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Dealer Phyllis Kind, Champion of Vanguard and Overlooked Art, Dies at 85

Roger Brown and Phyllis Kind.

ROGER BROWN STUDY COLLECTION, THE SCHOOL OF THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO

‘Are you kidding? You think I want to run a store?” That was the response, Phyllis Kind recalled in an interview more than 50 years later, that she gave her husband, Joshua, when he suggested that they open a gallery in Chicago in 1967. The space he was eyeing was located above the prominent dealer Bud Holland, and it was only $85 dollars a month. Eventually Phyllis agreed. “I said alright, primarily because I was so bored with whatever was happening to my life,” she said.

What started as a print shop devoted to Old Masters quickly became, under Phyllis’s leadership (the couple divorced not long after going into business), a hotbed for vanguard art in the city, promoting artists—grouped together under the names the Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists—who were mining comic books, Pop art, and Surrealism to make graphically punchy, bawdy, psychedelic, and psychologically charged pictures. She had catholic tastes and moved quickly, and before long she was expanding to New York and working tirelessly to make a market for so-called self-taught and outsider artists—figures who worked beyond, and were largely ignored by, the mainline art world.

Kind.

© ROLAND HAGENBERG

Last Wednesday, “Hairy Who? 1966–1969,” an exhibition of work by some of the first artists Kind she supported, opened at the Art Institute of Chicago. On Friday, Kind died in San Francisco, bringing to a close one the 20th century’s truly original careers in art. She was 85.

Phyllis B. Cobin was born in New York on April 1, 1933, grew up in the city, and studied chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where she met her future husband, Joshua Kind. Eventually, as chronicled by Edward M. Gómez (who profiled her on more than one occasion, for Raw Vision and the New York Times), the couple settled in the Windy City, with Phyllis getting a master’s in English at the University of Chicago.

Visits in the late 1960s to the Hyde Park Art Center, which was at the time showing outré young artists, introduced Kind to many of the people she would show for decades, including Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt (Nilsson’s husband), Art Green, Roger Brown, and Karl Wirsum.

“In the mid-’70s she was pretty much ‘the only game in town’ for the Chicago artists she represented,” the husband-and-wife artists Lorri Gunn and Wirsum said in an email. Wirsum, a member of the Hairy Who, would have 16 solo shows over the course of nearly 20 years at Kind’s spaces in Chicago and New York, where she opened in 1975.

Kind’s early connections proved pivotal in the development of her gallery. Nutt introduced her to the work of Martín Ramírez, the Mexican artist who had produced majestic, hypnotically patterned drawings and collages of landscapes while institutionalized in California, and the Phyllis Kind Gallery became the first commercial outfit to present his work. Today Ramírez’s art is in numerous museum collections, hotly sought after on the private market, and firmly ensconced in the history books.

Ramírez would be only one of many previously marginalized figures to find fame through Kind. There was also Henry Darger, the Chicago custodian who made intricate watercolors and drawings through which he told a fantastical epic that defies any short synopsis. And there was the Missouri-born Joseph Yoakum, who made bewitching drawings of brilliantly colored mountains and valleys while working as a coal miner.

Phyllis Kind and Ed Paschke.

ED PASCHKE FOUNDATION

Kind looked far afield for artists and “was a primary bridge between Europe and the United States, linking a rich network of collectors, scholars, and artists that extended Dubuffet’s notion of Art Brut,” said Valérie Rousseau, the curator of self-taught art and art brut at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. One such bridge she made was for Adolf Wölfli, who had made ecstatically detailed drawings while institutionalized in Switzerland for some three decades beginning around 1900. The first U.S. exhibition of his work was at Kind’s gallery. “Many of the best artworks in the field that have come through the museum had a Phyllis Kind label on their backs,” Rousseau said.

Kind’s support for the nascent field of self-taught art went beyond just exhibiting it. She was involved in founding Raw Vision, a British magazine focused on the topic, as well as the Outsider Art Fair in New York, where she long occupied booth number one—“right when you walked in at the old Puck Building,” the New York dealer and Outsider Art Fair director Andrew Edlin said. “You could count on seeing a great Ramírez, Carlo Zinelli, Wölfli, and other Art Brut classics. She introduced many legendary artists to the Chicago and New York art worlds, which of course led to worldwide recognition for them as individuals and for the field of outsider and self-taught art.”

Martín Ramírez, Untitled (Horse and Rider), ca. 1948–63.

COURTESY PHYLLIS KIND GALLERY, NEW YORK

Kind shrugged off the notion of specializing on a single geographic area, movement or medium, restlessly on the hunt for something new. “What I always look for in a true artist’s work . . . is quality of technique, of ideas—and a unique, personal vocabulary of form,” she once said.

