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Walt Kuhn
Walt Kuhn 2.jpg
circa 1904
Born(1877-10-27)October 27, 1877
DiedJuly 13, 1949(1949-07-13) (aged 71)
Known forPainting, modern art
Portrait of Walt Kuhn as a young man, from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
Portrait of Walt Kuhn as a young man, from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Walter Francis Kuhn (October 27, 1877 – July 13, 1949) was an American painter and an organizer of the famous Armory Show of 1913, which was America's first large-scale introduction to European Modernism.

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[ Multiple Speakers ] >> An international risk-management consultant by day, the former opera singer Michael Maglaras turned his passion for artists Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Lynd Ward into what critics say is virtuoso filmmaking. He and his wife Terri Templeton founded 217 Records and later, 217 Films. We'll talk with Maglaras about his love of modern art, his latest documentary, "O Brother Man: The Art and Life of Lynd Ward" and about which artist's work he'll be focusing his filmmaking energies on next. Here's our conversation with Michael Maglaras... >> Michael Maglaras welcome to the conversation >> Thank you. It's nice to be here. >> There's nothing conventional about you or the subjects of your documentaries and I say that because by day you run an international business consulting firm and later in life you became a filmmaker. So I want to begin before we talk about the films you've worked on I want to know what did the risk manager in you say about going out on that limb and producing your very first film back in I think 2003. >> Yeah we started in 2003. We finished it in 2005. It took two years out of my life and that of my wife. And I think the straight answer is I think some of us get riskier the older we get particularly if we've you know established ourselves in a particular profession or the business world and we sit back and say "Is there something I've always wanted to do? What's that remaining thing?" And with me it was to make a film and we approached a very wonderful videographer by the name of Geoff Leighton and said "We want to make a film and it's on this subject." And when he got done laughing at what we had proposed he saw we were serious and we just started. So the good news is if you surround yourself by as you do here in the studio with professionals then job gets done and it can get done very well. >> Well the interesting thing is the subject of that very first film was Marsden Hartley. And what struck you was a several hour-long poem that he'd written an ode to a family he'd met in Nova Scotia. >> That's right. >> And the film was "Cleophas and His Own." What was it about picking that up and reading it and deciding I have to make a film about this again someone who was not a filmmaker. >> Yeah well interesting story. I uncovered on eBay for $3 this art catalog of this obscure Nova Scotia show that was done of some of the work that Hartley did from the Nova Scotia period and thereafter and smack-dab in the middle of this catalog was this story was called "Cleophas and His Own" which had been discovered in a dresser drawer in the little village Corea Maine in 1943- >> A few days after he died. >> A few days after he died. I read it. I was moved literally to tears and we went into the studio and we recorded an audio recording of it for our record label that we own and my wife and I were in Washington. I'd just given a reading of "Cleophas and His Own" at the Phillips Gallery in Washington D.C. And we were a cab and riding back I said to Terri "You know that's a film. I think what I'll do is I'll dissect this and cut it up and make a film out of it." And I did that and it was just terrible because I'm not as good a writer as Marsden Hartley is. We decided one day to scrap what I had written and film the whole thing as written two hours and 27 minute film. There are some people then that advised me that the film was too long and that it was a very stupid idea and there's some people today that sit through the film and say "Did you really intend to make a two hour and 27 minute film?" And the answer is yes. It's a fascinating fascinating story. >> It is an interesting story but the time makes me backtrack because you actually performed a six and a half hour opera performance of Hiawatha. >> Not an opera actually I read the poem Hiawatha. >> Okay you read the poem okay. >> Yes from cover to cover. >> Six and a half hours. >> Yes. >> And I understand that the audience... >> Don't remind me please [laughs]. >> [Laughing] but I understand that a good number of the audience stayed in that theater. >> Not a good number. In fact by the end it had actually increased. It was in honor of the bicentennial of the birth of Longfellow obviously who wrote Hiawatha and we had made a recording for the -- we had been asked to make a recording for the bicentennial. We did it and then I turned to my wife and said "Let's do a public reading." And we thought you know that four or five or six sort of hardy souls would show up. First of all the place was mobbed. And it was mobbed six and a half hours later. They sat through the whole thing. And it was one of the highlights of my life. It was a most enjoyable experience to have to read that poem aloud. >> And how could you sustain your energy? I mean a six and half hour performance. I mean that's mind-boggling. >> Well I was trained as an opera singing so standing on stage and using your breath just right and making sure that you can conserve the energy for that is an important part of it. But when you're swept along by this poetry this magnificent American poetry and Hiawatha is -- Hiawatha is the tale of our first American superhero and when you read it aloud it resonates. And it resonated for the audience I think that night. >> You went on to produce another film about Marsden Hartley and after that a film about John Marin and more recently a film about the graphic artist Lynd Ward. What's interesting to me about all these people that you've focused your attention on is that they were innovators. These were the pioneers in their respective fields. >> I think you're right about that. In in Lynd's case of course in Lynd Ward's case he wrote the first American graphic novel if in fact you write a novel I guess you do -- it's just with pictures and no words. I keep using the wrong words but you know what I mean. I also think you read a graphic novel too for the same reason. But yes Lynd was a pioneer John Marin in his way a pioneer Marsden Hartley one of the great -- Robert Hughes said about Marsden