Curatorial legends: the life of Katharine Kuh with art historian and writer, Avis Berman
THE WHITNEY MUSEUM WAS ESTABLISHED BY TWO DEDICATED WOMEN COMMITTED TO SUPPORTING THE LIVING ARTISTS OF THEIR TIME. TODAY, THE ART WORLD IS COMPRISED OF MANY POWERFUL AND INFLUENTIAL WOMEN: GALLERISTS, ART ADVISORS, AUCTION HOUSE SPECIALISTS AND DEALERS. THERE ARE BRILLIANT WOMEN CURATORS WHO HELP BUILD MUSEUM COLLECTIONS OR WORK INDEPENDENTLY CREATING COMPELLING EXHIBITIONS THAT WIDEN AND DEEPEN OUR CULTURAL AND AESTHETIC UNDERSTANDING OF THE ARTS.
IN TODAY’S LRFA POST, WRITER AND CURATOR AVIS BERMAN WILL DOCUMENT THE ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF A WOMAN OF THE LAST GENERATION OF CURATORS WHO GREATLY CONTRIBUTED TO OUR UNDERSTANDING OF MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY ART. KATHARINE KUH WAS ONE OF THE GREAT ART WORLD FIGURES OF THE MID-20th CENTURY, FORMER CURATOR AT THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO. LIKE JULIANA FORCE, KUH WAS INSTRUMENTAL IN SUPPORTING THE CONTEMPORARY ART OF HER TIME.
AVIS, WHAT DREW YOU TO WRITING ABOUT HER AND CURATING AN EXHIBITION IN HER HONOR? WHAT WERE THE MOST SIGNIFICANT CONTRIBUTIONS THAT SHE MADE?
I met Katharine Kuh in 1982 when I began conducting an oral history of her for the Archives of American Art’s special oral history project on Mark Rothko’s life and times, which was sponsored by the Mark Rothko Foundation. I was supposed to go three or four times, but she had almost total recall and what she was telling me was so interesting and compelling that I decided that I was going to keep going until the job was done. I recorded her fifteen times and, after that, we were friends. After I finished the oral history in 1983, I kept getting together with her and, as I knew more than anyone else about her professional life, she asked me to be her literary executor. In 1986 she began writing her memoirs, which she did not live to complete. So I finished them and got them published in 2005.
Katharine’s great achievement was her consistent championing of the avant-garde in a hostile environment. Chicago in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s was conservative in its artistic tastes, and it took great courage to stick to her principles. In the 1930s her gallery, which specialized in modern American and European art, was vandalized by “Sanity in Art,” a local organization rabidly advocating native regionalism and in the 1950s she was picketed outside the museum for buying a Jackson Pollock – protestors waved placards that said “Koo Koo Must Go!”
I always admired her most for her implacable belief that the center of art is not the art historian, critic, dealer, advisor, or curator – it is the artist. Katharine always hung around with artists as her best education, and I have tried to do the same.
IN A CAREER AS VAST AND VARIED AS YOURS, WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MOST OUTSTANDING HIGHLIGHTS? DO YOU FIND THAT THEY ARE MORE OFTEN AS AN ART HISTORIAN, CRITIC OR CURATOR?
I guess that the best thing I ever did was Rebels on Eighth Street, which brought a significant woman to light and established the history of an important American museum in context of seemingly no information about the subject. The book is still a part of the conversation on American art, and Force can no longer be ignored – I felt vindicated when the Whitney opened downtown last March and the gallery on the first floor was dedicated to both Gertrude Whitney and Juliana Force. In the past, only Gertrude Whitney would have been celebrated.
I am also very proud of the William Glackens exhibition. Most people have not seen the artist at his best, and we were able to bring together almost all of the top pictures under one roof. The critics, including several who had previously not been admirers, concluded that this was an artist who deserved a fresh look.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW?
I am researching an essay on Edith Dimock Glackens, William Glackens’s wife and also an artist and thorough-going feminist, and I’ve embarked on a project with the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation.
WHAT SUBJECTS WOULD YOU LIKE TO FOCUS ON IN THE FUTURE THAT YOU HAVE YET TO EXPLORE AS FULLY AS YOU WOULD LIKE, AND WHY?
I’m not ready talk about that at this time. I do want to write another book, subject to be named later.
AVIS, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR GENEROUS CONTRIBUTION OF TIME AND EXPERTISE. I LOOK FORWARD TO YOUR NEXT BOOK!
IN OUR NEXT LRFA BLOG, I AM DELIGHTED TO INTRODUCE FRIEND AND COLLEAGUE, MAX TEICHER OF GAGOSIAN GALLERY. MAX NOT ONLY WORKS VERY HARD BUT ALSO ALWAYS MAKES OUR COLLABORATIVE EFFORTS FUN AS WELL AS PRODUCTIVE.
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