Celebrating the Life & Work of Kenneth John Nevadomi (1939 – 2023)

Ken Nevadomi, 1978. Photo copyright: K. Laurel, 2023.

On September 8, 2023, Ken Nevadomi, one of Cleveland’s most prolifically complex and enigmatic artists, laid down for an afternoon nap and bid farewell to life here on Earth. Suffering for some time from the degenerative effects of Alzheimer’s disease, Nevadomi continued to work in the studio until his final weeks. During his recent memorial service in Lakewood, Ohio, on October 7th, Nevadomi’s longtime friend and studio mate, Arleene Hartman, divulged that although Ken might have been stingy with chipping in for gas money, he was deeply generous with advice about art and the artistic process. Ken implored her: Go to the studio every day, even if you only sharpen your pencils.[1]

Ken Nevadomi, Sleeping Head, 1993. Acrylic on canvas, 43.5 x 53 inches. Image courtesy of WOLFS

A lifelong apartment dweller, lover of cats, coffee, donuts, pepperoni pizza, and Miller Lite, Nevadomi was a consummate bachelor, known never to drive, opting instead to bike, walk, and ride the bus. This dynamic, connective, and fluid movement through the city flies in the face of the so-called detached persona for which he earned a reputation in the press. On the eve of his mid-career retrospective at SPACES in Cleveland, OH in 1987, for example, the late Helen Cullinan, The Plain Dealer’s art critic between 1960 and 1995, deemed Nevadomi as the most “tightlipped painter in town,” describing him in the same breath as “the most vociferous in his paintings.” [2] Cullinan though, who by all accounts seemed to harbor a soft spot for Nevadomi, never seemed truly to mind his opaque untidiness, while it was the artist’s dense visions exactly–his loaded brush, his sometimes bulldozer-like approach to the canvas–that perturbed, at least from time to time, the PD’s current art critic Steve Litt. [3]

Ken Nevadomi, Transit (Race to Hell), 1986. Acrylic on canvas. Two panels, each 96 x 42.25 inches. Image courtesy of WOLFS

Both nightmarish and dreamlike, Ken Nevadomi’s paintings are excruciatingly original. An amalgam of esoteric narratives, graphic perspectives, and deep inner emotion, Nevadomi’s work samples mythology, contemporary culture, philosophy, sex, art history, and the daily grind. Born in 1939 in Slavic Village on Cleveland’s south side, Nevadomi grew up amidst distressing and heart-rending family circumstances, within the fold of a larger, loving and extended family. Joining the United States Air Force during his final year of high school in 1957 at age 17, he served four years before enlisting in the United Stated Army in 1961, which brought him overseas to Turkey, Greece, Germany, and Lebanon. It was during these years Nevadomi learned to draw and while he never experienced active combat, themes of survival, attack, refuge, and the sheer precariousness of the human condition would permeate his oeuvre lifelong.

In 1964, when Nevadomi returned to Cleveland, he enrolled in the now defunct private Cooper School of Art, where he earned an associate degree in fine and commercial art (1964 – 1967).  He subsequently worked for the Cleveland Municipal School District and American Greetings where he met Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb. He also contributed to ArtCrimes, the long-running underground poetry and art zine in Cleveland founded by Steven B. Smith. Influenced by both Dada and the Beat Generation, ArtCrimes contributors included Pekar and Nevadomi, as well as Gary Dumm, Daniel Thompson, Masumi Hayashi, Amy Braken Sparks, and Charles Bukowski and Jack Micheline from out of town.  

Ken Nevadomi, wearing his Cooper School of Art t-shirt. Image courtesy of WOLFS.

Covered in Cleveland’s Plain Dealer as early as 1967, when two of his works were accepted into an internationally touring exhibition backed by the U.S. Department of State, [4] Nevadomi continued to be a fixture on the Cleveland scene for more than fifty years. He earned his BFA from the Columbus College of Art and Design by 1972, followed by the completion of his MFA at Kent State University in 1975.  The following year he began teaching painting and drawing at Cleveland State University, retiring from CSU as Professor Emeritus in 2011. Former students emphasize how Nevadomi helped them develop thick skin, no doubt useful armor for anyone in the art world and presumably natural posture for Nevadomi, as crotchety as he was purported to be.