Hartley the great art critic Robert Hughes from Time Magazine said that Marsden Hartley was one of the four or five most important painters of the 20th century. >> And while he never enjoyed much success Hartley... >> Hartley yeah absolutely. >> He knew he said "My name will register forever in the history of American artists." >> That's exactly right and it does. When you say "Marsden Hartley" to an art aficionado or someone who appreciates his work or knows about his work as I say in the documentary film we made about his life you watch that person's eyes get very large. Marsden Hartley. He's an iconic figure and he appeals to a certain sensibility. His work sold very little in his lifetime and what was sold was largely one collector a man named Hudson Walker. Now you know you can't touch a Hartley oil for five six seven million dollars. And... >> And in fact one of the... >> He essentially died broke. >> Died broke and I think one of his pieces sold recently something he painted in 1915 for $6.3 million which is more than any other. >> Hartley would have appreciated that. A small fraction of that I think [laughing]. >> And yet this is someone who I kind of wonder why you fell in love with him because even as I watched your film he didn't seem that loveable that approachable. That -- he was a bit of a loner. >> Maybe it's his lack of love-ability but I think in Hartley's case there's something extraordinary going on there. When you and I think about painters we don't necessarily think about great writers. Or when we think about great writers we don't think that they also paint. Hartley was both. Hartley was a profoundly fine writer poet essayist and "Cleophas and His Own" which he never really intended to have see the light of day. That was a private manuscript. It was actually discovered by a woman named Louise Young who was a woman in her 20s when Hartley stayed with her family in Corea Maine. She actually found this manuscript. We got to know Louise while we were making this film. She died in 2004 and never saw the finished product but we got to know Louise we stayed in her home we got to hear first- hand what Hartley sounded like and looked like. And as you know I play Hartley in the film as well as directing it. So I got a lot of tips from Louise. >> About what he was like. >> What he was like and how he conducted himself. He was a fine writer extraordinary and important painter and an extraordinary man at a time when -- he was a gay man and it was very hard to be gay and be closeted in those days at the turn of the century and of course right up through the 30s. >> What was it like walking in his shoes? >> You'd have to ask my wife I think but living with Marsden Hartley as my wife did for a couple years perhaps that's another interview at another time. The prosthetic nose the padding the chin and the cigarettes I'm not a... >> Constantly he had a cigarette in his hand >> Yeah constantly. In the entire film I went through -- we shot that in two 12 hour days 12 hour sessions of me essentially looking as you know in the film into the camera with the exception of stuff that we shot later. I went through I think six cartons of cigarettes in two days. And then I went out and took a breath of air. So far I've been fine. I haven't reverted. >> [Laughter] What are art critics saying about that film. And the reason I ask is that there have been books written about Marsden Hartley. He wrote a number of books himself. Why did we need a film and what do film critics say about him? >> Film critics that have talked about this film because of its length either make a comment that its length is magisterial or magnificent or say "Gee maybe he could have cut it down to 90 minutes so I would have had to sit there for two hours and a half almost." We get wonderful mixed reviews about people about the length of the film. >> I actually meant art critics. What do art critics say? >> What art critics say about it is that's -- or have said about it is that's a portion of Hartley's life that needed further explanation. Here's this wonderful manuscript that Hartley begins as he's in Corea in 1936. He finishes it in 1941 and 1942 in Corea Maine. He starts in Nova Scotia; he finishes in Corea. He types it himself it's hand typed. And it is intended to sort of cleanse his soul about the relationship with the Frances Mason family. He was deeply in love with one of the sons who of course drowns as we know. >> Was it reciprocal? I never knew if it was reciprocated or not. >> Some of us think that perhaps it was. Hartley was certainly prepared to live the rest of his life in Nova Scotia at that point. It didn't work out that way. He did promise to come back when he left. >> And we should say that what happened was that this young man and his brother died in a storm out at sea. >> Terrible terrible hurricane at sea. They were drunk. They were coming back from the mainland. The Mason's lived on an island less than a mile from shore and these three guys in fact one of the cousins drowned too pile in a 14-foot skiff and tried to make it to the island. And of course they all drowned which provokes this outpouring of "Cleophas and His Own" the story. But then these portraits of the Frances Mason family that Hartley paints starting in 1938 long after he's left Nova Scotia. So the memory's still with him. >> Now I know how you got from Marsden Hartley to John Marin. They actually were both introduced to the American public by Alfred Stieglitz. >> And they knew each other. >> And they knew each other. There are pictures of them together. Both of them painted Maine. They sort of became the painters of Maine. >> Actually vied for that position a little bit. >> The interesting thing about Marin and you talk about this in the film is that he could paint with both hands at the same time. >> Yes there's a wonderful story. We actually -- when we were shooting up in Downeast Maine near South Edison where Marin lived where he died we actually encountered a gentleman who had seen as a small boy Marin painting. And literally looking at a scene and doing this -- sketching to eventually do an oil. And doing this and looking and doing this with both hands. He could work very rapidly and when you see there's film footage in the film of Marin actually sketching it's amazing the quickness like Lynd Ward which he could work. >> So here is Marin who can paint with both hands and yet what he became famous for are few brushstrokes. I don't think I've ever seen a painting that has so few brushstrokes. Less is more. And that makes me that sends me to Hemingway. And I feel like is he is he the the -- to painting what Hemingway is to writing? Less is more. >> Can