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Jacob Kainen papers, 1905-2009, bulk 1940-2001

Biographical Note

Jacob Kainen (1909-2001) was a painter, printmaker, and curator who worked primarily in Washington, D.C.
Born on December 7, 1909 in Waterbury, Connecticut, Jacob Kainen moved with his family to New York City in 1918. Kainen studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn from 1927 until 1930, and at the Art Student's League. In the early 1930s, Kainen became involved in social causes and formed close friendships with the early abstractionists, including John Graham, Arshile Gorky, and Stuart Davis. He joined the Artists' Union and a contributor to its journal, Art Front, along with Stuart Davis and Harold Rosenberg. Jacob's participation in the Artists' Union was later investigated by the FBI.
From 1935 until 1942, Kainen worked for the Graphic Arts Division of the Works Progress Administration in New York City and began exhibiting with the New York School. It was during this period that he married Bertha Friedman. Jacob and Bertha had two sons together, Dan and Paul, and divorced in 1968.
In 1942, Kainen made a life-changing decision to leave New York City and move to Washington, D.C. to accept what he thought would be a temporary position as a scientific aide in the Division of Graphic Arts at the Smithsonian Institution. Kainen quickly became Assistant Curator and Curator in 1946. He served as Curator for twenty years, completely reshaping the department and building the graphic arts collection. His print exhibitions brought the work of S.W. Hayter, Josef Albers, Adja Yunkers, Louis Lozowick, Karl Schrag, José Guerrero, Louis Schanker, Werner Drewes, and Boris Margo to Washington audiences - graphic work that might not have been shown that early in the area.
1947 marked the opening of the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts, where Kainen served as a teacher and guide to several important artists, helping to make the workshop a magnet for new talent and instrumental in furthering the careers of several artists. Although Kainen taught Gene Davis and Alma Thomas and introduced Morris Louis to Leon Berkowitz, he never considered himself a member of the "Washington Color School."
In 1949, the Corcoran Gallery of Art held a retrospective of Kainen's prints and three years later Kenneth Noland organized Kainen's first painting retrospective at Catholic University. Kainen's paintings from the 1940s illustrated a shift away from social realism toward abstract expressionism. In 1956, Jacob Kainen received a grant from the American Philosophical society to conduct research in Europe for his monograph on the English woodcut artist, John Baptist Jackson. He traveled to Europe again in 1962 to study paintings and prints from the Mannerist Period.
From 1966 until 1970, Kainen worked as the Curator of prints and drawings at the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum). He married Ruth Cole in February of 1969. Kainen retired from the Smithsonian a year later to devote himself full-time to his art, but continued to serve as a special consultant to the Smithsonian American Art Museum for nineteen years. In 1971 and 1972, Kainen taught painting and the history of printmaking at the University of Maryland. A retrospective of Kainen's paintings was held in 1993 at the National Museum of American Art (SAAM).
Throughout his artistic career, Kainen experimented with different mediums and explored different styles, yet he identified himself as a painter. Jacob Kainen participated in at least twenty-five one man shows and several group exhibitions. His works are in collections across the United States and abroad, including the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the British Museum. He worked in his studio up until the time of his death on March 19, 2001 at his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland.