Kuhn, Walt (1880-1949) by Scholes, Robert

Walt Kuhn (1880 – 1949) The following biographical sketch is quoted from the web page of The Forum Gallery in New York City: ” Walt Kuhn was born in Brooklyn, New York, the only one of eight brothers to survive childhood. At the time of his christening, he was named William, but this was changed to Walter Francis. The artist himself later shortened his name to Walt. He was proud of his mother’s Spanish blood, and from her he acquired a life-long love for the theater and the circus. As a child he was encouraged to draw, and drew constantly throughout his school days. After one year at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, he went into business as the proprietor of a bicycle shop. This was 1897 when cycling was in its heyday, and during the summers, Kuhn barnstormed as a professional bicycle racer at county fairs. He also learned to tap dance, a skill he would practice all his life. In 1899, Kuhn began a leisurely trip West, eventually finding a job drawing cartoons for a San Francisco newspaper. Several years later, realizing the need for more training, Kuhn left for Europe to study in Paris and Munich. It was here that he heard a phrase that remained with him always and was frequently quoted to young artists. After a summer’s work produced only one painting and the opinion that he had plenty of time, his teacher said, “For you it is a quarter to twelve.” ” Back in New York he continued to make a living as a cartoonist for newspapers and magazines while beginning a serious course of self-training, making 3,000 studies of the nude. Biographer Frank Getlein writes, “He was convinced then and remained convinced that nothing came easy to him.” In 1909 he met and married a Washington, D.C., woman, Vera Spier, the daughter of a jeweler and herself a designer of jewelry. Their daughter and only child, Brenda, was born several years later. Despite the fact that first Vera and then Brenda managed the business of Kuhn’s career as an artist, he kept his wife and child in a private world separate from the artists and collectors he saw frequently as professionals and friends. Though Kuhn was by nature a loner, he became very involved in artists’ activities. The high point of these activities was his major participation as an organizer of the historic 1913 Armory Show. “When Kuhn suffered acutely from a stomach ulcer in 1925, he thought he might not survive. Not so much concerned with the thought of death as with the lack of enduring achievement in art, Kuhn set a time limit of two years in which he would “find himself in art.” Utilizing his first loves, the circus and the theater, he “began the feverish outpouring of show girls, circus subjects and theatrical folk that were to become synonymous with his name.” Bennard B. Perlman describes these works: ‘Boldly outlined, brusquely modeled, intensely expressive, and frozen in limelight against dark backgrounds, Kuhn’s portraits are unforgettable, disturbing paintings. Most present a frontal gaze that is at once hypnotic and that were considered startling in their day. Just as Rembrandt and van Gogh allow the viewer to pierce the facades of their sitters’ faces to look deeper into their beings, so Kuhn accomplishes the same thing, but in an almost eerie fashion.’ “Kuhn said he was forty years old before he painted a really worthwhile picture. In fact, he was over fifty when his long, frustrating search for a resolution to the problems confronting him as a painter was finally reached with completion of White Clown –a painting that was both his masterwork and an intensely personal symbol. He rarely exhibited the work after its debut at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and would not allow it to be purchased during his lifetime. ‘In the next two decades of productive maturity Kuhn continued to paint show people, still lifes and landscapes. Though he wrote to a friend, “I have more or less arrived at the point where I can make my brushes carry out my instructions,” he continued to be highly self-critical. Fridolph Johnson wrote in a 1967 article in American Artist, “He ruthlessly destroyed more paintings than he preserved, and he never signed one until he was completely satisfied with it.’ “In his last years Kuhn began to suffer increasing mental turmoil, finally becoming irrational and stormy. Concerned friends convinced his family to commit him to Bellevue Hospital in New York in late fall of 1948 and he died in a White Plains hospital the following summer.”

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