I write that down? That's a film. That's a new film. No you're right about that and I've never made that connection. There is in Modernism you know in the first 20 plus years of the 20th century -- the American century if you think about this -- you've made an excellent point. If you think about stripping things down to their essential natures Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, John Marin who could paint Trinity Church or the Woolworth building with very few brushstrokes right? >> And you knew exactly what it was. >> And you knew exactly what it was. There is this almost this feeling in American Modernist art and literature at that time what if we start to reduce things to their essential values? Do we lose anything when we reduce it? It's almost an experimentation. And I think what you'll find with Hemingway certainly with Gertrude Stein certainly with John Marin what you get in fact is more of the essence of the thing rather than less of the essence of the thing through the reduction. Does that make sense? >> It does. And what's interesting about that is that people often asked Marin according to your documentary and the things I've read "What is it that you were trying to convey?" And he said "Well it doesn't matter what I was trying to convey. What did you get from it?" >> What did you take away from it? Yeah and I think it's through this concept that you mentioned about the reductionism that says you know "I don't have to overdo my telling you what this scene or this particular image means to me. I in fact can reduce what it means because maybe it means more to you and allows you to insert parts of your own meaning and interpretation in it." >> These films are essays and some would even say they are devotional films. You're a devotee of Hartley and Marin and Lynd Ward who I want to speak about -- talk about more in just a moment. >> Yes and I would say that these are homages. And the films I've decided to make we call them essays in film because there's a lot of verbosity. I write a lot of these films and it's my writing so all the credit and blame goes to me. But I think what we can't do what my wife and I can't do and my wife is my executive producer -- we can't make a film about something that we don't feel really strongly and passionately about and if -- there's one of the reasons that we started to make these films is because we saw films about American painters and painters and artists in general that seemed devoid of passion to us. Somehow sort of magically seemed not to be on the cusp of passion at all. If you like a painter and if what you see on the wall moves you I'm not so sure that it's a bad thing that you express yourself in the most passionate or devotional terms provided that you show all of the painter and all of the character of that painter at the same time which we try to do in these films. But this is all about passion. We have to feel passionate about we do. >> It seems like it's all about passion but also it needs to be about something that's truly American. >> Yes. We... >> Despite the fact that these men all studied abroad -- they studied in Paris they studied in Berlin yet they brought this back and... >> I was trained as an opera singer when I was younger and it was a long time ago I had to go to Europe to sing because the opportunities were fewer here. There's some of that legacy fortunately with younger singers that doesn't happen as much anymore. But it did happen in my time. I think what's really important though is that we are committed my wife and I to making films about the American artistic experience. We've been tempted we've been asked to make films about a European subject in particular but we're just not going there. We're completely devoted to helping people our fellow citizens; understand the greatness of the American artistic legacy to the best of our ability. >> And you say in a little film that's online that it is middle class America that keeps the arts alive and that you are proud to be a part of middle class America. What I find interesting about that is that Lynd Ward for example he wanted the world the way the Barnes Museum in Philadelphia the founder of that museum wanted average Americans to see and appreciate his work. He never numbered for example his work because he didn't want them to be more expensive than they should be. >> You're right he didn't want to inflate their value. And that's a good point. Lynd was the absolute epitome of what it was like and what it is like to be a middle class artist of great genius. I mean here we've got a man born in 1905. He dies in 1985. He's right in the middle of this American century that's produced Hartley and produced Marin and produced Jackson Pollock. What we've got is we've got a man a devoted father two wonderful daughters a wife who was also very gifted as a writer. They live in suburban New Jersey of all places. You know they've got a lawn. They've got trees. It's the ultimate middle class existence. Yet in that studio he becomes the father of the American graphic novel. You know Art Spiegelman has said and owned to the fact that he wouldn't have done what he had done if Lynd Ward had not existed. >> So all the graphic novelists and comic book creators who came after him stood on the shoulders of Lynd Ward. >> Yes when you say Lynd Ward in front of someone who either makes graphic novels or writes comic books or does comic work or does graphic illustration -- when you say Lynd Ward you get the same reaction that I just mentioned ago about the name Marsden Hartley. There's a pause. There's a sharp intake of breath. The eyes get large. He is an iconic figure. He is the father of the American graphic novel. >> And he was extremely prolific. >> Prolific. More than 200 books stuff that we still uncover to this day that turns out to be commercial work a book illustration done by Lynd Ward. We're very fortunate my wife and I to know Robin Ward Savage and her husband Mike Savage who in fact live not far from Penn State and an ardent Penn State -- I mean there's no place in their house that doesn't say "Go Penn State." Which is wonderful to visit with them on but the artwork work that resides here at Penn State which is a gift from Robin and Mike and Ed Ward is the most magnificent body of work. And to pour through it we're talking about thousands of images in your library here at Penn state. And that doesn't count what's at Rutgers or George Washington or anyplace else. >> And Penn State holds an annual graphic novel conference. >> They do. >> And created a Lynd Ward award >> Exactly >> For graphic novelists. >> Exactly. Thanks to the hard work of Steven Herb whose -- everyone knows here