“When the water splits the painting open, magic happens at the subatomic level,” says Woodstock artist Stephen Kerner. “I feel like I’m shifting worlds of atoms around. It feels like flying.”
Kerner’s mystical approach to making art has grown out of inspiration from indigenous cultures, experimentation with multi-layered painting techniques, and a youthful period spent hobnobbing with creative New Yorkers of the sixties and seventies, from Allen Ginsburg to Larry Rivers to Sal Mineo. In Woodstock, Kerner also runs a business, Stone River Archival Printers, providing giclée printing services to artists, photographers, and galleries, an outgrowth of his early efforts to submit copies of 40-foot paintings when applying to museums.
Sitting in his house near the top of Meads Mountain Road, with a view that includes the Ashokan Reservoir, Kerner is reminiscing about his life on East 10th Street, where he rented an apartment at the age of 16 in 1965. His parents had moved from the Lower East Side up to the 90s and were ready to advance to Long Island. Kerner stayed behind to mingle with Beat writers: Ginsburg, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs. “They would use my apartment to take drugs and sleep and get together,” he says.
The following year, he moved to the Chelsea Hotel, where his neighbors were artists Larry Rivers and John Hultberg, composer Virgil Thompson, actress Viva from the Andy Warhol scene. He drank morning beers with Norman Mailer and visited jazz musician Ornette Coleman’s Artists House on Prince Street. “I was exposed to so much,” Kerner recalls.
He considered a career in music — he performed with a jazz quartet and still plays upright bass. “But it was hard to make real money in music,” he says. “Well-known musicians I knew personally were borrowing money from me.”
He decided to focus on art and found he could trade paintings for food and art supplies. At the Chelsea, he watched artists at work and received advice from them. “When I started submitting to museums and exhibiting, John Hultberg told me to get documentation, that it would help down the road. He also said, ‘Keep your work beautiful.’ I had a tendency to go the dark side. It was a fine line.”
At the time, it was much easier to get work accepted by galleries and museums than it is today, says Kerner, whose work has been shown at the Smithsonian, the Whitney, the Corcoran Gallery, the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, among others. “The city embraced artists. In those days, you could get advice from museum curators — you could have a dialogue with them,” he says. There was also a fraction of the present number of artists attempting to show.