Katharine Kuh in her office at the Art Institute of Chicago, 1951 Credit: Stephen Lewellyn / Courtesy the Archives of American Art

The essay is adapted from the catalog of the exhibit “Chicago Avant-Garde: Five Women Ahead of Their Time,” curated by the author.

On a November morning in 1938, Katharine Kuh stepped through the doors of 540 North Michigan Avenue, a large limestone building dominating a city block. Chicagoans referred to the commercial building as “Diana Court,” after the bronze fountain of Diana by Swedish sculptor Carl Milles in the building’s sunken courtyard. Nine glass murals depicting this Roman goddess of the hunt, etched by artist Edgar Miller, curved around the fountain. Water sprang from rivulets into a circular pool. 

In the middle of the previous night—or perhaps early morning—the dramatic sound of shattered glass disrupted the building’s interior calm. Somebody had broken in. Maybe it was more than one person, a band of midnight vigilantes. They did not touch Diana, still suspended on her toes above the rippling water. Nor did they harm Miller’s etched panels. And in Walden Bookshop and Socatch Bakery on the building’s ground floor, the doors were bolted, the cash registers still safely locked.

The intruders must have charged directly toward the glass windows of the Katharine Kuh Gallery. Facing the courtyard, the space—two spare rooms with stark white walls—was the city’s first commercial gallery to showcase 20th-century modern art. Kuh could see that her windows had been smashed, shards of glass splayed out like anger. 

The gallery was filled with abstractions by the Spanish surrealist Joan Miró, who had declared in 1927 his intent to “assassinate painting.” He flouted tradition and drew biomorphic forms of dreams and the unconscious. The Chicago Tribune’s art critic, Eleanor Jewett, a major influence on public opinion, had called Miró’s work a “labyrinth of twisted ideals” and believed it posed “various challenges to a sane world.” A generation older than Kuh, Jewett was the great-niece of the newspaper’s conservative publisher “Colonel” Robert McCormick. (Even art reviewing was a racket in Chicago.)

View of the Katharine Kuh Gallery, Chicago, late 1930s/early 1940s Credit: Edward Teske / Courtesy the Archives of American Art

But none of Miró’s works had been damaged, which may have led Kuh to believe that the window smashers were after her, not him. 

The culprits were almost certainly a group called “Sanity in Art,” named after a recent screed of a book by Chicagoan Josephine Logan. “Sanity in Art” sought to stamp out modern art and protect “civilization” and its “masterpieces.” They believed in “universal principles” and aimed to “rid our museums of modernistic, moronic grotesqueries.” The movement attracted national followers but its force was in Chicago. Jewett sat on the board. Sometimes, the ladies of “Sanity in Art” would storm Kuh’s gallery berating the art and the visitors who walked in.

These blue-nosed gatekeepers were a resilient vestige of the outrage over the 1913 “freak exhibit,” the International Exhibition of Modern Art (better known as the Armory Show), which had drawn twice the number of visitors in Chicago than when it was exhibited in New York. The Armory Show was the first time most Chicagoans beheld the splintered figures of Cubism, the wild colors of the Fauves, and distortions to sacred subjects—especially the female nude. Chicagoans were curious people, but in the decades following the Armory Show, Logan and her squad rode on a xenophobic tide taking over the country, an instinct to treat European and immigrant artists as “degenerate,” and an intolerance for art beyond American borders.   

How did Kuh possess the ability to see beyond convention, not simply to look, but to see? And how, in moments like this one, might she have felt?

Kuh is an extraordinary if under-recognized figure in the cultural history of Chicago, a singular force in the American modern art scene. Through her gallery and for decades later as a curator, educator, and writer, she powerfully shaped the city’s relationship to modern art—across its institutions, personal collections, and civic spaces. To her credit, she did not simply ignore the reactionary impulse against modern art. Rather, she committed herself to educating people about the art of their time. With passion and precision, she understood art to be an expression of the moment, entirely bound up in the color and splash of its era. Art was history.  

Kuh did not often discuss the emotional terrain of her career. In the extensive interviews that she conducted at age 78 with art historian Avis Berman in 1982-83, Kuh looked back on many situations when she took risks in a male-dominated art world (and among its matrons of respectability). But she avoided talking about her love affairs, unless it was My Love Affair with Modern Art, which is the title of Kuh’s posthumous memoir, completed by Berman and published in 2006. What’s more, Kuh did not dwell upon the physical pain that was part of her life and which likely informed her extraordinary capacity to understand the revolutions in artistic expression taking place across the world. 

