Saturday, June 13, 2015

Ken Riley: An Artist and Gentleman

Ceremonial Regalia

I have often said that one of the best things about spending the time that I have in the museum and Western American Art worlds has been the many friendships that I have been privileged to have with some rather remarkable people.  One of those remarkable people passed away this week and we are all going to miss him.  Ken Riley epitomized the word “gentleman.”  True, he was a uniquely talented and highly gifted artist who produced works of stunning quality over a long and illustrious career, but as much as I respect his artistic abilities, I will remember him most for his generosity, his good humor, his keen intellect, and his magnanimous spirit.

In the early 1990’s the Eiteljorg Museum in Indiana created a special award that was presented to a select few artists.  Known simply as the Eiteljorg Award, it was designed to honor an artist who had produced a distinguished body of work and who was at the time of the bestowal of the honor, still producing art at a very high level.  The first two recipients of that award were Wilson Hurley and Ken Riley.  I think it important to note that one of the panelists who selected Riley for the award was Wilson Hurley, which indicates the high regard that Ken’s fellow artists had for him.

For me, the highlight of presenting the award to Ken was that it precipitated the organization of a major retrospective of Ken’s work, entitled “West of Camelot.”  The exhibition was accompanied by a book published by the museum in cooperation with Stuart Johnson at Settler’s West Galleries and authored by Susan McGarry.  I was able to spend quite a bit of time with Ken in preparation of the exhibition and I learned much about art, artists, and the task of creating  and maintaining a long and successful career, through our many conversations.  I had long been an admirer of Ken’s work and being able to talk with him often and directly about a wide range of subjects was always a joy for me.

Split Horn Bonnett
One of those subjects was his former teacher and mentor, Harvey Dunn.  I had mentioned to Ken that I thought Dunn deserved greater recognition as both an artist and teacher and that one of my long term goals was to organize a major exhibition devoted to his work.(that is a goal, by the way, that I have yet to fulfill).  Ken agreed and he spoke passionately about Dunn as a teacher.  He had studied with him when he was a young artist in New York and Dunn taught regular classes at Grand Central Art School.  A few weeks after that conversation, I received a package from Ken. It contained a photocopied transcript of one of Dunn’s lectures complete with Ken’s margin notes and underlinings.  I was touched by his thoughtfulness in sending it on to me and I am still honored to have it—a direct reminder of the talent of two artists whom I greatly admire.

A decade after the Eitlejorg exhibition, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City mounted another major exhibition of Ken’s works.  The catalog for the show was once again written by our mutual friend, Susan McGary, and Ken asked me to contribute a preface.  Naturally, I was happy to do so and in memory and honor of Ken, I am re-publishing it here:

A decade ago, I had the privilege of writing a preface for a book on Ken Riley.  At the same time, I had the great pleasure of helping organize a retrospective exhibition of his work.  Before I began working on both of those projects, I had great admiration and respect for Ken’s talents as an artist.  Afterward, I had an even greater sense of Riley’s position as one of the finest American artists working at that time.  While he is most often associated with paintings of the historic American West, particularly 19th-century Native American cultures, as Susan McGarry points out in the illuminating text for this catalog, Ken’s work transcends the somewhat narrow confines of the genre of traditional Western American Art.  His paintings use the history and symbolism of Native culture to connect us to a greater awareness of the human condition.  The themes, emotions, and stories conveyed in Ken’s work speak to us all in a universal language.

The Red Flute
On the most literal level, Ken’s paintings are grounded in a specific time period, but on a deeper level, they are timeless.  They reflect his own deep sense of humanity and, like all great art, they connect the viewer to the world at large.  They allow or even prompt each of us to step into another world and in doing so, we are able to contemplate our own nature and environment from a new perspective.  Riley’s paintings capture both a strong and dramatic narrative sense, but all have a symbolic presence as well.  His unique sense of design, use of color and choice of subject all combine to convey a whole world of meaning at once.

Ten years after that earlier book and exhibition, Ken Riley’s skills as an artist have not diminished in the least.  He still produces work at the highest level of contemporary American art.  Riley’s expression today is no less powerful that it was a decade earlier.  Also, it is important to note that his body of work, those paintings that he has produced over the course of several decades, seems as fresh today and worthy of our attention as it did a decade ago.  Not every artist can withstand a repeated critical analysis.  What seemed relevant and pertinent in one decade may seem tired and worn in another.  Such is not the case with Ken’s work.  His art is still compelling, still sought after by new generations of collectors, and still finding its way (deservedly so) into the permanent collections of major museums of American art.

Legends of the Mandan
The Warriors
Perhaps because he has been one of the most successful and honored members of the Cowboy Artists of America for such a long time, or perhaps because he has chosen to work almost exclusively with Native American subject, Riley is often characterized as a “Western” artist, which, after all, is worthy of praise in its own right.  True, much of Riley’s art is drawn from the history and culture of the American West, but that does not mean that his vision or talent is limited to any narrow field.  He is an important American artist, one who stands literally as a bridge between the great age of illustrators in the early 20th century and the artists of today whose careers have been built upon the foundation laid by those artists.  Riley trained with Harvey Dunn, a student of Howard Pyle.  Riley literally grew up in the art world alongside the likes of Harold Von Schmidt, John Clymer, and Donald Teague.  All of those artists were able to move from successful carers as illustrators to successful careers as artists who specialized in the American West.  They inspired countless others of Ken Riley’s generation.  Today, Ken is no doubt inspiring many younger artists who see in his paintings a master at work.

In the Lodge of Four Bears
In that earlier preface, I recounted a story about seeing one of Ken’s works at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.  It was such a compelling image that I was drawn to it time and again throughout the course of an entire evening.  I remember that painting, even today, quite vividly.  It still moves me, even as a memory.  Recently, I had a similar experience while visiting the home of an active and astute collector.  The collection there had a number of wonderful painting, both contemporary and historic, but the ones that made the greatest impact on me were all by Ken Riley.  Some I had seen before, some were new to me, but each had a singular quality—each drew me into the particular world of the painting, each connected me to my own sense of humanity and each made me feel part of a bigger whole.  I certainly would not be surprised if the readers of this catalog and the viewers of the accompanying exhibition feel much the same way.

Preface to The Power of A Poetic Spirit by Susan Hallsten McGarry published by the
National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

The Dandies

It has now been yet another decade since I wrote those words and Ken Riley has passed on, but his work has not.  It will endure, as will our memories.  We will remember him as a great artist and as a true gentleman.
Ken Riley, 1919-2015

No comments:

Post a Comment