The roster at her gallery included Imagists and key self-taught figures, both living and historical, as well as other contemporary artists, like Alison Saar, Elsa Mora, and Robert Colescott, all showing side-by-side. They would regularly be joined by whatever new discoveries Kind happened to be making at the time, as when she visited the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s and became one of the first U.S. dealers to show the work of unofficial Russian artists (in a 1987 show exuberantly titled “Direct from Moscow!”).

“She really had such a wide berth of interests and artists, and what I love about that is it also illustrates her capacity to get people interested in all of those artists,” Brooke Davis Anderson, the director of the museum of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, said.

Kind was, one might say, an artist’s dealer. “My husband and I purchased our first work of art from Phyllis,” Saar remembered in an email. “As two artists, we had scraped together enough money to purchase a Robert Colescott and Phyllis and her staff were so gracious and patient in showing us everything within our budget.” The dealer exuded “a rare kindness in the 1980s gallery scene,” Saar continued. “It was that manner of equity that I admired most in Phyllis: her refusal to draw lines between high and low, mainstream or outsider. At a time when much of the work being shown was very slick or clever, she was committed to showing art made with passion.”

Kind was famously outspoken and up for a debate when it came to her views on art. When the writer Judd Tully visited her New York gallery in 1983, he found her to be a “dialectically agile raconteur.” Discussing the market at the time, Kind said, “Every time you raise a price you shrink the number of people who are able to buy something. It eliminates a certain kind of person whom I like from the race.”

Robert Colescott, Ascension, 2003.

COURTESY PHYLLIS KIND GALLERY

Business was not always easy. In the 2010 video interview cited above (shot for the documentary Hairy Who & the Chicago Imagists), Kind said that all four of her children at some point worked at the gallery—“so they got a general sense of how iffy it was and how it hard it was to stand on your feet the whole time.” In the late-1990s, Artnet Magazine reported that a number of artists left her roster because they were slow in being paid.

When Kind first opened in New York in 1975, in SoHo, few paid attention to her gallery, she told Tully in a 1981 interview. But that soon changed, and before long she was selling works by artists like Ed Paschke and Brown at a clip. She said, “People in Chicago ask me, ‘Do they really like the work in New York?’ They still don’t believe it.”

Kind closed her Chicago gallery in 1998, telling the Chicago Tribune that “it was quite magical for a long time, but I think enough is enough.” She attributed her decision in part to the death of Brown the year before, saying, “I found it almost impossible to imagine a gallery in Chicago without him.” In 2006, she moved her New York space from Greene Street to West 26th Street in Chelsea. After suffering a mini-stroke in late 2008, she decided in 2009 to retire, and moved to San Francisco to be closer to family.

Kind’s colleagues spoke of her untiring advocacy for her artists and the field of self-taught art, as well as her rapier wit. “She was a true pioneer and a really grand person,” Stacy Hollander, the chief curator of the American Folk Art Museum, said. “She was large in her personality. She had a real take-no-prisoners approach to everything.”

“In the male-dominated art world where Phyllis Kind operated, she was no ordinary woman,” the artist Elsa Mora said. “Her passion and enthusiasm for art was contagious, and her toughness admirable.” Mora had a show at Kind’s Chicago gallery in 1996 and a two-person outing with Belkis Ayón in New York in 1998. “I remember someone asking her once why she was working with me, since I was technically not an outsider artist (I had attended art school in Cuba),” she remembered. “Her answer was, ‘Because school didn’t ruin her.’ ”

A greeting card from the Phyllis Kind Gallery.

ROGER BROWN STUDY COLLECTION, THE SCHOOL OF THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO

“You had to be razor sharp to stay on her level,” Lisa Stone, the curator of the Roger Brown Study Collection at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said. Noting the dealer’s devotion to her artists, she recalled that, at Brown’s funeral at a cemetery in a rural Alabama, the minister began reading from his obituary in the Chicago Tribune, which was written by the art critic Alan G. Artner, with whom Brown had had a notoriously acrimonious relationship. “Phyllis hit the roof,” Stone said. “She runs back to the rental car, she grabs the New York Times, which had Roberta Smith’s obituary, and she’s walking up and down and going: ‘Not the Tribune! The New York Times! Roberta Smith wrote it in the New York Times! And she’s holding the paper up, walking around to show people. I thought, Boy does she have some brio and guts.”

“We recall her making her gallery artists into members of her family,” Gunn and Wirsum said, referring to great parties and dinners where Kind would cook. “She was a good mom and we always marveled that she managed a demanding career while maintaining very present in her children’s lives.” Along with her four children, Kind is survived by six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

“She was so generous with her knowledge, with her advice, with her thoughts, with her art,” Hollander said. “That generosity, with her big, loving personality, was as much a part of her contribution as the artists she championed.”

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