and who's an advocate a passionate advocate of the graphic novel. >> Now it seems like there's one really interesting to me little nugget of all of these and one of the things I find interesting about Lynd Ward is as a child he knew he was going to be an artist he realized that his name spelled backwards was draw. >> Exactly. Imagine it. But isn't that a wonderful story. Robin tells it at the beginning of the film. You know we get the most wonderful -- as we tour with the film we get the most wonderful reaction to that because isn't that the most innocent and childlike reaction? You're a child you know you write your name and you're five years old you realize what it of course spells backwards. Why not do that as a passionate thing for the rest of your life? >> Now Ward you say chronicled the 20th century. I mean his work -- some of his most famous work was done before the stock market crash. >> "God's Man" was published the week before the stock market crashed and what was "God's Man" about? It is about corporate greed It is about corruption of innocence. It is about what happens to our American cities the moment that capitalism with the ugliest side of its face is allowed to rein unmolested and unconstrained. >> He was prescient in a lot of ways. >> Prescient and that I think I use that word in the film. Not only was he prescient but he saw what would eventually happen if we didn't pull ourselves back from this precipice of reliance on the corporation taking care of us and essentially at the same time silencing us. >> What I wondered as I learned about these artists -- and I have to say I didn't actually know about them until I watched your films. >> But you do now [laughs]. >> I do now. But I knew about the lost generation and I thought "Why, why isn't Marin for example a household name the way Hemingway is?" >> Yeah I think part of that is how we treat these artists and writers in terms of their being famous beyond what they did. When I say Hemingway to you or to a friend of yours or a friend of mine the reaction is maybe not "Oh you know I love the novels of Hemingway" as is something about his persona or something about the way he lived his life. So there's kind of a dichotomy between the artist and the way the life was lived. With Hartley there's some of that. With Marin there's almost none of it because Marin again was a family man and extremely devoted to his wife and his son John. And all Marin did all day was if he wasn't hunting or fishing or being on his boat was just work. And with Lynd Ward you have this ultimate example of this guy next door short man with glasses with loving wife and two loving children who are living this suburban existence. But what you don't know is in that studio he's illustrating Earnest Hemingway's work. He's illustrating "Beowulf" and creating lasting images of really important... >> And he won every award that counted. The Caldecott Award and the book that I have to get my hands on and see "The Biggest Bear" which was a Caldecott winner. >> It was in 1953 I think. >> And children are still reading that book. >> Children are still reading that book yes. It's wonderful to know that. >> Now Marsden and Marin they did a lot of work about on Maine and Maine became a part of them. >> Yes. >> Maine actually produced or inspired so many artists. The Wyeths all three of them. Georgia O'Keefe. What is it about Maine-- >> Winslow Homer. >> Winslow Homer like you said it was someone who said Marsden Hartley is no Winslow Homer. That almost partly inspired you to make that film. >> The -- that was someone walking on the set one day and made that comment to me for some reason that will remain forever an enigma. Well you've been to Maine and so you know what I mean. There's a quality of the light there. On a fine summer day in Maine when you're standing particularly in Downeast Maine along the rocky coast and you see the subtle change of the light and you see the quality of the light -- when you see the way the light dances off the surface of the slate and the granite and the wonderful crashing waves that are so wonderfully portrayed in Homer's work for example it's easy it's easy if you're an artist which I'm not it's easy to imagine yourself trying to capture that moment the way that Hartley the ultimate expressionist painter the way that Marin the ultimate I don't know what kind of -- modernist painter is the best way to describe Marin and Homer -- you know the way they captured those images is all about the Maine we understand and think about in our dreams and certainly in our subconscious. >> Who are you working on now? >> We're working on a film called "The Great Confusion; The 1913 Armory Show." So 100 years again February 17th. >> Alfred Stieglitz >> Alfred Stieglitz. Three men got together one of which was the great and wonderful painter Walt Kuhn and they decided it was time to introduce America to modern art. And so they went to Europe and pulled hoards of paintings from Europe. They invited Marsden Hartley and John Marin and Charles Sheeler and John Sloan and a raft of wonderful American painters who were painting at that time to come to New York and exhibit in an armory in fact. And so more than 1000 works for one month between February 17th and March 15 of 1913 were there and people walked out... >> They didn't like it? >> Being either in love or confused. In fact there's a wonderful passage where Teddy Roosevelt who was no longer president in 1913 walked in saw Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending Staircase " turned to one of the promoters and said "This man is nuts." >> [Laughing]. >> And so we've actually in this film we're actually shooting a wonderful actor Joe Wiegand who is the world's most foremost impersonator of Teddy Roosevelt he'll actually be on the set when we shoot in February sort of reading parts of the essay that Theodore Roosevelt wrote. So we're back to Modernism again and the American experience. >> All right well we're looking forward to it. Michael Maglaras very nice talking to you. >> Oh it's been great. Thank you. >> I hope you enjoyed our conversation with Michael Maglaras. Comcast subscribers can watch this program anytime on Penn State On Demand. Find out how through our website: where you'll also find more information about Maglaras' films. I'm Patty Satalia. We hope you'll join us for our next "Conversation from Penn State!" >> If you would like to purchase a DVD of this or any episode of "Conversations from Penn State," order online at or call 1-800-770-2111. >> Production funding provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and by viewers like you. Thank you. >> This has been a production of WPSU.



