A famed curator's take on some of the giants of 20th-century art

Katharine Kuh offers her keen perspective on an era.

A small number of women played a dominant role in the emergence and acceptance of modern art in America. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, with the indispensible assistance of Juliana Force, established the Whitney Museum. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Lillie Bliss, and Mary Quinn Sullivan launched the Museum of Modern Art. Hilla Rebay was the first director of the Guggenheim Museum and commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design a building on Fifth Avenue to house it. Katherine Drier and Peggy Guggenheim were enormously important collectors and sponsors of artists.

To this list we must add Katharine Kuh, who opened the first gallery of modern art in Chicago, became the first curator of modern art at the Art Institute of Chicago, and later was the art critic for the Saturday Review. Born in 1904, Ms. Kuh lived a long life and knew a huge number of artists, collectors, dealers, and museum officials.

Shortly before she died in 1994, Kuh began to write her memoirs. The book was not completed at her death but, happily, Avis Berman, herself an accomplished author, took the unfinished product and turned it into a complete volume: My Love Affair with Modern Art.

The book can be divided into three parts. The first is a long preface by Berman that provides biographical information about Kuh and her accomplishments. This is an important step - the reader will soon discover that Kuh almost never provides personal details about her own life. Berman's complete but sensitive summary enhances the rest of the book. For instance, Kuh writes that she had great difficulty climbing stairs, but she doesn't tell why. Berman fills in the gap, explaining that Kuh had suffered from polio.

The second part is a series of reminiscences by Kuh about her career as an art dealer and curator, and a collection of musings about the art world. This is not the strongest part of the book because these chapters seem to lack an obvious structure or direction. The chapters do make clear, however, that Kuh was opinionated, deeply knowledgeable, and feisty.

The remaining 16 chapters are a collection of unrelated essays about individual artists that she knew well. So we get her take on such diverse figures as Mies van der Rohe, Stuart Davis, Constantin Brancusi, Fernand Léger, Clyfford Still, and Edward Hopper. Many of her subjects are famous. Others - like Mark Tobey and Alfred Jensen - are important but not as well known. All but two essays are devoted to practicing artists. The exceptions are legendary art historian Bernard Berenson and Vincent Willem van Gogh, nephew of the artist and the motivating force behind the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

In some cases, Kuh builds the essay around a single incident - such as the medal that sculptor Jacques Lipchitz made for President Lyndon Johnson, or a visit with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College. In other cases, the essay is simply her assessment of someone she knew for many years.

These essays make wonderful reading. They are not simply biographical summaries (though such details are provided), nor are they an analysis of an artist's oeuvre (though that also appears). Rather, these are character studies that reveal extraordinary powers of description. More concisely than most biographers, Kuh summarizes what made each of her subjects tick, and the factors that drove their careers. Even readers who are very familiar with the artists will find that Kuh brings fresh insights to the subjects.

The best chapter may be the one on that tortured genius, Mark Rothko. In Kuh's words: "No artist ever looked less like his work than this overweight, untidy man with his high bald pate, bifocal spectacles, rumpled suit, and shirt untucked, but when we talked, some of the magic came through. He was surprisingly expressive, selecting the mot juste with infallible intuition. His sonorous voice always reminded me of certain resonant Hebraic chants. It rang with the same mellow inflections."

Her description of his descent into the loneliness and despair that led him to suicide is poignant. But despite obvious personal affection, she doesn't mince words. At one point she describes a set of late works as "an occasional triumph interspersed with perfunctory repetitions of the past."

Berman makes clear in the preface that she admired Kuh, and that is apparent in the sensitive way in which she has assembled the book. With the exception of the preface, it is impossible to tell where Kuh stops writing and Berman picks up the thread.

These careful, sensitive, and well-written portraits of several giants from the 20th-century art world make this a deeply rewarding volume. One only wishes that Kuh had been able share her insights about more artists before she died.

Terry Hartle is a senior vice president with the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C.

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