Chutzpah and Connoisseurship: Chicago Art Dealer Phyllis Kind, 1933 to 2018
Phyllis Kind, the dealer whose representation and advocacy was pivotal to the success of Chicago Imagism and Outsider art, died at the end of September in San Francisco, aged 85. Surrounded by her family, her life ended on the opposite coast from her birth and childhood home in New York City, and half a continent away from Chicago, the Midwestern city where her keen intelligence and boundless chutzpah came together to create the ground-breaking gallery that bore her name. A gallery now long gone, yet whose original programming continues to define much of what is considered best about art from the windy city. Her roster of Chicago artists is legendary: Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Karl Wirsum, Roger Brown, Ed Paschke, Christina Ramberg, Ray Yoshida, Barbara Rossi, Art Green, and Sue Ellen Rocca to name a few. Plus, of course, Outsider artists, including, famously, Martín Ramírez, shown on an equal footing with the rest.
In the current international art world, where multinational galleries dominate and local city-bound art scenes and movements have become a thing of the past, it is hard to explain the full impact Phyllis Kind Gallery had on collectors and artists during its heyday in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s–especially for young artists like myself. Phyllis got Chicagoans to not just buy art, but art made in Chicago, by living artists! Her openings were a blast: well-lubricated affairs where hard liqueurs were consumed freely, artists mingled with enthusiastic collectors that Phyllis had molded and trained, and the over-the-top art critic Dennis Adrian, dressed in his signature navy mock-turtleneck, white chinos, and blue sneakers, would hold court while chain smoking Lucky Strikes.
There were, certainly, other galleries in Chicago at that time. Kind’s first location, across from the newly opened Museum of Contemporary Art, was above B.C. (Bud) Holland, a dealer whose extraordinary connoisseurship filled a back room with masterpieces ranging from Ottoman tiles to Ad Reinhardt. A few blocks away, Alice Adams mounted exquisite exhibitions of German Expressionist paintings and prints, while Richard L. Feigen showcased Old Masters of remarkable quality. But even more than the dealer Allan Frumkin, who had introduced Surrealism and Joseph Cornell to Chicago collections, shown the first generation Imagists Leon Golub and June Leaf, and represented perhaps the Ur-Imagist inspiration H.C. Westermann, Phyllis Kind’s gallery was singular in placing the Chicago aesthetic vision at the core of its activity. For the first time in a Chicago gallery, non-Chicago artists, such as Robert Colescott and indeed Ramírez , gained credibility by showing alongside the Chicago artists, not the other way around.
As formidable as Kind was in person, her gallery was always a welcoming place for everyone, even if they could only afford to look. Legions of art students, myself included, will happily attest to the untold hours long time director William H. Bengtson spent pulling out paintings, prints, and drawings for them. I know of more than one young artist to whom Bengtson extended interest free monthly payments that could last years for the purchase of a print or drawing. The success of her program opened the door for other Chicago galleries to focus primarily on locals, and by the 1980s young dealers like Nancy Lurie were showing a whole new generation of Chicago artists. To this day one of the finest galleries in the city, Corbett vs Dempsey, carries forward much of Phyllis Kind’s programming.
In 1975 Kind moved back to New York and opened a second space in the newly developing SoHo neighborhood. She brought with her all of her Chicago stable, though none of the artists themselves moved to New York, and expanded into international representation, being among the first galleries to show the Russian avant-garde, in 1987. For twenty years Kind would fly back and forth for openings at her Chicago gallery, her hair dyed in black and white squares, bringing with her stories about the New York social scene of the 80s in which she reveled. On one such occasion she sauntered around her gallery, drink in hand, telling one and all, “I just got these breast implants! Go ahead, feel them, they’re fantastic!”
But chutzpah alone does not a legendary dealer make, and in the end it was Phyllis Kind’s intelligence, deep knowledge, connoisseurship, risk taking and, most of all, her insatiable appetite to keep looking for art where others might not expect it that made hers the most important gallery in Chicago for over a decade. Her passing, along with Adrian, who also died this year, marks the end of an era when cities could have their own art movements, and individuals with the right combination of talents could make it count. Of the handful of people blessed with those talents, Phyllis Kind shined among the brightest.