Kuhn was born in New York City in 1877. Growing up near the Red Hook, Brooklyn[1] docks in a working-class family, he was exposed to a range of rough, colorful waterfront experiences in his youth and, though he loved to draw, nothing in his background suggested a future career in art. Kuhn's first jobs were as a proprietor of a bicycle repair shop and as a professional bike racer. At fifteen, though, Walter Kuhn sold his first drawings to a magazine and began to sign his name “Walt.” In 1893, deciding that he would benefit from some formal training, he enrolled in art classes at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute.[2]

In 1899, Kuhn set out for California with sixty dollars in his pocket. Upon his arrival in San Francisco, he became an illustrator for WASP Magazine. It was at this time that he decided, if wanted to grow and eventually make a living as an artist, he should expose himself to the Old Masters and the modern artists of Europe. In 1901, at the age of twenty-four, Kuhn left for Paris. There he studied briefly art at the Académie Colarossi before leaving to the Royal Academy in Munich. Once in the capital of Bavaria, he studied under Heinrich von Zügel, a member of the Barbizon School. He went on sketching trips in the Netherlands and toured the museums of Venice. During his two-year stay abroad, Kuhn also saw for the first time the work of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.[3]

In 1903, he returned to New York and was employed as an illustrator for local journals. In 1905, he held his first exhibition at the Salmagundi Club, establishing himself as both a cartoonist and a serious painter. In this same year, he completed his first illustrations for Life magazine. In 1909-10, his strip "Whisk" ran for almost two years in the New York World. He counted a number of cartoonists and illustrators among his friends, including Gus Mager and Pop Hart.[4] He also created a text comic himself: Whisk (1909-1911). [5]