Kuh was struck with polio as a child and spent ten years in a plaster body cast. She was schooled at home, where she was given a visual education by her father, a silk merchant, who traveled and collected prints, and by her uncle, who furnished her with art books. Her mother gave her books to read, like Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which moved and inspired her. One summer, when she was 12 and bedridden, she read the encyclopedia from cover to cover. “I found it full of interesting things,” she told Berman. “You know, I just read everything I could lay my hands on because there was nothing else to do.” Perhaps the immobility of her body gave her a great mobility of the mind. She developed her vision through lying still and looking closely. 

that morning

did you kneel / at the window’s gaping mouth / watching the day shine from the glass /
or step through it, avoiding the lingering teeth / or push open the door/ then stand /
as though in a field of small flowers stricken by frost / telling yourself each small burst /
was ice shattering beneath your feet / not the fruits of each hour /
climbing and descending / stretching through the hurt /
when weeks had passed did you cut yourself, forgetting /
that this violence lingers and lingers / did you wonder even once /
whether it was all worth saving

—Eve L. Ewing

Kuh’s passion for travel as an adult was partly a result of her experience with the tedium of staying in one place. Kuh regained her health enough to attend Vassar College, where she found an influential art history teacher in Alfred H. Barr Jr., who would become the first director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. When she returned home to Chicago at the age of 21, she took off her five-pound body cast and decided she was done with it. She soon met George Kuh, a widower and businessman 12 years her senior. A former University of Chicago football star, he was tall and handsome, and she decided to give up a PhD in art history to marry him.

The couple moved to the northern suburb of Highland Park, where Kuh found life to be restrictive and intolerable. Few people there appreciated her expertise. George Kuh assumed that his wife would devote her time to the care of the house and his young son from his first marriage. He did not approve when she found work in the art section of a bookstore downtown and began to teach classes. And, because of her polio, she was advised by doctors not to have children. 

Kuh opened her gallery in the Diana Court Building in 1935, right after her divorce, and she vowed never to marry again. The gallery was a daring enterprise by a young divorcée, as she would have been called. “I needed to live a life I believed in,” she told Berman. “I wanted to make a total break.”

Unquestionably, Kuh had more privileges than others—family wealth, an elite education, whiteness. But she was Jewish at a time when assimilation was still difficult. And she did not choose an easy direction, confronting opposition every day to what she was trying to do. She showed the work of artists who, like Miró, were unfamiliar to most Chicagoans. Kuh usually installed the work herself. Sometimes students from the School of the Art Institute would help her, unpacking wooden crates and measuring inches between frames. She fed them picnic dinners in the gallery’s back room. Occasionally her mother watched the gallery when Kuh could not be there. When Kuh mounted the work of Russian émigré Alexander Archipenko—one of the few artists whose work she sold—he was shocked that she did not have anyone helping her with what he called “the dirty work.”

She loved it all, though—studying art up close, talking and corresponding with every artist about how they worked and what it meant. She was an excellent listener and conversationalist; artists trusted her. She exhibited the work of Anni Albers, Wassily Kandinsky, Fernand Léger, Isamu Noguchi, and Pablo Picasso, among many others. She was the first dealer in Chicago to treat photography as a fine art. She took seriously the art of advertising and displayed the typographical work of Chicago designers. She did not have money to produce catalogs, but she asked Frank Barr, a Chicago printer, if he would create postcards for her openings. He created perfect little masterpieces of typographical precision.

“The artists just poured in because there was no other place except the Arts Club [of Chicago] to see the kind of thing I was showing,” Kuh later recalled. Hungarian-born artist László Moholy-Nagy arrived in the city in 1937, soon followed by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, both fleeing Nazi Germany. “They never missed a show,” Kuh remembered. “So it changed my life.” When she displayed the work of Swiss-born Paul Klee, Mies looked at each work for ten minutes, admiring the exquisite draftsmanship, the delicate colors. He shouted, “Wunderbar! Wunderschoen! Wunderbar!” Later, when it was clear that Mies would not return to Europe, Kuh sponsored him for citizenship.

The gallery was a room of her own, an act of independence, and an adventure devoted to the art of her times. Some visitors, of course, saw only her, not the art. Kuh was black-haired and stylish, with dramatically arched brows, and she was regularly propositioned in her gallery when she was there alone. Writer Nelson Algren walked in, scrappy and strong, and after a few hours demanded that she go to bed with him. He stormed out when she said no. She had a passionate affair with the Guatemalan-born artist Carlos Mérida. “Kata,” he called her. She spent several summers with him, when her gallery was closed, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico—long a center for the visual arts—where she taught at one of its art schools. Back in Chicago, she lived in one large room on Wabash Avenue but spent most of her time at the gallery. “I was alone. I was free. I met people from everywhere,” she told Berman. “Anyone interesting from Europe who came to Chicago visited my gallery. I was always there, sitting there. And I talked to all of them.”

