Excerpt from African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond

Bethesda Fine Art
May 10, 2018 7:32PM

Published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Skira/Rizzoli in 2010 on the occasion of the traveling exhibition (featuring works from the collection) of the same name, this excerpt about Kenneth Victor Young describes his forms and biographical information (p. 230).

The black orbs in Kenneth Young's untitled abstraction (1973) are deceptive. They seem alternately microscopic, like organisms floating in a fluid field, or cosmic, like bits of matter captured in a split second. Opaque at the center, the spheres  are fluid at their edges, even translucent. The space, too, is ambiguous. Deep reds seem distant; electric blues propel dark forms forward from unfathomable depths.

Kenneth Victor Young, 1973, acrylic on canvas, 37 5/8 x 37 5/8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. Val E. Lewton

Energy and matter are apt subjects for a physicist turned painter. After receiving his degree in physics from Indiana University, Young worked for a chemical firm, then was drafted and sent to Hawaii, where he took courses in Asian art. When his service was over he returned home and enrolled at the University of Louisville to pursue a graduate degree in chemical engineering. "I've always been interested in. . .outer space, inner space, and the development of what occurs - force, magnetism, and that kind of thing," he recently remarked. But elective courses in art proved seductive, and Young abandoned a career in science to study painting and the humanities. In the evenings he argued philosophy, art, and the structure of jazz with fellow students Sam Gilliam and Bob Thompson.

Young's earliest paintings were figureative images of people and urban streets, but by the mid-1960s, after moving to Washington, D.C., he was a confirmed abstractionist. The canvases in his solo exhibition held in 1969 at Washington's Franz Bader Gallery featured bands of washed acrylic that shifted between dark and bright tones, like rays of light penetrating a forest interior.

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