Saturday, April 18th, 2020

“Daring, Bright, Courageous”: Wolf Kahn, 1927-2020

artcritical offers a double-headed tribute to Wolf Kahn, who passed away March 15 at 92, with two earlier publications neither of which have previously appeared Online. The first, by  CHRISTINA KEE,  accompanied a 2011 exhibition of his paintings at Ameringer McEnery Yohe Fine Arts (now Miles McEnery Gallery) while the second, from 1999, [here] is an interview with the artist by DAVID COHEN published by the Kunsthaus Bühler with his first museum exhibition in the city of his birth, Stuttgart, in 2000. 

Wolf Kahn, Midsummer Madness, 2011. Oil on canvas, 36 x 52 inches. Courtesy of Miles McEnery Gallery
Wolf Kahn, Midsummer Madness, 2011. Oil on canvas, 36 x 52 inches. Courtesy of Miles McEnery Gallery

I met Wolf Kahn in 2011, when beginning a catalog essay for a show of his work. It was the among the first essays I had ever been asked to write. I was apprehensive – particularly as to whether I would be able to add much to the conversation surrounding such a well-known, and for so many viewers across the country, beloved painter of iconic American scenes.

Needless to say for anyone who knew the artist personally, he was warm, gracious and entirely generous with this unknown writer throughout the process. Talkative and funny, he was also gentlemanly, and would pause often to ask and listen. He had that remarkably bright-eyed expression I have come to recognize in artists of all kinds who have spent their life involved in pursuit of an all-engaging and totally vitality-giving subject. The years Kahn had invested in thoughtful observation and creation had lent to his natural gaze a quality of wise attention, suggestive of a rich history of looking and thinking shaping each of his works. The short essay I wrote was very much influenced by this singular impression of an artist who will be sorely missed. CHRISTINA KEE

Wolf Kahn’s recent paintings are celebratory scenes of a familiar outdoor America: quiet Maine coves, dense Vermont forests, rural views marked by wooden barns and slowly moving rivers. They are powerful statements of light and color, in which pale birch trees are made to stand out, white-hot, against flame-crimson grounds, and ponds’ still surfaces reflect the evening sky in deep lavender tones. Kahn has been a prolific painter for over 60 years, and his works collectively convey a particular vision of a countryside in countless modes: quiet, stormy, mysterious and dazzling. The appeal of Kahn’s work is far-reaching and often immediate, so directly do his approachable scenes and deft color combinations lend themselves to recognition, contemplation and straightforward optical pleasure.

Wolf Kahn, Order in Disorder, 2010. Oil on canvas, 52-1/2 x 66 inches. Courtesy of Miles McEnery Gallery
Wolf Kahn, Order in Disorder, 2010. Oil on canvas, 52-1/2 x 66 inches. Courtesy of Miles McEnery Gallery

The undeniably “lovely” quality of Kahn’s paintings is real and intrinsic to the works’ subject matter. One senses, however, that the translation of nature’s beauty is not the only aim of these paintings, and prolonged viewing reveals that it is certainly not the central effect. It can be easy to forget, when viewing Kahn’s convincingly vivid hues, that the world does not naturally present itself in bands of vermillion and scumbles of silvery gray — that his paintings are the result of countless pictorial decisions, some lithely intuitive, others fought for and deliberate. Central to Kahn’s work is the process of perception and invention, the slow conversion of sight and thought, in color and form, through time. An equally important aspect of Kahn’s paintings is that the density of experience they convey has itself been visibly shaped by practical engagement with one of the most active periods in American painting. Just as abbreviations are linked to larger place names and single words are inseparable from their definitions, the aesthetic of Kahn’s work is bound to a uniquely individual response to the last half-century conversation about the nature, problems and possibilities of the painted form. The new paintings gathered here continue to address elemental questions of space, shape and color with rigor and understated sophistication. They are at once ambitious, compelling and complex.

This past year, Kahn has worked primarily from landscapes in the Vermont area, and this show gathers works of four distinct views: a forest, a grove, a shed in the woods and a pond surrounded by reeds and hills. From these few motifs, Kahn has created a spectacular range of variation, in which each painting stands out in striking contrast to the next. The formal diversity generated from the economy of subjects makes it clear that, beyond the pleasing quality of the scenes, the real drama here is, at root, pictorial. Several of the new works depict, for example, a grouping of spring-leaved trees at the edge of a forest. In Pink, Yellow, Green (2010), the bright new foliage appears to play and shift against an improbable, but inviting, depth of soft alizarin. In Light Green Landscape (2009), the same figure-like trees are stacked in tones modulating from green to gray in a composition that appears congregational, even, it might be said, ascensional in nature, with one glittering shade leading upward to the next. It is a pattern that echoes the growth of trees themselves, silently stretching toward sunlight. Throughout this new body of work, we see similar elegant transformations of the subject – intimations of movement and metaphor made through seemingly simple means – in what are perhaps among the artist’s most successful paintings to date. They mark a significant achievement in what has been a truly remarkable career.

