DescriptionWALT KUHN (American 1877 - 1949)
Untitled (Still Life), 1932
Oil on panel
18-5/8 x 21-½in.
Signed and dated at lower right, Walt Kuhn 1932
In addition to the images of circus performers for which he is best known, the twentieth-century American modernist, Walt Kuhn, also produced still lifes and landscapes in a vivid, highly plastic style that characterizes his clowns and acrobats. Interestingly, it was work such as the present still life and landscapes with comparable formal qualities that first brought Walt Kuhn to the attention of John Quinn, the noted American art patron and collector during the early decades of the twentieth century. In the sale of Quinn's collection in 1927, only two of his 37 paintings by Walt Kuhn were circus subjects. Quinn preferred Kuhn's work in these other genres.
Walt Kuhn was born in Brooklyn and grew up in the art world of New York just as European modernism was making its initial inroads. As early as 1915, within two years of the Armory Show, which brought the work of the Fauves, Cubists, Duchamp, Cezanne and many of the Impressionists to the American gallery-going public for the first time, he was exploring the genre of still-life painting himself. His work from the 1910s reflected Synthetic Cubist experiments with its collaged appearance. By the 1920s, his arrangements stressed the flat picture surface in the manner of Cézanne, with square patches of strongly directional brushwork that fell short of covering the surface, and bold outlines. By the 1930s, however, when he painted the present work and many of his most successful still lifes, Walt Kuhn's still lifes became somewhat harder to classify neatly in terms of European models. They had a little bit of Cézanne, and Gauguin, but also something of Van Gogh and even Derain and Vlaminck as well. But the work of the 1930s also had a lot of Walt Kuhn's own idiosyncratic sense of sweet and sour color in it, as well as his elegant way of designing pictorial space so that all the shapes fit neatly and harmoniously within the picture's borders. By the 1940s, the final decade of Kuhn's life, his still life painting became more insistently three-dimensional and simplified, particularly his presentations of densely modeled apples spilling across single-hued backgrounds. The work of the 1940s seems to acknowledge an awareness of the sculptural painting associated with the Regionalists.
The harmonious arrangement of the books, flowers, jug, and other items on the sharply titled tabletop of this still life was part accident and part calculation. As Philip Rhys Adams noted in his monograph on the artist, "Kuhn often asked someone else, usually [his daughter or wife] Vera or Brenda, to arrange his still life objects so that the unintended grouping could surprise him with a new idea. Then he might make a few adjustments while avoiding the danger of unconsciously repeating himself" (Walt Kuhn, Painter. His Life and Work, including a catalogue raisonné of the oil paintings, Ohio State University Press, Columbus, 1978, pp. 156-7). However, there seems to have been more to his method than this, because his underlying sense of the abstract geometry in his paintings was so refined. It is quite likely that Kuhn prepared his still lifes much as he prepared his figure paintings. To perfect the geometry, as Rhys Adams explains (p. 118), "Kuhn had developed a studio procedure that helped him achieve that exact fitting of figure to canvas. After prolonged thought, preliminary drawings, watercolor sketches, and sometimes trial runs in small oil sketches, he would tack his canvas, often the scraped-off surface of a painting he had decided to destroy in this way, on a sheet of masonite or hard board. Then he blocked in the large areas, carefully adjusting their tonal relationships, which he said never came easily to him [and then he would paint from the model. Then, when the painting was finished, he would first] adjust the final size with chalk lines, sometimes moving a frame of the proper dimensions around until he found the right placement of the figure on the canvas. Even then he would not stretch and frame the painting; he would put it aside, still tacked to its board, or roll it up after it had dried enough, until once or twice a season his wife and daughter would join him in the review and verdict. If it passed the severe objective trial, he would then sign and date it, finding the exact place where the calligraphy of the signature and date would be an integral part of the painting." In the present work, the signature artfully and conspicuously aligns with the slant of the table.
The objects depicted in the present painting, far from being an arbitrary collection of items, clearly references an important event in the history of art in New York. In November of 1929, the Museum of Modern Art opened at the Heckscher Building on Fifth Avenue, not far from its present site, and conveniently near the art dealers' world of Fifty-Seventh Street. As Rhys Adams notes, "Its first exhibition was a thunderous salvo of 'Cézanne, Gauguin, Seruat, Van Gogh'." On the table in this still life are books on two of these figures, Van Gogh and Gauguin.
The Museum of Modern Art followed its inaugural exhibition with a display of "Paintings by Nineteen Living Americans," from 13 December 1929 to 12 January 1930. This was even more important to Walt Kuhn for it was the exhibition which truly launched his career. He was represented by five oils, one of them his White Clown of 1929, a painting eventually purchased by Marie and Averell Harriman, who became his dealers. They later donated the painting to the National Gallery in Washington.
Walt Kuhn once said that nudes and flowers were the most difficult subjects to paint, not only because of their banality but because their evanescence made it hard to find a fulcrum to lever the subject onto the canvas. It seems that in the case of the peonies in the present work, Kuhn was equal to the task.
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