August 03, 2005

Russell Kraus exhibit at Des Lee

This past weekend I went with my daughter to see an exhibit at the Des Lee Gallery of the work of Russell Kraus, who is best known in St. Louis as the man who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design and build a house in Kirkwood, Mo in the 1950's. The house is now part of the parks system and is open by appointment to the public. It turns out Kraus is quite an artist in his own right, working mostly in commercial art starting in the 1930's and eventually designing stained glass windows for the Jacoby and Frei studios in St. Louis after the 1960's. He is still around at 87 years old and was at the exhibit the day I went there.

The first section I visited was, of course, the stained glass sketches -

There was also a slide show with images from the stained glass and mosaic jobs he worked on over the years. This is one I thought interesting, though I believe it's just a sketch and not a finished window.

The other work was quite varied - early work in a kind of Robert Henri Ashcan-style, a little sculpture, WPA poster art, 1950's advertising art, small painted self portraits, even some jewelry -

one of the WPA era posters he designed -

The pieces that received the most critical attention -
A series of paintings of children, fairly recent -

These, in many ways, seem the most unique works of the artist. All the others tend to fit easily in some other category. The stained glass work looks likes typical conservative modernist design work of the 60's-80's, the WPA poster art is typical WPA poster work, the commerical art looks like typical 50's advertising art. But these children paintings are unique to my eye.
Most, like the one below, feature a full frontal image of a child with matching object or motif.

For the me the real richness of these works lies in the details - in this case,
the patternwork in the background. Even the frame construction is very precise and detailed.
There may be an element of 'Dare to be Tacky' in these paintings that appeal to me as well. Most artists would not go near this subject matter for fear of being extremely maudlin, overly cute and sentimental. Others would embrace the subject matter and would indeed make it maudlin, overly cute and sentimental. It seems to me he plays with the idea of cute and does it in a way that is not being sentimental himself and not being a social critic either. It's a delicate balance.

[update - Nice 30 minute video about Russell Kraus on Living St. Louis, from KETC. Scroll down to 'K' and click on 'Artist Russell Kraus']

[update, Dec 2008 - started a Flickrset of the photos from this exhibit. I had so many more details, especially of the children painting pictures, that I felt the need to post more.]

[update November 24, 2009 - Russell Kraus passed away November 8, 2009 - Rest in Peace]

[update November 25, 2009 - I found a Flickr site showing Russell Kraus's Frank Lloyd Wright desinged Usonian House in Ebsworth Park. You can barely see the stained glass, but it is noteworthy that this stained glass was not designed by FL Wright, but by Russell Kraus, with Wright's permission. A unique situation in Wright's work.]

Posted by Tom at August 3, 2005 09:47 PM