Fireball by Kenneth Young (circa 1968)
Fireball by Kenneth Young (circa 1968)

Kenneth Young’s painting is a stand-out in a room full of them.

When the National Gallery of Art reopened its East Building in 2016 following a three-year renovation, the museum devoted a chunk of gallery space to the legends who worked here in the District. Names like Gene Davis. Kenneth Noland. “Relative” (1968), one of Sam Gilliam’s drape paintings, sags from four knotted corners, loose abstract canvas pinned along one gallery wall. Morris Louis’ “Beta Kappa” (1961), maybe the single best-known painting of the Washington Color School, hangs on the adjacent wall, a soggy series of poured rainbow stripes.

These are titans of Washington art—Alma Thomas, Leon Berkowitz, Anne Truitt. Among their works hangs “Red Dance” (1970), a stain painting by Young. It’s a storm of acrylic dabs on an unprimed canvas, blotches of ochre and burnt orange, a red-shifted Milky Way. The mark-making is distinct, but the mode is easy to identify. This is a Washington Color School painting, like and unlike the rest.

Young’s name was not a familiar one. Not just to me: Harry Cooper, the curator who revisited the National Gallery’s permanent collection of modern art for the September reopening of the East Building, didn’t know the artist either, he told me at the time. But Young’s painting plainly belongs where it’s hanging now.

Young with “Spring Rain”(1970) at MGM National Harbor” Credit: Photo courtesy of Kenneth Young’s family

“I kind of stumbled into this way of painting by finding a tool that would give me this result,” Young told me in an interview back in February. “The painting technique was painting wet in wet. Painting wet in wet produced haloes around these objects, which looked like outer space, or inner space.”

Kenneth Victor Young died on March 23 at the age of 83. He lived long enough to see his work installed at the National Gallery of Art (even if it arrived there by a circuitous route). He’d had significant shows before, including solo exhibitions at Fisk University and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, but those both happened more than 30 years ago. By the time of his death, Young had given up painting. In very recent years, though, the artist witnessed the sparks of a career resurgence.

One of his paintings, “Spring Rain” (1970), was acquired for the art collection at MGM National Harbor, where it is displayed in pride of place. An untitled painting from 1973 was part of African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond, a 2012 exhibit assembled by the Smithsonian American Art Museum that traveled to six museums nationwide. Before his death, Young started working with a gallery again, something he hadn’t done in at least 15 years. And in the near future, Young’s paintings will be presented in two area exhibits, one of them a museum retrospective.

The Washington Color School revival—a renewed appetite for the formalist paintings from Washington’s heyday in the 1960s and early ’70s—has fanned both sales and shows for longtime D.C. artists, above all Gilliam. To varying degrees, most Washington Color School artists enjoyed a major first wave of success, too. That early fortune was more elusive for Young, a painter who focused on abstraction when many curators wanted something more concrete from African-American artists. His place in the canon is only just now being assessed.

“I felt like they didn’t recognize me as being part of their movement,” Young said of the Washington Color School back in February. “I was an outsider. I don’t know—because I wasn’t from Washington? Because I didn’t go to Black Mountain College? Those are things that get people into a movement.”


“Butterfly” by Kenneth Young (circa 1968)

Young was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in December 1933. The same year as Sam Gilliam, in the same city where he grew up, although they didn’t meet until later, at the University of Louisville, where Gilliam got his master’s degree. Young studied physics and design at Louisville and also at Indiana University and the University of Hawaii. After serving in the Navy in the 1950s, he went on to work for DuPont in Louisville. “We made gunpowder to blow people up,” he said. “At that time I was painting on my own, with no formal training.”

Young moved to D.C. in 1964 to take a job with the Smithsonian Institution, where he served as an exhibit designer, one of the first black employees to work in that role. He was newly married and needed work. When he first came to the District to settle in, he crashed with one of his few friends in town. “Sam had a place with a rickety back room. It was a screened-in porch,” Young said. “He let me stay until his [then] wife, Dorothy Gilliam, said I had to go.”

