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Meet the artist who just turned 100 years old — and is finally having his moment

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

An update now on Jonah Kinigstein. He's the figurative painter we told you about in January. In the 1950s, Kinigstein was on the verge of making it big, but then the taste of the art world changed. He never quit and was still painting at age 99. Well, now he's 100. And here's NPR's Matthew Schuerman.

MATTHEW SCHUERMAN, BYLINE: For a while, it seemed like Jonah Kinigstein was going somewhere. He won a Fulbright, got into the Whitney Museum and caught the attention of a prominent gallery owner.

JONAH KINIGSTEIN: I went down with some photos. And she says, all right, we'll take you on for a while.

SCHUERMAN: That gallerist was Edith Halpert. She represented painters who've become legends like Jacob Lawrence, Ben Shahn and Georgia O'Keeffe.

J KINIGSTEIN: She held famous American artists. So it really was a good place to be.

SCHUERMAN: Halpert was such an important part of the art world then that The Jewish Museum in New York organized an exhibit about her a few years ago. Rebecca Shaykin was its curator.

REBECCA SHAYKIN: I can't imagine how he felt at the time. It must have been like winning the lottery.

SCHUERMAN: Once, Life magazine even profiled her, along with nine of her artists. Kinigstein was one of them.

SHAYKIN: So this is an article that ran in Life magazine in 1952 - new crop of painting proteges.

SCHUERMAN: Except what happened next changed art history forever and derailed Kinigstein's career, hopes and dreams. In the years after World War II, figurative art that modeled more or less on real life coexisted with abstract art like Jackson Pollock's drip paintings or Mark Rothko's color fields. But eventually, abstract art won the day.

SHAYKIN: All kind of modes of art-making that had seemed to work in the past, a kind of figurative mode of showing people in pain or in anguish - it didn't seem like it could really capture the sort of general sense of existential dread.

SCHUERMAN: Kinigstein was a figurative painter. His subjects were rabbis, saints, circus barkers, often exaggerated and expressionistic but mimicking real life. By 1960, he couldn't convince anyone to give him a show. The rejection stung.

J KINIGSTEIN: I mean, I made painting after painting, and I always felt, you know, I was doing my best.

SCHUERMAN: To him, abstract painting took no talent, no skill, no ability to observe the world around you. That's, of course, a common complaint about modern art.

J KINIGSTEIN: You know, I saw a guy right in front of my eyes going from real, real painting to, you know, like, he laid the painting down on a floor, and he started to splash around. I couldn't talk to that guy. I really couldn't talk to him.

SCHUERMAN: Kinigstein married, had two kids and made his living doing lithographs and commercial arts. In 1961, he designed Bloomingdale's first-ever collectible shopping bag, and he never stopped painting. His studio on the third floor of his house in Brooklyn has got hundreds of his paintings in it. They're of cabarets, dance halls, churches or Jewish shtetls. The figures look grotesque, emaciated or like they're having fun at the expense of someone else.

J KINIGSTEIN: This is Coney Island. I was born in Coney Island.

SCHUERMAN: It's a painting of a funhouse, a devil standing above the entrance with a sign.

J KINIGSTEIN: Hell hole.

SCHUERMAN: Then there's an impressionistic one of St. Anthony with a long beard and tattered clothing.

J KINIGSTEIN: He was tempted by women, you know, and he was a religious guy.

SCHUERMAN: Kinigstein also draws cartoons. They look like something out of a 19th century political magazine, except his lampoon the art establishment that promoted abstract painting.

J KINIGSTEIN: Here's the original engraving.

SCHUERMAN: One of them is based on a famous Rembrandt, "The Anatomy Lesson Of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp," except the cadaver on the bed is labeled figurative painting. And the men around him cutting him up are gallery dealers, critics, curators and auction houses.

J KINIGSTEIN: All these guys are making fun of them. They're all wearing funny hats.

SCHUERMAN: A few times, Kinigstein took these cartoons to New York's gallery district, Soho, and pasted them onto building walls and lampposts.

EILEEN KINIGSTEIN: Getting into arguments with people who would come by, then people taking them off, wanting him to sign them.

SCHUERMAN: That's Eileen, his second wife.

E KINIGSTEIN: I was in the getaway car.

J KINIGSTEIN: (Laughter).

E KINIGSTEIN: You know, I drove the getaway car.

SCHUERMAN: Kinigstein's long since reconciled himself to not being popular.

J KINIGSTEIN: Oh, I can't change anybody's mind. No.

SCHUERMAN: And recently, he's gotten a little recognition. Fantagraphics, arguably the most important art comics publisher in the U.S., came out with a collection of his cartoons in 2014. Gary Groth knew he wanted to publish them the day he opened Kinigstein's submission.

GARY GROTH: They were clearly not drawn by a young person because they displayed a level of craft. They were also extraordinarily well-drawn. And then I looked at the content, and every single one of them was a ferocious attack on abstract expressionism.

SCHUERMAN: Next, Groth turned his attention to Kinigstein's paintings.

GROTH: I thought he was at least as good a painter as he was at editorial cartoons, and painting was actually his first love.

SCHUERMAN: That book, "Unrepentant Artist: The Paintings Of Jonah Kinigstein," appeared last summer. Abstract expressionism is long since gone, followed by pop art, minimalism, postmodernism. Now figurative painting is sort of coming back. But that's not why Kinigstein's doing it.

J KINIGSTEIN: I don't paint for anybody, you know? I know what I want.

SCHUERMAN: In June, Jonah turned 100 years old and celebrated at a restaurant in Brooklyn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Happy birthday, dear Jonah.

SCHUERMAN: He was surrounded by his children, grandchildren, nieces, great-nieces and a great-nephew and even a great-great-niece. The tables were littered with snapshots of his paintings on miniature wooden easels that guests could take home as party favors. Jonah was in the center of it all, wearing a baseball cap his son had made for him with a single word stitched on it - unrepentant. Matthew Schuerman, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Matthew Schuerman
Matthew Schuerman has been a contract editor at NPR's Weekend Edition since October 2021, overseeing a wide range of interviews on politics, the economy, the war in Ukraine, books, music and movies. He also occasionally contributes his own stories to the network. Previously, he worked at New York Public Radio for 13 years as reporter, editor and senior editor, and before that at The New York Observer, Village Voice, Worth and Fortune. Born in Chicago and educated at Harvard College and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, he now lives in the New York City area.

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