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Journey to Abstraction: Jacob Kainen Prints 1939 – 1977

Charles Marvin Fairchild Memorial Gallery
January 31, 2003
May 4, 2003

Introduction

Journey to Abstraction: Jacob Kainen Prints 1939-1977 presents twenty-five of the artist’s works, including seventeen that he donated to Georgetown University in 2000. Jacob Kainen (1909-2001) was for several decades one of the most internationally respected of Washington artists. Born in Connecticut to immigrants from Russia, Kainen was established in the New York art scene before moving to Washington. In addition to his work as a printmaker and painter, he was the curator of prints at the Smithsonian Institution from 1942 to 1969. Kainen was a founder of the Washington Print Club, and acknowledged “dean” of the Washington art community up until his death in 2001.

“The most difficult problem for an artist, granted technical competence, is to know how to be himself. The strong artist clings to his own identity regardless of the variety of pressures in our society. I have certain images in my mind that won’t go away. I begin with the aesthetic balancing of forms but these psychological ghosts soon take over.”1

Lauinger Library is proud to present the work of one of Washington’s foremost twentieth-century artists, the late Jacob Kainen, in this exhibition made possible by his generous gift in 2000 of twenty of his prints. As most Washingtonians are aware, Kainen’s influence in the local art community was multi-faceted: as a talented artist, curator, teacher, mentor, collector, and author. He played a major role in bringing Washington’s art community “up to speed” with major currents in the evolving art world, encouraging younger artists such Gene Davis and others of the Washington Color School, and helping establish organizations such as the Washington Print Club in 1964.

When he moved here from New York in 1942 to accept a job as curator of graphic arts at the Smithsonian Institution, Kainen was surprised at the lack of opportunities for young artists, and the lack of critical response towards modern art (a negative review of Paul Cézanne’s work in one local paper was understandably disheartening). The environment he now found himself in was something of an “artistic backwater” as noted in Kainen’s Washington Post obituary of March 2001.

Before coming to Washington, Kainen’s career had already gained considerable momentum. He had studied at the Art Students League, Pratt Institute, and New York University. In 1935, at the suggestion of his friend Stuart Davis, Kainen joined the graphic art division of the WPA Federal Arts Project. This enabled him to work with very skilled, seasoned print makers and to experiment with various techniques—mostly, lithograph, woodcut, etching, and serigraph. During this time, Kainen met and became friends with emerging artists such as Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, John Graham, and Adolf Dehn, whose friendships brought him new inspiration and greater influence in the art world. His friendship with Gorky began when the older artist realized Kainen shared his enthusiasm for studying and copying the works of the Old Masters. At one time Kainen posed for Gorky, and the resulting portrait remained in Gorky’s estate.2 Kainen’s oil wash portrait study in our exhibition, Mother and Daughter II (1967) recalls the spirit of Gorky’s famous Self-portrait with the Artist’s Mother (National Gallery of Art), which Kainen must have seen while visiting Gorky’s studio.

Kainen’s largely self-taught knowledge of, and familiarity with, the history of art, became one of the important strengths of his subsequent curatorial career, and as author on diverse artists and periods. His first one-man exhibition was held in 1940. At the time he appeared to be on the threshold of a promising career in New York; but family responsibilities compelled him to accept a unique opportunity with the Smithsonian Institution as curator, that provided financial stability while enabling him to remain dedicated in his field. During his tenure Kainen continued to paint and create intaglio prints in his free time, but none were exhibited since he felt this would conflict with his role as a curator.

The prints in this exhibition reveal Kainen’s gradual shift from figural to abstract forms, and his growing interest in color lithography with the large-scale, calligraphic prints of the 1970s. The first print in the exhibition, The Sculptor (1939), resembles the social realist style in which Kainen was working at the time. Evidently the artist was not satisfied with this image, and destroyed most of these impressions. A comparison of the landscapes Virginia Hills (1946) and Headland (1947) shows a growing fascination with abstraction, as natural forms in the former become fragmented and translated into patterns and shapes in the latter. This breakdown of form is more fully developed in the following decade, as seen in the abstract cityscape Intersection II. Two figural woodcuts from the mid-60s (Midnight and Girl with Ear Pendants) seem inspired by German Expressionist prints. Kainen particularly admired this movement for its unflinching immediacy, and was an avid collector of the German Expressionist artists, as seen in the recent exhibition of his outstanding print collection at the National Gallery of Art last year.