In addition to his work for the Smithsonian, Young moonlighted as a design specialist for what was then the United States Information Agency, a federal agency devoted to public diplomacy. (A quaint idea today.) This afforded him the opportunity to travel widely. He made frequent trips to Egypt and several other African nations, where he helped curators work out their exhibition-design strategies. Cairo especially was foundational to his budding development as an artist. So were his early trips to Italy, where he discovered the work of Giorgio de Chirico, an early 20th-century proto-Surrealist.

“I had a studio, which I rented from a group in New York in Assisi, Italy,” Young said. “It was only for 30 days. You got to paint for 30 days and eat good food and be surrounded by pretty women.” 

With the Smithsonian, Young designed an exhibition wing for the National Museum of American History, a hall of graphic arts where Jacob Kainen, another Washington painter, served as curator. It was through Kainen, maybe—Young said that he didn’t quite remember—that he got to know many of the Washington Color School painters. Tom Downing lived around the corner from Young’s Adams Morgan apartment and would come over to listen to jazz. Howard Mehring, too. Noland and Morris were already New York stars by that point, long gone from D.C.

“Gene Davis, I knew just in passing on the street,” Young said, referring to D.C.’s noted abstract stripe painter. “He’d say, ‘I’d give you a ride, but I can’t give you a ride.’ He only had a two-seater, a Jaguar. He was thumbing his nose at me.”

Young offered conflicting accounts of when he started painting in earnest, but by the late 1960s, he was all in. The epicenter of the Washington Color School at that time was the Jefferson Place Gallery, which Alice Denney launched before she opened the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in 1961. Young tried to get in with “the clique” at Jefferson Place, he said, but to no avail. Instead he scored a show at the gallery run by Franz Bader, another heavyweight in the Washington art scene, and this opened up the early part of Young’s career—which culminated in a solo exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1973.

While entrée with the Washington Color School was elusive at the time, it was only ever an informal association. The label came about after Washington Color Painters, a 1965 exhibit at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art that traveled widely. That show established six painters—Louis, Noland, Davis, Downing, Mehring, and Paul Reed—as the core of the Washington Color School, D.C.’s First Class. The common elements between them: They applied pigment to unprimed canvases, making for a stained look. (Something that, in fact, all of them borrowed from the New York painter Helen Frankenthaler.)

Other painters who came later, such as Gilliam, were dubbed a second wave. Alma Thomas, who started her painting career in her sixties but came before all of them, was simply never given her due. Washington Color School “status,” such as it was, was more often honored in the breach than in the observance.

“It’s not like they all hung out at the Cedar bar,” says George Hemphill, an art dealer who represents the estate of Kainen and many periods of work by Berkowitz, Willem de Looper, and Rockne Krebs, all Washington Color School–adjacent artists. (The Cedar Tavern was an infamous Greenwich Village watering hole where virtually all of New York’s Abstract Expressionists really did hang out.) 

“I used to get into these big arguments with Sam Gilliam,” Young said. “He was all hot about the Color School when he first came here. He tried to emulate them. I said, ‘Oh, man, that’s just design.’”

Artist at work Credit: Photo courtesy of Kenneth Young’s family

Young was never as invested in purely formal concerns, like raw colors and geometric shapes, as his counterparts. “He was all about the physical earth, and space, and things that are beyond—energy, and how that ties into life and afterlife,” says his daughter, Leslie Young, who survives him and lives in Arlington, Virginia. Eventually, his cosmic painting style came back to earth. Young turned an abrupt about-face after the ’70s: His work took on a more Pointillist appearance. Still abstract, these paintings nevertheless looked like landscapes made from thousands of points of light—perhaps befitting a Washington Color School drop-out. 

During the ’80s, Young increasingly concentrated on his career with the Smithsonian. The archival binders he kept in his Adams Morgan apartment on Columbia Road NW are filled with exhibition-design drawings—fine and detailed, as distinctive as an old-school architectural rendering (a skill he honed at the University of Louisville). Plenty of projects kept him busy: He curated a show of African-American artists in Italy. He taught painting and drawing at the Corcoran School of Art from 1973 to 1985 and, later, exhibition design at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington. He befriended the free-jazz Art Ensemble of Chicago. 

