‘He Did Beautiful Things’ Arthur Kraft’s Diverse Art Outshines His Flawed Life

Kansas City Star article by Brian McTavish – November 20, 2002

Arthur Kraft gave everything — maybe too much — to his art. Yet he wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The Kansas City artist, who died destitute at age 55 in 1977, was an idealist devoted to telling truth and sharing beauty in his paintings, drawings, sculpture and writing. He acquired a national reputation, but according to those who knew him he also was a droll charmer who drank too much and never knew how to handle money.

He may not be a familiar name today, but his standing has never been stronger among those who collected his art. Sixty examples of his diverse work have been loaned by 30 area Kraft collectors to form the retrospective exhibit “Art and Words of Arthur Kraft” at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art in St. Joseph.

For decades Kraft’s art has dotted the cityscape of his hometown — from the playful “Penguin Court” figures on the Country Club Plaza, to the imaginative mosaic of animals adorning the McGee side of the Kansas City Public Library, to “The Family,” the long-limbed sculpture/fountain celebrating father, mother and child at the Executive Plaza Office Building, 720 Main.

“He’s part of Kansas City, and people are still enjoying his art,” said Betty Brand, a former Kraft patron who took the first steps toward organizing the new exhibit. “I want him to be remembered.”

Arthur Kraft as a young man.

Brand said she hoped the exhibit could be brought to Kansas City.

“We were good friends, and I tried to help him,” she said. “Everybody wanted to help him. He turned into an alcoholic, and he never had money to pay his rent. We passed him from one friend to the other, trying to keep him painting, thinking that if he would stay sober he would be fine. But he did beautiful, beautiful things.”

Born into local high society, Kraft showed early promise in the fine arts. He began painting with watercolors at age 5. At the Plaza Art Fair he sold decorated matchboxes and oil portraits that were so accomplished that officials questioned whether their 13-year-old creator had made them.

After military service in World War II, Kraft earned honors outside of Kansas City. They included the Audubon Artist Society national painting award for his tempera picture “New York as Seen by a Casual Observer Through My Great Aunt Jennifer’s Ouija Board,” and the Alice Kimball English Fellowship, given every 20 years to the most outstanding student at Yale University, which Kraft used to study painting in France and Italy.

In 1954 Kraft was named by the Junior Chamber of Commerce as one of the Ten Most Outstanding Young Men in America, along with such contemporaries as Robert Kennedy and Chuck Yeager. And for good reason: His illustrations had appeared on the covers of Fortune, Time and other national magazines. His 10-ton sculpture of a laughing elephant graced a Detroit shopping center. And his surrealistic paintings had been favorably received in New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris and Rome. But Kraft was more than a prolific artist. He befriended art lovers, whom he cultivated with a beguiling charisma.

1940's cartoon from The Yale Record by Arthur Kraft (Image Copyright The Yale Record)

“When we met him he came up to my husband and said, ‘Will you pay my telephone bill?'” Brand recalled. “And my husband said, ‘Yes.’ Well, my husband didn’t know he called Rome and all over the world. It was a $300 telephone bill. That was a lot in those days.”

Portrait painter De Saix Gernes, who attended kindergarten with Kraft and remained close to him throughout his life, remembers her whimsical pal as “a great con man.” “We all loved him,” Gernes said. “I would not call Arthur a genius, but he was unusual. He was a poet always. Very sociable. Charming. Witty. Fun. He entertained us.”

But behind the quick banter and ready smile was a man who followed his own muse. After living in New York in the late 1940s, Kraft returned to Kansas City. Why? His own words offer an answer: “One is likely to be more slowly devoured by commercialism here than in New York City,” he once said.

Brand tells the story of Kraft working for RCA Records in New York, until his bosses tried to dictate the look of the title character on an “Aida” album cover. “They wanted her to be chocolate,” Brand said. “And he wanted to make her black, and they wouldn’t let him. So he quit.”

In Kansas City, Kraft felt empowered, said Reed Anderson, curator of the Kraft exhibit. “He felt that here he didn’t have to give people what they wanted,” Anderson said. “He could give them what he wanted, what was important to him. Money wasn’t important to him. All he wanted to do was create.”

And his creative approach changed a lot. After a short-lived realist period in the 1940s, Kraft went on to embrace surrealism, then cubism, abstract expressionism, complete expressionism and, by the early 1970s, a return to figurative work.

Painting entitled Princess

“Most artists hit upon something that sells, and then they start doing the same thing over and over again,” Anderson said. “Arthur Kraft was not that way. If he hit upon something successful, it was, ‘OK, fine, but I’m going to do something different.’ “But he never really gave up surrealism, the way I look at it. It was always part of Arthur. But it was hidden sometimes by another technique or painting style.”

Although he didn’t lack for commissions throughout the 1960s, his alcohol addiction — and related hospital stays — got in the way of his art.

“It caused him to work in fits and starts,” Anderson said. “He had periods of extreme inactivity and bursts of creativity when he cleaned himself up.”

Russell O’Meara was a college student in the early 1970s. He met Kraft then while they lived in the same midtown apartment building. He came to know the artist’s boozy side, which could be disturbing or inspiring.

“He was just raw — ‘This is me,'” O’Meara remembered. “There’s dog…urine on the floor, a bottle of gin and no food, and he’s in his underpants — and you were lucky if he was in his underpants when you walked in there — and beautiful art all over the walls where he would just get a canvas and start throwing paint on.”

On a good day, Kraft could be a creative cut-up who once abducted a duck at Loose Park, dyed it pink and walked it around Westport on a dog leash just to see people’s reactions.

In 1971, six years before his death from cancer, Kraft revealed a great deal about himself in Sounds of Fury. The limited-edition book described in words and drawings his five-week stay in the alcoholic ward at St. Joseph State Hospital. Kraft gave his impressions of people he met there. One of his favorites was a mental patient named Nettie, whom he sketched.

Signed test copy of Sounds of Fury from the bindery where it was bound

“I first encountered her on the elevator,” Kraft wrote. “She talked nervously about high fashion…. She was a lost soul — but she managed to give the appearance of a little style, with a red blanket that she clutched as if her life depended on it.” Anderson regards Sounds of Fury as an artistic document full of external observations, but with an introspective eye.

“If you read the text, he’s not at all judgmental of these people,” Anderson said. “He’s sitting there looking at them, diagnosing their illness. They all shared a certain, what he called, madness. And he made no bones about that.

“He definitely thought he was a little mad. But he didn’t see anything wrong with that. He figured everybody was to some degree.”


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