“To Do Rothko Again, After Nature”: Wolf Kahn in conversation with David Cohen
artcritical offers a double-headed tribute to Wolf Kahn, who passed away March 15 at 92, with two earlier publications neither of which have been previously appeared Online. CHRISTINA KEE’s essay [here], accompanied a 2011 exhibition of his paintings at Ameringer McEnery Yohe Fine Arts (now Miles McEnery Gallery), while the interview with the artist by DAVID COHEN, below, was published by the Kunsthaus Bühler on the occasion of his first museum exhibition in the city of his birth, Stuttgart, in 2000.
How important to you is the actual landscape you depict?
I’m more interested in the painting problems than the descriptive aspect.
Is landscape a metaphor for what is happening in the painting process?
It’s a pretext.
No different to a still-life object then?
It’s better than a still-life because there’s much more movement in there. In fact if you make it too static it’ll no longer feel like a landscape. I suppose I care much more about a landscape than I wish to let on. But I’m also terribly aware that landscape as a genre has been debased over the last fifty years so that there is very little possibility of doing something that has, say, an ideological, religious or nationalistic meaning, all of which were apropos in the nineteenth century. At this point the only meaning I can really assign to it is painterly. It’s still a wonderful tradition in art; there are so many good examples of how to do it right that you can still get very excited over it. And of course, if you’re not excited about going out into nature you’re not alive. The two of them have to meet somewhere. I try to make them meet in my painting.
Did your boyhood in Germany expose you to a special sense of landscape and nature?
And how! The Germans have this thing about nature, woods especially, which is deeply embedded in the culture. I grew up with that. Every weekend we’d take what is called an Ausflug, a trip to the country. It’s part of my tradition.
Yet at the same time don’t you feel that the German romantic sense of landscape is historically tainted with nationalistic overtones?
German landscape painting never interested me. All the fuss over Caspar David Friedrich seems to be misplaced. As paintings I don’t think they’re very interesting. The guy with his frock coat and big hat standing in front of a scene with his arms outstretched: all that rhetoric gets on my nerves. I like to take things for granted. To inflate things with rhetoric is wrong. All you have to do is put down two colors and you’re way past all rhetoric, if you’re doing it right.
That’s quite a formalist position.
Well, I’m a formalist painter. I’m a student of Hans Hofmann, and probably a rather faithful one. I’ve never really found any reason to ditch any of his ideas, which I still find perfectly useful. They were well thought-out and profound. I don’t think what’s around today is in any way superior.
But did Hofmann tolerate landscape painting?
Sure. He did it himself, until he was fifty years old. There are paintings he did in Provincetown in Summer 1946 that are very recognizable landscapes.
But wasn’t there a sense under his tutelage that the future of art lay in abstraction?
A great thing about Hofmann is that he never thought in large categories. He dealt with the job at hand. What ever you were interested in, he’d tell you to try and do it as well as you could. Someone asked him if they should take a course in anatomy and Hofmann said “If you need it in your painting, of course”. Ideologically he had no axes to grind, except he wanted his students to understand that there is a mainstream in art, and not to hew too far away from it.
I’m still not convinced that landscape is just expedient. There must be some very deep draw, as you’ve spent the best part of your career doing it.
The deepest draw is, I know how to do it. You do what you can. I always drew well. Early in my career I tried everything: I wanted to be the kind of artist, like Van Gogh or Cézanne, who could paint anything, subsuming it under one’s own style. I did landscapes, figures, portraits, still lifes, interiors. But it turned out the only theme where I really had something personal, a sense of freedom and the possibility of growth, was landscape.
Landscape in itself entails freedom and growth.
To me it does. First of all, of all the kinds of representational subject matter, it encourages you to feel the most cavalier about description. If you need an extra branch on a tree, add an extra branch. If you’re painting a figure you’d end up with a three-legged person that way. I don’t like upsetting the apple cart. From the point of view of keeping your painting flexible and allowing all possibilities to emerge, I think landscape is the best. What I have to say in landscape comes out of my love of color, and my love of paint.
You studied with Hofmann, you have a love of color and of paint for its own sake, and you’re drawn to a subject that offers the most liberty and flexibility. It begs the question: why is landscape more conducive to you than abstraction?
I never wanted to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I always liked to draw; I’ve drawn representationally all my life, and I’m very good at it. It seemed to me that to jettison that was going too far. I admire De Kooning, who could draw like an angel but nevertheless threw it over, but he was at a moment in history when abstraction was a conquest; at this point it no longer is. It’s more a conquest to keep landscape going.