How does a woman find her freedom? Where does it come from? Is freedom something that a woman discovers herself, or is it legislated by the world in which she lives? Kuh exhibited provocative, groundbreaking art before the major social transformations and legal achievements of the 1960s. Hers was a country where a woman could not get credit in her own name; where she could not work without spousal permission; where she was forced to quit if pregnant; where, in the state of Illinois, she could not vote unless she used her husband’s surname. When would things change? Then as now, the assurance of real social and political “progress” was never guaranteed. If she found freedom, it was by realizing the limitations of the world and imagining beyond it. 

Kuh saw wild experiments everywhere in Chicago. She liked the midwestern strain of surrealism in the work of Gertrude Abercrombie, who held parties filled with artists, writers, dancers, and jazz musicians at her home in Hyde Park. Kuh visited another surrealist, Julia Thecla, who lived alone with a chicken and rabbit and created images of childlike wonder. She showed the work of the artist Charles Sebree, a multitalented Black man who danced with Katherine Dunham’s company. Kuh noticed that Sebree entered the gallery and left with her supply of postage stamps, which he sold. When confronted about it, he told her that it would be “dishonest” for him to change because “after all, we are good friends.” Times were hard for artists in Chicago during the Depression, but hardest for Black artists. In the heavy-lidded eyes of Sebree’s portrait subjects, Kuh recognized a seer.

Katherine Kuh, Horace Cayton, and an unidentified woman at the Parkway Community House, Chicago, late 1930s/early 1940s. The painting on the far right is by Eldzier Cortor. The painting at the center is by Charles Sebree, whose work Kuh showed at her gallery. Credit: Courtesy the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, Chicago Public Library

Kuh crisscrossed borders in her city and blithely challenged ideas about what could be considered “beautiful.” One of her friends was the sociologist Horace Cayton Jr., coauthor of the landmark study Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945). From 1940 to 1949, Cayton directed Parkway Community House, a social services center at 51st and South Parkway, which served the needs of the residents of Bronzeville—the center of African American life in Chicago. Kuh was connected with the arts initiatives at Parkway, which were essential to the center’s programming. Kuh was also involved with the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which supported African American arts and education by building schools and funding fellowships for artists and writers. Kuh’s story, however, is not about being a white patron to Black artists. Her friendship with Katherine Dunham, for instance, was about shared commitments and mutual esteem. 

The sheer discipline and physical beauty of Dunham’s dancing must have mesmerized Kuh. A pioneer of dance anthropology, Dunham fused modern, balletic, and Afro-Caribbean elements in her choreography. She was stunning to watch. In the late 1930s, Dunham directed Chicago’s “Negro Unit” of the Depression-era program the Federal Theatre Project, where she met John Pratt, a white costume and set designer who became her longtime collaborator and husband. At openings at Kuh’s Gallery, Dunham would arrive with Pratt, both impeccably dressed, radiating elegance. But on streetcars and in restaurants, the interracial couple got only hostile looks and bigoted comments. Kuh put them at ease, like a “guardian angel,” Dunham would later say. In 1941, Kuh vacationed for a few weeks with Dunham and Pratt in California, where they rented a beach house in Malibu. Remembering Kuh on this trip years later, Dunham described “a deep feeling of warmness” between the two women, a kind of intellectual and emotional sisterhood.

Kuh was forced to close her gallery in April 1942, when the war had made it difficult for her to secure art from abroad. She was soon hired at the Art Institute of Chicago, though it was through the back door, as a temporary replacement for the museum’s publicist, who had been drafted. Kuh managed to get control of an ill-lit space at the museum—she described it as one of “the ugliest things you ever saw . . . a prison”—that had been used by the museum’s education department to stage what she considered conservative and boring instructional displays. It was called the “Gallery of Art Interpretation,” a dull name that she was stuck with, but she transformed everything else about it.

Katherine Dunham in her ballet L’Ag Y’a, 1938 Credit: Newberry Library

Mies van der Rohe agreed to redesign the space for free, as long as he was allowed to smoke cigars, and together they turned the space into an entirely new kind of experience for visitors who may have been skeptical about modern art. Kuh used innovative materials—driftwood from Lake Michigan, color charts, ceramic figures—and drew surprising comparisons between works of art across time periods, for example, likening modern advertising designs to Persian manuscripts. Her commentary was spare: She wanted the first taste of modern art to be an unexpected experience in visual comparisons, not a reading assignment. In her droll words, she created a “sugar-coated education.” Museums across the country took note, modeling instructional galleries after hers.

Kuh was also deeply knowledgeable about the art of non-Western cultures. She was behind the Art Institute’s purchase of a major collection of ancient Peruvian textiles at a time when the museum focused on textiles from Europe and the United States. She journeyed through Alaska on six different trips over many years to study Native visual art. In 1946 she was commissioned by the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs to explore the condition of totemic artifacts in Alaska and to advise on their restoration and preservation. She described her report as “detailed and passionate” and was devastated by the government’s inadequate response to safeguard “our most distinguished native heritage.”

