The Katharine Kuh Papers contain correspondence and pieces of art sent to Katharine Kuh as greeting cards by artists whose works she showed in her gallery and at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The papers are arranged alphabetically in thirty-two folders. Letters, notes, envelopes with marginalia, and decorative greeting cards are interfiled as correspondence.
The correspondence contains dialogue between Katharine Kuh and American artists like Mark Tobey, Alexander Calder, Joseph Cornell, Man Ray, and Len Lye and such European contemporaries as Marcel Duchamp, Jean Dubuffet, Jean Hélion, and Fernand Léger. The letters contain frequent references to the ideological similarities and differences of their work and illuminate the role that Katharine Kuh played as interpreter and champion of abstract art in the United States.
Most of the letters contain material that was incorporated into her books, especially The Artist's Voice (1962). Naum Gabo (October 22, 1961) and Saul Steinberg (November 9, 1961), for example, speak about the conflict between the visual and verbal expression of an idea. They give Kuh explicit instructions on how to represent their ideas in print. In a November 9, 1961, letter Mark Tobey explains that artists either talk about their art grudgingly or not at all and that he would not have done so for anyone but Katharine Kuh. Although this respect is characteristic of the artists' letters, Kuh herself, in a reply to Abraham Rattner (Apr 13, 1956), calls herself an "art entrepreneur" who is, in reality, merely a frustrated artist.
Several artists, including Jack Levine and Pavel Tchelitchew, write about specific works of art and what inspired them to create particular images. Marcel Duchamp in a February 23, 1949, letter answers a series of questions about Jacques Villon for a catalog of an exhibition of the Arensberg Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago and explains the triple pun in his pseudonym "Rrose Sélavy." Alexander Calder tells how to repair some of his pieces and, in a May 1, 1947, letter relates a humorous incident in which a sculpture that had been tampered with later "attacked" someone.
Other interesting letters include one to Katharine from a friend of Le Corbusier (June 5, 1941) asking her to give prominence to Le Corbusier's work in her gallery because of the artist's "difficult economic situation." The correspondence of art patrons Katherine Dreier and Walter C. Arensberg discusses modern art from a collector's point of view. There is also a note of appreciation from Eleanor Roosevelt and a letter from Thornton Wilder about the Virgin Islands.
Almost all of the original art works are signed by the artists and many are dated. Some bear evidence of having been displayed. The highlights include nine paintings done jointly by George and Juliet Kepes, seven black- and-white photographs by André Kertész, five prints by Boris Margo, two drawings by Carlos Merida, and some of Joseph Cornell's collages. Another collage, dated 1938, is filed with the Merida correspondence, was made and signed by Carlos Merida, Julio de Diego, Alexander Archipenko, and Katharine Kuh. Len Lye's letters take the form of drawings in ink and magic marker, and Alexander Calder addressed an envelope to Kuh in mirror-image writing. There is also a signed lithograph by Léger in a copy of Tristan Teara's La face intérieure.