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Paul Keene: His Art and Legacy

October 1 through December 31, 2005


(above: Paul Keene, Variation on a Flute Player, 1985, acrylic on paper, James A. Michener Art Museum)


The James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown is proud to present Paul Keene: His Art and Legacy, an exploration of the remarkable career of this Philadephia-born artist, a self-described "abstract realist" whose story reflects both the accomplishments and the difficulties of African American artists in the twentieth century. On view from October 1 through December 31, 2005 in the Fred Beans Gallery, the exhibition has been sponsored in memory of Robert V. Nesi, and is curated by Curlee Raven Holton, Professor of Art at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, and author of the exhibition catalogue by the same name. (right: Paul Keene, Street Quartet, 1990, acrylic on canvas, H. 54 x W. 52.25 inches, James A Michener Art Museum, Museum Purchase with Funds Provided by Anne and Joseph Gardocki)

Color serves as the compositional key in the works of painter Paul Keene, who works primarily with acrylic paints on paper. His window scenes and landscape studies demonstrate his skillful manipulation of scale, color, light, and atmosphere. Keene often utilizes grid compositions, juxtaposed against the concentric circles of radiating color which he considers his "unconscious" personal symbol.

"Through deeply personal pictures Paul Keene brings together the painter's visceral love of color with the mystery of memory and the subconscious mind," Museum Director Bruce Katsiff says. "Mr. Keene is a quiet man who chooses to speak with line, shape, and most passionately - with color. Always avoiding the didactic, he gives us hints and suggestions, then leaves us to discover our own meaning in his work."

Keene was part of an important group of Philadelphia painters who helped to tell the stories of African Americans through imagery that combined ancient cultural traditions with a distinctly modern, urban point of a view. These artists explored personal narratives as well as the stories of the city and its inhabitants. In his work, Keene has created new icons of black urban life with his anonymous portraits of jazz musicians, and documented the movement and vitality of city life.

Keene himself has said of his approach to painting: "I simply need to find the means by which I can render visible my vision of my inner world, as well as my visual interaction with urban anxieties."

Drawing on the oral storytelling tradition of his forefathers, Keene created several bodies of work that feature subject matter from legend and mythology as well as the people he saw on the streets of Philadelphia. Keene's extenstive career included study in Paris, where he was nourished by the jazz music scene as well as the camaraderie of American expatriates. His work began to reflect this new urban setting, and his many paintings of street and jaz musicians have been shwon on both continents.

"He captures the experiences, reality and spirit of a community in a way that very few artists have been able to do," curator Curlee Raven Holton writes.

Paul Keene was born in 1920 in Philadelphia. His early years at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art (now University of the Arts; from 1939-41) and later his study at the Académie Julien in Paris (1948-52) were grounded in the traditions of the great European masters. (left: Paul Keene, Orpheus Series, 1997, collage on panel, 22 x 30 inches, Courtesy of Keene family)

Keene had served in the United States Army Air Corps from 1941 to 1945, and was awarded a John Hay Whitney Fellowship to Haiti in 1953. After studying and teaching there, he returned to Pennsylvania in 1954 where he began teaching at the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts). In 1958 Keene and his family moved to Warrington, Bucks County; with the help of an architect friend they remodeled a barn on land given to Paul and Laura by his parents. In 1960 he was promoted to Associate Professor of Art at the Philadelphia College of Art. He remained there until 1969, when he left to become a full-time professor at Bucks County Community College in Newtown, Pennsylvania, where he helped to establish a new art department. He retired from teaching in 1985 and took up his brushes full time.

In addition to the Michener Art Museum, Keene's work is in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, Tucson Museum of Art, and the Woodmere Art Museum, among others. "Keene's greatest legacy," Holton writes, "will be not only his exceptional works of art but also his humanity and his faith in the potential of each individual to express his or her particular genius."

On Wednesday, October 26, from 7 to 8 pm, Curartor Curlee Raven Holton will lead a gallery talk through the Paul Keene exhibition; and on Sunday, November 6 from 3 to 4 pm Holton will give a lecture entitled "Paul Keene: A Life as an Artist." Fee. Advance registration required.


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