First published: Winter 2009
Collectors, curators, artists and other dealers who know Phyllis Kind, an indefatigably inquisitive, irrepressibly free-spirited mainstay of the New York art world and head of a gallery there that had long borne her name, were surprised to learn this past summer that her high-profile venue for cutting-edge contemporary and eye-opening Outsider Art had closed, and that its legendary founder had announced her retirement.
The 76-year-old Kind had suffered a mini-stroke late last year and had been convalescing. As the veteran dealer realised she could not return full-time to her gallery, she reluctantly decided to close the space she had occupied in Manhattan's Chelsea district since 2006 (after many years at another location further downtown), wrapping up an art career that had spanned more than four decades.
Kind had long championed the work of innovative contemporary artists and was also a pioneering figure in the outsider/self-taught art field. She was a founding member of Raw Vision's editorial board of directors and, since its inception in 1992, had served as an advisor to Sanford L. Smith & Associates' annual Outsider Art Fair in New York. Beginning in the 1970s, along with a handful of other dealers in the USA and Europe, she effectively helped create a market for a genre of art that did not fit easily into the art establishment's curatorial categories or marketing niches.
Robert Storr, a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and current dean of the Yale University School of Art, notes: 'What Phyllis managed to do over many years of advocacy was not only to introduce art unfamiliar to the general public but also to challenge and ultimately break down some of the prejudices that were arbitrarily imposed upon both her well-schooled and her unschooled artists.'
Born in New York in 1933, Phyllis Cobin attended the city's Bronx High School of Science and, in the 1950s, the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, where she studied chemistry and met her future husband, Joshua Kind. From there, the Kinds returned with their first child to New York, where Phyllis taught at an elementary school while her husband pursued a doctorate in art history.
Later, the Kinds moved to the Chicago area, where, in 1967, they opened a Chicago gallery specialising in Old Master prints. Phyllis earned a master's degree in English literature from the University of Chicago.
For Phyllis, the 1960s and 1970s in Chicago were a formative period for her evolving aesthetic outlook, which she sharpened by attending contemporary-art exhibitions to find out what artists were thinking about and creating close to home. In later years she would routinely observe that, when it came to examining any artist's body of work, 'I look for a strong, original vocabulary of form and for evidence that artists are making art not because they might want to but instead because they have to.'
The Italian artist Domenico Zindato, whose richly patterned, abstract drawings Kind began showing in 2000, notes: 'Phyllis first has to feel some passion about whatever she looks at, then she will get close to a work and really study it.' The British-born sculptor Gillian Jagger, who showed her mixed-media works at Kind's New York gallery in the early 2000s, says: 'Phyllis goes by her intuitive passion. She lives for what she calls 'the art of necessity,' meaning art in which it is evident that the people who make it do so because they are absolutely compelled to do so. She seems to have an instinctive sense for what is unique and significant.'
At Chicago's Hyde Park Art Center in the late 1960s, Kind saw paintings by artists of the 'Hairy Who?' group. With a mixture of fantasy and surrealism, and a handcrafted quality, the works of such group members as Jim Nutt and Karl Wirsum were the antithesis of the era's slick, East Coast-style pop art. Kind also saw the work of local painters such as Ed Paschke and Roger Brown. All of these artists, along with several others, became known more broadly as the Chicago Imagists and, over the years, Kind showed their works. From some of them, Kind learned about the self-taught American artist Joseph Yoakum (1890-1972), who had created imaginary landscapes in coloured pencil and ink on paper. Recognising in such works (which she would later collect and sell herself) the essential qualities she sought in all art, Kind began promoting self-taught artists' works.