Lenny Kislin came to Woodstock in 1970. He’d just finished law school — to please his father — and he bought some land, determined to build his own home. “I didn’t even tell my father because I didn’t want to get into those arguments. Going to law school taught me what I didn’t want to do,” he says. “I’ve always been an artist on the edge, and I drew very well when I was younger. When I was writing my notes in law classes, I’d doodle and write ‘blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.’ I just wasn’t that interested. I wanted to be a singer/songwriter, and had been playing in a band out on Long Island during college. But all my money disappeared into building the house, and I thought ‘maybe I’ll have to take the bar exam and actually become a lawyer.’”
Luckily, Kislin had a friend, Marty, a chemical engineer who wanted to open an antiques shop in Catskill. “He saw me drowning in my misery and said, ‘take a drive to Albany with me. I’m going on an antiques buying trip.’ So, Nancy, my wife, gave me $10 to spend. Back then, they weighed the objects — heavy ones were 50 cents and light ones were 25 cents — and if I saw things I liked or that were interesting, I showed them to Marty first. What he didn’t want, I took. I spent the whole $10. I knew Nancy would be upset — that’s how poor we were, and I’d never been poor before — and she started to cry when I told her.”
“That’s when I got hooked,” says Kislin. “It turned my life around. I would go to auctions in Kingston, looking for American folk art. Back then, you could get it. Other people were looking for oak furniture, glass, silver, special things, but I couldn’t compete in that realm. I bought items to sell that had,” he pauses, “a certain attraction.”
He offered his finds at the Woodstock Flea Market and recalls another, more convincing, epiphany. Kislin had purchased a log cabin quilt for $20 at a Kingston auction and a woman asked how much he was selling it for. “I looked at her. I looked at Nancy. I said, ‘$75,’ which was probably a very low price. She swallowed that quilt. That’s when a silent thundercloud went off in my head — a $55 profit, right off the bat! And that began my life as actually working hard for a living.”
Kislin’s solo show of assemblage art opens on Saturday, May 7 at 4 p.m. at Woodstock Artists Association and Museum (WAAM) and it will be, he says, “one of the best shows they’ve ever had. I’m not a modest person, and you might think I’m sounding over-confident, but when people say, ‘you’re the greatest,’ I need that. When I was a kid, it wasn’t the greatest. I didn’t like my childhood. But great things have happened along the way. I met my wife, and getting her to love me? That was the greatest. I was her best friend for years: she had a boyfriend and I wanted to be in her life so I became her good friend. Then, she became my wife, and we’ve been married 50 years, thank goodness.”
The show is evenly split between retrospective and newer pieces. Each one is a whimsical, thought-provoking and sometimes downright curious work of art, accompanied by a brief narrative or sly joke that reveals Kislin’s idiosyncratic perspectives. As he puts it, “they’re not just objects on a board. I revere these objects, and so much work goes into them for me to decide that it’s good. I magnify what these things have been through their existence.”
What they have been, in their most recent existence, is his. Kislin has amassed a studio/warehouse and a home filled with objects saved to use for his art, beginning with that first fateful foray to Albany in 1972. Over the years, he hauled objects, took risks, hoped for the best, and learned about what sells (and what doesn’t) — and sold his treasures at some of the best shows in New York City, Massachusetts and Nashville, all places where the folk art he loved was not readily available. “This was the beginning of when folk art was becoming really desirable and I entered into the antique business in that manner. The thrill for me,” he continues, “was in discovering something really wonderful. While I was hunting for materials to sell, I found a lot of materials to put aside for future art projects. ‘Broken’ was often the difference between art and antiques. I mean, people go to the dump to look for materials to make art, and over time I have collected thousands of objects to make art.”
This is definitely a better quality of stuff than what you’d find at the dump …
Now, he says, sorting through his materials and objects is like hunting a second time. “I might get a germ of an idea from an object and it causes a relationship to grow into a piece.” Nancy built him a studio so he could store his art objects (and, truthfully, to get some of it out of their house). Though he doesn’t always remember exactly where a particular item has been placed, and it’s not always easy to maneuver around to get to it, he has a rich stockpile of artistic choices. “One of the most frustrating things in my life is that I can’t go into the aisles anymore,” says Kislin, who uses a walker. “I used to walk field after field — I was a hunter — and I loved that aspect of the business. I don’t have that thrill of being the hunter anymore.”
When he’s creating art, he brings objects into the house and works on the dining room table. He says he develops a response to the material that he’s working with, and ‘use me well’ goes through his head. His goal is to not distract attention from the object and to associate elements of pieces together. “When people see a piece of art, they never think about what comes before, about how it came into existence. I try to create a unified subject matter that makes sense, and then I title it to help the viewer. They’re often clever and funny, and I almost always wait for it to be done before I title it,” Kislin explains.
This is Kislin’s fourth solo show at WAAM, and he has selected about 30 pieces to exhibit. WAAM has honored him twice since the turn of this century: he received their Kuniyoshi Award last year for a lifetime of producing high quality work and, in 2000, the Towbin Award as Artist of the Year.
“Want to hear my theories about why I’m drawn to old things?” Kislin asks. When he was young, growing up in the South Bronx, he was almost killed, twice, and he came to believe he would die young. “I could have had ‘pessimistic’ engraved on my forehead. I collected things I knew were old — quartz stones I would find in the streets of the Bronx, and I even went west hunting for old rocks. Being into old stuff, stuff that comes to be through time, is giving me more time. Not physical time, mental time. It’s adding on years. It’s about the time it took to get to me, the time it took to make it, the person’s time who made it: I’m a time collector. It adds another dimension onto my life, an addition of time within me, and it artificially gives me more time.”
Kislin has to work in spurts now, when he feels pain-free enough to do it, and doesn’t socialize as much as he used to do. But, with a lot of great friends, a regular poker game each week, his daughter and four grandchildren who live nearby, and his sweet Nancy, Kislin says, “I have a happy life. In May, I will be 70 years old. I’m so disappointed. I was wrong. I didn’t die young.”
Title those comments, “Kislin, Smirking” or maybe “Time Heals All Pessimists.” What about “The Artful Dodger?” Go see his show, you’ll see for yourself. Lenny Kislin’s got better stuff to create with than you’ll find at the dump or in your garage — guaranteed — and he knows how to assemble it into pieces that are equally rare and quite striking.
Lenny Kislin, Opening Reception is 4 p.m.-6 p.m., Saturday, May 7. The show runs through June 5 at Woodstock Artists Association and Museum (Solo Gallery), 28 Tinker Street, Woodstock; 679-2940, ulsterpub.staging.wpengineart.org/solo-gallery/.