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KARL KNATHS (1891-1971)



A painter recognized for his highly individual interpretation of Cubism, Karl Knaths was born in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in 1891.  He grew up in the Midwest, and in 1912, he moved to Chicago, where he studied at the School of the Art Institute for four years.  In 1913, he saw the Chicago exhibition of the groundbreaking Armory Show and was immediately drawn to the modernist work from Paris, especially the art of Paul Cézanne.

Oil on canvas, 40 1/8 x 50 1/8 inches

Knaths moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1919.  His earliest work was inspired by the art of the Impressionists.  However, after fraternizing with many of the local artists who had experienced the progressive art life of Paris, and by studying the examples of advanced European art in books and magazines, Knaths became deeply influenced by Cubism.  By the late 1920s, he had evolved a very personal approach to this aesthetic, basing his abstract, but still recognizable compositions on seascapes and still life subjects.

During the 1930s, Knaths developed a complex theoretical basis for his painting.  He began to structure his pictures according to strict rules of composition and color, inspired by the ideas of such artists as Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky.  Using the classification system of colors developed by Wilhelm Ostwald, he would preselect the colors for his palette before starting to paint, for in Knath's view, color, like music, could be organized according to a system of notation.  In this respect, each of Knath's canvases became a unique color composition, since the artist never used the same arrangement more than once.

Throughout his career, Knaths drew his iconography from his Provincetown environment, depicting the local fisherfolk, docks, shanties, dunes, and moors, and the familiar objects in his house.  As his commitment to Abstraction developed, he was invited to exhibit with the American Abstract Artists group in 1936.  He was also active as a teacher and lecturer, giving annual courses at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. from 1937 until 1950, and was affiliated, at various times, with Black Mountain College and the Skohegen (Maine) School of Painting and Sculpture.  Duncan Phillips, Knaths first and for many years his only patron, did much to establish the artist's reputation.  Despite Knath's innovative attitudes, he did work in relative isolation for much of his career, making only the occasional visit to New York or Boston and never feeling the need to travel to Europe.

Knaths died in Provincetown in 1971.  Examples of his poetic, Cubist-inspired paintings can be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, as well as at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and many more.  In 1973, a major retrospective of his work was circulated to six American museums by the International Exhibitions Foundation.


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