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Robert Kipniss: A Working Artist's Life

The purpose of this book is to tell the story of how one artist established himself, a narrative in which incidents affecting the life, the work, and the career are intertwining threads often indistinguishable from one another.

Poetry and painting were equal passions of mine until I turned thirty and became a father, and I had to earn more money. Getting an evening job meant making a choice, and I stayed with painting, shelving my writing as something I would return to later, perhaps when I was much older. About thirty years ago, I thought of my past as having been episodic as I reflected on many experiences and personalities that seemed singular, each in some way shaping my development. Quite aware of how significant these events had been throughout my youth and later as a young adult, I began writing down those memories, even though I wasn't sure what I would do with the scattered observations of incidents and thoughts. When I was fifty-two, I decided to gather them together, and I wrote twenty-eight chapters of something I thought might eventually become a memoir. I regularly wrote and revised the manuscript, laboriously typing and retyping every word. It was a time-consuming and discouraging effort, and I ended up putting the pages aside.

When my paintings began to find an audience in galleries around this country and abroad, dealers began publishing catalogues about my work. It was a catalyst to begin writing essays about working as an artist as well as about the art itself. It felt good to be writing again and seeing my thoughts in print. Then a few years ago I bought a computer, which made rewriting much easier, and soon I took up the memoir again, purposely avoiding looking at the earlier material until the new manuscript was nearly finished. I was concerned that the rougher quality of my earlier writing might dishearten me, and when I finally did read those chapters again, I found, to my surprise, That I had forgotten virtually nothing.

In this memoir, as I explored my memories, more memories came forth. There was much clarity and detail, even of conversations, but not always of dates, and for that I needed to do some research. I had always been careful about keeping a record of my exhibitions, although not of my individual paintings, and this was helpful because I could easily place events in the context of what paintings I remembered doing at certain times, and where they had been exhibited. Sometimes I remembered too many details and too many stories, which interrupted the narrative, and these I left out. There was also much help from the research department at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

While working on this book, I continued painting in my studio in Westchester County during the week. I wrote on weekends at my home in northwestern Connecticut instead of burnishing copper plates, essentially giving up printmaking for nearly three years.

It has been illuminating to revisit the various periods of my past. As my life was happening, it was impossible to know how each day was shaping its tomorrow, or the following month, or the next year. When I neared the conclusion of this book and reread what I had written, I was startled and pleased to see that instead of a random collection of episodes, I saw my life emerging as a whole. I found a consistency and coherence that was as much a function of personality, instinct, and my compulsion to create as it was of conscious thought. It was a perspective impossible to have until I had lived almost eighty years.

Writing about my life has been a little like reliving it, but with the advantage of seeing the unfolding problems and troubles in the context of their eventual resolution. I found this second visit a good thing, even with its many uncomfortable moments, and it has left me at peace, my enthusiasm undiminished.


"Robert Kipniss's A Working Artist's Life is the rarest of literary achievements: a personal memoir, cultural history, and textbook of craft and market. With engaging candor Kipniss spices his narrative with vivid characters, family, friends, artists,and dealers who are as varied and complex as they are meaningful in his career. Fiercely committed to his art, Kipniss defines himself when he writes, 'There was never a day when I betrayed my integrity in the studio.' I was enlightened, entertained, and frequently moved by this portrait of the artist composed with a touch of the poet."
-Sidney Offit, author of Memoir of the Bookie's Son, curator emeritus, George Polk Journalism Awards, and president, Authors Guild Foundation

"Robert Kipniss's memoir is a gritty account of his struggles to earn a reputation as a serious painter and printmaker. Despite a harrowing childhood, a host of rebuffs, and the constant pressure of economic survival, Kipniss never lost the desire to transform his deepest sensations into art. Like his paintings, Kipniss's prose is clear and evocative, and readers will enjoy following his adventures as he fences against the follies and venality of the art world."
-Avis Berman, art historian and author of Rebels on Eighth Street

"An ebullient, defiantly self-taught artist, Kipniss has managed a rare accomplishment: working steadily as a painter and print-maker for six decades, and supporting a wife and four children entirely from his art. Whether describing the intensity of his painting experience or his often droll relationships with important galleries, Kipniss is an engagingly unpretentious and often humerous raconteur, with pitch-perfect dialogue and a wonderful eye for the telling detail. It's a pleasure to ride along with Kipniss on his candid, well-paced, and witty romp through the New York art world and his life in art."
-Carol Ascher, author of Afterimages, a Memoir

"This is a rare treat. A working artist reviews his life with the same skill with words that he has with brush and stylus. Robert Kipniss writes serenely about matters once so intense, reconciling his life's conflicts, in print as on canvas, in a taut landscape. Forebodings of a lifetime, suspended between daily life and the act of creation, as the art world itself changed, are ever so neatly voiced."
-William A. Kinnison, President Emeritus, Wittenberg University

"A painter's life is a solitary one, alone in the studio, combining intelligence and imagination with technical skills to create a unique vision. Robert Kipniss's elegiac and mysterious landscapes and still lifes convey none of this process of invention. Few great painters are great writers, but Kipniss is an exception. In his sensitive and personal memoir we discover his passionate struggle to achieve his artistic goals, balancing the obligations of his personal life with the great demands of his art."
-E. John Bullard, Director Emeritus, New Orleans Museum of Art

"From a combination of notes, his earlier writing, the "memory trigger" of the works of art themselves, but most of all from his prodigious memory, Robert Kipniss has fashioned a memoir of clarity, sensitivity and insight. Anyone seriously interested in art and the lives of artists, but especially in the mysterious and always fascinating connection between an artist's life and his work, would find this book both enlightening and enjoyable."
-Richard J. Boyle, art historian, former director, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and author, Robert Kipniss: Paintings: 1950-2005