According to Janet Flint, who wrote the 1976 catalogue raisonné of Kainen’s prints, the serigraph Abraham (1970) represents the transition to a completely abstract style. She also noted that Kainen began working in lithography at Landfall Press in Chicago in 1972, producing the first lithographs since his WPA period in New York. There are seven Landfall Press lithographs in this exhibition. Kainen’s success with these efforts led to his first color intaglios, of which Masquerade (1976) is a magnificent example. While the early intaglios in the exhibition reveal a rapid free-hand drawing style, each of the large lithographs from the 70s was a major undertaking to produce, involving days of work. Kainen’s painterly approach, together with a calligraphic line, combine poetically in these colorful prints. His love of painting led him to experiment with monotype in 1973, a medium he embraced for its spontaneity and creative flexibility in later years.

In relation to one another, the late lithographs are seamlessly linked by a kind of harmonic rhythm of repeating forms and gestural lines, wherein the imagery of the subconscious is conveyed by a harmonious balance of forms in space. We are deeply indebted to the artist for making this exhibition possible; and for his gracious commitment to fostering greater appreciation for, and understanding of, the fine arts in this beautiful city.

LuLen Walker
Art Collection Curator

Notes

  1. Artist’s statement printed in the exhibition brochure Three Contemporary Printmakers: Jacob Kainen, Albert Christ-Janer, Tadeusz Lapinski (Washington, D.C.: National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, 1973).
  2. Jacob Kainen, “Memories of Arshile Gorky” in Arts Magazine (March 1976) Vol. 50, No. 7, p. 97.

 

Suggested Reading List

David Acton, The Stamp of Impulse: Abstract Expressionist Prints (Worcester Art Museum, 2001), pp. 9­17; catalog entry 20.

Gene Baro, “The Blindfolded Calligrapher: The Graphic Art of Jacob Kainen” in Arts Magazine (November 1976) Vol. 51, No. 3, pp. 94­95.

Avis Berman, “Images from a Life” in Jacob Kainen (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art, 1993), pp. 9­21.

Janet A. Flint, Jacob Kainen: Prints, A Retrospective (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution­ National Collection of Fine Arts, 1976). N.B. References to “Flint” in the object list below refer to the checklist in this volume, pages 22-91 and Supplement.

Jacob Kainen, “Memories of Arshile Gorky” in Arts Magazine (March 1976) Vol. 50, No. 7, pp. 96­98.

Jock Reynolds, et al, “Jacob Kainen: An Appreciation” in Art on Paper (November-­December 1999) Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 29­33.

Bill Scott, “Sidestepping the Mainstream” in Art in America (September 1994) Vol. 82, No. 9, pp. 106­-109.

The Sculptor
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1939
Lithograph
32.5 x 22.9 cm

Flint 34

Bertha Resting
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1952
Drypoint
15 x 23.5 cm

Flint 83

Pilgrim
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1947
Etching
14.8 x 12.5 cm

Flint 54

Virginia Hills
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1946
Drypoint
18.7 x 26.9 cm

Flint 51

Headland
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1947
Etching, aquatint and roulette
18.3 x 25.1 cm

Flint 52

Intersection (second version without lamp post)
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1955
Woodcut
30.8 x 38.3 cm

Flint 90a

Midnight Sun
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1960
Etching, drypoint and engraving
30.5 x 37.5 cm

Flint 92

Midnight
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1965
Woodcut
39.5 x 56 cm

Flint 96

Girl with Ear Pendants
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1965
Woodcut
42 x 29 cm

Flint 95

Mother and Daughter II
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1967
Oil wash on paper
60.2 x 45.8 cm

Abraham
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1970
Serigraph
65 x 46.8 cm

Flint 102

Printed at Printmakers’ Workshop, Inc., Washington, D.C., by Lou Stovall and the artist

Flightmaster
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1972
Lithograph
69.8 x 49 cm

Flint 108

Printed at Landfall Press, Chicago, by Jerry Raidiger and Barbara Stifft

Hot Spots
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1973
Color lithograph
71.6 x 51 cm

Flint 115

Printed at Landfall Press, Chicago, by Jack Lemon and David Keister

Kingmaker
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1973
Color lithograph
63.8 x 49.6 cm

Flint 118

Printed at Landfall Press, Chicago, by David Panosh

Rampant
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1973
Lithograph
68.8 x 49.7 cm

Printed at Landfall Press, Chicago, by Jack Lemon Flint 119 Note: Dimensions are of the plate (intaglios) or image (lithographs and serigraphs). Reference to Flint is for the checklist in Jacob Kainen Prints, A Retrospective, by Janet A. Flint (Washington, D.C.: National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, 1976), pages 22-91 and Supplement.