And he continued to show his paintings through another D.C. venue, Gallery K, although with less visibility. In a review for The Washington Post in 1989, critic Jo Ann Lewis numbered Young among artists “who either have dropped from sight altogether or have shown infrequently in recent years.” Young shrugged that line off as “just general presence of people’s hype.”

Despite diminishing returns, he kept up with painting, even after he retired from the Smithsonian after 30 years in 1994. Daniel Shay, an art handler for the National Gallery, shared a studio with Young from 1989 to 1999 on K Street NW in Mount Vernon Square, just north of the arch in Chinatown. “During the time, it was the frontier,” Shay says, “but it was a good place for artists.” The two shared a studio with high ceilings on the ground floor, where Young was working with spray-paint applications. Shay found him there most days. Several years later, Young gave up painting for good.

Young died almost two years to the date after the death of his wife, Morrissa Young, in 2015. For the last two years, he had been traveling with his daughter around the Caribbean: Aruba, Grand Cayman, San Juan, Puerto Vallarta. “We’d go every couple months, four months or so, to the beach,” Leslie says. On a recent trip to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, the artist caught pneumonia. While the doctors didn’t detect any fluid in his lungs after he returned, Leslie says, he died from complications two days later. 

“I liked his work because it reflected the person,” says Shay, his former studio-mate. “He was very quiet, very thoughtful. As a man, he was very top of the list of people who have ever been in Washington.”


“Dance” by Kenneth Young (circa 1968)

In 1971, Sam Gilliam was selected to appear in Contemporary Black Artists in America, a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. That show was assembled as the result of direct pressure from the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, a group that organized in 1969 in response to a show of Harlem artists at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968 featured photographs and other displays about Harlem, but the Met show managed to entirely omit any works by black artists who lived there. In 1971, when it came to light that the Whitney show didn’t involve any black curators (or “black art specialists”)—a point that the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition had insisted on—Gilliam and 14 other black artists pulled out of the 75-artist survey in protest. “All the curators were always white, as far as I was concerned,” Young said. He wasn’t invited to participate in the Whitney special but nevertheless had an interest in that exhibit. He rooted for the Whitney’s 1972 solo show for Alma Thomas, the first ever for a black woman at the museum. At that time, his personal politics diverged from those of some of his colleagues. He was on a different page. “[Alma Thomas] called Caroll Sockwell and myself ‘yard dogs,’” Young recalled. “She thought we were just wild, too wild.” 

Young mentioned Sockwell in a laugh-line, but only later did I realize that it was a dark one. A friend whom Young mentioned several times, Sockwell was another black D.C. abstractionist, one who struggled with immense personal demons. In a 1992 feature for The Washington Post, Gene Weingarten wrote about Sockwell’s suicidal plunge from the Pennsylvania Avenue bridge in Foggy Bottom, a death thought to have been brought on by a sudden withdrawal from alcohol.

In his discussion with me, Young dismissed any difficulties he might have faced as a black artist. He said that he felt no compunction about making post-painterly abstraction during the aftermath of the Civil Rights era, only that “it was hard getting [the work] shown.” He was not alone in that observation. Despite all of Sam Gilliam’s late-in-life successes—at the time of this writing, he was in Italy, where his work is being shown as part of the prestigious Venice Biennale—Gilliam also endured a long, almost inexplicable fallow period. For a 2015 profile I wrote about Gilliam, one of his champions explained the long odds: “African-Americans, especially in the early ’60s, just had fewer opportunities,” says Jonathan Binstock, former curator for the Corcoran. “There were greater obstacles in their path when it came to achieving success, recognition, building a career as an artist. It’s just a fact of American history”—full stop.