Represented by Bonfoey Gallery in Cleveland for nearly five decades beginning in the 1970s, Nevadomi’s work has been featured in major civic museums, university galleries, grassroots spaces, community art centers, private galleries, and mainstream exhibition halls throughout the United States. In the late 70s and 80s, he showed in Zurich and Toronto; and in 1984 he interviewed with Dennis Barrie for the Smithsonian on a national television broadcast, “Artists in Residence.”

More recently, in 2021, he was featured at the Independent Art Fair as a solo artist with New York City-based New Canons with curator Maxwell Wolf. Covering the fair for Artforum, Max Lakin deemed Nevadomi’s “berserk neo-Expressionist paintings and drawings” as “easily the best thing I saw all week.” [5] Around the same time, Andy Battaglia writing for ARTnews described Nevadomi’s work as “entrancing and enigmatic,” suggesting that his “array of styles” was “hard to reconcile as the work of only one artist.” [6] Indeed, Nevadomi embodies the opposite of a one-note artist who found his groove and stuck with it. Rather, he is a symphony at full volume, cacophonous and harmonic, switching from major to minor at will and with ease. Though he was unconcerned with linear development—the kind that builds and pushes one phase of work logically into the next—a rough chronological sketch of Nevadomi’s development might flow as follows.

Ken Nevadomi. Erroneous St. Bridgett (Purple Passion), 1980. Acrylic on canvas. 59 x 67 inches. Image courtesy of WOLFS

Dense and oftentimes jarring, the figurative canvases for which Nevadomi is best-known feel effortless and carefully composed. His signature work appears loosely painted, even semi-spontaneous, though he was fastidious in studying his subjects, with a habit of drawing in charcoal first and creating full scale studies before he ever began the final canvas. His sketchbooks and the few late 60s works that remain demonstrate interest in naturalism and realism—an acute concern for the wrinkles on his sitter’s face, or how the corners of one’s mouth match the look in one’s eyes. Morphing quickly, though, into hyper realistic dream paintings à la surrealists Salvador Dalí or René Magritte, these early works consistently interlace strong compositions and rich iconography.

Ken Nevadomi. Untitled, c. 1966. Oil on board. 8.5 x 8 inches. Image courtesy of WOLFS

By the early ‘70s, Nevadomi comes into his own, channeling thin, crisp magazine lines and a novel kind of subversive Pop. Here the artist’s first major thematic trysts emerge, tied as they are to violence against both the self and others; he begins to work frequently in series, teasing out a given theme. As Shiela K. Tabakoff and Michael K. Milligan described at the time, these were Nevadomi’s “urban visions,” translations of his “intuitive, imaginative and highly personal response to contemporary culture.” [7] For his part, Nevadomi wrote in 1977 that, “My concern is with a vision rather than what is “Art.” I’m not entirely sure what that vision is and where it’s leading me and I may never know. What is interesting to me is looking for it.” Winking at the art world’s gatekeepers, Nevadomi concluded, “I’d like to think that these works have something to do with our lives but dammed if I can figure out what that might be.” [8]

In the early 80s, the artist settled in as Associate Professor in the Art Department at Cleveland State, a large urban university nestled in the heart of a city still at the cusp of dramatic demographic, political, and cultural change. Known to read newspapers front to back in the mornings and afternoons, Nevadomi during this decade produced some of his most epic and haunting works, including his Erroneous St. Bridgett, Mad Women with Chair, Urban Anti-Life, Hitler in Hell, and Theater of the Cage of Time series, as well as such canvases as Naugahyde Romance, in which two cropped, uncomfortably slumped female nudes bookend two Dobermann dogs who watch from the couch as the world outside explodes. In this picture, these exhausted, spent figures and alert canines are shielded only by a windowpane and cheap, white plastic blinds.

