Phyllis Kind was an art-dealer extraordinaire, lover and supporter of all things visionary, discoverer of whole new phosphorescent continents of taste, channeler of gigantic bursts of energy, identifier of numerous great artists — many from my hometown, Chicago — and possessor of one of the sharpest bullshit detectors I’ve ever experienced. She also changed my life. Twice.
In the late 1970s, living in Chicago, I was still an ambitious artist in my early 20s, selling and even showing my work. Wanting more. I was also a self-important co-director of a local artist-run space and filled with self-pity, envy, and contempt for all those I thought had more than I did, had it easier, had an education, or even lived in a better apartment. I would continually moan a litany of poor-me complaints to anyone who would listen. I was a big fish in the smaller pond of Chicago and felt the world owed me a living and a career. That I should be a famous artist, get a golden ticket to success, money, love — the whole grandiose ball of misguided wax that many young artists brood over.
At some point in 1978, I was sitting with Phyllis Kind in her Ontario Street Gallery, which had opened in 1967. She was a big deal even then.
Famous even. I stopped there because — instead of making my work — I often walked around to the galleries, visiting with dealers, chatting them up, gossiping, flirting, and basically being needy. Of course, I imagined I was gifting them with my magnificent, famous presence and stellar intelligence. (Insecurity, arrogance, appetite, and resentment wear many masks.)
Kind was different from the other commercial gallerists in Chicago. Really, she was different from everyone. She showed a roster of superlative outsider artists who were only then coming to light. Some of them she helped discover; many she introduced to new audiences and finally placed in (and thereby changed) the art-historical canon. This at a time when such artists weren’t thought about much, dismissed mostly as oddities, and rarely admitted entrance into museum collections. Among those she celebrated were Martín Ramírez, Henry Darger, Joseph Yoakum, Adolf Wölfli, and Reverend Howard Finster — some of the greatest visionaries of late-20th-century art. She showed prison artists, people working in homes for those with mental disabilities. She wasn’t only about so-called “outsider artists,” though. Kind also promoted the Chicago Imagists, a movement of mostly local artists whose work I didn’t like at the time because I was envious and bitter about them getting more attention than I did, and I was trying to emulate formalist and post-minimalist New York art. Imagism wasn’t cool or chic; it wasn’t featured in Artforum. (It often is now). I already felt like an outsider; I wanted to be in what I thought of as the hip New York cognoscenti. Rather than the preapproved New York Modernist linage, the Imagists were drawing on surrealism, pop, funk, album-cover art, comic books, cartoons, psychedelia, and a general aesthetic that I call Maxwell Street, after the huge weekly Sunday South Chicago flea market that featured junk and paraphernalia, where great local bluesmen would set up and play all day as people barbecued chicken, ribs, and made grits. (With Chicago’s amazingly eclectic Field Museum of Natural History, Maxwell Street is the museum where many Chicago artists, and people like me, were really schooled.)
Kind showed Imagists like Jim Nutt (who helped discover Ramírez), Ed Paschke (Jeff Koons’s teacher), Karl Wirsum, Barbara Rossi, Gladys Nilsson, Robert Colescott (whose work about race is still too hot for many museums to touch), Sue Ellen Rocca, Roger Brown, Ray Yoshida, and many others I soon came to admire. The Imagists synthesized all these recognizable art-historical references in original ways but added highly local “lower” sources and flavors to create a visually aggressive, intensely colored original style. Rather than being just cutesy, comic-doodled kookiness and strange creatures in strange places, this work felt contemporary, oppositional, about pressing things. Critically, it didn’t blend in with the material/conceptual-based abstract post-minimalism that was going on in New York. Imagism wasn’t an art of formal problem-solving; it’s more psychologically unpredictable, optical, unmoored, rageful at times, playful at others, and always tinged with a prismatic pictorial imagination. Moreover, while all their work was figurative, narrative nevertheless played a very small role. You can’t say what most of this work is “about” or even who’s pictured; this makes it as abstract as most post-minimalism, and therefore as formal, even if no one knew it at the time. Imagism is tinged with mysteriousness, irrationality, and still somehow annexed to everyday reality. Their work now hangs in museums around the world or is only now featured in major gallery shows.
Sitting with Kind that day in the 1970s I must have launched into another one of my grand mal self-pity fests, talking about how I was “too poor to move to New York,” had no job, no money, no nothing, wah, wah, wah. Suddenly Kind snapped, “Shut up! Move to New York and I’ll give you a job in my gallery there.” Just like that, she called my bluff. It’d be hard to describe now how totally she annihilated my internal hologram of self-pity.
Six months later, I did. And Kind gave me a job in her New York gallery. Of course I had no skills, and didn’t know how to do anything I had told her I could do (carpentry, secretarial skills, or ability to drive). I would hide in the back room, go out on three-hour errands to nowhere, sometimes went to movies during work hours, carried on a secret affair in the building’s basement, and drove their local deliveries around — without a license. I was a fuck-up.
Kind must have known. And, slowly, she sort of broke me — again. She had others in the gallery show me the ropes, tolerated me in a fragile transitional period where I — as with so many others— needed to be tolerated as we reform whole new skins and selves, trying to become what we say we want to become. Soon I started doing my job. I was meeting some of her artists, hanging out with cool people, and using cocaine in the office with Phyllis. Not much cocaine for her. And less for me, as the drug made me go comatose and have the worst hangovers of all time the next day. But it was fun. An education. A total break with my Chicago past that I could never have predicted and didn’t even know I needed. Kind was giving this to me free, in fact paying me for it. I felt like I was melding into some kind of New York. Maybe not the mainstream one I saw going on all around me in more well-known galleries and institutions — Phyllis was always a foyer to this bigger, grander, more “important” and recognized art world. She wasn’t featured in the big art magazines; her artists weren’t included in the “important” museum shows; other major gallerists didn’t seem to take much notice of all this activity going on. I didn’t care. I was learning about the art world, seeing new work, getting free drugs, while, of course, stealing her supplies and tools to do my own work. I wonder if this is still remotely the norm among gallery workers in our more professionalized art world.
I don’t remember leaving but at some point I drifted away, got and got fired from other jobs. Eventually falling away from all of it, becoming a long-distance truck driver, sinking again into a default of self-pity and embitterment that would take one last gigantic leap of faith and change of life to break. No matter: Kind had gotten me to New York; she kicked my ass into gear; nurtured me in her strange maniacal way; gave me my first New York job; kept me in art supplies for two years; talked to me about art; let me stand in the background as she spoke to artists, curators, critics, and clients. (She let me pretend I was making coffee, fixing snacks, and working behind the counter in the adjoined kitchen.) She changed my life; let me glean the voodoo of how all this works; she changed the world and changed art history. Phyllis Kind is among the greatest American gallerists of all time because she identified more artists than all but a very few who have ever lived. She was a formidable live wire, an incessantly expanding force of nature, a powerhouse. I was afraid of her; I loved her. Kind helped me understand that giving every ounce of your energy to art is part of having a life lived in it. She is a pillar of part of the metaphysical art palace that many used for shelter and thrived around, where we never had to totally adapt to the kingdom we were accessing, always being allowed to remain forever inside, outside, and fevered amid all this.