An interview of Katharine Kuh conducted 1982 Mar. 18-1983 Mar. 24, by Avis Berman, for the Archives of American Art's Mark Rothko and His Times oral history project.
Kuh speaks of her invalid childhood in Chicago, the development of her interest in art, classes in art history at Vassar College, and her career as curator of modern art at the Art Institute of Chicago. She recalls in particular the "Sanity in Art" movement against modern art in Chicago. Kuh describes her relationship with Mark Rothko and Rothko's relationships with Mark Tobey, Clyfford Still, Kate Rothko, Theodoros Stamos, Milton Avery, Stanley Kunitz, and Hans Hofmann.
Kuh discusses her parents, the family silk business, travelling in Europe as a child, life in Chicago, the effects of polio and other illnesses on her interests, and her student years at Vassar College. She remembers visiting Bernard Berenson in Italy with her family and again with Daniel Catton Rich, with whom she worked very closely at the Art Institute of Chicago. She speaks of the Katharine Kuh Gallery, which she started in the mid-1930s and its place in the vanguard of the Chicago art scene.
Kuh remembers the effects of the stock market crash on her personal situation, her marriage to businessman George Kuh, distaste for life in the suburbs, and her divorce. She discusses the Katharine Kuh Gallery and the actions taken against her business by members of the reactionary "Sanity in Art" movement (including a very funny anecdote concerning Carlos Merida). She speaks of the classes in modern art that she taught at her gallery and of some of the artists she exhibited there, including the photographers Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, and Edward Weston.
Kuh remembers the McCarthy era and the political conservatism in Chicago, including her testimony on behalf of Bill Zimmerman, Acting Commissioner of Indian Affairs. She criticizes blockbuster exhibitions and the changes in the role of a museum curator. She reminisces about building the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago and the art education program she ran there, and recalls Stuart Davis, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Gyorgy Kepes, and Ivan Albright.
Kuh remembers Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Marcel Duchamp, as well as the collectors Walter Paepcke and Walter and Louise Arensberg (whose collection she surveyed in their home for an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago).
Kuh focuses on her memories of Mark Rothko, recalling when they met, their friendship, his manner of working, his feelings about his work, and his worries towards the end of his life. She talks about Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, and Mark Tobey. Some parts of this tape repeat what she said earlier.
Kuh continues discussing Rothko, particularly his Houston chapel murals and the retrospective exhibition at MOMA in 1961. She remembers visiting Rothko's studio and describes his working methods. She relates Rothko's views on other artists, including Milton Avery, Clyfford Still, Turner, Robert Motherwell, and Adolf Gottlieb; parts repeat things said before. Kuh also discusses Rothko's wife and daughter.
Kuh recounts building the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago and speaks of the museum staff, trustees, and donors. She remembers Alfred Barr at MOMA.
Kuh continues speaking about the Art Institute of Chicago, describing the circumstances of her resignation and subsequent move to New York. She talks of knowing Peggy Guggenheim, Max Ernst, and Fernand Leger.
Kuh describes her work as a consultant to college museums and her writings. She discusses the field of art criticism and her career as art editor at Saturday Review. She recalls Clyfford Still's retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and his death.
Kuh describes her work as a collector for the First National Bank of Chicago.
Kuh recounts more about her work at Saturday Review and her resignation. She goes into great detail about her travels in Alaska and British Columbia surveying Northwest Indian art for a government report. She speaks again about the McCarthy era.
Kuh speaks again about the Katharine Kuh Gallery and the artists she exhibited there, including Josef Albers (and his Black Mountain College), Alexander Archipenko, Stuart Davis, Paul Klee, Alexander Calder, and Man Ray.
Kuh continues her discussion of artists she exhibited at the Katharine Kuh Gallery, including Mark Tobey, Paul Klee, and Isamu Noguchi.
Kuh continues talking about artists she exhibited at the Katharine Kuh Gallery, including David Smith, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Eliot Porter, Rufino Tamayo, and Jack Tworkov.
Biographical / Historical:
Katharine Kuh (1904-1994) was an art consultant, curator, and critic from Chicago and New York City.
Originally recorded on 16 sound cassettes. Reformatted in 2010 as 31 digital wav files. Duration is 21 hrs., 52 min.
This interview was conducted as part of the Archives of American Art's Mark Rothko and his Times oral history project, with funding provided by the Mark Rothko Foundation.
Others interviewed on the project (by various interviewers) include: Sonia Allen, Sally Avery, Ben-Zion, Bernard Braddon, Ernest Briggs, Rhys Caparn, Elaine de Kooning, Herbert Ferber, Esther Gottlieb, Juliette Hays, Sidney Janis, Buffie Johnson, Jacob Kainen, Louis Kaufman, Jack Kufeld, Stanley Kunitz, Joseph Liss, Dorothy Miller, Betty Parsons, Wallace Putnam, Rebecca Reis, Maurice Roth, Sidney Schectman, Aaron Siskind, Joseph Solman, Hedda Sterne, Jack Tworkov, Esteban Vicente and Ed Weinstein. Each has been cataloged separately.
Transcript: Patrons must use microfilm copy.