Is there anyone else around right now who you’d rate as a landscape painter?
Rackstraw Downes, Wayne Thiebaud, Frank Auerbach, Anselm Kiefer, Alex Katz. That’s just off the top of my head. I’m not a good man for lists. If I sat down I could probably come up with fifty people whose hand I’d gladly shake.
There is an interesting point of comparison between yourself and Alex Katz, who you mention. He’s a painter with obvious affinities with an American realist tradition who nonetheless had the ambition to paint on the same terms as the New York School. Was that your situation too?
I’m not ambitious in the way Alex is. One of my gods is Bonnard, and he was a fuss-pot. I love the idea that you can go over the thing again and again, go back into it, then let go.
Do you believe in the autonomy of color, that it can exist quite independently of the objects it describes?
I don’t think Bonnard every subscribed to that. I think he liked the idea of taking a color to an extreme position, but always gaining permission from some visual experience.
And you do the same?
Yes. I’m trying very hard not to be arbitrary. I think the more daring you are as a colorist the less right you have to be arbitrary. You have to take your public with you.
General sensibility. You can’t be doing things just because you feel like doing them, there’s got to be some sort of justification. I think it comes from the color parameters set within the picture. I try to stretch them, but at the same time I have to respect them. If you are any kind of colorist you know that somewhere behind all this there’s a kind of reason.
I’m surprised you mention the public, or “general sensibility”. Do you feel their presence when you paint?
No, but I’m happy to feel that they exist as a result of my painting, because I’m a very popular painter. I must be talking to somebody about something.
Are you anxious to preserve your popularity?
No. I’ve certainly spent many more years not being popular. I’m rather surprised by it, and it would be churlish not to be pleased by it.
It’s refreshing, and surprisingly, to hear a professional painter speak as candidly as you do about popularity and general sensibility.
I don’t like to think of myself as being “the other”. There are many artists who derive great comfort from being the other. In general I’m a friendly person, I’m gregarious, I wish the world well, I’m happy that my painting elicits enthusiasm.
The paintings certainly don’t convey any existential angst or inner turmoil.
When I’m painting, all I am is an eye. Feelings have very little influence, except in so far as they regard my original sensibility.
Mark-making and gesture, do they come from the eye or feelings?
I suppose feelings, but to be conscious of where they are coming from is not going to help anything. It would make you unnecessarily self-conscious.
In a painting like In a Breeze, there are some quite vehement marks.
Vehemence comes about because I want everything to exist as strongly as it can. I don’t want to hold back, I want to use myself up.
You say the heightened color in your painting can’t be completely improvised, that there has to be some credibility, yet it’s synthetic color, it doesn’t strictly speaking arise from observation, does it?
It has to have some correspondence. If it’s all imagined color that doesn’t feel like there’s an organic unity to it, then I’m not doing it right. It’s got to be justifiable in viewable terms. I’m not just doing it in order to make bright colors. I have a lot of followers who think that’s what my painting is about, but it’s not, it’s about color harmonies. I’ve done great paintings without any bright color in them at all. Look at Fog Bank Out There for instance.
It’s quite colorful for a gray painting, although it’s quite gray for a Wolf Kahn.
Well let’s face it, reticence isn’t my forte.
You generally want to paint good weather, is that fair?
No. Here’s a pastel of a thunder storm. When I was on the water I saw it, but there was still some sunlight hitting the trees. I saw the yellow of the trees against the black of the clouds and thought that was rather wonderful. It gave me permission to make something rather dramatic. Unless I’d had the visual experience I wouldn’t have felt justified in doing it. I made a little pastel on the spot which didn’t have nearly that much contrast. When you work on site you end up being more austere than you need to be.
More empirical, perhaps?
Yes, that too.
What percentage of the works you exhibit are made wholly in the landscape?
Twenty per cent. And then another forty per cent are made directly from drawings done in the landscape.
Should an educated eye, other than your own, be able to establish on the evidence of the work which belong in each category?
I hope not. The ideal is to make very daring, bright, courageous paintings outside, but usually one doesn’t because there is too much going on, and nature does enforce a certain austerity. Oftentimes you see the full implication of something only when you are back in the studio.
I love the fact that you use the word “austerity” where others might say “fidelity”.
I don’t know what fidelity means. Fidelity to what?