In the ’70s, there was nowhere for a black abstract artist to turn. “Contemporary Black Artists in America,” wrote John Canaday in The New York Times, “is not very black and not very good, but it has a couple of black spots that are very good indeed.” While Robert Doty’s work as the (white) curator for that exhibit has since been praised, neither black nor white audiences readily accepted it at the time. As Susan E. Cahan explains in Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power, members of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition announced Rebuttal, a show opposite the Whitney exhibition at the Acts of Art Gallery. “I’m showing the real stuff and they’re showing a watered down standard,” said curator Nigel Jackson.

“‘Abstraction was anything and everything but a black artist’s choice,” writes Darby English in 1971: A Year in the Life of Color. Summarizing the attitude expressed by Jackson and other black cultural leaders, English continues: “Such an art handicaps the impulse to separate black culture from white. What self-respecting black artist would impose that predicament on her public at a time like this?”

In that moment, D.C. occupied a peculiar position as a locus for a specific category of abstraction, a post-painterly re-examination of the high-modernist codes of Abstract Expressionism. The Washington Color School was rooted in process and composition, not in nature and myth, like the work of Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko. It was a short-lived bubble: Art soon moved off the wall entirely, into sculpture and installation, and D.C. lost what status it held to New York and Los Angeles. And it was not a bubble that especially promoted black artists or inoculated them against the larger doubts about what, if anything, black art meant. (As Young put it, somewhat sarcastically, “If it ain’t black, it won’t sell.”)

Young attributed his early momentum to gallerist Franz Bader, “a liberal guy, who would give guys like me, young upstarts, a chance.” There were other people, he said, naming Ramon Osuna, who recently sold one of Young’s paintings through his Kensington, Maryland–based gallery. Young enjoyed representation, however limited, through Gallery K in Dupont Circle, until 2003, when H. Marc Moyens and Komei Wachi—partners in the gallery and in life—died within a month of one another. 

In a sidelong way, Young may have benefited from the interest that younger, so-called post-black artists have taken in their black abstractionist forerunners. Rashid Johnson, a conceptual art star born in 1977, helped to reignite Gilliam’s career by bringing him to the attention of his Los Angeles dealer, David Kordansky, who recently showcased Gilliam’s work at the renowned Frieze Masters fair in London in 2015. (“Forty Years Too Late, an Artist’s Market Takes Off,” read a typical Gilliam headline, this one in Bloomberg.) However late, curators and dealers for international galleries and fairs alike are taking stock of black abstract artists.

Why did it take 40 years for Gilliam or Young or many others who are just finding their footing (again) in the art market? It may be instructive to look to The DeLuxe Show, a 1971 exhibit at a dilapidated venue called the DeLuxe Theater in Houston’s embattled Fifth Ward. Peter Bradley, who assembled the exhibit, included artists of color such as Gilliam, Edward Clark, and Virginia Jaramillo alongside white contemporary artists such as Noland and Anthony Caro. Bradley had been invited to appear in Contemporary Black Artists in America, but he declined on the grounds that it separated out black artists from white. “It embittered many artists who, happy to accept recognition from a museum devoted entirely to American art, ended up being used as a socio-political football,” Bradley wrote in a memo. Instead, he set out to curate the first-ever integrated U.S. show of contemporary black and white artists, situating their post-painterly work in The Nickel, one of Houston’s poorest and blackest neighborhoods.

The segregated art scene in D.C. was an issue that Paul Richards, longtime former art critic for The Washington Post, addressed frontally in 1985 in a review of Art in Washington and Its Afro-American Presence: 1940–1970. In his piece, Richards raised more questions than answers. “How much has the art of France, that bought by Duncan Phillips, influenced the paintings made by blacks in Washington?” the critic asked, referring of course to the lily-white Phillips Collection. “What interacting forces have forced the imagery of Africa now into the foreground, now into the background, of pictures made by those at Howard University? How black, if black at all, is art made here by blacks?”

