In Memoriam | Remembering Ron Slowinski (1942-2023)

Ronald Slowinski (legacy.com)

The widely exhibited artist and longtime Kansas City Art Institute professor balanced earthly delights with the mysterious and mystical

Born in Chicago, Ron Slowinski never lost the friendly, blustery and direct persona native to the Polish Catholic neighborhood where he grew up. Slowinski credited Chicago’s glories — its architecture, its diverse population, the museums and especially the Chicago Art Institute’s collection — for many of his aesthetic inspirations. His love for what he called “the almighty grid,” which underlies all his paintings, came from the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings he saw as a kid in Chicago. But the richness and mysteriousness of his art evolved as he moved, lived and drank in the cultures of New York, Japan, Kansas City and especially the Southwest.

Slowinski graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1954. He was then drafted into the army, where he was stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, for two years as a guided missiles technician. He helped fire missiles in the Alamogordo region, and it was there that he encountered nearby New Mexico and hiked through what he called its “non-compromised nature.” He fell in love with the Indigenous cultures there and devoured books on the Hopi and Navajo, all of which later factored in his most prominent artworks.

In 1956 Slowinski returned to Chicago. In a 1979 essay he wrote: “The years 1956-59 I spent painting and ‘starving’ in Chicago were, in some ways, the most exciting . . . a group of artists started a co-op gallery — the Wells Street Gallery, where I had my first one-man show.” He was in numerous exhibits after that, along with other Chicago artists such as Robert Natkin, sculptor John Chamberlain, Richard Bogart and photographer Aaron Siskind. Slowinski wrote that we “were for the most part young, without reputation.” They were also all abstract artists. “The group saw itself as a kind of reaction-alternative to the Allen Frumkin Gallery (which showed only representational art), the dominant aesthetic force in Chicago at that time,” he stated.

In 1959, along with many of his artist friends, Slowinski moved to New York City and set up a loft/studio in what is now known as SoHo but was then called “Hell’s Hundred Acres.”

“The years I lived in New York City were exciting but difficult,” he wrote. “I married (Martha Crowe) and had two children (Joseph and Rachel) — not an easy or comfortable life raising children in a fifth-floor loft in a commercial neighborhood (Canal and Broadway).”

Slowinski had his first one-man show in New York at the prestigious Poindexter Gallery, run by one of New York’s few female directors, Nellie Poindexter. Along with Slowinski and other Chicago artists, Poindexter exhibited art by Richard Diebenkorn, Al Held, Nell Blaine, Robert DeNiro, Sr. and Jack Tworkov.

Because of his admiration for Frank Lloyd Wright — he visited Taliesin several times — Slowinski took a job as a preparator (a “basement rat,” he called himself) at the Guggenheim Museum, where his prankster humor occasionally took over. An expert copyist, Slowinski loved to tell the story about reproducing an important Kandinsky artwork from the Guggenheim’s collection and trotting it up to a curator’s office, where he proceeded to stomp on it while yelling, “Kandinsky, Kandinsky, Kandinsky! I’m sick of Kandinsky!” He also dumpster-dived into the Guggenheim’s trash bins to secure some of Wright’s painting materials. Eventually he was given part of Wright’s easel by the Guggenheim.

During his years in New York Slowinski largely created systematic and gridded paintings. The eminent designer Ivan Chermayoff commissioned him to paint an 11 x 22-foot geometric work for Westinghouse Electric’s corporate lobby in Pittsburgh, which was installed in 1971, among other commissioned works.

Slowinski took a job teaching art at the University of Indiana in Bloomington in 1965. The next year, he moved to Kansas City to teach at the Kansas City Art Institute, where for 39 years he taught painting and drawing. Slowinski cared about his students and was genuinely excited about their work. He regularly took them to his home and showed them his one-of-a-kind collection of Southwestern Indian art, and he kept in contact with them for years.

James Woodfill, chair and professor of KCAI’s painting department, was one of Slowinski’s students. In a recent interview he recalled that Slowinski “was so generous as a mentor, opening his studio and home for visits and spending long blocks of time in our studios talking not only about our work but about our lives as artists . . . The work in our senior studio was wide-ranging, experimental, and personal. Ron emphasized the development of our individual voices and helped us navigate our explorations in both traditional and multi-disciplinary dialogs.”