Ken Nevadomi, Naugahyde Romance. 1980. 49 x 60.75 inches. Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of WOLFS

It was during these years, in 1986, that Nevadomi earned the leading prize for painting at Cleveland Museum of Art’s May Show for the Man Who Lived in a Refrigerator (1985) and Folding up of Things (1984). In the CMA Bulletin that spring, Tom Hinson wrote that these two canvases provided “an excellent union of content—a pessimistic view of the human condition—and formal painting issues that simultaneously contain carefully controlled tension between the two.”[9] Resonant still, these works illustrate the impulse to crouch down, arch and dive during moments of great trauma or upheaval. Despite the boldness of Nevadomi’s painted figures though, his softer side starts to emerge here, perhaps ironically but especially if one reads between the lines. Nevadomi, like most of us on a good morning, seems fully cognizant of the delicate, perilous situation of one’s everyday, especially as it was during the decadent 80s: think Cold War fear, MTV, culture wars, the AIDS epidemic, the dawning of the new computer age, the second chapter of the nuclear age.

Ken Nevadomi, The Folding up of Things, 1985. Acrylic on canvas. 84 x 42.25 inches, each panel. Image courtesy of WOLFS.

By the late 80s, Nevadomi’s paintings turn more modeled, sculptural, and rounded at the edges, especially where color planes meet. He now seems to strike effortless balance between nearly shamanic, mythical portrayals of human struggle and the routine, blue-collar circumstances within which such struggles occur. Known to wear his “uniform” on most days—a brown bomber jacket, paint splattered jeans and a t-shirt—the content of Nevadomi’s 1980s works was both profound and neolithic. “Figures and animals find themselves caught in violent struggle with known and unknown adversaries, giving the works great power and passion,” wrote Diane De Grazia of Nevadomi in 1988, the year he earned the coveted Cleveland Art Prize for painting. [10]

Ken Nevadomi, Man Shoots City, Then Self, 1986. Acrylic on paper. 30 x 22 inches. Private Collection.

By the end of the 80s, the theme of television-as-specter appears, first rather innocuously in such canvases as Man Shoots City, Then Self (1986), and later more prominently, as throughout his foreboding Tube Strange series. At this point, Nevadomi starts to tool around, full stop, with variations on the Myth of Europa, Persephone, and Adam and Eve, asthe size and quantity of his pictures increase. As a friend would describe years later, though he was single, Nevadomi was married: he was inseparable from his art, especially his paintings. And so, even as he swam the 80s tide—Italian Transavanguardia and American Neo-expressionist alike—the artist remained all his own, painting figures insolent and tender, transfixed by solitude and sometimes also sarcasm.

Ken Nevadomi, Theater of the Cage of Vision (Man Carrying Boy), 1990. Acrylic on canvas. 60 x 72 inches. Image courtesy of WOLFS.

During the 1990s, the artist takes another about-face. He continues series he began earlier, in particular his Theater of the Cage of Time and Theater of the Cage of Vision sequences, writing of the former in his sketchbook that, “these pictures take place in a finite cosmos of human construction.” Ditching the dark, existential angst of his contemporaries, Nevadomi’s vernacular changes, as lithe female nudes begin to populate his work, many of which are drawn with charcoal on paper. He opts more toward calm and longing, sometimes via quotations from Balthus, Matisse, and Picasso.

Ken Nevadomi. Somnambulist, 1992. Charcoal on paper. 47.25 x 36.25 inches. Image courtesy of WOLFS.

