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 Dwight Kirsch  (1899 - 1981)

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Lived/Active: Nebraska/Iowa/Colorado      Known for: mod genre, landscape and still life painting

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Frederick Dwight Kirsch is primarily known as Dwight Kirsch

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from Auction House Records.
Mountain Scene
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Pawnee County, Nebraska, Dwight Kirsch was a painter and art museum administrator in Nebraska and Iowa and a key person in both of those states for the acquisition and support of what was then regarded as modernist art.  As an artist, his style has been classified as Regionalist, and he painted landscapes, still lifes, and figures.

He graduated from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in 1919, and then studied for three years in New York City with Robert Henri and other well-known artists.

In 1924, he became professor of art at the University of Nebraska and was Chairman from 1931 through 1947.  One of his innovations was introducing photography into the curriculum and likely was influenced by his admiration of Alfred Stieglitz of New York City.

In 1936, Kirsch became Director of the University of Nebraska Art Galleries, whose successor is Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln.  He had a profound effect on this institution, acquiring many of its most prestigious works including paintings by Edward Hopper, Marsden Hartley, Milton Avery, Stuart Davis, Charles Sheeler, and William Glackens.  By then, most of these were established artists, but for much of the country including his own constituents, his choices were considered risky and leading edge.

About fifty years later, George Neubert, then the Director of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, said: "There's not a day goes by in carrying out the duties of director, whether organizing an exhibition, approving a loan request or whatever, that I don't encounter the extraordinary impact that he had on this institution.  His vision, his contribution is at the very core of what we are and what we will be in the future."

In 1950, Kirsch became Director of the Des Moines Art Center, opened in 1948 with a modern building by Eliel Saarinen.  There he is credited with much of the same type of pioneering he did in Nebraska--collecting modernist artists whose work has proven to be strongly representative.  Many of the artists were the same as he had acquired in Nebraska.

In 1958, he left the Des Moines Art Center and became Artist-in-Residence at Iowa State University in Ames.  Personal tragedies--the premature deaths of his wife and son--caused him to become somewhat reclusive in his later years, which he spent in Canon City, Colorado near a niece.

As an individual, he was very well liked and reportedly could relate to anyone because he had an easy, accessible manner, casual dress, and gave lectures that people could understand.

Kyle Macmillan, Omaha Sunday World Herald, November 21, 1999

Biography from Museum of Nebraska Art:
Dwight Kirsch (1899-1981)

Handwritten notes that were to comprise Dwight Kirsch's autobiography were found in his desk drawer after his death in 1981. Entitled My Life in Art - Memoirs, it unraveled a story about an artist, teacher, and art administrator whose importance to art in Nebraska cannot be underestimated. Dwight Kirsch's legacy to Nebraska combined his own body of Regionalist art and many important examples of early modern art that he purchased on behalf of the Nebraska Art Association (NAA) for the University of Nebraska Gallery. The collection he built would later become the foundation of the Sheldon Museum of Art. A combination of his foresight in the arts and the economic challenges of the Depression era allowed him to make contact with and collect works by many artists that would have otherwise been hard-pressed to bring their work to Lincoln, Nebraska.

Dwight Kirsch was first exposed to the arts at an early age and it would remain a driving force all his life. Born near Mayberry, Pawnee County, Nebraska, his first watercolors were done at the age of 6. By age 10, Kirsch began experimenting with photography and was developing his own prints. He entered the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, when he was only 16. Even then, the University was a proving ground for some other promising artists such as Aaron Douglas and Leonard Thiessen.

Kirsch graduated in 1919 and moved on to the Art Students League in New York. The move to New York and its artistic climate, still feeling the wake of the important 1913 Armory Show, must have been exciting. The Art Students League was a student-controlled, progressive school where Kirsch was allowed more freedom for growth. While there he attended lectures by fellow Nebraskan Robert Henri. At the same time, he became familiar with commercial art and advertising while apprenticed to the Niagara Lithograph Co. His apprenticeship with Niagara was followed up with a two-year stint with the John B. Holtzclaw Co. in Los Angeles. His role shifted from student to teacher in 1924 when he accepted a teaching position at the University of Nebraska.

The F. M. Hall Trust was established in 1929 for the purpose of purchasing art for the University's gallery through the NAA. Ten thousand dollars was available to the NAA every year for that purpose. Initially, art exhibitions were secured through the Art Institute of Chicago, but this practice changed in 1932 due to mutual concerns of faculty and NAA members over the artwork that was being selected. Adding to his responsibilities for selecting and installing these works in the University galleries, Kirsch became the NAA secretary in 1933. By 1936, he was Chairman of the NAA's Exhibition Committee as well as the University's gallery director. Prior to this time, outside jurors had been used to select new acquisitions, but now Kirsch accepted the task of meeting the artists and making those selections himself.

On his many trips to New York, Kirsch came into contact with a number of America's most important artists of the early 20th century. His focus on contemporary art acquainted him with Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, Alfred Stieglitz, Andrew Wyeth, John Sloan, and others. These trips also brought him recognition not only as an artist in his own right, but also as an art authority and public speaker.

Kirsch was also responsible for bringing many important artists and their work to Nebraska. Georgia O'Keefe and Walter Kuhn exhibited in Lincoln in 1939. He invited Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry to lecture. He worked with photographers Stieglitz and fellow Nebraskan Wright Morris, and even invited Morris to Atkinson, Nebraska, where the family of Dwight's wife lived. In 1946, he procured works by Salvador Dali, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir for the European section of an NAA exhibition. That year private purchases by donors allowed for several important acquisitions.

This was the pattern through the 1930s and '40s until he accepted a position at the Des Moines Art Center in 1950. After a year as the interim director, he accepted a full-time position that lasted until his retirement in 1959. In 1953, his wife, Truby, died. Shortly thereafter, he was granted an honorary doctorate from Iowa's Grinnell College. While continuing his work in Des Moines, he also traveled extensively. As always, Kirsch traveled to New York and to other art centers for both business and for his own education. He visited Mexico both shortly before and shortly after leaving Nebraska. Through the 1950s, he would travel through the Midwest and visit Colorado, California, and Arizona where he advised a fledgling art center in Phoenix. Probably his most important trip was to the East where he studied sumi-e painting in Japan and also toured Hong Kong, Singapore, Cambodia, Den Pasar, Bali, and Indonesia.

After retiring from the Des Moines Art Center, he remained active through lectures, workshops, commissions, and artist-in-residency programs. Kirsch exhibited works both in Nebraska and Iowa, and also Colorado. He kept traveling and remained deeply involved in the arts. He moved to Colorado to be near his family in 1976. Among many other honors he had received over the years, he was given a joint retrospective exhibition by the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery (now Sheldon Museum of Art) and the Des Moines Art Center, both for which he had done so much. Dwight Kirsch died in 1981 at the Colorado State Veterans Home, Colorado Springs.

The Museum of Nebraska Arts holds 29 works by Dwight Kirsch.

Researched and written by Michael Dolbee, 2005

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