Slowinski also curated several exhibitions at the Kansas City Art Institute’s former Charlotte Crosby Kemper Gallery, including shows of Japanese prints, New Mexico Santos figures and American Indian art from the Larry Frank collection. Director Sherry Cromwell-Lacy remembers how carefully he dealt with art objects. “He made me promise,” she recalled in a recent interview, “that I would ‘feed’ (with cornmeal) the Hopi masks every day before going home.”

Ronald J. Slowinski, “La Baugh Woods”(1977), from the Pollen Series, acrylic on canvas, 50 x 56” (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. John Arnold and Dr. and Mrs. Burnell Landers)

In 1974 Slowinski approached my husband, Douglas Drake, who had just opened the Douglas Drake Gallery in Kansas City, about exhibiting his art. Drake’s first exhibition at his gallery included a drawing by Henri Matisse. “Ron told me he wanted to be in my gallery,” Drake remembers, “because the Matisse I showed was a really good one. So I passed the test!“I was so surprised by the freshness and uniqueness of his work that I included him in a show of abstract art I had already planned that included canvases by Gottlieb, Motherwell, Stella, Olitski, Frankenthaler, Noland, and others.” Drake continued to represent Slowinski until his death.

At that point, Slowinski’s hard-edged geometric grids had morphed into more intuitive and flowing fields of atmospheric color. Two major lifestyle changes played into these changes. In 1968-69, after receiving a Fulbright Advanced Research Grant, he lived with his family in Kyoto, where he consumed the culture. “The gardens,” he once exclaimed. “I can still see those gardens!” He also began spending every summer in Taos, often with his family, attending the various Pueblo summer dances and studying the Indigenous art and religions with the intensity of a scholar.

The paintings and watercolors he exhibited at the Douglas Drake Gallery were titled the “Wyoming Series,” “Genji Series,” “Hopi Flower and Corn Dance” paintings and the “Pollen” pictures.

As minimalist and etheric as these paintings appeared, Slowinski still incorporated the grid. Drake recalls that he used hake brushes from Japan, first covering his canvases with gesso, leaving the surface intentionally uneven. He then carefully built up 10 layers of horizontal and vertical strokes with the thinnest of paint. These brushstrokes were administered “ritualistically,” Slowinski said, “with a kind of mantric sensibility, like saying the rosary.” He often sprinkled marble dust on the canvas before adding the final layer of paint, the combination of effects resulting in the specific luminosity of his paintings.

The wet-on-wet painting technique was meant to emulate the way a 19th-century Hopi woman potter might have worked, and in essence, Slowinski said, he wanted to embody the spirit of anonymous women potters from centuries past.

As diaphanous as his paintings look initially, due to the subtle layering, after just a few seconds the paintings seem to vibrate as if they are alive.

Gaylord Torrence, curator emeritus of American Indian art at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, met Ron in 1977. In a statement he wrote, “Over the years, Ron assembled a collection of historical Native American art from the cultures of New Mexico and Arizona. In keeping with his interest in all Indigenous art, he was drawn most to those objects that embodied world view, philosophy, and mythology — works that reflected the heart of the cultures. I recall two old Hopi basketry trays hanging in his home that many collectors would have dismissed as unimportant, yet for Ron they reflected the ancient continuity of the Hopi people; they were a type made before EuroAmerican encounter and continue to be produced today.”

A 2004 exhibit of Slowinski’s paintings at the Canfield Gallery in Santa Fe was well reviewed in both ArtNews and Art in America.

As he became older Slowinski began making figurative work. He had always admired the mystics Thomas Merton and St. John of the Cross and had studied Tibetan Buddhism. In 2001 he had an exhibit at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center called “God: Recent Works,” in which the deity was represented by various men and women, in what one reviewer labeled “a hermetic compendium of personal passions and concerns.”

But by 2013, for the exhibition “Unexpected Joy” at the John Molloy Gallery in New York City, Slowinski had found yet another way to invigorate his abstract artwork. The abrupt shifts of color bands in these works were derived from his longstanding study of Russian icons, where the titles of the narratives are often placed at the bottom of the picture plane. “Formally,” Slowinski said of these works, “the different sections have nothing to do with another, but I like the conceptual aspects of these works. It’s hellishly difficult to get the right proportions, and it’s self-defeating and an almost impossible goal to get it right.”

But as in all Slowinski’s best artworks, as he balanced structure with color and light, and earthly delights with the mysterious and mystical, he got it right.

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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