When the New York School of Art moved to Fort Lee, New Jersey in the summer of 1908, Kuhn joined the faculty. However, he disliked his experience with the school, and at the end of the school year, he returned to New York. There, he married Vera Spier. Soon after, a daughter, Brenda Kuhn, was born. An important friendship was formed at this time with artist Arthur Bowen Davies, who would also play a significant role in American art history.[6]

In 1909, Kuhn had his first solo exhibition in New York. In the following years, he took part in founding the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, the organization ultimately responsible for the Armory Show. Kuhn acted as the executive secretary and was delegated as one of the men to find European artists to participate. He, Davies, and artist Walter Pach made a whirlwind tour of Europe in 1912 to find the best and most audacious examples of new art to introduce to New York audiences. The Armory Show of 1913, which displayed both European and American modernist art, resulted in both an historic controversy and a long-range triumph. Smart and sensational publicity, combined with strategic word-of-mouth, resulted in attendance figures of over 200,000 and over $44,000 in sales, far exceeding anyone's expectations for the venture.[7] After its New York venue, the Armory Show toured, receiving widespread attention, in Chicago and Boston. "Kuhn had a talent for promotion," art critic Robert Hughes has noted.[8] This unprecedented exhibition had demonstrated that Americans might be receptive to modern art and that there was a large potential market for it; Kuhn played a major role in a transformative cultural event.[9]

Following the Armory Show, Kuhn acted as an art advisor to the lawyer and collector John Quinn and assisted in the formation of his unique collection of modern art, unfortunately dissolved and sold at the time of Quinn's death in 1924.[10] He also exhibited with the Whitney Studio Club and became a much-appreciated artist at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Kuhn's work in the 1910s often showed the influence of the modern European painters whose art he had helped to promote. The Polo Ground (1914), for instance, contains strong echoes of Raoul Dufy.[11] Other critics noted an affinity for André Derain and the German Expressionists. By the end of the decade, though, Kuhn's paintings had become more traditionally representational again, though he never worked in the manner of an academic realist; his portraits and still lifes are composed of broad painterly effects, strong colors, and thick textures. In brushstroke and intensity, a Kuhn face or still life is unmistakably Kuhn's.

In 1925, Kuhn almost died from a duodenal ulcer. Following an arduous recovery, he became an instructor at the Art Students League of New York. He also completed a commission for the Union Pacific Railroad, the club car "The Little Nugget" LA-701, currently under restoration at the Travel Town Museum in Los Angeles, California. In 1933, the aging artist organized his first retrospective. During these years, he began to question his earlier allegiance to European Modernism. On a 1931 trip to Europe with Marie and W. Averell Harriman, his staunchest supporters, he declined to join the Harrimans on their visits to the studios of Picasso, Georges Braque, and Fernand Léger.[12] Yet neither did he want to align himself with the anti-Modernist camp of Regionalists like Thomas Hart Benton and politically-minded social realists. In the art politics of the day, Kuhn was caught between two extremes.