To what you see.
Is “what you see” what the camera sees, is it a series of objects that can be listed like things in a Sears-Roebuck catalog that happen to be thrown together, is it just an atmosphere? It doesn’t mean anything, fidelity, until it’s filtered through a sensibility. The only fidelity that means anything to me is fidelity to my own highest aspirations – to be very pretentious for once! I value the possibility of development. I want each painting to be a step towards the next painting.
Is that to avoid mannerism?
Mannerism would be death. I have one thing that’s in my favor in this regard: I get bored very quickly. As soon as I’ve done things a few times I don’t want to do them any more. I certainly don’t want to become a manufacturer of Wolf Kahns.
You came of age as a painter during the high watermark of abstract expressionism, yet you owe more to Impressionism.
Maybe I’m old fashioned, I don’t know. The main thing is that I don’t want to force the issue on anything. My motto is “follow the brush”. If the brush ends up with Impressionism then so be it.
You paint American landscapes, and you paint within the tradition of American landscape.
I love Innes, Ryder, Blakelock, and the more modern American landscapists, Sheeler, sometimes Georgia O’Keefe, Burchfield, all these people are dear friends of mine.
What about Marsden Hartley and Milton Avery?
Avery more than Hartley. Hartley is a very uneven painter. I knew Avery very well and even went out painting with him. He was a wonderful guy. I don’t think about him when I’m painting, though. I think about Cézanne quite a lot, and De Kooning. I’d like to be as athletic as De Kooning – though I’m not, as you can see. I think about people that I’m not.
To gear you on to be something else or to comfort you for being what you are?
I don’t need comfort. I’ve made my peace with myself. But one needs brothers in arms. The feeling that other people have been similarly occupied.
Your paintings of barns have an archetypal American feel to them. Did they suggest themselves to you as a great form, or did they have some historic or symbolic resonance?
At one point I claimed that they are like a Greek Temple to us Americans, but now I think I painted them more for formal reasons. They are great shapes, very present, very unfussy, always planted in a very interesting way into the landscape, with one entrance high for the feed, one low for the animals.
Fog Bank is the kind of subject you might get in Hopper or Avery, but Avery at least would be much more concerned with the actual form of the sea.
The shapes you mean? I’m just as concerned with the shapes as they are, but in a different way. Avery and Hopper were working in a modernist idiom at a time when that was a tremendous conquest. At this point its commonplace, so I don’t have to think about a lot of the things that they had to. Instead I think about tiny color gradations, small modulations that give me pleasure. Going from pink through all sorts of colors to that blue down there.
You can’t be oblivious to the fact that you are concerned with retinal pleasure, ultimately with beauty, at a time when those values seem very suspect in the artworld.
Such considerations are uninteresting because they don’t help me with my work, and who knows, next year the whole thing might change. We’re talking about matters of taste that have nothing to do with eternal values.
But surely at any historic moment there are going to be some painters who have a sense of moving the language forward and others who enjoy a contentment which allows them to take great delectation within the terms that are set.
I probably belong more within the second category. I work within my limitations. You can’t force yourself to be more original than you are; at the same time, you can develop your normal proclivities and make the most of them. I’m not smugly sitting back and looking at my work and saying, Gee, isn’t it beautiful? That’s not my style at all. I worry about it just as much as anybody. I think about just the problems you raised earlier: What excuse is there for making landscape paintings at this moment in history when there is no real ideology to back it up. And yet, people love it and I love to do it. Maybe that’s enough. Who knows? Then again, maybe the fact that it is problematical shows in my paintings. My attitude when I’m working on them is questioning all the time.
But answering lots of minute questions, rather than the big one.
I hate big questions, it’s not my nature at all.
But you seem to like big painting [looking at a large work in progress].
No, I don’t like big paintings. I’m doing this because I have a brand new big studio. I’ve had that same painting in the same space for the last three years. Every now and then I wipe my brushes on it. I haven’t taken it to any conclusions. My favorite size is 36×52 (inches). That’s where I feel most comfortable. Any yet I know sometimes that I can do things on a larger scale that the smaller works won’t allow me.
It is interesting to see a painting on the easel which is in process. How long have you been working on that?
Probably about five hours.
What we see is half a dozen or so trees in a space which will probably be filled by several dozen.
Certainly there’ll be the hint of even more. Eventually I’ll want it to be a full painting, filled with happening.
There’s already a lot of energy at this early stage, the way that orange shows against the purple.
