National News

Phyllis Kind, Art Dealer Who Took In Outsiders, Dies at 85

Phyllis Kind, a combative, visionary art dealer whose championing of a group of young artists called the Chicago Imagists as well as major outsider artists helped expand the narrative of 20th-century art, died Sept. 28 in San Francisco. She was 85.

Posted Updated

Roberta Smith
, New York Times

Phyllis Kind, a combative, visionary art dealer whose championing of a group of young artists called the Chicago Imagists as well as major outsider artists helped expand the narrative of 20th-century art, died Sept. 28 in San Francisco. She was 85.

The cause was respiratory failure, her family said. Her last gallery, in New York, closed in 2009.

Fierce, intelligent and loquacious, Kind would just as soon argue with you as look at you. She had namesake galleries in Chicago and New York during the 1980s and ‘90s, a period when the neatly defined mainstream, dominated by pop art and abstraction, was becoming much broader and less orderly. And she did her bit to shake things up.

As the first American dealer to show outsider art alongside that of contemporary artists, Kind was in many ways as important as Leo Castelli, the dean of New York dealers, who introduced the work of Jasper Johns and at one point represented nearly every pop and minimalist artist of note.

“Phyllis was a pioneer,” said Elsa Longhauser, the director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. “She was bold, outrageous and incredibly generous with her knowledge and contacts. She really introduced the art world to a whole new field.”

Kind, a former schoolteacher who enjoyed art, entered the art world in Chicago in 1967, when, at the suggestion of her husband, who was teaching art history, she opened a gallery, calling it Pro Grafica Arte. She planned to sell mostly master prints, one of his areas of expertise.

But she also started to follow Chicago’s contemporary art scene, which was in creative ferment. Young artists — first known collectively as the Hairy Who, and later as the larger group the Chicago Imagists — were emerging, especially in galvanizing shows at the Hyde Park Art Center. Among them were Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Roger Brown, Christina Ramberg and Karl Wirsum.

Kind was drawn to their sexually confrontational, mongrel figuration, which absorbed aspects of illustration, the comics and Surrealism. In a sense, these artists were outsider pop artists; not surprisingly, they were deeply attracted to the work of the real outsiders then beginning to surface. One of the first was the great Joseph Yoakum (1890-1972), who was discovered making his fantastical landscapes on Chicago’s South Side in 1967.

Kind gave the Imagists their first solo shows, starting with Nutt and Nilsson in 1970 and Roger Brown in 1971. In 1972, the year the term “outsider art” was coined, she mounted her first group show of this material, “The Artless Artist: Contemporary ‘Naïve’ Works.”

Anyone paying attention was stunned by her shows. They were the first devoted to major, previously unknown outsiders, most notably the Mexican artist Martín Ramírez (1895-1963), whose work Nutt uncovered in 1970 while teaching in Northern California, and Henry Darger (1892-1973), a hospital custodian whose panoramic battle scenes and epic writings were discovered after his death in the single room he rented from the Chicago photographer Nathan Lerner.

Kind also introduced Americans to prominent European outsiders, including Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930), Augustine Lesage (1876-1954) and Carlo Zinelli (1916-74). She was excited by what she called “the art of necessity.”

“I look for a strong, original vocabulary of form,” she said, “and for evidence that the artists are making art not because they might want to but instead because they have to.”

Phyllis Barbara Cobin was born April 1, 1933, in the Bronx, the only child of Harold and Dorothy (Weintraub) Cobin. Her father was a dentist, and her mother worked in his office. Phyllis attended the Bronx High School of Science and studied chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania.

There she met Joshua Kind, an art history major. They married in 1956 and moved to New York City, where Phyllis taught elementary school while Joshua pursued a doctorate in Renaissance art at Columbia University.

The couple moved to Chicago in 1959, when Kind took a teaching position at Northwestern University in nearby Evanston, Illinois. He taught at the University of Chicago starting in 1962.

They enjoyed buying underpriced prints at auction, and Joshua Kind offered to help Kind start a gallery in master prints and drawings. Her initial reaction, as she recalled, was characteristically sharp: “Why would I want to run a store?” But she conceded that she was bored and followed his suggestion.

The couple divorced in the 1970s. Kind is survived by their four children, Jonathan, Gabriel, Deborah and Rachel Kind; seven grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and three stepbrothers, William, Thomas and Mark Cobin.

Kind’s success in Chicago led her to open a gallery in New York in 1975 on the second floor of a building on Spring Street in SoHo. She found artists whose figuration had the originality that she sought and over the years represented many of them, including Alison Saar, Robert Colescott, William N. Copley, Gillian Jagger and Mark Greenwold.

One of her first New York shows was the 1979 solo debut of Greenwold, an obsessive miniaturist of family life and strife. After much discussion, he convinced Kind to let him show just one small painting, “Sewing Room (for Barbara),” on which he had labored for three years.

Depicting the artist and his wife involved in an unusually violent domestic altercation, the work caused a stir. Critic Lucy R. Lippard wrote a letter to Kind, saying that the dealer should be ashamed of showing such work. But in a recent email, Greenwold wrote, “Phyllis, no shrinking violet, didn’t blink — she never blinked.” In 1983, Kind moved her New York gallery to more generous ground-floor quarters in SoHo on Greene Street, where it thrived as an important resource for anyone interested in American and European outsiders.

Under Kind’s tutelage, or that of her trusted gallery director, Ron Jagger, many curators, critics, artists and collectors indeed became interested. Visits to her gallery could turn into seminar-like discussions, either in the gallery’s main space or downstairs, where the works of outsider artists were usually on view, ready to stimulate conversation.

Copyright 2024 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.