Beginning in the late 1950s, a regional movement in abstract art began in Washington D.C. that promoted the form-making capabilities of pure color. A decade later, this movement was embodied by a group of associated abstract painters and teachers known as the “Washington Color School,” a label likely stemming from the 1965 Washington Gallery of Modern Art exhibition, “Washington Color Painters.” Its influence stretched through the 1970s and ultimately included dozens of artists of all races including Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Alma Thomas, Anne Truitt, and Sam Gilliam.
It also included the lesser-known Kenneth Victor Young.
Born on December 12, 1933, Young grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and enrolled in the University of Louisville, where he studied physics and design, and met Gilliam. After serving in the Navy, he worked for DuPont in Louisville before relocating to D.C. in 1964 to work for the Smithsonian as the institution’s first Black exhibit designer. Before he found a place to live in the Capitol, Young stayed with Gilliam and his wife.
While at the Smithsonian, Young painted and worked as a designer for the United States Information Agency in the evenings. About this time, he traveled overseas to various countries in Europe and Africa, and also befriended Jacob Kainen, the American painter and printmaker, along with others associated with the Washington Color School movement.
Still, his association with the movement was tenuous. “I felt like they didn’t recognize me as being part of their movement,” said Young, of the Washington Color School in a March 2017 interview with Washington City Paper. “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.”
Young’s first museum solo exhibit, Ken Young: Recent Paintings, was featured at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1974. His paintings, commonly large scale in acrylic, were vivid, bright, and colorful. His work was later included in such public collections as the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, American Art Museum, and Corcoran Gallery of Art. Young’s art was also part of the prestigious Johnson Publishing Company art collection before being auctioned off upon its bankruptcy in 2020.
Along with designing exhibits for the Smithsonian for 35 years, Young taught art at Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C.
Kenneth Victor Young died on March 12, 2017 in Washington, D.C at the age of 83.
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