The 113th meeting of the NY Comics & Picture-story Symposium will be held on Tuesday, February 3, 2015 at 7 pm at Parsons The New School, 2 West 13th Street, in the Bark Room (off the lobby). Free and open to the public. Please note 7 pm starting time.
Jonah Kinigstein will discuss his recent book called The Emperor’s New Clothes.
Jonah Kinigstein was born in Coney Island in 1923. Growing up in Coney Island was, well, like growing up in an amusement park. “As a kid, I was glued to everything that took place ―what they call ‘on the bowery.’ It was an area that had all these old amusement park things ― carousels, horses. Ghost houses where you go up with your girlfriend, twists and turns, and then you come out at the other end. And they had all kinds of combinations like that, and then the games that you play. That always remained… you couldn’t get rid of it in your head as a kid. I mean, it was stuck in there.”
His parents were Russian-Polish immigrants (“One day it was Polish, and the next day it was Russia. They kept fighting over it). His father, Jacob, was a house painter during the winter and made women’s hats in the summer; his mother, Yeta, was a housewife. He had two brothers, Lewis and Isadora, five and ten years older than him respectively.
His family moved to Bronx when he was 11 or 12, which is when he started drawing. Like Harvey Kurtzman, like Will Elder, he started drawing on the street in chalk to entertain his friends and enhance his social relationships. By the time he was attending James Monroe High School, he knew he wanted to be an artist and make a living at it. He credits an art teacher in high school, Max Wilkes, as an inspiration. “He was an academic teacher and he could teach us anatomy, and that was important at the time, very important. He taught us how to set up a whole figure. He corrected the work. We used to have a club after school, like there were clubs for writing, music… ours was art. We used to bring in our drawings to Max Wilkes, who looked at them, corrected them, and showed me where it was all wrong.” He discovered contemporary artists, such as Norman Rockwell, who he especially admired because his painting was narrative. He visited the Metropolitan Museum ― “when I really saw the old masters, it blew my mind, of course.”
Upon graduating high school, he went to Cooper Union ―which he could afford because it is New York City’s free college that requires only that the aspiring student pass a test, which Kinigstein did― for a year where he studied architecture, sculpture, and painting, until he was drafted into the Army in 1942. After basic training Fort Dix, he was stationed in Louisiana where he was assigned to a phototopography unit, which enhanced aerial photos of enemy territory. He continued the same work in Saipan and Tinian ― and where he would also occasionally paint landscapes for himself and listen to bombs exploding not far from his base.
He was discharged in 1945, moved back home with his parents, spent another year at Cooper Union, and then started pounding the payment and knocking on doors looking for freelance illustration jobs. Although he managed to do some LP covers and book covers, he wasn’t particularly successful. “I wasn’t good enough . . . there were guys who were better than me. There were guys who had experience. I had none.”
In 1948, an old Army buddy write him from Paris and encouraged him to move there; he told Kinigstein that the Boulevard Saint-Germain would be his 5th Avenue. “So I decided that’s where I’m gonna go. And I tell you, it wasn’t easy to get myself over there on a boat. I had to get it all together. I went to work fro a place that was selling fish. And for a whole month I was there shucking clams until I got enough money.”
He arrived in ’48 and started attending an art school, the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere where he studied with Ossip Zadkine. He lived a Spartan existence on his monthly $75.00 stipend courtesy of the G.I. Bill, and found the art instruction generally less valuable than the social context ― conversing with other aspiring artists, exchanging ideas, exhibiting his work, seeing established artists, and generally soaking up a fertile creative environment. “Brancusi was living next door [to me]. He gave a party and came out, but he was half-crazy already, walking around with a candle on at night and cussing.”
He was part of exhibitions at the Salon D’Automn, Salon De Mai, and the Salon De Moin De Trente Ans, and had one man shows in the Galerie Breteau and Les Impression D’Art.
But, the money ran out, and he couldn’t make a living in Paris, so he returned to New York in 1954. A year later, he went to Rome on a Fulbright Scholarship, which gave him $75 a month to live on, and studied at the Schola Di Belles Artes for a year.
He again returned to the U.S. and exhibited his paintings at the Downtown Gallery in Manhattan for a year or so, and continued to exhibit his work at the Alan Gallery, an adjunct to the Downtown Gallery.
Like so many painters, he was unable to make a living solely from painting, so he worked in the commercial art world and did freelance illustration and design. One of his most significant clients was the Austen Display Company, where he designed and constructed paper and wood window display backgrounds for wellknp0wjn department stores such as Bloomingdales and Bonwit Teller. He created the first designer shopping bag for Bloomingdales, which depicted various Tarot cards.
He then found himself the head of the Research and Development division of Design 375, a point-of-purchase advertising firm exclusively devoted to the Seagrams Whiskey Company. Government regulations ended his position there when it became illegal to advertise whiskey in store windows or on counters.
He next port of call was a position as a Chromist with a printing company, which made lithographs for various artists. The company prided itself on making lithographs in the traditional manner by hand on zinc and aluminum plates. Waterciolor or oil paintings had to be deconstructed and broken down for individual color printing. At times as many as 10 different plates needed to be produced for the completion of a lithographic print of a single painting.
Throughout this time, Kinigstein’s commitment to his own art never wavered, and he continued to paint and occasionally exhibit. In an uncharacteristic understatement, he wrote, “Not happy in the direction the “Art” world was going and who was goading it on I started to make caricatures of the guilty parties and am continuing to make them to this very day.”
Jonah Kinigstein lives in Brooklyn with his wife Eileen. Kinigstein will be having a show at The Society of Illustrators from January 6th through February 7th, 2015.
[text by Gary Groth]