The mid-twentieth-century painting Residential Facades by American artist Jacob Kainen uses dynamic, contrasting colors and eccentric architectural forms to communicate a sense of life. The Mead acquired this painting in the summer of 2014, a gift of the Jacob Kainen Art Trust. Today, which would have been Kainen’s 105th birthday (December 7, 1909–March 19, 2001), we look briefly at the artist’s life, and at three Residential Facades inspired by the architecture of Washington, DC.
An ominous gray cloud seeps in from the outer edges of the Mead’s Residential Facades (1948), and dense blue-green bushes threaten to overrun the townhouses. These intimidating elements are held back by the clear blue sky that swells above the rooftops and the white and yellow houses that seem to protect whoever may be in the house.
The houses themselves, Victorian row houses that Kainen observed and sketched on his daily walk to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, where he worked as curator in the Division of Graphic Arts, angle up and out in unnatural ways, lending an air of surrealism to the painting.
Combining realistic representation with abstract forms was typical of Kainen’s constantly evolving artistic style. He began his career as a painter in New York, where he was mentored by the modern artist Arshile Gorky. Kainen’s interest in architecture probably grew out of the long walks he and Gorky took around New York almost every day together in the 1930s, while Gorky commented on the “predatory” architecture of the buildings (Berman 24).
Kainen’s decision to leave the vibrant and developing art scene of New York in 1942 for what started out as a temporary position as an aide in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington turned out to be life changing. His tremendous work ethic and capacity for knowledge about art eventually led to a permanent position and enabled him to thrive in his professional life outside the museum as an artist, teacher, scholar, and mentor.
The Smithsonian Museum of American Art has an extensive collection of Kainen’s work, including another view of Washington row houses completed in 1949, also titled Residential Facades. This painting, while clearly influenced by the same type of Washington architecture as the Mead’s Residential Facades, evokes different feelings through color and style. George Hemphill, who was a friend of the artist and owns an art gallery in Washington, says that Kainen described to him “how ‘emotional’ his response to the architecture of Washington was.” This insight establishes that the artist’s interpretation of buildings goes beyond superficial observation in both Residential Facades.
The cheerful yellow, orange, and red hues and the flat, two-dimensional facades in the Smithsonian’s version contrast with the darker greens and blues, and sense of depth, in the Mead’s. Although both paintings feature turrets and decorative windows, and focus on architectural forms, the Mead’s Residential Facades expresses deeper, more intense emotion than the lively row of pink, red, and orange.
Because he had struggled to find employment as a young man in New York during the Depression, working off and on for the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in the Division of Graphic Arts, Kainen felt inspired to use his artwork to bring attention to the problems and uncertainties people inevitably face in life. One of the turrets in Residential Facades (1948) seems to sway in the wind, while chimneystacks and sharp edges interrupt the blue sky above the house. Although there are no people in the painting, Kainen still conveys the uncertainty and fear many feel, which gives the somewhat fantastical houses a purpose. In this way, Residential Facades (1948) is not just a painting meant to show off Washington’s architecture, but a fulfillment of Kainen’s desire to make art that would “give off an aura of human experience” (Berman 21).
Agee, William C., and Avis Berman. Jacob Kainen. Edited by Walter Hopps. Washington, DC: National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1993.
Written by Catherine Rose O’Brien, Class of 2017