Having arrived in America in 1940 at the age of 13 from war-struck Germany, Kahn spent his teenage years in New Jersey and New York. He painted at 19 as a student at the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Art. Kahn’s work gained early critical attention – he was included in New Provincetown ’47, curated by Clement Greenberg, then an emerging voice, and his first solo show in 1953 was reviewed by both Dore Ashton and Fairfield Porter. His friends, peers and teachers over the next formative decades included Larry Rivers, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn, Louis Finkelstein, Milton Avery and the renowned art historian Meyer Schapiro. One need only review a few dates to envision the cultural milieu in which Kahn was becoming a serious painter: In 1950, Pollock had just completed his major drip works, and de Kooning was beginning his Women series; in 1952 Harold Rosenberg published his essay “The American Action Painters,” and Greenberg’s “American-Type Painting” came out in 1955. At the risk of nostalgic simplification, it can be imagined that during these crucial years artists’ everyday conversations would turn to key questions of surface and depth, formalism vs. expressionism, and the on-again/off-again relationship of figuration to abstraction.

Wolf Kahn’s responses to these questions, as expressed in his own writings and interviews, suggest those of a veteran of countless debates: one who has, after a long intellectual trajectory, allowed himself to quietly arrive at some conclusions. One is struck, when meeting the artist, by a certain cadence of clarity that informs his speech. Despite the casual, often funny, tone of Kahn’s conversation, his words are chosen with uncommon care, and key issues are often ingeniously illustrated with anecdote. In a travel memoir, Kahn writes of an exchange that once took place when he watched Fairfield Porter painting a landscape in Penobscot Bay:

“I was watching him paint a view of the Island’s “little harbor” – just a dock sticking out into deep water. He had indicated the farther islands, the water, the sky and the dock. In the foreground he painted a small gas tank and the pipes leading to it. “Fairfield,” I said, “why don’t you leave out the tank and the plumbing?” He turned to me angrily, “You don’t understand what I do at all when you speak like that. I’m not some esthetician who censors the landscape – I’m painting my field of vision. How do I know whether the stuff you don’t like isn’t what holds the whole thing together?” I respect this attitude, and to a point I share it, but it seems too rigid to apply consistently. I certainly would have kept the gas tank out.”[1] Aside from the admittedly delightful image of Kahn and Porter’s dockside bickering, the question the story raises is an important one: In the three-part relationship of subject/artist/painting, what are the artist’s obligations to the scene represented? Kahn’s conclusion is also distinctly characteristic of his approach – namely, that beyond all theory, the demands of the painting are paramount.It is an approach that, in Kahn’s case, can be traced to some of his earliest formal training as a student in the Hans Hofmann School. Much has been written about Kahn’s relationship to Hans Hofmann, in part because his respected teacher’s approach to painting offers a key to understanding some of the most elusive – and one could say most intrinsic – qualities of Kahn’s work. In his teaching and writing, Hofmann set out a philosophy for the appreciation and creation of the plastic arts based on a clear distinction between physical and pictorial realities, delving into the mysterious nature of the latter. Among the key tenets of Hofmann’s teaching is that the two-dimensional surface of the painting or drawing is governed by a system of forces that are purely visual in nature, and which can, given the intention of the artist, be sparked into a state of pictorial dynamism. Hofmann lays out the idea as follows: “Space must be vital and active – a force-impelled pictorial space, presented as a spiritual and unified entity, with a life of its own.”[2] The authentic painting, then, in Hofmann’s view, is nothing less than “living,” and it is by this criterion that Kahn’s work is perhaps most successful.

Wolf Kahn, Upper Potomac, 2011, Oil on canvas, 52 x 60 inches. Courtesy of Miles McEnery Gallery
Wolf Kahn, Upper Potomac, 2011, Oil on canvas, 52 x 60 inches. Courtesy of Miles McEnery Gallery

Among the most important elements in the construction of Kahn’s vital compositions is the artist’s palpable engagement with the spatial possibilities of the painted surface. In these new works, we get a clear sense of the artist’s seasoned awareness of just how expansive the world of the canvas can be. It is useful to remember that Kahn would have been taught that the relevant space of a painting is neither actual in the sense of the measurable surface area, nor illusory, referring to a perspectival appearance of depth, but rather plastic, meaning that it is able, through elements such as line, shape color and proportion, to convey a specific spatial scenario through perceptions sparked in viewing.

Destroyed Woodland (2009) is a remarkable image of a forest’s visual patterns caught in a state of rhythmic disarray, and it offers a clue to Kahn’s spatial approach. Central to the canvas is a tangle of forms blocked in a succession of live-wire brush strokes that depicts a mass of damaged trees. The broken verticals of the fallen trunks become strong diagonals in an otherwise tectonic environment, pressing firmly against the top and sides of the rectangle, leading the eye in a fast-paced track around the canvas. One trunk extends from the bottom left of the painting, starting against the picture plane, then traveling toward the upper right of the canvas and into the recessive plane of soft pink sky. Another trunk forms a hard-angled dash through the deep center of the image, finishing in delicate strokes at the periphery. A third smaller diagonal line anchors the right of the canvas, setting up countless “V” formations in relation to the other trees. The linear components of this work, initially almost graphic in appearance, open through the process of viewing to a deep space where the viewer’s gaze might linger indefinitely.