“Untitled (3)” by Kenneth Young (circa 1968)

Young dismissed the question out of hand. “I don’t believe in the concept of a show of all-negro artists,” he wrote in an (undated) artist statement that he showed me. “An artist is an artist, and his color has nothing to do with it. I don’t like labeling a man a ‘black artist.’” Young said he argued frequently with Jeff Donaldson, one of the pioneers of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s and the chair of the Howard University art department at the time. (Donaldson contributed an essay to Black Art Notes, a 1971 journal produced to protest the Whitney show. Its editor, Tom Lloyd, wrote an essay that takes the exact opposite stance of Young: “ When discussing the black artist and his role, we must begin by dispelling the false notion that an artist is an artist, no matter what his color, and that being black imposes no special responsibility on him.”)

Donaldson founded a groundbreaking group called AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists). Young wanted nothing to do with it. “Donaldson was a very sophisticated art historian, but his slant was toward black,” Young said. “Like Rahsaan Roland Kirk used to say: ‘Blacknuss, oh blacknuss.’”

Post-black art emerged in the late 1990s or early ’00s as a route out of the fraught discussion over whether there was a place for black artists in late modernism. Artists such as Rashid Johnson, Julie Mehretu, Mark Bradford, and Jennie C. Jones encompass a range of artistic strategies so broad as to have little in common except the label contemporary. This post–Civil Rights movement—if it can be called a movement, as loose and divisive as the idea of post-black art is today—has made new room for Civil Rights–era artists who did not fit during their day, Gilliam and Young among them.

Even as the market has finally arrived for pioneering black modernists, locally, some credit for a re-examination of Young’s career in particular has to go to Jack Rasmussen, the tireless, affable director of the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center. He is responsible for (among other countless D.C.–focused shows) a recent two-part exhibit called Washington Art Matters. The second edition of that show, in 2014, included Young’s work. “[Young] was part of that whole generation that came along right after the Color School and were trying to come to terms with the Color School and take it in new directions,” Rasmussen says.

Washington Art Matters II is where Young’s work caught the eye of Margot Stein and Lori Rapaport, who run Bethesda Fine Art, a gallery that focuses on Washington Color School painters. “We were drawn to one of Ken’s gorgeous pieces there,” Rapaport says. “We located him and sought to give him a renewed platform for his work, which we are still working on.” Bethesda Fine Art now represents Young’s work and has sold some of his paintings to private collections, including the new palace casino at National Harbor.

There is also the collapse of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which, for better or worse, brought Young and many other Washington painters to greater prominence. The 2014 court-ordered agreement that dissolved the historic Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design—handing the collection over to the National Gallery and the college to George Washington University—divested hundreds of paintings by D.C. artists (and thousands of other artworks) to the nation’s official art treasury. When the East Building reopened in September, the new installation of the permanent collection included 43 artworks on view from the Corcoran’s holdings. 

One such piece was “Red Dance,” Young’s 1970 painting, with all its swirling, somber, dark energy. Finally, his work had gained the official recognition that he had (maybe, arguably) sought all along. Certainly, it found its rightful place. The tragic demise of the Corcoran may have benefited Young in another way. The Alper Initiative for Washington Art, a permanent mission-driven space at the American University Museum (another project by Rasmussen), angled from its inception in 2014 to show Washington works from the Corcoran collection that the National Gallery chose not to absorb.

In 2019, the American University Museum will show a comprehensive retrospective of Young’s artworks, focusing on but not limited to paintings from his Washington Color School days, which remain profound, almost 50 years after the fact. He’s also due for a show at the University of Maryland next year. 

On June 8, the S. Dillon Ripley Center will host a ceremony recognizing Young’s long career at the Smithsonian Institution, and Bethesda Fine Arts will open a show of his paintings. His delicate exhibition-design drawings belong to the past, an elegant refinement from a different era. But the reach of his art, his paintings, will extend long into the future. Modernism, abstraction, formalism, black images, and black experiences—these modes and ideas are always being revisited and overturned.

How Young might prefer to be remembered remains an open question.

“I wasn’t an insider. I wasn’t an outsider, either,” he told me. “Now that I think about it, I was just trying to find my way.”