By the 1940s, Kuhn’s behavior began to take on unsound characteristics. He became increasingly irascible and distant from old friends. When the Ringling Brothers Circus was in town, he attended night after night. (During a hard-pressed period in the 1920s, Kuhn had worked as a designer and director for revues and circus acts.) He also became frustrated by the lack of attention his own work was receiving and was particularly strident about the Museum of Modern Art's support of abstraction and neglect of American art in the postwar period.[13] In 1948, he was institutionalized, and on July 13, 1949, he died suddenly from a perforated ulcer. He is interred in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City.


Walt Kuhn is best remembered today for his key role in planning the Armory Show. Ironically, a man who was in the forefront of the modern movement and was seen as an advocate of adventurous new art in 1913 came to be labelled, because of his on-going commitment to representation, a conservative artist by future generations of art historians.[14] Nevertheless, he holds a place in American art history as a skilled cartoonist, draughtsman, printmaker, sculptor and painter. Although he destroyed many of his early paintings, his works that remain today are powerful and are a part of most major American art collections.

His portraits of circus and vaudeville entertainers are some of the most memorable, confidently painted works of twentieth-century American art. They are reminiscent of commedia dell'arte actor portraits done by the French masters centuries earlier. The Tragic Comedians (1916) in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and The White Clown (1929) in the collection of the National Gallery of Art are intense, arresting images and are among his most respected paintings.

Selected catalogues and exhibitions

  • Walt Kuhn (1877-1949) - American Modernist at
  • [1] DC Moore Gallery Exhibition, "Trees," June 11-August 7, 2009
  • [2] DC Moore Gallery Exhibition, "Modern America 1917-1944," November 17-December 23, 2011
  • [3] DC Moore Gallery Exhibition "Walt Kuhn: American Modern," February 7-March 16, 2013
  • 1908-12, 1921, 1945-49: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts exhibitions
  • 1911: Madison Gallery, New York
  • 1913: Armory Show, New York
  • 1932-48: Whitney Museum of American Art exhibitions
  • 1966: University of Arizona Art Gallery, Tucson
  • 1967-68, 1972, 1977, 1980: Kennedy Galleries, New York
  • 1984: Barridoff Galleries, Portland, ME
  • 1987: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
  • 1987: Salander O’Reilly Galleries Inc., New York
  • 1989: Maine University Art Museum, ME


  1. ^ "Walt Kuhn (American, 1877–1949)". ArtNet. Retrieved 3 March 2019.
  2. ^ Biographical information for this entry is taken from Philip Rhys Adams.
  3. ^ Adams, pp. 14-15.
  4. ^ Suiter, Tad. "The Cartoonist as Artist, part 4. The Leisurely Historian website.
  5. ^
  6. ^ Adams, p. 30. The relationship between Kuhn and Davies is chronicled in Bennard B. Perlman, The Lives, Loves, and Art of Arthur B. Davies (Albany: State University Press of New York, 1998).
  7. ^ McShea, Megan, A Finding Aid to the Walt Kuhn Family Papers and Armory Show Records, 1859-1978  (bulk 1900-1949). Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  8. ^ Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (New York: Knopf, 1997), p. 354.
  9. ^ Kuhn's essay "The History of the Armory Show" is reprinted in Arts Magazine (Summer 1984), pp. 138-141. The definitive account of the Armory Show remains art historian Milton Brown's study of the show's inception, organization, and reception.
  10. ^ The relationship between Kuhn and Quinn, one of the great connoisseurs of his time, is chronicled extensively in B.L. Reid, The Man from New York: John Quinn and His Friends (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968).
  11. ^ Adams, p. 65.
  12. ^ Adams, p. 133.
  13. ^ Kuhn is quoted on this subject in Time, November 22, 1948, p. 52.
  14. ^ A critical but not unsympathetic account of Kuhn's art and its changes over the years can be found in Milton Brown, pp. 141-144. Brown writes: "Kuhn's Expressionism is conservative, but it has emotional depth."


  • Adams, Philip Rhys. Walt Kuhn: Painter, His Life and Work. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1978.
  • Brown, Milton. The Story of the Armory Show. New York: Abbeville, 1988 edition.
  • "Walt Kuhn: American Modern" (exhibition catalogue), DC Moore Gallery, March 2013 [4]
  • Loughery, John. "The Contradictions of Walt Kuhn," Arts Magazine (April 1985), pp. 106–107.

External links

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