show but he couldn't seem to bring himself to the point of seriously trying to find a gallery. It was ironic because he knew everybody through his photography, he had many artists and galleries as clients and many of us would of helped him if he asked and yet he kept his paintings to himself, perhaps fearing perhaps loathing the glitzy and garrish art market of the eighties.

Occasionally Ken Showell's work would appear in group exhibitions and generally Ken was enthusiastic but I sensed that he didn't want to pressure his work, he seemed to be content to paint what he felt like painting and not really give a damn what people thought. I remember when Ken was painting skulls and I convinced him to paint flowers – how excited he was about his new flower paintings. The most excited that I ever saw Ken be was in the late eighties when he brought over some eight by ten transparencies of his new work to show me how he was painting and making his new picture frames.

I was totally saddened by Ken's death and his apparent destruction of so much of his early work. I was dismayed when he told me he destroyed all of his crumpled still life spray paintings from the late sixties, early seventies. I wish that he hadn't done that, but even more importantly I wish that he hadn't died. I hope that someday more people see the work that Ken Showell created during his dedicated lifetime as an artist. Ken Showell was an artist and a photographer with a million acquaintances and friends and yet he always remained private, somewhat reclusive and alone. And man – he is missed.

Ronnie Landfield, September 16, 1997, NYC.

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