New York

Walt Kuhn

Salander-O'Reilly Galleries

In 1913 Walt Kuhn and Arthur B. Davies were primarily responsible for the character of the Armory Show. As the wonderful works here indicate, Kuhn never quite recovered from the experience; if one compares these persistently small prints and sculptural whittlings, primitivist in style and theme, with his paintings, one realizes that he thereafter became a split personality—half Modernist (the more suppressed side) and half a social realist of deviant individuality. The prints have a peculiarly immediate effect due to their metallic paper. They show female nudes as symbols of abundance, especially in the abstract Rosebud, ca. 1920, in which the nudes unite with fruit to form an erotic/exotic display of gushing petals, a kind of abstract Busby Berkeley pattern of women. These works, which span the Roaring Twenties and the Depression, are inseparable from the F. Scott Fitzgerald flush of fake, hollow success.

The vitalism and intimacy of the prints is matched by the sculptural pieces, which are often totemic in character and are readable as amulets or good luck charms. The sculptures seem made explicitly for touch, as though one could get the same hold on them that the artist did when he whittled them; you might take one in the hand for reassurance, like a rabbit’s foot. There is a primitive particularity to them all. Some of the pieces have a caricatural as well as a structural wit, others verge on overt nonobjectivity, and many are like hieroglyphic notations, representing an inconclusive search for meaning. Kuhn tries to whittle his way to sensuous and emotional wisdom but doesn’t quite succeed. Yet through the prominence of the marks of their making the works are dense, to the very roots of their organic materiality (wood), with indeterminate import—with the suggestiveness of indeterminacy, which is crucial for unconscious effect.

Some of the works, such as the Elsie Miller and Figures on the Beach reliefs, both ca. 1920, seem all too schematic, yet they achieve vital effect through the directness and energy of their carving and through the figures’ aura of sexuality. In the print Kit Kat Ball, ca. 1920, this sexual vitality is even more explicit, with naked white women dancing to the music of an orchestra of black men. An echo of D.H. Lawrence’s celebratory sexual obsessiveness runs through these works, looking today like a nostalgic attempt to "go native.” But the pieces also seem driven artistically. Kuhn keeps pushing against a limit formed by the art’s need to remain representational, a limit he can easily overcome; the social realist zeitgeist of his period seems to hold him back. For all their charming actuality—and they are a find—these works testify to brilliant lost possibilities. Kuhn was another victim of a once powerfully inhibiting American provincialism and insularity; within its confines, however, he achieved a certain abbreviated, melancholy autonomy.

Donald Kuspit