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 Jacob Kainen  (1909 - 2001)

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Lived/Active: District Of Columbia/Connecticut      Known for: printmaking, mod genre, various non objective

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Ad Code: 3
Jacob Kainen
from Auction House Records.
 The Way I
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following obituary of the artist is from (March 19, 2001):

A Moving Life in Art

The art books of the future will have to be fairly thick before they get to Jacob Kainen, who may not have been this city's greatest painter. Still, Washington feels different, cast adrift, now that he is gone.

Kainen, in the studio, was subtle, serious, diligent and idiosyncratic, but art history is ruthless, and this may not be enough. Perhaps he knew too much.

The largeness of his mind may well have worked against him. His many ways of thinking made his pictures feel ambiguous, insufficiently clear-cut. His art was often muted by reconsiderations. His aesthetic innovations came a beat or two too late. Flash was not his thing.

His wife, Ruth, said he died of a heart attack in a matter of seconds yesterday morning as he was getting dressed to go to his studio. He was 91. Posterity is stingy. Only a few artists will be remembered as key figures. Kainen worked with many, but perhaps he wasn't really one himself.

Except in Washington. Among the elders of our art world his status was immense.

In the national museums he did so much to build, in the white studio in Kensington where he painted every day, among connoisseurs of prints, or, late in his long life, among other art collectors, he carried the authority of a patriarch, a sage.

You caught something of his specialness when you watched him look at pictures. He always did so deeply, never merely glanced, for he could curate art, and make it, and write learnedly about it. He interrogated objects with these interlocking skills.

This was rare enough. Even rarer was the way he moored us to the past.

In the bitter 1930s, when Greenwich Village leftists made art go proletarian, Kainen had been one of them. He'd published small cartoons in the "Daily Worker." This later got him into trouble. He'd painted stevedores, gaunt miners, the cloth-capped unemployed.

Much later one might see him, natty in black tie, easy in the company of the wealthy givers to the National Gallery of Art. But Kainen, in the '30s, was as broke as his subjects. For $24 a week he'd joined the WPA.

He was also a participant when a newer kind of painting, freer, more abstract, began brewing in Manhattan. The abstract expressionist manner wasn't brewed in bars.

Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky and Mark Rothko, the founders of the style, didn't have the money for bars. They hung out in all-night cafeterias, and as they argued art for hours over thick white mugs of coffee, Kainen had been one of them, accepted as a peer.

Gorky did his portrait in 1934.

Washington, in those days, was a city in the sticks. Kainen helped to make it the art town it is now. He came here, for the money, during World War II.

By 1942, Kainen, in his scholar mode, already knew so much about printmaking's technologies -- about aquatint and drypoint, paper types and etcher's ink -- that he was hired as a specialist by the Smithsonian Institution.

In the course of his employment there he helped to build two surveys of the history of printmaking, the first for the U.S. National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History), the second for the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum). And throughout his curatorial years he had not one career, but two.

"He worked at the museum until 5:15; grabbed a quick supper, and by 6 o'clock was at his unheated studio at 3140 M Street," wrote historian Avis Berman in a catalogue accompanying the Kainen retrospective arranged by the Smithsonian in 1993. "He painted until 10 or 11 o'clock, then returned home to do some writing or museum research until 2 a.m. because the Smithsonian would not allow him to do scholarly writing on government time. Kainen adhered to this routine for decades."

This city's leafy landscape soon crept into his pictures. He was especially attracted to the curious pointed turrets that the row houses he found here wore jauntily, like caps.

Most Washingtonians in those days couldn't understand his art. Its depictions were too simplified, its colors too peculiar, its spirit too advanced. But there were a few exceptions, and one was Duncan Phillips, who for his family's museum bought a Kainen streetscape in 1942.

When Washington began producing art that felt distinctly new, Kainen helped it happen.

He was present at the birth of the Washington Color School -- though perhaps as an uncle rather than a father.

The Washington color painters -- Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Thomas Downing, Alma Thomas and the others -- made big, amazing objects. Often they adhered to rigorous geometries, hard-edged stripes, concentric circles. They made wholly abstract art.

Kainen might have joined them, had he been a joiner, but he never turned to staining or gave up layered colors or abandoned figuration as the color painters did. Instead he served them in another role -- as instructor and exemplar.

