Remembering Wolf Kahn
“A colorist has ways of being reborn.” (Wolf Kahn)
Edited and arranged by Robert Friedman
“The eye is the arbiter of all values.” (Wolf Kahn)
Wolf Kahn, a seer of surpassing beauty and luminosity, one of our most distinctive American artists of the 20th century, was born on October 4, 1927 in Stuttgart, Germany, and died on March 15, 2020 in his longtime residence in New York City. One of the most original, distinctive, and cherished of American 20th-century landscape painters, Kahn came to the United States by way of England in 1940, as a child-refugee from Nazi Germany; in New York City, the young Kahn began immediately to concentrate on drawing, graduating in 1945 from the High School of Music and Art and, at the age of 19, enrolling in the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts where he seems to have found a community of artists at a young age, whose aesthetic ideals would remain with him through his lifetime.
From the highly influential Hans Hofmann, a legendary instructor of young artists, Wolf Kahn was encouraged to explore formal properties in his art, following Hofmann’s dictum, “Form exists through space and space through form.” Something of a theorist of art, as well as an entranced practitioner, Wolf Kahn found a highly personal way to move beyond Abstract Expressionism, in the 1950s the reigning art-ideology, to a newer style exploring “figure” and “representation”—predominantly landscape.
“The eye reigns.” (Wolf Kahn)
In his astonishingly lyric, subtle, shape-shifting landscapes of shimmering trees, rivers and lakes, skies and clouds, “barns” that seem to float as phenomena of sheer color and light rather than material structures of mundane New England practicality, Wolf Kahn seems to us an American visionary in the spirit of Charles Burchfield, whose startlingly bold, pulsating watercolors appear always on the verge of dissolution, and his older contemporary Mark Rothko, of whom Wolf Kahn remarked: “It seemed to me that Rothko took the idea of radiance further than any previous artist. He found that if you took a hard edge between two colors, you inhibit the radiance of one color against the other. Since discovering Rothko, I look at nature in a different way.”
In Wolf Kahn’s most extreme, stylized paintings and pastel drawings (“Sun Drenched Barn,” 1980; “Square Blue Tree Wall,” 1989; “Dark Complimentaries,” 1990), landscape and figures have lost their distinctive outlines and have become sheer color—relating to the “eye” and not the conscious, analytic mind, as the “arbiter of all values.” Indeed, not the figure but the impression of the figure(s) on the mind’s eye is the subject that fascinates the artist.
For the artist, nature/landscape, is material: the starting-point of art, not its goal, as, for the writer of fiction, the “felt reality” (to use Henry James’s phrase) of characters, setting, social scene and plot, is the material; the content to be shaped and interpreted, and of interest only then—when it has been shaped and interpreted and given a singular form. As Kahn said: “I believe that art exists to celebrate, exalt, excite, and satisfy the demands of the visual. The eye is the arbiter of all values. This means that the demands of the conceptual mind, of politics, of virtue, of God, of social programs, even of self-expression, are secondary. The eye reigns.”
Writers of fiction are in awe of visionary artists who have dispensed with the “scrimmage of life”—as D. H. Lawrence called it—the inevitable impedimenta of the novel, inescapable and inevitable; by contrast, Wolf Kahn dissolves his material, or soars above it, or penetrates it, with the seeming artlessness of the master. His ostensible subject being the material, “scenic” world imagined as color suffused with light, with a predilection for rural southern Vermont in a timeless suspension of history, Kahn is able to free himself to explore the fascination of color, light, essential forms.
“What about beauty in color?” (Wolf Kahn)
The “meaning” of the work is, simply, itself. It is not a message—it is not an activist tract—it is not a personal, confessional statement; it is elusive and interior, a spiritual, inner radiance.
Wolf Kahn once said, when my husband Ray Smith and I visited his studio in Manhattan sometime in the 1980s, that, to him, the challenge and interest of the (large) canvas on which he was working at the time was purely formal; he wasn’t painting “trees”—“grass”—“sky”; he wasn’t painting southern Vermont; alone with his brushes, in a sequence of brush-strokes, he was solving problems of structure. “What about beauty in color?” Kahn asks.
We envy the visual artist the joy he can bring to others in a single revelation, and we particularly envy Wolf Kahn the pleasure he took in his painstaking craft as well as his art. “A colorist has ways of being reborn”—as Kahn said in a lecture in February 1989. We mourn the passing of a great artist even as we feel immense gratitude for the remarkable work he left behind in which, with each viewing of one of his works, the visionary colorist is again “reborn.”
Special thanks to Linda Stewart, Collection Manager, Wolf Kahn Foundation
(c) Wolf Kahn Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARA)