Walt Kuhn, Cartoonist
Walt Kuhn is perhaps even better remembered as a promoter of modern art than he is as an artist, which is understandable given how instrumental he was to the Armory Show of 1913. He helped to organize the 1910 Exhibition of Independent Artists, a predecessor to the Armory Show, and was a founding member and officer of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, the organization that staged the Armory Show.
While his official title in the organization was “secretary,” Kuhn spent more time in Europe developing the show’s European collection than any other of the exhibit’s organizers. He had a large role in picking many of the most important works in the Armory Show, according to the primary historiography of the event, which greatly privileges the European artists featured.
Kuhn’s work as a painter demonstrates some of the same concerns as we see in Luks’s work– many of Kuhn’s best paintings depict deeply quotidian, everyday moments in the lives of circus folk and vaudevillians. His chorus girls seem tired, his clowns refuse to smile, his acrobats lean, trying to steal a moment’s rest. Kuhn seems fascinated by the lived lives of entertainers, the lifeways of those that create mass culture, and in capturing them in ways that are unquestionably artistic and painterly. Luks vacillated as a young man between a life in vaudeville and the life of an artist. Kuhn seems to have had the same twin interests.
Just as Luks had, Kuhn was formally trained in both America and Europe, taking art classes as a young man at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, and later, between 1901 and 1903, at the Académie Colarossi in Paris and the Munich Academy. Both artists also started selling cartoons to magazines and illustrating for newspapers in the 1890s.
While Kuhn’s career as a newspaper cartoonist is even less widely-remembered than Luks’s, it was longer lived. According to Philip Rhys Adams’s biography Walt Kuhn, Painter, Kuhn’s work as a cartoonist was his “financial mainstay” between 1905 and 1914, selling cartoons to humor magazines like Life, Puck, and Judge, as well as to newspapers. (18)
Kuhn also had a run of almost two years (February 1909-October 1910) on a strip called “Whisk” that was distributed by the New York World, examples of which can be found in the San Francisco Call from that period via Chronicling America.
After that, Kuhn had a weekly panel in the Brooklyn Eagle called “Funny Birds” that ran from April through December of 1912, before being taken over by Bob Addams; Kuhn was in Europe assembling art for the Armory Show as early as 11 November, and was likely too busy with that to continue the strip. Nevertheless, these two strips mean that Kuhn’s career as a newspaper comic strip cartoonist lasted longer than the approximately 50 “Hogan’s Alley” strips that Luks published.
Moreover, Kuhn seems to have been better at making and maintaining friendships and allies within the world of newspapers and cartoonists as well as the art world. Kuhn was a close friend of many in the news world, including cartoonists like Gus Mager (mentioned in Part 2 of this series) and men like James Gibbons Huneker, the New York Sun‘s Music, Drama, and Art editor from 1900 to 1912. (Adams, 29.) This ability to bridge the art world and the world of newspapers may account for both the high representation of cartoonists in the Armory Show as well as Kuhn’s role, once the show began to ramp up, as its chief promoter and press officer.
Which brings me back again, as at the beginning of this series of posts, to the question of how to interpret the reactions of cartoonists to the Armory Show. Should we interpret the jabs at cubism as an outright rejection of the artform by an American public not yet ready for abstraction? Or are they something more playful, more polysemic, more complex? Louis Glackens’s “The Latest in Easter Eggs,” a cartoon from the cover of Puck in 1913, is another example, like “The Rude Descending a Staircase” in Part 1, that is frequently used to illustrate middle class Americans’ scandalized attitude toward the exhibit.
While the ridiculousness of a hen laying cubist eggs is obvious– and fairly comical– and the hen’s face reflects an amusing pompousness, I would still argue that it is deeply reductive to read this cartoon as a simple mocking of the artists of the Armory Show, or an outright rejection of modernity, abstraction, etc.
One reason that I would argue this is that the cartoonist, Louis Glackens, was the brother of the Ashcan School’s William Glackens, who exhibited in the Armory Show. While Kuhn would have a falling out with Robert Henri during the planning of the exhibit, in part because Henri wanted to handle his own press coverage, according to Adams, “William and Edith Glackens were lifelong friends of both Walt and Vera Kuhn,” (42) and Glackens, who had attended the first meeting of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors along with Kuhn and others, was an integral part of the planning of the Armory Show, including the selection of some of the European modernist works.
While it is not inconceivable that the brothers Glackens didn’t see eye-to-eye when it came to the merits of cubism and abstraction, I believe that there’s another reason to believe that this cartoon may not be the simple reflection of public reaction that it is sometimes represented as: the trope of birds in a barnyard setting seems to be a leitmotif in many of Walt Kuhn’s cartoons.
The magazine cartoons here certainly point to the frequent use of birds in barnyards, and many example of Kuhn’s cartoon work that I have been able to find involve birds, barnyards, or both– usually to contrast and gently mock urban pretentions, fads, and foibles. This is certainly not a genre of magazine cartoon that is limited to Kuhn, but it seems to be a common thread running through much of his cartoon work– and Kuhn is quite adept at drawing birds, anthropomorphizing them in a trademark style that skates along the line between naturalistic and bigfoot cartooning. I want to go to the Library of Congress soon to look through their Brooklyn Eagle microfilms for 1912, as I have a strong suspicion that his run on “Funny Birds” is more of the same.
To me, it seems likely that this Puck cover, while it played to a public still unsure what to make of cubism, was also a playful jab at a fellow cartoonist and family friend, as well.
When I see cartoons like this that poke fun at cubism in the period around 1913, many of them seem to be just as much about the cartoonist’s enjoyment of playing with (and playing at) all the forms that these new “isms” took. The butt of the joke may be the High Art of Europe, but I often see a winking enjoyment, a playfulness and enjoyment of experimentation. And it is important to keep in mind that Walt Kuhn was drawing cartoons about birds in the barnyard to support himself even as he helped to organize the Armory Show– and these cartoons betray a real enjoyment of cartoon and caricature, even if it may seem incompatible with his tastes for cubism, fauvism, futurism, and the like.
The artistic mind is vast, it contains multitudes. Kuhn, like his friends “Pop” Hart and William Glackens, appreciated, enjoyed, and celebrated the new modernity of European painting, even if each of these artists’ work was relatively conservative by comparison to the European avante-garde.
There were different expressions of modernity happening in America in the years leading up to the Armory Show– artists had different outlets for their experimentation, and there was real experimentation happening, though much of it wasn’t in the fine arts. And that leads me to the topic of the next and final post in this series.
The Cartoonist as Artist: