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April Kingsley (1941-2023): Art Historian, Critic, and Curator

April Kingsley.

Written by Tom Recchio for The Provincetown Independent / An art historian, curator, scholar, and critic, April Kingsley of Wellfleet and Truro lived her life amidst art. “I wouldn’t go anyplace if there wasn’t art to see,” she once said. She explored American Abstract Expressionism, including the work of African-American and Greek-American painters, and contemporary craft art; she curated more than 75 major exhibitions in museums and galleries throughout the U.S.; and she published reviews, catalogues, and books at an astounding rate.

April died peacefully in her sleep on June 13, 2023 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 82.

She was born on Feb. 16, 1941 in Queens, N.Y. to Kingdon Edward Kingsley and Grace Helene Consilia Haddock. She grew up in Whitestone, N.Y. and graduated from Flushing High School in 1958. She attended Queens College School of Nursing and worked briefly as a nurse in Manhattan before studying art history with H.W. Janson at New York University.  She earned her M.F.A. from the Institute of Fine Arts in 1968.

While she was still a graduate student, she worked as the assistant director of Park Place Gallery in 1965 and 1966. Her first post-graduation job was as a curatorial assistant at the Museum of Modern Art from 1969 to 1971. Numerous curatorial jobs would follow, including at the Pasadena Art Museum, the American Craft Museum, and the Kresge Art Museum in Michigan.

Throughout her career, April resisted the status quo, featuring women artists, artists of color, and rarely seen sculptors through her writing and curatorial work. As an independent curator, she organized many influential traveling exhibitions. “Afro-American Abstraction,” for example, launched the careers of many now-famous Black artists including Jack Whitten, Ed Clark, and Mel Edwards. Her essay on African-American art is featured in the catalog for “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” at the Tate Modern in London.

April also curated exhibits of Islamic and Greek artists in the 1980s. “She was determined,” said Provincetown gallery owner Berta Walker. “She was an original thinker who got things done, and she had a fun sense of humor.”

Beginning in the late 1960s, April was a prodigious reviewer for Art International, the Village Voice, Newsweek, SoHo Weekly, and Provincetown Arts, among many other publications. In the March 1973 issue of ArtForum, she reviewed “Women Choose Women,” the first “large-scale exhibition held in a major art museum” of women’s art organized by and for women.

That same year, April married the painter and author Elliot Budd Hopkins and gave birth to her only child, Grace Francesca Hopkins. In the years that followed, April split her time between New York City and the Outer Cape, living first in Hopkins’s house in Truro before they built a new house together in Wellfleet in 1977. Both houses were designed by Charlie Zehnder. April and Budd divorced in 1991.

April’s professional commitments were extensive: In addition to her curatorial work, she taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York, Pratt Institute, Rhode Island School of Design, City University of New York, and Queens College. And she authored numerous books and countless exhibition catalogues.

Her first and most influential book, The Turning Point: The Abstract Expressionists and the Transformation of American Art, was published by Simon and Schuster in 1992. Focusing on 1950, the pivotal “year of greatest interaction” among Jackson Pollock, William de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and others, the book presents, said Publishers Weekly, a “vibrant, intimate, gripping portrait of American Abstract Expressionists” with an emphasis on “how the anguish of their personal lives fed into their art.”

To transform anguish into art, the review added, “these artists shared a desire to let content emerge directly from the psyche and [to quote Kingsley], a ‘desperation to speak through the medium of paint alone.’ ”

In the midst of her thriving career, April had one piece of unfinished academic business: to earn her doctorate, which she did in 2000 at the City University of New York with the completion of her dissertation on Franz Kline. At the time, she was also the curator of the Kresge Art Museum at Michigan State University, a position she held from 1999 to 2011.

Her last book, Emotional Impact: American Figurative Expressionism, served as the culmination of her tenure at Kresge, which had committed to develop its collection of American figurative painting under April’s leadership. Emotional Impact was published by Michigan State University Press in 2013, “the first time the university has published an art book,” according to a university newsletter. The following year, April returned to live full-time in Wellfleet.

April has been credited with influencing the careers and legacies of many artists including Mary Shaffer, Sandy Skoglund, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Boaz Vaadia, and Nancy Fried, who recalled talking with April with a group of other women till dawn when she first came to New York as a young artist. That conversation, Fried said, “changed my life. She took somebody that nobody knew and put me on stage.”

The Guerrilla Girls, a group of “vigilantes wearing gorilla masks” who dubbed themselves “the conscience of the art world,” named April one of 28 critics and curators who did the most for women artists in the 1970s and 1980s.

April was also a good friend, “the hostess with the mostest” who brought friends together with dancing parties and wonderful dinners, said Grace, her daughter. Fried recalled the dance parties vividly, and the painter Bob Henry credited those parties with helping to build a community of artists on the Cape.

“April was a critic who was not coming from on high,” said Henry, “but was in the trenches with the artists,” or, if not in the trenches, on the dance floor.

April is survived by her daughter, Grace Hopkins, and granddaughter, Georgia Grace Hopkins-Lisle, of Wellfleet; her sister, Grace Dunegan, and brother-in-law, Tim Dunegan, of Fairhope, Ala.; and nieces Jennifer Walker of Fairhope and Amy Ahlich of Daphne, Ala.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Provincetown Arts magazine in April’s memory.

Submitted by Grace Hopkins, April Kingsley’s daughter.

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