Underground Modernist: E. McKnight Kauffer
On ViewCooper Hewitt
Underground Modernist: E. McKnight Kauffer
September 10, 2021 – April 10, 2022
New York NY
From several points of view, about as many as I can handle in one place or piece, this show about the consummate American artist E. McKnight Kauffer ([1890–1954], born in Great Falls, Montana) and its accompanying catalogue blow the mind every which way. Kauffer, far better known in the UK than in the US, practiced just about everything, from painting to posters to graphic design. There is such a diversity on view here that, wandering from room to room in the brilliantly designed exhibition—one gorgeous yellow-painted wall is particularly striking—I was both excited and pleasantly exhausted.
Now this variety, a sort of creative unsettledness on the part of the artist, is a clear-cut issue. We are, it seems to me, generally accustomed to someone’s individual style, whether of works or of signature—in a fascinating gesture, the subject of this show signed as Edward Kauffer, Edward Leland Kauffer, Edward McKnight, Edward Kauffer McKnight, Edward McKnight Kauffer, and finally E. McKnight Kauffer. Along these lines, we could admire the way the artist’s friend Arnold Bennett described him: “as a bird, forever in flight, forever searching for a place to come to rest.”1 Leaving America for Europe and England, and later leaving England for America, he was never really at home anywhere: he had some intractable resistance to settling anywhere at all. “I had never felt quite at home in my own country,” he recalled, and yet he was never anything other than American (although at one point he intended to take out British citizenship).2 He remained an ex-patriate for twenty-five years, later recalling that, “my years in England ill-suited me for the American Adventure.”3 He suffered from periods of financial precariousness, and although helped generously by his friend and patron Bernard Waldman, his last days were marked by depression.
Kauffer’s rootlessness also found expression in his family life. He left his first wife, the pianist Grace Ehrlich McKnight Kauffer, as well as their young daughter Ann, for his partner in invention and creation, the textile designer Marion Dorn, whom he married in 1950. Despite his unending restlessness, however, Kauffer’s relationships with his many artistic friends and institutions like the Museum of Modern Art—relations that have been mapped across an entire wall of the gallery—provided plentiful nourishment for his disparate works and styles.
Kauffer created posters galore, in so many different styles that you could not imagine one mind conceiving their variety: ah, the power of the poster! To be sure, I have never seen such variousness in the genre. One of the most extraordinary works is for an exhibition of the London Group in 1918, in which a man’s legs striding along morph into the letter O in London, reminding us, as Caitlin Condell points out, of Kauffer’s work with woodcuts and lithography.4 Such vigor and energy are astounding and found everywhere, in book covers and in the design for the ballet Checkmate. Here, in the backdrop designed by Kauffer, one brilliant arm reaches over toward another, darker, a movement interrupted by a line of clouds and a diamond shape, echoed by a kite with trailing streamers. You have the feeling that nothing is ever left out. Brilliant book covers abound as well.
Book and magazine covers abound brilliantly. Among the book covers, we see an eye here, and another there, as if Kauffer had not just grasped but put into effect the “Seeing of Seeing,” if I can overstress it like that. In a cover for Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, there are crossed lines and one eye visible, perfect for the idea. To continue with the eye motif, Kauffer’s bizarre cover for The Meditations of a Profane Man by “h” is as eye-catching as it is mysterious: who is “h”? How is he profane? What kind of meditation is he indulging? In the lettering, so major a part of Kauffer’s graphic design, the vertical line of the letter “f” in “of” reaches up, with the result that the horizontal line of the word appears to be a cross. In this remarkable design, seemingly a pair of sunglasses on a slant, the right eye facing us is black, outlined in white, while the left one is bright white, with its pupil enclosed in a circle. On both eyes, spikes protrude at the edge. We cannot imagine anyone else designing such a cover, and, in fact, every time Kauffer’s covers are exactly perfect for the contents of the volume they adorn.
The exhibition’s catalogue, too, astounds. I was privileged to visit the exhibition with Grace Schulman, the poet whose father, Bernard Waldman, was so generous to Kauffer’s artistry, but was accompanied also by the editors of that very grand publication, Caitlin Condell and Emily M. Orr. The gorgeous catalogue, not just in color but in many colors and different type sizes, is something else again.
Both catalogue and exhibition provide us a close look at Kauffer and his work—a subject surely due more attention on this side of the Atlantic. Although his life was unsettled, the same restlessness that kept him from sinking either geographic or familial roots informs his work, in all the dynamic and unendingly captivating variety we can now encounter at the Cooper Hewitt.
- E McKnight Kauffer: The Artist in Advertising, ed. Caitlin Condell and Emily M. Orr (New York: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 2021), 20, 115.
Ibid., 115, in a letter to Glenway Westcott in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.