The East Village 
Comes to Verplanck

KinoSaito (photo credit: Jody Kivort)

For just a few moments, it felt much like a time warp, in which I was back in the Sixties in the East Village searching for some abandoned church or obscure place where there was an arts happening going on. It was always some hard-to-find place like the one in Verplank, NY, which just opened its doors to the public. The brick building was squeezed among the rows of clapboard houses. I trudged there on a Friday night, curious to see how the arts were settling into this rural setting in which factory workers in the brick industry made their homes there for many generations.

Serendipity has always been a characteristic of artists’ migration to unlikely places, where artists are usually on the hunt for affordable large open spaces to accommodate large-scale works of art. Thus it was fortuitous that Kikuo Saito and his wife Mikiko Ino, in 2013, happened upon the St. Patrick’s School that was abandoned by the archdiocese in 1991. The school had been a fixture in the town since 1921. One might speculate that the work of an abstract painter would be somewhat of an anomaly in this factory town, where generations of Italian families have lived and prospered. But that was not the case, according to Beth Venn, the Executive Director of the KinoSaito Art Center, who said that neighbors eagerly welcomed the couple from SoHo as the saviors of their beloved alma mater. Many generations of Italians in the community had attended and graduated from St. Patrick’s School, and they were happy that it was being saved for a good purpose. 

For a time, until he died in 2016, Kikuo used the school as a studio, second only to his New York City digs. After his passing, the couple’s dream of building a residency program in the burbs, where artists could come to replenish their artistic wells, was carried out by Mikiko with board members of the newly established arts center: writer Josh Cohen and Sarah Strauss, an architect whom Kikuo mentored. The renovated arts center now houses two large art galleries, a multipurpose performance space, two studios, a classroom and a café. 

Kikuo Saito was a well-known abstract painter who was prominent in the art scene in the Seventies, having worked as an assistant to such renowned artists as Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland and Larry Poons. His abstract painting led him to the theater, and he was soon very well known as a set designer working closely with Ellen Stewart, founder of the LaMaMa Experimental Theater in the East Village. Kikuo was born and schooled in Tokyo, Japan, and came to New York in 1966, as did many abstract expressionist painters.

Exhibitions Painting as Performance / Performance as Painting and Cloud Paintings, both on view through November 15, feature some of Kikuo Saito’s mature work, which is sparse and minimal, textural and interrupted lyrically with gestural strokes of color. Whether Verplank will become the new Bushwick, only time will tell. However, for a taste of the New York arts scene, find your way to 7th Street in Verplank. Bring along your GPS, and if you get lost, you can always drop in at the Café Paradiso, which locals tout as the best pizza in town.

Painting as Performance/Performance as Painting exhibition on view in KinoSaito’s gallery (photo credit: Jody Kivort)