Authorization to publish, quote or reproduce must be obtained from name on file.
The records of San Francisco Focus Gallery measure 11.8 linear feet and date from 1963-1987. The bulk of the collection consists of exhibition files. There are also artists files, sales information, correspondence, and scattered records of the gallery's companion bookshop.
Scope and Contents:
The records of San Francisco's Focus Gallery measure 11.8 linear feet and date from 1963-1987. The bulk of the collection consists of exhibition files. There are also artists files, sales information, correspondence, and scattered records of the gallery's companion bookshop.
Exhibition files comprise the bulk of the collection and generally contain a wide range of materials including correspondence, short biographies, forms requesting artists' background information, flyers, booklets, brochures, checklists, loan agreements, sales records, news releases, and photographs and negatives. Among the many photographers exhibited were Ansel Adams, Berenice Abbott, Bill Brandt, Wynn Bullock, Paul Caponigro, Imogen Cunningham, Judy Dater, Robert Heinecken, Eikoh Hosoe, Annie Leibovitz, Eliot Porter, Aaron Siskind, Jerry Uelsmann, and Brett Weston.
A relatively small amount of general business correspondence includes orders and payments for photographic prints, books, and magazine subscriptions, some personal notes, and requests for information about how to submit for exhibitions and for exhibition schedules. Correspondents include customers, photographers, publishers, law firms, museum, and colleges and universities. Correspondence from the founding year contains Johnston's letters to various venues prominent in art photography, such as George Eastman House. There is also a letter to Ansel Adams requesting prints to sell or for a small opening exhibit.
Additional records include artists' files; sales and inventory records containing print and bookshop inventories, general pricing information and receipts for photographs; and printed materials including flyers and brochures, bookshop catalogs and news releases. There are also scattered administrative records, including gallery history, a file on the Toren Gallery and five owner's notebooks, as well as The Imogen Cunningham Trust files documenting Focus Gallery's interactions with the trust before and after Cunningham's death regarding photographs printed and signed by her; financial and legal files; and guest books.
Documents in the collection that pre-date the founding of the gallery are found in the Toren Gallery file and a few of the exhibition files.
The collection is arranged as 8 series.
Series 1: Administrative Records, 1963-1985 (Box 1; 0.3 linear feet)
Series 2: Correspondence, 1966-1987 (Boxes 1-2; 1 linear foot)
Series 3: Exhibition Files, 1966-1985 (Boxes 2-10; 8.5 linear feet)
Series 4: Artists Files, 1966-1978 (Boxes 10-11; 0 .5 linear feet)
Series 5: Financial and Legal Files, 1966-1987 (Box 11; 0 .2 linear feet)
Series 6: Sales and Inventories, 1966-1987 (Box 11; 0.4 linear feet)
Series 7: Printed Materials, 1966-1987 (Boxes 11-12; 0.3 linear feet)
Series 8: Guest Books, 1966-1970, 1978-1985 (Boxes 12-13; 0.6 linear feet)
Biographical / Historical:
Focus Gallery was founded by Helen Head Johnson (1916-1989) in 1966 on Union Street in San Francisco. The gallery exhibited and sold primarily art photographs and other contemporary art.
Helen Head Johnston believed that photography deserved its own exhibition space. As stated in the gallery's first press release, "in seeking to encourage print collecting it (the gallery) offers not only a show place but also a market place for photographers." While retaining an emphasis on Bay Area photographers, the gallery's exhibitions soon became international in scope, featuring little known and well-established photographers through both solo and group exhibitions. With few exceptions, the gallery's policy was to feature an artist only once. To help keep the gallery going in its early days, Johnston started a bookshop mail-order business. At the time of its closing in August 1985, Focus Gallery was the longest continuously operating photography gallery in the country. The bookshop continued in another location for an additional two years.
The collection is arranged as 8 series
Series 1: Administrative records, 1963-1985, (Box 1 8 folders)
Series 2: Correspondence, 1966-1987, undated (Box 1-2 1 linear foot)
Series 3: Exhibition files, 1966-1985 (Box 2-10 8.5 linear feet)
Series 4: Artists files, 1966-1978, undated (Box 10-11, 9 folders)
Series 5: Financial and Legal files, 1966-1987 (Box 11 6 folders)
Series 6: Sales and Inventories, 1966-1987, undated (Box 11 11 folders)
Series 7: Printed Materials, 1966-1987, undated (Box 11 and Hol 12 7 folders)
Series 8: Guest Books, 1966-1985 (Hol 12-13 6 folders)
Among the holding of the Archives of American Art is an untranscribed interview of Helen Johnston by Louise Katzman or Irene Borger in the collection Interviews of California Photographers 1981 Jun.-Nov.20.
Helen Johnston left her private photography collection to the de Saisset Museum, the Oakland Museum of California, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
The Focus Gallery records were donated by the estate of owner Helen Johnston, care of Gerald O'Conner, executor.
Use of original papers requires an appointment.
The Focus Gallery records are owned by the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Literary rights as possessed by the donor have been dedicated to public use for research, study, and scholarship. The collection is subject to all copyright laws.