"Jacob was a pro," Noland remembered. "He wasn't just a teacher. He was a real artist, a New York artist."

He was also a collector.

He began collecting art at age 7 -- well, not art exactly, but the little reproductions that were published every Sunday in the rotogravure section of Jewish Daily Forward.

His parents, Russian immigrants, had given him a childhood in which culture was appreciated, erudition valued, industry expected. He printed his first drypoint through the rollers of his mother's washing machine. He entered high school at 12.

Some people regard art as a form of self-expression. Kainen wasn't one. Soul was not enough. Art required learning. As a stock boy at Brentano's he read all the art books in the store (in those days there weren't many). When he discovered the Metropolitan Museum of Art he approached it as assiduously. He didn't merely look, he made copies of the paintings -- by Claude Lorrain, Corot and Rembrandt -- hanging on the walls.

He knew studio practice, theory, and the byways of art history. His sharp eye had been sharpened by many years of study in the print rooms of museums, and you sensed his erudition when you looked at what he bought.

In 1985, a strong historical exhibit -- "German Expressionist Prints From the Collection of Ruth and Jacob Kainen" -- opened to the public at the National Gallery of Art. The 90 pictures on display were probably were worth millions. One Ernst Kirchner lithograph had already sold at auction for $135,894, and there were more than 20 Kirchners in the Kainens' focused show.

The German artists Kainen bought did not make pretty pictures. They sought the troubling, the coarse. When museum folk, investors, dealers and collectors began to recognize, belatedly, just how much German expressionism had gone into abstract expressionism, they found Jacob Kainen had known it all along.

Ruth Cole Kainen had known it, too. They had met in 1968 at a luncheon at the Woman's National Democratic Club. Somehow Kirchner's name had come up in conversation, and when he started to explain just who Kirchner was, she replied, with some annoyance, that she already owned his art.

They were married a year later. Ruth became his champion, his adviser, his companion in collecting, the key promoter of his art.

They gave their best works to the National Gallery -- the third Washington museum enriched by his eye.

The Red Scare almost got Jacob Kainen.

Between 1948 and 1954, he was investigated closely. "Kainen," writes Berman, "was uncomfortably familiar with the outcome of such interrogations because one of his brothers, a meteorologist at the Department of Commerce who had never been politically active, was dismissed from his job for having signed a political petition in the early 1930s. Kainen, who had also signed it, knew that it was only a matter of time before his own future would be jeopardized."

Soon enough it was. He was called up before the Smithsonian's loyalty board, and then the civil service's. Had he not presented three commendation letters from J. Edgar Hoover (during World War II, he had helped the FBI analyze the inks of Nazi propaganda), Kainen would probably have lost his curatorial job.

In retrospect, this episode seems utterly preposterous. If anyone in Washington was less a threat than Kainen, it's not easy to think who.

Kainen was no dogmatist. After the Depression, preachiness of any sort vanished from his pictures. "Idealism," he warned in 1983, "is a snare for the guileless." In all the years he showed here -- and he showed a lot -- no party line controlled the content of his art. (Kainen's works on paper are on view at Hemphill Fine Arts in Georgetown.)

He was always a contrarian. Voguish trends annoyed him. When abstraction was most fashionable in the 1960s, he stubbornly, characteristically returned to figuration. When the wheel turned again, and abstraction lost its chic, Kainen began making big, clean-cut abstractions. In the long and fervent 20th-century battle between the representational and the nonobjective, he fought with courage on both sides.

And with tenderness as well. Tender was one of his favorite adjectives. Blatancy distressed him. He loved painting, he once wrote, for "its tenderness, its opacities and translucencies, its reserves and contrasts, its magical charge of color."

"Magical," for Kainen, was another term of praise. When depicting mundane subjects -- fire escapes or street signs -- he made them seem enchanted. When presenting abstract forms -- squares or grids or ovals -- he did something as mysterious. He made those chill shapes seem humane.

His oils, toward the end, sold for as much as $50,000 each, but you never got the sense he was in it for the money.

Next time you see a Kainen, try peering past the colors. See if you can glimpse there the spirit of the man, and how much he revered art.

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