Just before Christmas, my friend Emily and I made a trip to the National Gallery to see the El Greco exhibit. On our way out, we stopped on the museum’s lower floor to see the small, two-room exhibit of 20th century American prints and drawings from the Kainen Collection. I’ve been reading a lot about early twentieth-century American artists recently, and so was particularly excited to come across this collection of drawings.
The Kainens collected through most of the 20th century, and their collection includes early works and experimental prints and drawings by showstoppers like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. In this 1951 drawing, Pollock experimented with the effects of allowing ink drips to soak through thin Japanese paper — I love the way this medium allowed him to create a melodic tone entirely different from his more iconic paintings.
The exhibit’s collection of lesser-known twentieth century artists is equally exciting. I’ve been interested in the explorations of American artists in the 1930s, and there are a number of stellar prints and drawings here by artists like Stuart Davis. I especially love this one by sculptor William Zorach, whose work in watercolor allowed him to embrace a more improvisational style.
Like the Pollock, Zorach’s View of Distant Hills was done on Japanese paper.
One of the exciting things to me about the Kainen collection is how closely it brings us as museum viewers to the process and impact of contemporary collecting. Though the Kainens collected widely, both were deeply committed to buying work by contemporary American artists. Both Kainens were highly knowledgeable and well-connected in the art world (Jacob Kainen was an artist himself), so they certainly had the expertise to gauge the importance of the work they collected. But buying work by experimental living artists always carries a heightened risk — and a heightened impact. I’ve been reading about how artists like Zorach and Davis struggled because their work was innovative enough that it was seldom salable. These purchases by knowledgeable collectors like Jacob and Ruth Kainen therefore had the double-impact of asserting the experimental works’ value and literally sustaining the living artists’ continued explorative practice.
Modern American Prints and Drawings from the Kainen Collection is on view at the National Gallery through February 1, and is absolutely worth visiting.