Two Avant-Garde Women Who Took Big Risks in Chicago’s Art Scene

Meredith Francis
Katherine Dunham dancing and Katharine Kuh smiling and reading papers
Katherine Dunham, left, and Katherine Kuh. Photos: Courtesy of the Newberry Library and Archives of American Art, Smithsonian

For dancer Katherine Dunham and curator Katharine Kuh, taking risks was part of their art.

“They’re both total trailblazers and innovators and they both took really big risks in life, both personally and in their art and what they created,” says Liesl Olson, Director of Chicago Studies at the Newberry Library.

The work of Dunham and Kuh is part of “Chicago Avant-Garde,” a new exhibition curated by Olson at the Newberry Library that spotlights five “boundary-pushing” women in art, literature, and dance. Opening September 10, the exhibit also features work from the 1930s to the 1950s of the artist Gertrude Abercrombie, poet Gwendolen Brooks, and choreographer Ruth Page. (You can read previous WTTW articles about Abercrombie, Brooks, and Page at the links.)

“All five women challenged social constraints—based on their gender, their race, or both—to subvert convention and find beauty and freedom in their art,” Olson says.

In examining the work of these women, the exhibit explores what achievements are possible in the arts but perhaps not in other social and civic spaces, Olson adds. While assuming personal and professional risks, Dunham and Kuh accomplished a lot in their respective fields. 

Katherine Dunham 

Before she was known as “the Matriarch of Black Dance,” Katherine Dunham grew up in Glen Ellyn, Illinois and then was a talented anthropology student at the University of Chicago—and one of the first Black women to attend the university. According to the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities, Dunham never thought she’d have a career in dance, although she did study with ballerina and choreographer Ruth Page, among others.

In 1935, Dunham received grants to conduct fieldwork in Trinidad, Jamaica, and Haiti to study Afro-Caribbean dance and other rituals. Her film of the dances she captured will be on display at the exhibition. 

“She takes what she sees there and what she practices there, and she fuses it with classical ballet,” Olson says. “She essentially developed an entirely new style, which [is later] called the Dunham technique.” 

Dunham eventually founded the Katherine Dunham Company, and then spent years performing around the world in the hopes of sharing Afro-Caribbean dance. One particular international performance embodies her willingness to take risks.

In 1951 in Santiago, Chile, Dunham premiered a ballet called Southland, which told the story of a Black man in the southern United States who was lynched after being falsely accused of raping a white girl. 

“She was ... basically told that she couldn't do it,” Olson says. “She was censored because the State Department said, ‘You're not representing America well. We don't want anybody writing about this.’”

Dunham’s company was only able to perform the ballet once more in Paris, and the government stopped financially and diplomatically supporting her work. Dunham herself continued to perform for years, and starred in several Hollywood movies. The Dunham technique is still taught in dance schools today.

Katharine Kuh

Katharine Kuh is one of the most influential people in Chicago’s modern art scene, according to Olson, but few people have heard of her.

“The landscape of modern art in Chicago is really deeply indebted to the work that she did here, and her story has really not been told,” Olson says.

As a child growing up in Chicago, Kuh contracted polio and spent ten years in a body brace. It was during that time that she came to study and love art. She eventually went to Vassar College before earning her Master’s in Art History from the University of Chicago.

In 1935, after divorcing her husband and leaving an unsatisfying life in the suburbs, Kuh took a gamble: she opened up her own gallery. Located in the old Michigan Square building on Michigan Avenue, the Katherine Kuh Gallery was a “one-woman operation” and Kuh practically slept there, says Olson. “She had a very extraordinary rapport with many of the artists whose work she showed.” 

Katharine Duham and Marcel Duchamp standing on stairsKatharine Dunham with French artist Marcel Duchamp in 1951 (Courtesey of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian)

Kuh displayed works by European and American avant-garde artists, including Pablo Picasso, Alexander Archipenko, Joan Miró, and others. She also showed the work of local artists, including Gertrude Abercrombie and the Bronzeville painter Charles Sebree.

Kuh had to close her gallery during World War II, but she went on to join the Art Institute of Chicago. There, she was put in charge of an education space called the Gallery of Interpretation, and enlisted a friend of hers—the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—to transform it. She later became the museum’s first curator of modern painting and sculpture. In her time at the museum, she often created “trailblazing” exhibitions. But, according to Olson, she ultimately resigned from the Art Institute in 1959 after the board became more conservative during the McCarthy era. 

“They basically forced her to make the choice to leave, partly because she was put before the House Un-American Activities [Committee] to basically say which artists that she worked with were communists,” Olson said. Kuh ultimately moved to New York, authored several books, and worked as an art critic. 

Regardless of where they ended up, Kuh, Dunham, and the other women in “Chicago Avant-Garde” made waves in their journeys.

“They were at risk of having audiences turn away from them because it was too difficult, too controversial to take what they were doing,” Olson said. “They made provocative art that advocated for social change, and some people weren't ready for it.”