Fast forward into the 2000s and Nevadomi continues channeling clarity versus chaos. Out of context, many of his turn of the millennium female nudes might be consumed and categorized as voyeuristic eroticism. Yet Nevadomi was constantly searching for new avenues and fresh avatars and it’s during these years that his paintings turn more confessional. Gorgeous swimmers, girls dancing at the bar, or the arch of a bartender’s back disclose Nevadomi’s predilection for the neck, the back, and feet as muse, rather than the body as a whole. Nevadomi was known to have a messy studio—a jumble of fractals in which he could find exactly what he wanted, as a friend of his recently described—and this late work embodies that kind of stratosphere.

Ken Nevadomi Untitled, 2005. Acrylic on canvas. Two panels, each 79 x 67 inches. Private Collection.

Perhaps this rich incongruity, which fits remarkably well together, is what convinced Michael Wolf to begin representing Nevadomi in 2021. Much more than the paintings for which he is known and revered, Nevadomi’s artistic output across nearly six decades includes sketchbooks, dream journals, small sculptures, a load of drawings, canvases calm and frenzied, intimate and brazen, dialed in and concomitantly aloof. As the gallery prepares for a major publication and exhibitions on Nevadomi’s life and work, sales of the artist’s work are on hold, if only temporarily, as a massive sorting and cataloging of the work takes shape.

And so, the question persists: was Ken Nevadomi that tight-lipped painter Helen Cullinan once described, a recluse who never let on?  The answer is both yes and no.  To see Ken Nevadomi is to see his work. He was constantly getting naked in front of the canvas and no matter how many female nudes we see in his work, part of him is pictured too. He performed (the self as artist, as he knew no other way) and conceptualized with the best of his generation, sharing just enough to make one question, double back, and seek out the answer.

May this artist, one of the greats, rest in peace.

WOLFS invites the public to a Memorial Reception and Exhibition of Ken Nevadomi’s works, 5:30 – 8:30 pm Friday, October 27.

Indra K. Lācis is a curator, art historian and writer based in the Midwest.

Ken Nevadomi. Image courtesy of WOLFS


[1] A memorial celebration for Ken Nevadomi on October 7th, 2023 at Zeis McGreevey Funeral Homes & Creation Service included an introduction by the artist’s longtime friend and Cleveland State University Professor Emeritus George Mauersberger, as well as statements by his cousin Marlene Logan, niece Danielle Gavorski, and friends Marina Marquez, Marcia Hall, Terre Maher, John Byrum, and Arleen Hartman. See the artist’s obituary here.

[2] Helen Cullinan, “Paintings speak for Ken Nevadomi.” The Plain Dealer, 11-H. Wednesday, May 20, 1987.

[3] Nevadomi has been reviewed dozens of times in The Plain Dealer by Helen Cullinan, Steven Litt, and others. His full CV can be accessed here

[4] “Cooper Student’s 2 Works Make Exhibit.” The Plain Dealer, 20-A. Sunday, January 15, 1967.

[5] Max Lakin, “Moveable Feasts: Max Lakin at the Armory Art Fair and Independent.” Artforum. September 15, 2021. Accessed online, October 20, https://www.artforum.com/columns/max-lakin-at-the-armory-art-fair-and-independent-250601/

[6] Andy Battaglia, “The 6 Best Booths at New York’s Independent Art Fair.” ARTnews, September 10, 2021. Accessed online October 18, 2023, https://www.artnews.com/list/art-news/artists/independent-art-fair-best-booths-1234603535/ken-nevadomi-at-new-canons/.

[7] “Introduction” by Sheila K. Tabakoff and Michael K. Milligan in Ken Nevadomi, Hi. I’m Ken Nevadomi. Pleazed to Meetcha. Paintings, 1970 – 77. (The Gallery.  School of Art, Kent State University, 1977).

[8] Ibid.  See Ken Nevadomi’s artist statement in the first pages of this catalog.

[9] See Tom E. Hinson’s round-up of the May Show awards in The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, May 1986. Volume 73, no. 5.

[10] Diane De Grazia, “Ken Nevadomi, painter. 1988 Cleveland Arts Prize for Visual Art.”http://clevelandartsprize.org/awardees/ken_nevadomi.html

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