A longtime resident of Chevy Chase, Maryland later in life, painter and curator Jacob Kainen was born in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1909. In 1919, Kainen moved with his family to New York. He studied drawing at the Art Students League in New York at age 16 with Kimon Nicolaides and also attended the Pratt Institute School of Art in Brooklyn and evening classes at the New York University School of Architecture. In 1942 Kainen received a diploma dated 1930 from the Pratt Art Institute; 1930 was the year he was expelled three weeks before graduation for rebelling against the new curriculum emphasizing commercial art.
In the 1930s, Kainen was a social realist working in color lithography, and affiliated with the New York Group; Kainen wrote a statement of principles in conjunction with a 1938 exhibition of the group's work: "The New York Group is interested in those aspects of contemporary life which reflect the deepest feelings of the people; their poverty, their surroundings, their desire for peace, their fight for life." (reproduced in essay by Avis Berman, Jacob Kainen, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Thames and Hudson, Washington, D.C, 1993, p. 20) While eventually departing from social realism for abstraction, he would maintain an interest in conveying human experience: "However abstract the forms and colors see, they should somehow give off an aura of human experience," Kainen said in 1973 (reproduced in essay by Berman, Jacob Kainen, p. 21)
During the early 1930s, Jacob Kainen developed a close relationship with Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), whose ideas would influence his later work. He was an active participant in the graphic arts program, as a printmaker, with the New York City WPA from 1935 to 1942. After Kainen moved to Washington, D.C. in 1943, he was one of the first abstract artists working in that city, and produced abstract compositions of symbols and form, and he continued in this manner well into the 1950s. During this period of time, Kainen espoused Gorky's notion that the cryptic meanings of symbols and organic form on the canvas derived from the subconscious. In so doing, he produced his own kind of Abstract Expressionism. While close to Washington color-field painters such as Morris Louis (1912-1962) and Kenneth Noland (born 1924), Kainen was never a member of this group. His painting moved between abstraction and figuration. In the 1960s, his work became more figural and representational. He returned to pure abstraction wth linear geometric forms in the late 1970s and 1980s.
From 1942-1970 Jacob Kainen was curator of the Division of Graphic Arts at the Smithsonian's U. S. National Museum. When he began working there, Kainen took over a monthly program of print exhibitions which were solo shows of living artists who were of great significance to American art history and whose work had not been shown in D.C. until Kainen's tenure; artists whose work was shown included Josef Albers, Louis Lozowick, and others, as well as local artists James Wells and Pretiss Taylor. Kainen was instrumental in building the Smithsonian collection to include the work of modern artists, including Daumier, Bonnard, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, The German Expressionists and Jasper Johns. During this time, Kainen painted nightly following his workday at his unheated studio until ten or eleven o'clock at night, then returned home to do writing or museum research until 2 a.m. because he was not allowed to do scholarly writing on government time. (essay by Avis Berman, Jacob Kainen, p. 27) Following his tenure at the National Museum, Kainen was hired as curator of the department of Prints and Drawings at the Smithsonian's National Collection of Fine Arts from 1966 to 1969.
Kainen taught evening classes in painting and printmaking at the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts, and was instrumental in getting Morris Louis hired to teach painting at the Workshop by introducing Louis to Kenneth Noland. Shortly thereafter, Louis and Noland began collaborating on "staining" which was the fundamental notion of Washington Color Painting, a groundbreaking technique with influential practitioners.
Jacob Kainen's work is a part of the collections, among others, of the Achenbach Foundation for the Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina; Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts; Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois; Australian National Gallery, Canberra; Bezalel National Museum, Jerusalem; The Baltimore Museum of Art; H. Biggs Memorial Hospital, Ithaca, New York; The British Museum, London; Brooklyn Museum; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; The Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; East Texas State Teachers College; Grunwald Graphic Arts Foundation, UCLA, Los Angeles, California; Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Howard University; Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana; Kunstverein, Frechen, Germany; Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; The New York Public Library; New York University; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania; Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; The Portland Art Museum, Oregon; Queens College; University of Maryland; University of Iowa Art Museum; Walker Art Museum, Minneapolis, MN; Whitney Museum of American Art; and Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven Connecticut.
Education/Training: Art Student's League; Pratt Institute School of Art; New York, New York University School of Architecture (evenings); George Washington University
Taught By: Kimon Nicolaides, Art Student's League
Art-related Employment: art instructor; painter; lithographer; curator; arts administrator
Selected References: Agee, William C. and Avis Berman. Jacob Kainen, Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, D.C.: Thames and Hudson), 1993.
Exhibition label, The Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland Artists from the Collection, 1890-1970, April 24-October 27, 2002.
Jacob Kainen. www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/kainen_jacob.htm
Maryland Institutions Holding Artworks: The Baltimore Museum of Art
Maryland Institutions Holding Autobiographical Resources, Archives, Personal Papers, Ephemera, or Other Primary Source Material: Jacob Kainen Papers. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Single-Artist Exhibitions: Paintings, A.C.A. Gallery, New York City, Fall 1940.
G Place Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1944.
Drawings and Lithographs, Central Public Library, Washington, D.C., 1945.
Retrospective Exhibition of Prints, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1949.
Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings, Catholic University, 1952.
Paintings: Washington Artists Exhibition Series, No. 17, Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1963.
Recent Paintings, Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 1973.
Jacob Kainen, Prints: A Retrospective, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., 1976; also shown at The Baltimore Museum of Art, University of Pittsburgh Art Gallery and University of Oregon in 1977.
Recent Paintings, Mattanuck Museum, Waterbury, Connecticut, 1977.
Jacob Kainen: Five Decades as a Painter, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1979.
Jacob Kainen: New Works, Phillips Collection, 1980.
Jacob Kainen: Drawings and Prints, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1989.
Jacob Kainen, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1993.
Multiple-Artist Exhibitions: partial list:
American Artists' Congress, first exhibition, 1936.
W.P.A.(4 Out of 500: Dismissed from W.P.A., 1937), The New York Group (1938, 1939) shows and Tenth Anniversary show (1941), A.C.A. Gallery.
Three Contemporary Printmakers, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1973.
Area Exhibitions, Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1948, 1953, 1956.
Washington: Twenty Years, The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1970.
30 Years of American Printmaking, Brooklyn Museum, 1977.
American Drawing in Black and White, Brooklyn Museum, 1980.
Contemporary American Prints and Drawings 1940-1980, National Gallery of Art, 1981.
Awards: First prize, Corcoran area show, 1954.