She was often exasperated by institutions (including the government), but she operated within, around, and in spite of them. In 1947 she cocurated a pathbreaking exhibition at the Art Institute, “Abstract and Surrealist American Art,” which caused the galleries to be “thronged with people” according to the Chicago Tribune, yet another signal of how everyday Chicagoans were curious about modern art, even while conservatives of the city were not. 

In 1951-52 Kuh orchestrated the award of a long-running prize funded by Frank G. Logan and Josephine Logan of “Sanity in Art” fame. The Logan Medal and Purchase Prize went to abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning’s monumental Excavation (1950), a layered composition of interlocking parts structured by small explosions of color. Was this brilliant subterfuge? The purchase prompted a fight from the museum’s trustees, many of whom volubly expressed hatred for the painting’s extreme abstraction. Perhaps she pointed out to them that the painting is animated by dynamic figures—birds, fish, human eyes, noses, and teeth. Or perhaps this was not the point. She saw that the breakup of traditional forms was an expression of her times, a signal, an arresting visual act.  

In 1954 Kuh became the Art Institute’s first curator of Modern Painting and Sculpture. That year she gave Mark Rothko his first museum exhibition, writing beautifully about the “moods” of his luminous abstract canvases, “sometimes somber and smoldering, sometimes ecstatic.” After Kuh orchestrated in 1955 the purchase of Jackson Pollock’s Greyed Rainbow, the newspapers announced “Kuh-Kuh Must Go.” Pollock created his revolutionary work by moving with dripped and poured paint around a large canvas on the floor. Jewett derided Pollock’s work for being indecipherable. Years later, when the Chicago Tribune asked Kuh to write a piece for their Sunday section about the New York City art world, she wrote back, “Kuh-Kuh is not available.”

Always working toward change, Kuh was a woman we might now call a fighter. She was constantly overextended, and her doctors warned her that she might have a stroke. But she was passionate about art and the collections she was building. In 1956 she became the first woman to curate the exhibition in the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, a show she titled “American Artists Paint the City.” Because no woman had ever represented the United States at the event, government authorities gave the title of U.S. commissioner to Dan Rich, the Art Institute’s director. Kuh and Rich were longtime collaborators and romantic partners. But there was no question that, for this major undertaking, Kuh did all of the work.

Katharine Kuh, 1945 Credit: Helen Morrison Balfour / Newberry Library

When Kuh made her “total break” in 1935 to establish her gallery, the political climate was strangely more open—or indifferent—to her vision than it later became. The shattering of her windows foretold things to come. By midcentury, the rising tensions of the Cold War and McCarthyism’s blacklisting of Americans who were supposedly sympathetic to communism created a hostile environment for artists and curators who aimed to challenge convention, take risks, and assert both aesthetic and political independence. When Kuh left the Art Institute in 1959, it was in large part because of its deeply conservative right-wing board members. The board had not supported Rich when he was questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and refused to identify the political stances of art-world figures. Kuh was also questioned by HUAC but did not disclose this to the board. By this point, Kuh also realized that, because she was a woman, she was being significantly underpaid. She tried to organize a union, but few of the museum’s other curators were willing to join her. Rich moved on to another directorship, and, reluctantly, Kuh resigned and settled in New York.

She again found her footing and freedom, becoming art editor at the Saturday Review, writing for a wide public about how to see and understand art. She returned to Chicago nearly once a month, she told radio personality Studs Terkel in a 1966 interview. At that point, Kuh had just published Break-up: The Core of Modern Art (1965), a book that traced how modern artists from Van Gogh through the Abstract Expressionists exploded conventional modes of representation to explore new ways of seeing. “Break Up” was always a key concept for Kuh, an idea about the fundamental restructuring of art and life expressed in the exciting visual experiments of modern artists. Like the work she championed, Kuh shook opinion as much as she formed it. Despite her institutional power—or perhaps, because of it—she was a woman who welcomed the shattering of windows. 

I extend my gratitude to art historian Avis Berman for the oral history that she conducted with Katharine Kuh in 1982–1983, which is housed at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. I also thank Susan Rossen, who has deeply contributed to my understanding of Kuh’s life and work.

Poet, activist, and educator Eve L. Ewing wrote five new poems inspired by the stories of “Chicago Avant-Garde: Five Women Ahead of Their Time.” In this poem, Ewing imagines Katharine Kuh entering her gallery to find the windows shattered, likely the work of art reactionaries who hated modern art.

Designed by graphic artists Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi of Sonnenzimmer and letterpress printer Ben Blount, the catalog for “Chicago Avant-Garde” includes more than 75 photographs, an engaging and deeply researched version of this essay, and powerful poems by Ewing.