You start off with something that’s going to get you going. I start out with strong relations. I can always tone them down. It’s very difficult to start with something toned down and then work it up to something outrageous.
The eye can become so acclimatized to brilliant, shocking contrasts of color within your work, pinks against yellows, oranges against purples, that when we get nursery colors, the pale green of your grass for instance, the effect is quite exquisite.
That’s a nice word. I’m not trying to be exquisite, but if one is one shouldn’t sniff at it.
It sounds like you are making conscious formal decisions at every stage.
All the time. I don’t make a stroke that isn’t a conscious decision. Except when I’ve got enough paint on the picture that I can go strip-strap [gestures] just in order to open up the space a bit, just take a cutter and go across, and not worry too much about where it lands.
The placement of the trees, was that a slow act of deliberation?
Eventually it’s going to be subject to a lot of second thought. The initial placement is based on the idea of division, going back and coming out again.
You enjoy creating a sense of pictorial depth, don’t you? In that sense you are rather anti-modernist.
If I have pictorial depth it’s a fault because I really would like the painting to appear flat. I want everything to come back to the surface.
But you do create perspectives, don’t you?
You can’t help it.
I mean you avoid stylized ways of achieving flatness.
I don’t know how. Have you seen me do stylized paintings which achieve flatness?
No, but I’ve seen Van Gogh do it.
Well, he was a great artist who could do anything. I have a very different space to Van Gogh.
Isn’t yours more traditional? Closer to an Albertian sense of the picture as a window onto reality?
I’d like to think not but maybe it is. To me it’s all marks on a surface. One luxury an artist doesn’t have is to look at his pictures objectively. Let me see if I have something that’s not Albertian. The thing that started me off with this painting (The Lagoon at Martha’s Vineyard) was that all of a sudden I had the idea that the horizon isn’t really a straight line at all, but that it recedes at an angle, and I thought that’s worth exploring, and I think I got away with it.
It gives a naivete, and tension, to the composition. It’s interesting that it arises from something you observed in nature.
I observed that, and I observed those blotches on the water which have to do with the sunrise.
Those blotches really go against the pictorial logic; the shapes, the drawing of them, pull one up short. A quality I respond to in your work is this sense of having your cake and eating it, of there being credibly pictorial depth and at the same time an equality of the picture surface. Your teacher Hofmann had that expression he was so fond of, “Push-Pull”.
I still think of that every now and then, but differently, as a way of just not letting the eye get stuck.
Wherever the eye is, there’s something next to it which is pulling in a different direction.
You are never allowed to lose the dynamism. When it’s finally done, though, I want everything to look very natural. I love that statement by Mallarmé, that the condition to which every work of art aspires is that of having made itself.
This painting (A Path Through Green) shows you at your most reductive in terms of composition, although the eye is given a lot to do with subtleties of tone. There’s a central blue shape…
It is supposed to be trees, that is what I thought. What I tried to do here is make a sort of generalized landscape with no particular incident to distract one, but still make a place where you could be.
There’s a slight sense of the effects one gets in a Rothko here.
I’ve said on some occasions, with a certain amount of snideness, that my aim is to do Rothko again, after nature (paraphrasing what Cézanne said about himself and Poussin).
And how about Pollock? There’s tremendous surface tension and agitation in a work like this one (Deciduous) it really pulls everything to the surface. It also de-centers the picture, doesn’t it?
Right now that is what I am trying very hard to do, to paint an all-over landscape in which there is no hierarchy. It’s very difficult to do. I was brought up and educated in a particularly hierarchical environment. It’s one reason why American painting is so interesting: it’s fought those battles. Pollock is someone I think about a lot, but at the same time I’m not only working on that one idea. It’s difficult to paint a Pollock at the Ocean.
Or Rothko in the forest. You mentioned Caspar David Friedrich. You just need a monk here…
The fact that the monk isn’t there means a lot.
But wasn’t it the achievement of Rothko to internalize the monk? So that either the painter or the viewer is the monk?
That’s the part of Rothko I would disassociate myself from, his pretentiousness. One of my favorite painters is Morandi, because he made modest claims and made them stick, whereas Rothko (and Barnett Newman) made exaggerated claims which didn’t always stick. I try not to make large claim but I know that I’m a healthy painter. The virtues that I try represent are things we could have more of without any great harm to the body politic: enthusiasm, consideration, delicacy, subtlety, nuance.