Above all, Kahn’s works operate dynamically through a highly original use of color. Working from pastel drawings done on-site, Kahn translates the natural palette of a given scene into highly charged counterparts of hue and tone. Kahn intuitively creates powerful color combinations that are, almost uncannily, evocative of specific times, places and moods. It is difficult to say, for example, why the violet expanse of Upper Potomac (2011), an extreme form of purple by any chromatic standard, so convincingly conveys the density of forested distance. It is here set off in opposition to a clump of grass in the lower-right and a mildly outrageous bit of lemon yellow on the left. It is through color that Kahn takes his greatest risks as a painter, creates his strongest points of visual tension and conjures his greatest rewards. Kahn’s relationship to color, even to the pigments themselves, is an intimate one – so directly does he identify with their specific suggestive powers. “Yellow,” he has said, “is the color of buttercups — and of warning signals,” tidily summing up the spectrum of emotional associations possible within variations of one hue.

Kahn’s use of color is always evolving. He noted, for example, during a recent studio visit that he had only recently begun to understand new potential in the use of black. This development is evidenced in Clearing on the West (2010), which, with its hulking and ominous forms, is a refutation of the misguided impression that Kahn’s work is always bucolic in feel. The use of black is bolder still in Order in Disorder (2010), in which the pale presence of a single trunk stands out in soft radiance against the inky darks of the undergrowth shadow. In a masterful transition from light to dark, Kahn here counterintuitively balances the prominence of the white tree in the midground with a recessive shadow in the foreground, setting up the sense of ebb and flow of sunlight and shade within an always regenerating forest.

Wolf Kahn, Pink, Yellow, Green, 2010. Oil on canvas, 52 x 40 inches. Courtesy of Miles McEnery Gallery
Wolf Kahn, Pink, Yellow, Green, 2010. Oil on canvas, 52 x 40 inches. Courtesy of Miles McEnery Gallery

Given the strengths of the abstract means used in Kahn’s work, one may ask why the artist chose not to follow the logic of this pictorial approach through to a conclusion of total abstraction. Kahn’s against-the-grain decision to work from the landscape is reminiscent of decisions of other artists who eschewed abstraction – Picasso’s insistence on retaining a figurative reference throughout his experimentation comes to mind, for example. In Kahn’s case, however, the decision has been one of faithfulness not just to representation, but to perception. Along with a handful of peers who felt that “the fun was in taking an object in nature and trying to make a painting out of it,”[3] Kahn’s aim was to realize works in direct connection to the world. Just as the wider cultural move toward abstraction was associated with systems of philosophical and even spiritual beliefs, Kahn’s commitment to perception arises from similar concerns, arriving, however, at different answers to similar questions.

Louis Finkelstein notes the role of landscape as Kahn’s subject of choice at that time: “As Kahn and his colleagues looked for an art grounded in direct experience, landscape beckoned on two counts. First, it represented a common experience that needed no explanation, and secondly, it is inherently accommodating to a free, spontaneous development.”[4]

The element of shared experience is central to Kahn’s work. He expresses wariness about the conception of a painting as representing sort of a grand, expressive gesture of the artist’s internal state. This hesitation makes sense in relation to his own work, which acts more as a meeting point between the real world and his own subjective experience. During a recent lecture, when a questioner asked why Kahn had not once mentioned his work in relation to his “self,” he replied simply, after some reflection, that in his opinion, “‘self’ is a dingy word.” A word inadequate, perhaps, to Kahn’s notion of human experience as encompassing a great deal of that which is “not-I” in addition to the “I.”

Kahn’s recent paintings serve as valuable reminders of one of Hofmann’s more optimistic phrases: “Being inexhaustible, life and nature are a constant stimulus for a creative mind.” The new works are valuable as exuberant records of a painter’s curiosity, humility and wonder in the face of the natural world. They serve also as a hard-won, perennially relevant model of perceptual painting – one engaged both with the inner workings of the painted form, and the beauty and interest of our common experience.

1. Kahn, Wolf. Wolf Kahn’s America. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2003) 50.
2. Hofmann, Hans. “The Search for the Real in the Visual Arts”, taken here from Hans Hofmann. ed. James Yohe. (New York: Rizzoli, 2002) 46.
3. Finkelstein, Louis. “The Development of Wolf Kahn’s Painting Language”. Taken here from Wolf Kahn, ed. Justin Spring. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1996) 101.
4. Ibid., 100.
Wolf Kahn, Clearing on the West, 2010, Oil on canvas, 42 x 52 inches. Courtesy of Miles McEnery Gallery
Wolf Kahn, Clearing on the West, 2010, Oil on canvas, 42 x 52 inches. Courtesy of Miles McEnery Gallery