Karl Knaths Biography

Karl Knaths




Painter, printmaker, and designer Karl Knaths was born Otto Karl Knaths in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, on October 21, 1891. After the death of his father when Karl was still a teenager, he was put in the position of supporting the family and took an internship with his uncle, a baker. A chance visit to his high school by author, Zona Gale, proved fortuitous as she encouraged the young Knaths to find the time to pursue art when he could, and upon his graduation, she encouraged him to take courses at the Dudley Crafts Watson school, where he remained until being offered an internship as a theater set designer for the Wisconsin Players the following year. 

In 1911 he traveled to Chicago to enroll at the Art Institute. To support himself, he worked there as a janitor's assistant. Two years into his time at the school the 1913 Armory Show, which started in New York and traveled to Chicago and Boston, arrived in town, and he took a job as a guard at the event. This proved to be a turning point in Knaths' artistic path as it was the first time he was exposed to European Modernism. As with many artists and art enthusiasts of the time, the works in Fauvism, Cubism, and Futurism were a mix of confusion, astonishment, and inspiration, and he credits the work of Cezanne with opening the doors to a new way of using color and line. 

Knaths' would eventually relocate to Provincetown, following more time with the Wisconsin Players and a two-year military stint. In 1919 he formally set up a studio in the town that was famous for its attraction to artists, and he soon met the Weinrich sisters who had founded the Provincetown Printers. Through this connection he learned the art of woodblock printmaking and was able to form the bold painting style for which he would become known. 

In addition to his work as an artist, he developed his own theory regarding style and execution and became a proponent for more naturalistic approaches, writing and teaching about the connection between visual, aural, and written arts. Of note was his observation on schools of style and the paths to learning various techniques: "Systems are only bricks and lumber -- of themselves they cannot encompass the immeasurable spiritual qualities that go into a successful picture. The unlooked-for things that happen in the process of work are the important ones." (Goodrich, Llyod; Howe, John Ireland, 1959: Four American Expressionists: Doris Ceasar, Chaim Gross, Karl Knaths, Abraham Rattner. Whitney Museum of American Art.) His work would eventually begin to explore a more angular, almost Cubist aesthetic, a style he had originally felt intimidated by when observing the works of Picasso at the Armory show.

Knaths was also a noted educator and he taught at Bennington College, Black Mountain College, the Skowhegan School of Painting, and was employed as both a muralist and instructor with the WPA's Federal Art Program. He was also a guest lecturer at various times between 1938 and 1950 at the Phillips Gallery Art School. He first major solo exhibition took place at the Paul Rosenberg Gallery in 1947, and in 1950 he won first prize in the "American Painting Today" competition by the Metropolitan Museum. 

As the rise of Abstract Expressionism began to eclipse other genres in the American art scene, Knaths' work was seen less as that of innovation and more as a product of an older and more conservative outlook - not an uncommon happenstance for any popular artist. However, despite this setback, Knaths continued to work and to exhibit, and his paintings and prints proved to be widely sought after until his death in 1971 and beyond. Today, Knaths is viewed as a major figure in American Modernism. 

Norman Wait Harris Prize, Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), 1928; Gold Medal, Boston Tercentenary Art Exhibition, 1932; First Prize, Carnegie Institute International Exhibition, 1946; Paintings of the Year Award, Pepsi-Cola Co., 1947; Competitive Exhibiton of Contemporary American Art, University of Illinoise, Urbana, 1948; featured in Art News, "Artist Paints a Picture", Elaine de Kooning, 1949; Third Honorable Mention, Carnegie Inst. Int'l Exh., 1950; First Prize, Metropolitan Museum, "American Painting Today," 1950; Honorary Degree, Doctor of Fine Arts, Board of Trustees, AIC, 1951; Election to membership, National Institute of Arts and Lectures, 1955, '59; documentary, Karl Knaths's Cape Cod, a Motion Picture, 1955; Brandeis University Creative Arts Award in Painting, 1961; Andrew Carnegie Prize, annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design (NAD), 1962; Altman Prize, NAD, 1963; Audubon Art Award, 1964; Altman Prize, NAD, 1965; elected to NAD, 1968.

1922: Provincetown Art Association
1924: Daniel Gallery, New York
1925: Provincetown Art Association (exhibitor and juror)
1926: Phillips Memorial Gallery (Phillips Collection), Washington D.C., Eleven American Painters
1927: New Chenil Galleries, London; Provincetown Art Association Modernist exhibition; Phillips Memorial Gallery; Gallery of Living Art, New York University, Washington Square, New York
1928: Art Institute of Chicago; Provincetown Art Association Modern Exhibition (exhibitor and jurist)
1929: Gallery of Living Art
1930: Provincetown Art Association Modernist exhibition; Museum of Modern Art, New York, Thirty-Seven American Artists Exhibited for the First Time; Daniel Gallery, Paintings and watercolors by Karl Knaths; GRD Gallery, New York, Provincetown Group Show organized by Agnes Weinrich
1931: Art Students League, New York
1932: Museum of Modern Art, Murals by Forty-Nine American Painters and Photographers; Art Institute of Chicago, 45th Annual American Exhibition; Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C., Corcoran Biennial
1933: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, New England Society of Contemporary Painters; Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia, Flowers in Art: An Exhibition
1934: Eighth Street Galleries, New York, Summer Work of Contemporary Artists; Provincetown Art Association
1936: Whitney Museum, New York, Whitney Biennial
1940: Traveling Exhibition by the Museum of Modern Art and WPA
1941: Whitney Museum, New York, Annual Show of Contemporary Art
1942: Art Institute of Chicago, Paintings by Karl Knaths
1943: Riverside Museum, New York, American Abstract Painters Exhibition
1945: Paul Rosenberg Gallery, New York, Solo Show; Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, Painting in the United States
1946 Nierendorf Gallery, New York, Art to Aid the Hungry (Friends Subcommittee on Food Parcels to Europe); Carnegie Institute, Painting in the United States
1947: Paul Rosenberg Gallery, Recent Paintings by Karl Knaths
1948: Paine's Gallery, Boston, Boston Society of Independent Artists
1951: Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Columbus, Ohio, Recent Paintings
1952: Phillips Memorial Gallery, Washington, D.C., One-person Show
1959: Whitney Museum of Art, Retrospective exhibition, Four American Expressionists
1962: Rosenberg Gallery, Retrospective Show
1965: Phillips Collection, Retrospective
1971: Phillips Collection, Memorial exhibition
1972: Rosenberg Gallery, Memorial retrospective
1973 - 1974: "Karl Knaths, Five Decades of Painting," traveling memorial retrospective, International Exhibitions Foundation
1981: Museum of Modern Art, An American Choice: The Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman Collection
1982: Phillips Collection, Appreciations: Karl Knaths; Everson Museum of Art, Woodstock, NY, Karl Knaths, 1891-1871: works on paper 1919-1930; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, Karl Knaths: Ornaments of Glory
1988: Provincetown Art Association and Museum
2005: David Findlay Jr. Fine Art, New York, American Masters & Modernists: Karl Knaths
2007: David Findlay Jr. Fine Art, Cross Currents: Milton Avery, Karl Knaths, Herman Maril
2008: Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain, Paris, Azur