Stein Gallery Gives Clues to Mystery of Weldon Kees

In July 1955, the American poet Weldon Kees disappeared and was presumed to have committed suicide by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. His car was found on the north approach to the bridge, where it had been abandoned in the midsummer fog. There was no suicide note, and the body was never found. Kees and his wife had moved from New York to San Francisco in 1950, and at the time of his disappearance, at age 41, he had been working as a jazz pianist and writing songs.

Kees was clearly one of the most extraordinary talents of his generation, and his own talents were many. While he is mainly remembered today for his poetry–his Collected Poems is still in print and very much admired–Kees also had a brief but remarkable career as a painter and an even shorter career as an art critic. He was briefly Clement Greenberg’s successor as the art critic for The Nation , a position he abandoned when he moved to San Francisco.

He was a literary critic as well. In New York in the 1940’s he contributed to Partisan Review , and he worked as a book reviewer for Time , where his editor was Whittaker Chambers. A volume of Kees’ critical writings, Reviews and Essays 1936-1955 , which includes his art reviews for The Nation , is also in print. One of his other jobs in New York was editing newsreels, and earlier on he had written a good deal of fiction. Kees wasn’t exaggerating when he once described himself as “the most versatile artist now working in America.”

It’s been a long time, however, since his paintings were last exhibited in New York, where he used to show at Lou Pollack’s Peridot Gallery. The Peridot was a highly respected venue for the American avant-garde in the 1950’s, and it was there that I first saw Kees’ paintings nearly 50 years ago. I was in graduate school at Columbia University and going to lectures at the New School. I lived on West 12th Street, and soon discovered the Peridot, which was first located at 6 East 12th Street. (It later moved to upper Madison Avenue.)

The first show I saw at the Peridot was a Weldon Kees exhibition. I already knew Kees’ name (as a writer) from Partisan Review , and I knew he was also painting from an English professor I had studied with as an undergraduate–Maurice Johnson, who had been one of Kees’ most devoted friends since growing up together in Nebraska. Some of Kees’ most amusing letters, full of literary gossip, were written to Johnson from New York during World War II when the latter was serving in the U.S. Army. What I mainly recall about that Peridot show at this distance in time is that the paintings, all in the Abstract Expressionist style of the then emerging New York School, were entirely executed in blacks, grays and whites.

In The Paintings of Weldon Kees , the small show that has now come to the Gallery Gertrude Stein, I am pretty sure that at least two of the pictures, The Delta and The Delta No. 2 , were in that 1950 Peridot exhibition. The current show, which I regret to say has a rather makeshift look about it–some of the pictures are in urgent need of a cleaning and all are in need of better lighting–is based on an exhibition organized a few years ago by the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska in collaboration with the University of Iowa Museum of Art. If I am right about the Delta pictures, the date assigned to The Delta No. 2 (1951) would have to be changed. It’s my impression, in any case, that Kees didn’t continue painting in this vein after he left New York. I believe he concentrated on doing collages once he was settled in San Francisco.

Whatever its shortcomings, however, this exhibition is bound to be a poignant experience for anyone acquainted with the life and work of Weldon Kees. He was never an amateur or a dilettante in any of his artistic endeavors. He was a complete professional, and amazingly quick to pick up on new veins of feeling in the arts and new ways of realizing them even in a medium in which he was a novice. In New York in the 1940’s, when established opinion was still largely hostile to the Abstract Expressionist movement, he understood its importance, and straightaway plunged in as a participant. He mastered a medium for which nothing in his literary experience could have prepared him, and produced paintings that were sufficiently compelling to be exhibited in the company of pictures by Willem de Kooning, Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell and other luminaries at the New York School.

Kees seems to have understood the Abstract Expressionist impulse on immediate contact and from the inside, so to speak, long before it became a bandwagon. For a few years, he produced some very remarkable pictures. There is no doubt in my mind that, had he been of a mind to do so, Kees himself could have become one of the stars of the movement. Yet, on the verge of his own success, he fled from it in what we can now see must have been something like a state of panic for yet another attempt to begin his creative life all over again.

What demons afflicted his soul we shall probably never know with any certainty. What we do know is that he was rejected for military service in World War II on “psychological” grounds. Robert Knoll, the editor of Weldon Kees and the Midcentury Generation (1986), a book of Kees’ letters, suggests that he may have been diagnosed as a manic depressive. This makes a certain sense, to be sure, if only because Kees was obviously given to manic enthusiasms in his creative work. His paintings are clearly the result of one of his high periods of enthusiasm.

In the prologue to his fine edition of the letters, Mr. Knoll writes that “Weldon Kees had the singular ability to know where the action was to be, and to participate in it: he foresaw the shape of art to come. Solitude was the price of his achievement, and it may have been greater than he could pay, emotionally fragile as he was.” It is a melancholy story, and made no less melancholy when we recall that Kees’ life was, as his contemporary Robert Lowell wrote in one of his poems, “the generic one/ our generation offered”–a reference to the suicides of Randall Jarrell and John Berryman and Lowell’s own episodes of madness.

Still, we have the paintings and the poems and a good deal else, altogether an amazing achievement by “the most versatile artist” of his day. The exhibition of Kees’ paintings remains on view at the Gallery Gertrude Stein, 55 West 57th Street, through May 16.