Standard Bearer
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1973
Color lithograph
71.4 x 50.7 cm

Printed at Landfall Press, Chicago, by Jack Lemon and David Keister Flint 126 Note: Dimensions are of the plate (intaglios) or image (lithographs and serigraphs). Reference to Flint is for the checklist in Jacob Kainen Prints, A Retrospective, by Janet A. Flint (Washington, D.C.: National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, 1976), pages 22-91 and Supplement.

Advance Man
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1974
Color lithograph
64 x 49.4 cm

Printed at Landfall Press, Chicago, by Jack Lemon and David Keister Flint 127 Note: Dimensions are of the plate (intaglios) or image (lithographs and serigraphs). Reference to Flint is for the checklist in Jacob Kainen Prints, A Retrospective, by Janet A. Flint (Washington, D.C.: National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, 1976), pages 22-91 and Supplement.

Flagman
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1974
Color lithograph
63.8 x 49.3 cm

Printed at Landfall Press, Chicago, by Jack Lemon Flint 128 Note: Dimensions are of the plate (intaglios) or image (lithographs and serigraphs). Reference to Flint is for the checklist in Jacob Kainen Prints, A Retrospective, by Janet A. Flint (Washington, D.C.: National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, 1976), pages 22-91 and Supplement.

Grand Master
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1974
Etching and aquatint
45.3 x 29.8 cm

Printed at Printmakers' Workshop, Washington, D.C. by Bruce Wilson Flint 129 Note: Dimensions are of the plate (intaglios) or image (lithographs and serigraphs). Reference to Flint is for the checklist in Jacob Kainen Prints, A Retrospective, by Janet A. Flint (Washington, D.C.: National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, 1976), pages 22-91 and Supplement.

Cloudy Trophy
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1975
Color etching, aquatint and drypoint
50.6 x 40 cm

Printed at Teaberry Press, Chicago by Timothy Berry Flint 135 Note: Dimensions are of the plate (intaglios) or image (lithographs and serigraphs). Reference to Flint is for the checklist in Jacob Kainen Prints, A Retrospective, by Janet A. Flint (Washington, D.C.: National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, 1976), pages 22-91 and Supplement.

Last Fling
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1975
Color lithograph
74.2 x 54.5 cm

Printed at Landfall Press, Chicago, by Jack Lemon Flint 136 Note: Dimensions are of the plate (intaglios) or image (lithographs and serigraphs). Reference to Flint is for the checklist in Jacob Kainen Prints, A Retrospective, by Janet A. Flint (Washington, D.C.: National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, 1976), pages 22-91 and Supplement.

Masquerade
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1976
Color etching and aquatint
50.3 x 40 cm

Printed by Michael Smallwood Flint 146 Note: Dimensions are of the plate (intaglios) or image (lithographs and serigraphs). Reference to Flint is for the checklist in Jacob Kainen Prints, A Retrospective, by Janet A. Flint (Washington, D.C.: National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, 1976), pages 22-91 and Supplement.

Letter from Tblisi
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1976
Etching and softground etching
19.9 x 15 cm

Some impressions printed by the artist; others by Michael Smallwood Flint 145 Note: Dimensions are of the plate (intaglios) or image (lithographs and serigraphs). Reference to Flint is for the checklist in Jacob Kainen Prints, A Retrospective, by Janet A. Flint (Washington, D.C.: National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, 1976), pages 22-91 and Supplement.

Mr. Trouble
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1976
Etching, engraving and aquatint
44.8 x 35 cm

Printed by Michael Smallwood Flint 147 Note: Dimensions are of the plate (intaglios) or image (lithographs and serigraphs). Reference to Flint is for the checklist in Jacob Kainen Prints, A Retrospective, by Janet A. Flint (Washington, D.C.: National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, 1976), pages 22-91 and Supplement.

Bright Afternoon
Jacob Kainen, United States, 1909 - 2001
1977
Color etching and aquatint
40 x 50 cm

Note: Dimensions are of the plate (intaglios) or image (lithographs and serigraphs).