Walt Kuhn was an artist, teacher, advisor to art collectors, organizer, and promoter of modern art. He played a key role in the art scene of New York City in the early 20th century, and was among the small group that organized the infamous Armory Show of 1913, officially known as the International Exhibition of Modern Art, held at the 69th Regiment Armory building in New York City. After the Armory Show, Kuhn went on to a distinguished career as a painter. He was best known for his sober oil portraits of show people, clowns, acrobats, and circus performers, but was equally prolific in landscapes, still lifes, and figure and genre drawings.
Walt Kuhn was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1877. After a brief career as a bicycle shop owner in downtown Brooklyn, Kuhn traveled West in 1899 to San Francisco, CA and earned his living as a cartoonist for newspapers such as Wasp. After two years in California, he moved back East and then on to Europe to pursue further art training. He briefly attended the Académie Colarossi studio in Paris, but quickly moved to Munich where he joined the class of Heinrich von Zügel in the Royal Academy.
Kuhn returned to New York City in 1904 and took up an active role in the art scene there, participating in the Salmagundi Club and the Kit Kat Club, teaching at the New York School of Art, and cartooning for Life, Judge, Puck, and other publications. In 1910, he participated in an exhibition of Independent Artists on 35th St. with Robert Henri and met artist Arthur B. Davies.
In 1911, when the National Academy of Design opened their annual exhibition, Kuhn, Henry Fitch Taylor, Elmer MacRae, and Jerome Myers were exhibiting at Clara Potter Davidge's Madison Gallery. To these four young artists, the Academy exhibition was typically lackluster, and the attention it received was unwarranted. Sensing that they were not alone in their attitude, they decided to organize. They invited a dozen other artists to join them, thus forming the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (AAPS). The group elected Kuhn Secretary and Arthur B. Davies President, and with the help of attorney and art collector John Quinn, they incorporated and began raising funds for an independent exhibition the following year.
In September of 1912, at Davies' suggestion, Kuhn traveled to Cologne, Germany to view the Sonderbund Internationale Kunst-Austellung. There he saw presented, in overwhelming volume, the work of his European contemporaries and their modern antecedents, the post-impressionists. He immediately began selecting and securing artwork for the upcoming AAPS exhibition. Kuhn traveled through Germany, Holland, France, and England, visiting private collectors, dealers, and artists. In Paris, Kuhn was joined by Davies and American artist and art agent Walter Pach. Kuhn and Davies sailed for New York in November, leaving the details of European arrangements to Pach.
The resulting Armory Show exhibition opened in New York in February 1913, and a selection of the foreign works traveled to Chicago and Boston in March and April. It included approximately 1300 American and European works of art, arranged in the exhibition space to advance the notion that the roots of modernism could be seen in the works of the old masters, from which the dramatically new art of living artists had evolved. Savvy and sensational publicity, combined with strategic word-of-mouth, resulted in attendance figures over 200,000 and over $44 thousand in sales. The Armory Show had demonstrated that modern art had a place in the public taste, that there was a market for it and legitimate critical support as well.
During the first World War, Kuhn stayed in NY and was active in the Kit Kat Club, an artists' club founded in 1881, which provided its members with collective studio space, live models, exhibitions, and an annual costume ball. In 1917, Kuhn founded another group called the Penguin Club, which had similar objectives to the Kit Kat Club, but with Kuhn himself as the gatekeeper. In addition to exhibitions and costume balls, the Penguin Club held summer outings and stag dinners, and maintained collective studio and exhibition space on East 15th Street in Manhattan. Its members included Americans and European artists displaced by the war in Europe. In the 1920s, Kuhn expanded a few sketches he had written for Penguin Balls into full-blown vaudeville productions, some of which were incorporated into larger musical revues such as The Merry Go Round and The 49ers and traveled around the country. Kuhn's theater work continued until 1928, and his fascination with show business continued to influence him throughout his life.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Kuhn gradually achieved recognition for his artwork, with sales to private collectors and dealers including Edith Halpert, Merritt Cutler, Lillie Bliss, John Quinn, and Marie Harriman. Kuhn also promoted other young painters whose work he liked, including Otis Oldfield, Lily Emmet Cushing, John Laurent, Frank di Gioia, and the self-taught Vermont artist Patsy Santo. Sometimes artists would contact him by mail, asking for lessons or advice. His lengthy letters to students offer coaching in technique and subject matter, as well as in the overall problem of success in art.
In 1929, Kuhn moved into the 18th St. studio that he would keep until the end of his life. He kept a rack of costumes in the studio, mostly made by Vera Kuhn, and his models, many of them stage and circus performers, would come and sit for Kuhn's portraits. The same year his painting The White Clown was exhibited at the newly established Museum of Modern Art in New York, bringing intense publicity and sales interest. Around this time, Kuhn began to receive the support of collector Duncan Phillips and curator Juliana Force of the Whitney Museum of American Art, both of whom made purchases and consistently exhibited his work.
Marie Norton Whitney Harriman, second wife of railroad magnate and diplomat W. Averell Harriman, shared a professional liaison with Kuhn that would take many forms and last until his death. Soon after the success of The White Clown, Kuhn established a relationship with the Marie Harriman Gallery, where he participated in group and solo shows during the height of his career. Kuhn also traveled with the Harrimans to Europe in 1931, where the three visited important private collections and acquired many valuable modern paintings for the Harrimans. Their collection, so heavily influenced by Kuhn's ideas about art, would eventually go to the National Gallery of Art.
Kuhn was an artist who understood the art business and never shied away from it. For Kuhn, promoting the ideas and practitioners of a certain brand of modernism was an expression of both aesthetic ideology and pragmatic self-interest. His contribution to the public discourse on modernism situated his own work at the heart of art history and the marketplace. Regardless of his motivations, he was indisputably a key player at a pivotal time in American art, when academic art was riotoulsy overturned to make way for modernism. His paintings are now held in major museum collections around the country, where most of them arrived with bequests from the collectors Kuhn had cultivated so carefully in his lifetime.
Sources consulted for this biography include The Story of the Armory Show (1988) by Milton W. Brown, Walt Kuhn, Painter: His Life and Work (1978) by Philip Rhys Adams, and "Walt Kuhn" by Frank Getlein, in the 1967 catalog of the Kennedy Galleries, Inc.