THE NEW YORK TIMES
Art Critic, Author and Artist - Tova Navarra
You gasp; amazed to learn that international artist Kenneth Hari has painted portraits for life sittings of Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Hart Benton, Arthur Rubinstein, James Earl Jones, Groucho Marx, Gene Kelly, Norman Rockwell, Lowell Thomas, W.H. Auden, James Michener, John Ciardi, Salvador Dali, Dolly Parton, Andre Kertesz, John Kenneth Galbraith, James Dickey, Otto Preminger, Carlos Montoya, Gore Vidal, and Bill Blass – the list goes on. And you wonder how these people have affected his life and art.
As a teenager, Hari used to swim in Tennessee William's pool in Key West,FL, where his parents had a house. A painter himself and critic for local Key West newspapers, Williams once wrote a double-edged critique of Hari’s work: “Kenneth Hari does not paint portraits as they are but as he is. I feel he is hiding something from me. To board a train into his mind would give me a ride into a dark adventure.”
Hari doesn’t seem to be hiding anything. He’s painted hundreds of faces, all “as they are” but in his own sensitive style. They tell you he has an eye for that decisive moment in which a sitter reveals without words something intimate, perhaps something daring, about him or herself.
He’s done portraits of Pablo Casals, Marianne Moore, W.H. Auden, Marcel Marceau, and others. Some of Hari’s very early works include a la Rembrandt style. No, he didn’t do Rembrandt. But he learned from the masters. He grew up with famous people, he said, even Hemingway’s dentist.
The celebrities go to his studios in New Jersey, Tennessee, New York City, and Beijing, China. Or he goes to his subjects. For example, he said artists Giorgio DeChirico and Salvador Dali wanted to meet him at a dimly lit New York bar where it was difficult for him to sketch.
When I complained about having no light,” Hari said, “Dali told me, ‘You have to suffer! Dali suffers!’ Ha! He painted under an enormous skylight in his studio!”
Though he assigns major credit to his parents for his success, his career picked its wild card with Auden, Hari said, whom he first met through a professor friend.
“Then (composer) Virgil Thompson introduced me to Auden in the '60s,” he said. “Auden hadn’t a portrait done in a long time, and no one except scholars was paying much attention to him. I called him and did his portrait. Then I was introduced to one of my first patrons. Lincoln Kirstein, the founder of the New York City Ballet. From there, I did portraits of Marianne Moore, Christopher Isherwood, George Balanchine – and the whole thing mushroomed.”
According to “Who’s Who in America,” Hari graduated from the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts in 1966 and earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Maryland Institute of Art two years later. His work is represented in more than 400 private and public collections, including the Vatican, Lincoln Center Gallery for the Performing Arts, the Museum of Modern Art (which has his R. Buckminster Fuller portrait) and the Grand Ole Opry house in Nashville, TN.
The wide-eyed Hari is so animated, so full of anecdotes about everyone, all at once and with more bubbles than Lawrence Welk that it’s amusing to think what his sitting with the “silent” Marceau was like. What did the world’s greatest mime and a world-class motorized talker say to each other?
“Marcel is really a giver,” Hari said. “The sitting went on for years with him. We would always see each other; he’d stay at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. He’s very chatty. He talked about his life, philosophy. He also paints. I did about 30 portraits of him.”
There was a chain reaction of celebrities, the artist said:“I met a friend of Tom (Thomas Hart) Benton, who took photos of my art work to Benton, then Benton posed for me in Martha’s Vineyard. I knew Dustin Hoffman from Fairfax, CA, high school, when I lived for three months of the year in Hollywood, CA, with my brother. Dustin is really wonderful, a mega-star. We talked about everything.”
Yes, Hari whooshes from Benton to Hoffman that fast.
Who in his kaleidoscopic “Hollywood” most enriched his life?
“Auden,” came the answer without hesitation. “Auden changed my life." He said, 'My portraits should serve as a unification of man, not as mere decorative ornaments. Continue your portrait work, it is excellent,' he wrote to me in one of many letters. In one letter he asked, 'Would you be my adopted son?' He introduced me to everyone – he was so good to me. I became known as ‘Auden’s adopted son,’ and people wanted to see my work. It opened doors for me Harry Reasoner, who loves Auden’s work, saw my portrait of him and also posed for me.”
And the demi-god Hemingway?
“Hemingway was very clumsy and you could smell the liquor on him,” Hari said. “But I liked this big guy in the leather vest. He impressed me. I met him through my father’s friend Charlie Thompson, one of Hemingway’s best friends and fellow hunter. Charlie owned a lumberyard in Key West. Hemingway wrote about Charlie a lot. Back then; in 1957 or ’58, Hemingway was older, near the end of his life. I did about 10 pictures of him. He evidently liked me. When he saw my drawings, he said, ‘You’re really good, kid,’ or some tough comment like that. My brother also painted Hemingway (he painted Faulkner, too). But he didn’t pursue a career as an artist. He’s a businessman and a genius. He always got me to my art classes in LA.”
Hari spoke suddenly about the “business” of portrait painting.
“The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C, should take more interest in artists who are doing the kind of work I’m doing instead of being so exclusive,” he said. “They wanted my portrait of Auden years ago, but they said they wouldn’t buy it because Auden wasn’t dead yet. A person must be dead for 10 years before they buy – it’s their rules! The National portrait gallery in London purchased the Auden. Their attitude is wonderful!” Like Auden himself.
Pargot Gallery director Alan Brown said, “(Hari’s) is one of the best, if not the best, show in my six years as director. It’s a privilege to be showing one of the foremost portrait painters.”
But Hari spurns the title “celebrity portrait painter.”
Art critic Clement Greenberg, who sat for Hari, said to him in 1968, "Doing celebrity portraits can be dangerous, so protect yourself.” Hari said, “I had understood that for a long time. I don’t want to be called ‘celebrity portrait painter because I have a genuine interest in what these people are about. My work is a form of plastic journalism. I ask a lot of personal questions. There’s a lot of exchange, like with the (Eli) Wallachs. What they say becomes archival facts about their lives. I explained this to Greenberg, and he said that’s what I should be doing.”
Among all these million-dollar works of art is an exquisite painting that Hari created is the portrait of Xiaoyi Liu titled “The Girl From Beijing,” truly a priceless work of art if ever I saw one.