When The Home Is The Art


The late Michael Knigin’s living room in his East Hampton home on Close Court might as well be part of a tropical rain forest. Big, bright and bold nature paintings pervade the surroundings. Luscious orchards, squawking birds and even a ferocious tiger leer and lunge from the walls at visitors. But wait. That’s not the only world ahead.

Around the corner, the French Riviera suddenly appears where another room is filled with Mr. Knigin’s exploding fireworks, portraits of carnival characters and splashing waves. A few more steps into his studio, and his abstract landscapes sit front and center on several easels. There, too, paintings of outer space take off for a distant cosmos.

There’s one more room to explore—a special place with prints of the artist’s Holocaust scenes and his striking portrait of Anne Frank.

While the home, where Mr. Knigin’s wife, the artist Joan Kraisky, continues to live, is a comfortable, contemporary living and studio space, Mr. Knigin’s artwork predominates even after his death in 2011. The myriad paintings, lithographs, collages and photographs serve as an animate testament to Mr. Knigin’s aesthetic contributions: Each of his series recalls a particular time and place in his life.

Consider, first, the Holocaust collages.

Ms. Kraisky vividly recalls her husband relating how he initially began doing Holocaust images. He started to meet survivors, she said, and found their stories to be so unbelievable, compelling and horrifying that he started then and there to create interpretive collages of what he had heard.

There was another earlier impetus for the series. Ms. Kraisky remembers her husband telling her that when he was a child, he had heard stories, read about and seen pictures of that “horrific time.” It made him aware of the personal liabilities, tolerance and equality of all people being usurped by “the law.”

It’s apparent that Mr. Knigin added to his series in the subsequent years, representing a visual history of the Holocaust from the Nazi Party’s origin to liberation of the prisoners in concentration camps. One print hanging today in the home is an especially effective example of the series’s overall theme: survival of the human spirit. It’s called “Sanctuary” and shows a ladder reaching up to the second floor in the house where the Frank family hid from the Nazis. (Could the ladder be a symbol for “Jacob’s Ladder,” the space between Earth and Heaven?) A photograph of Anne Frank is positioned in the lower corner of the image; a foot is poised to ascend to a higher floor. Mr. Knigin implies that freedom will be won by the Jewish family.

Besides the Holocaust images, other work has played an important role in Mr. Knigin’s life. Take, for example, his NASA series, including fanciful paintings featuring distant, shining stars in outer space. The series came about when the artist was appointed in 1988 to the NASA Art Team and sent to the Kennedy Space Center, visually interpreting the launch of the space shuttle Discovery. In 1991, he was recalled to interpret the touchdown of the space shuttle Atlantis at Edwards Air Force Base.

Mr. Knigin’s playful paintings for NASA extend to objects elsewhere in the sky like his July 4th fireworks series coming from Boys Harbor in East Hampton, circa 2006. Spontaneous composition is captured with these black and white photographs as abstract designs explode in the air. Mr. Knigin evokes expressive elements in his subjects on the ground as well, as in his black and white carnival photographs taken in Nice, France, around 2006. While grotesque features are present, Mr. Knigin gave his “characters” spiritual- like demeanors with his use of lighting.

Photographs of abstract landscapes also pervade the artist’s home, many created by him in 2008. This series employs computer technology, a medium Mr. Knigin discovered for himself during the 1990s. The images use archival material on watercolor papers; some visuals were created as original collages and then scanned to the computer, where their colors were manipulated.

Finally, Mr. Knigin’s photographs of crashing waves, which he continued to create until his death, also celebrate his artistic achievements. In fact, he and his wife would frequently go out to photograph the beach, proof that even familiar scenes could be enhanced by Mr. Knigin with magical qualities. “I think Michael was attracted to waves partly because he loved the water, especially diving,” notes Ms. Kraisky. “He thought at one point he would train for the Olympics.”

It’s apparent that Mr. Knigin’s art reflects his many interests, passions, subjects and media. It’s also equally true that his home mirrors his art.

Such art, as he once put it, “is a spiritual expression of the cosmos, a music of the spheres, a harmony of color and forms.” How special that Mr. Knigin’s art is alive and well on Close Court in East Hampton.

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