Leo Kenney, noted Northwest painter, dies at 75

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Leo Kenney, a Northwest artist acclaimed for his luminous and intricate abstract paintings, died Monday after a long bout with cancer and emphysema. He was 75.

During the past few years, emaciated and frail from his illness, he seemed to live solely on anticipation. He kept engrossed in plans for a big retrospective of his paintings at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner, Skagit County.

When the show opened last June, Mr. Kenney attended the reception. Impeccably dressed in a navy-blue suit, the artist, barely 80 pounds, stood propped on a cane for hours, surrounded by his life's work, signing books and chatting with a throng of admirers. The show brought together for the first time paintings spanning his 50-year career, many of which the artist hadn't seen in decades.

Although friends were amazed at his endurance, Mr. Kenney hung in there out of sheer determination. "It made me so mad all those people kept trying to talk to me," he said the next day in exasperation. "I wanted to look at the paintings."

When this retrospective went up, Mr. Kenney's star had declined, but at the height of his career in the 1970s, his fans included such well-known writers as Alan Watts and Joseph Campbell. Art critic and novelist Tom Robbins hailed him as the crown prince of the Northwest School.

Although Mr. Kenney's imagery links directly to that of Morris Graves and Mark Tobey, his later style and imposing technical control set him apart from other painters in the region.

Mr. Kenney was born in Spokane in 1925 and at age 6 moved with his family to Seattle. He attended Broadway High School, where his art teacher, Jule Kullberg, sent him to see the works of Tobey and Graves at the Seattle Art Museum.

"I was never so knocked out as when I first saw Graves' `Morning Star' and `In the Night,' " Mr. Kenney recalled in 1999. "It was an epiphany to come upon his work - the originality of it."

Shortly thereafter, on his 18th birthday, Mr. Kenney dropped out of high school, determined to become an artist.

By the next year, he had his first exhibit at the Little Gallery at Frederick & Nelson with another artist who went on to a distinguished career: sculptor James Washington Jr. The Seattle Art Museum bought its first Kenney painting, "Inception of Magic," in 1945. The artist was just 20 years old.

Early on, Mr. Kenney got caught up in the allure of surrealism and painted his dark, figurative works of the 1940s and '50s "automatically" - that is, without conscious planning. He had read Salvador Dali's autobiography and the writings of poet André Breton, who proclaimed that "only the marvelous is beautiful."

The message stuck. Except for a few portraits Mr. Kenney did of friends, he never tried to reproduce reality in his paintings but strove to find some deeper meaning.

"He never saw the world as others see it," said a longtime friend and patron, Merch Pease. "His work is highly personal. It's pure invention."

Mr. Kenney spent part of the 1950s and '60s in California and for a time worked as a display artist at Gump's in San Francisco, where he learned about Asian art. His fascination with an Eastern symbol, the mandala, led to a shift in his work away from the figure and into a pure abstraction of glowing colors and simple, geometric forms, detailed with obsessive intricacy.

He moved back to Seattle in 1964. He showed at the Scott Galleries and later at Richard White Gallery, which became Foster/ White.

In 1973, when the Seattle Art Museum honored Mr. Kenney with his first retrospective, he had already had a successful show in New York at the Marion Willard Gallery. By the late 1970s, however, his celebrity began to recede. Burdened by ill health and a drinking problem, Mr. Kenney couldn't produce enough work to keep up with demand. He painted sporadically and sold work out of his studio to help pay his expenses, but he never got enough paintings together for another gallery exhibition.

He kept his reputation as the premier colorist in the region, though, and an unsurpassed technician with water-based paint. The progression of Mr. Kenney's imagery is remarkably unified, the result of intense discipline and refinement.

The scarcity of his work only added to its legendary appeal. "It's so luminous," said Barbara James, curator for the Museum of Northwest Art. "There's such mastery, such concentrations of energy. Words seem inadequate."

James worked closely with Mr. Kenney to assemble the La Conner retrospective, which closed in October.

"Leo was one of the luminaries of the second generation of Northwest school painters," she said. "The show revealed his rightful place; people had lost track of that. They'd forgotten what a great artist he was."

Mr. Kenney is survived by his brother, Jack, of Palm Springs, Calif. Plans for a memorial service have yet to be announced.