Lenny Kislin — beloved Woodstocker whose puppy dog eyes launched a million smiles — finally proved that personal prophecy of doom which couldn’t lose, though in proving it we lost him…at 4 a.m. Tuesday September 12 to kidney failure. He was 71 years old.
Lenny was born in the Bronx in 1946. His parents were Joe and Phyllis with the pet shop. Aside from being scary bright Lenny was normal enough. His father said he had two choices in life: “doctor or lawyer.” Lenny chose law because the blood had already been cleaned up.
Lenny’s first hero in high school was John Lennon. So he started playing guitar and began performing Beatles songs. They were a sure thing. He saved every dime.
At Queen’s College he joined Phi Epsilon Pi. Phi Ep’s lunch table was right next to its sister, Iota Alpha Pi. Over lunch destiny struck. Her name was Nancy Meltzer. Nancy was already taken but that didn’t stop Lenny from crooning to her “Ah but I might as well Catch The Wind.” At this Nancy knew, but was taken. So Lenny waited, settling for “best friends.” After the inevitable romantic shoot a new couple stood stunned. Somebody said, “You two look great together…So — you gonna’ get married?” Nancy and Lenny looked at each other. “Yeah I guess we are.” And six month’s later?…They were.
The Newlyweds wanted a place in the country. They fell in love (again) and purchased two acres in Bearsville. Their architect planned a house he claimed would be finished in a summer. It took five years. A few months after the purchase Lenny presented his father with his law degree. “Here’s what you wanted, Dad. And now the rest of my life belongs to me.”
Building had cleaned them out but both Lenny and Nancy had an eye for antiques. Mostly they bought American from the 19th and 20th centuries — objects which Lenny explained were “not yet actively sought after, but which intrigued us with their forms.” “Intrigued” being the tell. For even as their keen purchases brought hefty profits in Manhattan — from the first Lenny was consumed with the idea of “assembling” contemporary art out of old, venerable objects; ones he often said, “I revere.” In preparation for this work, the Kislins collected and sold for 40 years, with Lenny still reluctant to drill holes in his precious hoard. But while business was outwardly successful, at home Nancy was at her wits end with ever-encroaching piles of stuff “you hada’ step over” to even climb into bed. Finally came the day she calmly stated. “I’m going to Florida to visit my parents. When I get back you will have created a work of art or — it’s all going to the dump.”
Meanwhile Alex Acevedo (reigning guru of art and antiques) acquired the old Sotheby showroom on Madison Avenue and presciently reached out to the hundreds of antique dealers he knew to establish which of them were artists. The result in 1992 became the talk of New York. This was The Art Of The Dealer show, where that very first Nancy-commanded piece (appropriate to Lenny’s desperation entitled: “Suicide”) was purchased at opening by The Museum of Contemporary Art of Hawaii. Whereupon? Lenny was off and running with Woodstock the obvious winner of work which literally leapt off the wall to be married beneath his magic touch.
He remembered once trying to figure out, “Why do I love this stuff so much?” Lenny told PBS show “aha” the answer — “I’m actually a time collector: the time it took for the person to make the piece; the period [or “time”] the person lived in…the time it took for the piece to get to me. I collect all this time and I give it [this altered form] another time to go into.”
As to the beginnings of their joyfully hectic social life in Woodstock, the Kislins credit the birth of daughter Jessie in 1976, and that circle of new families growing larger and older…with time. Add that familial love of fine food and Lenny’s sympathy for living artists attempting to stay that way — and over the years further magic resulted. “Your food is great but your art is getting really boring,” Lenny one day told Nina and Luke at Oriole9. “Why don’t I curate some great new work for free?” Lenny superbly delivered.
Next Ric Orlando at New World Cooking wanted some of that magic. “I’ll do one room of my own work,” Lenny told the chef/owner, “and the other rooms will be an incredible smorgasbord of new talent.” Eventually Kislin was told, essentially, “hold the smorgasbord — we just want you.”
Now the wrenching part. Lenny never made a secret of his illness. Though he continued to curate shows, create his own work, enjoy his grandchildren, play poker with his buds, and profoundly love the love of his life, he did indeed curse aloud his dying. People don’t…Lenny did. The good thing about this transparency was that, with the devotional last opening at Oriole9, crowned by a retrospective at WAAM where every friend in his world showed, Lenny laid it out. “I don’t need a funeral. This is my memorial and I’m here to experience it.”
Today Jessie is happily married with four children. She had a special relationship with Lenny, of which she wrote: “I always recognized the question preceding any gift from him — ‘Will you treasure it?’ The last piece he gave me was a wooden link chain, hand-carved from a single piece of wood, a continuous, unending circle. I was sitting with him in the days before he died, and I put that chain over my head. He asked, ‘Will you treasure it?’ I will.”
It was getting close. Nancy thought she was ready. She and Lenny fell asleep on Monday night but only one of them awoke. It was then she learned: you’re never ready.
But we are…to celebrate one incredible Woodstocker, Lenny Kislin.
Who is survived by his wife Nancy, daughter, Jessie Driscoll, her husband Dan Driscoll, and in order of descending age Lenny’s grandchildren: Joey, Linus, Rowan, and Jameson, who were the joy of his life.
A short film about Lenny’s work by Stephen Blauweiss.