Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on October 24, 2006 with the permission of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. This text accompanies the exhibition Wolf Kahn: Landscape of Light, 1953-2006, being held at the museum through November 12, 2006. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Wolf Kahn: Landscape of Light, 1953-2006

by Mara Williams

 

Capturing the way in which light coalesces around form, substantiates it, or dissolves it is a central theme in Wolf Kahn's painting. For more than half a century, this modern master has balanced the sensuous qualities of color, light, and paint with a relatively stark geometry of form, giving free reign to complex investigations of perception. Possessing an exceptional ability to discern fleeting atmospheric effects, he gives them presence in a two-dimensional world. Kahn's paintings hover between abstraction and figuration. His canvases are palpably about place, and yet they transcend mere description.

Kahn's exploration of the tensions between form and color began when he was a student of the legendary teacher and painter Hans Hofmann in New York City and Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod. He came of artistic age in post­World War II America. His peers at the Hofmann school and around New York City became known as the Second Generation New York School (the first generation, or the New York School, being Abstract Expressionists such as Pollock and de Kooning). Many of these younger artists were including figuration in their work. It was a daring move, as abstraction was the ascendant art movement of the time.

Kahn garnered favorable critical notice for his figurative work in the 1950s. In the context of his entire career, these works can be seen as creative explorations in which the young artist battles and learns from the greats of early Modernism. There is a bit of Seurat, a touch of van Gogh, a glance at Bonnard, and a healthy conversation with Soutine. In this exhibit we have two examples of the work from this period, Self-Portrait (1954) and Frank O'Hara (1953-54). In these works we can see how thoroughly Kahn has absorbed the Modernist conception of pictorial space, especially as practiced by Hofmann. No area of the canvas takes precedence over another, but the whole is in a constant dialogue between two- and three-dimensional space. A series of interlocking forms are knit together by way of vigorous brushstrokes of thick paint rendered in cross-hatched patterns of color.

Nineteen fifty-six proved to be an important year for Kahn. He met an artist named Emily Mason, and they spent that summer in Provincetown painting. That fall Mason moved to Italy on a Fulbright fellowship. Kahn followed in December after a successful opening of a solo show at the Borgenicht Gallery -- mostly of paintings of Emily in their sun-drenched Provincetown studio.

Kahn's artistic maturation took place in Italy. Over the course of two years, he explored how to capture the fleeting optical effects of light in extreme conditions (fog, haze, harsh winter light). These canvases, inspired by nature and light, are stark, refined, and taut. Kahn and Mason returned to New York City in 1958 (they had married in Italy in 1957), and in the summer of 1959 they traveled to Martha's Vineyard, where Kahn continued to paint from nature.*

The works from his time on Martha's Vineyard and from his 1962-64 Fulbright fellowship in Italy are near-monotone canvases with a greatly reduced vocabulary of form that hovers at the edge of minimalism. His treatment of paint is noticeably different from that of his earlier figurative works. In these newer canvases, paint is much more liquid, and it alternates between thin and thick, drip and brushwork, loose and taut.

Summering on Martha's Vineyard or in Maine for a number of years, Kahn had ample opportunity to encounter New England's iconic silhouette -- the barn. A large volume set amid simple surroundings, a barn's looming presence was for him intriguing and confrontational. He also found painting it problematic. By the mid-1960s Kahn had been working in a near-abstract manner, which fit within the critical dialogue of painting of the time. His work was devoid of reference to humanity, and a barn entails human presence, meaning, and purpose.

Kahn could not resist working with such a large, simple shape. We are fortunate to have three barn paintings in the exhibit, including the First Barn (1966). Rendered in inky purple-black in agitated brushwork and drips of paint, a hulking silhouette fills almost the entire large canvas. A mere suggestion of sky and treetop completes the upper corners of the painting. Capturing dusk light in the forest and its play against so large a surface may have been Kahn's immediate aim, but what is striking is how psychologically fraught and foreboding the image is. The ability of a painting, which is in no way illustrative, to convey meaning beyond the intention of the artist is the alchemy of the aesthetic experience.

Two other barn paintings afford us the opportunity to explore a number of Kahn's artistic concerns and practices. The Yellow Square (1981) is a very satisfying painting to contemplate. Its central artistic problem is balancing overall composition when a searing yellow light is located at a window on the rear wall. The painting is a sequence of interlocking rectangles and squares that progress from sun-drenched exterior to shady interior and finally to the yellow square. By infusing the interior space with tones of purple from the exterior space, Kahn allows the eye to mediate between interior and exterior. While the yellow square does pulse forward, creating dramatic as well as compositional tension, it never overwhelms or distracts.

Victorian Barns in New Jersey (1986) is perhaps the most well-known painting in Windham County, albeit in the form of a poster for the New England Bach Festival that hangs in bedrooms, boardrooms, and banks. In the red barn paintings, we see Kahn stepping out of the shadows and into the blazing sun. Beginning in the 1970s, his carefully calibrated tonalities gave way to vibrant, saturated color. The barns jut from the hill with a presence that can only be described as majestic. They are the castles of our land, fortifying our sense of place -- emblems of persistence, strength, and endurance.

Although his barn paintings were his best-known works during the 1970s and 1980s, barns were by no means the only subject of Kahn's prodigious artistic output. Having bought a farm in West Brattleboro, Vermont, in 1968, where he and Mason based themselves and their two daughters during the summers, Kahn found any number of views to attract his eye -- forests, meadows, rivers. Making the imperceptible perceptible through color relationships is a substantive and difficult endeavor with myriad possibilities -- and Kahn found new relationships and possibilities in each new vista.

A distinctive vein of work developed in the 1990s. Although Kahn had never used color in a purely naturalistic or descriptive manner, there was always some relationship to color as it appeared in the natural world. During this decade, his color explorations knew no bounds. When he found an industrially made artificial color that interested him, he set to work discovering how he could make it believable. Panache, dash, swagger, verve describe both the artist and his art of this period. In the hands of a lesser painter, these compositions would fall into cacophony. As daring and brash as the paintings are, they succeed because of Kahn's nuanced understanding of tonality.

By the late 1990s Kahn returned to a weather phenomenon that had fascinated him throughout his career -- fog. Fog banks allow the artist to create a dialogue between what is seen in, and what is felt through, the painted surface. But there is a difference between these recent fog banks and those from earlier in his career. In the earlier work, a translucent atmospheric effect mediates the viewing experience. In many of the later paintings, fog appears as a giant grey slab occluding our vision. These are demanding paintings to get around. The eye does not slip effortlessly behind the painted bank of fog or around the canvas.

The fog bank paintings are not only thorny viewing; they are also difficult to bring to a successful conclusion. The Fog Bank on view in the exhibit was begun in 1997 and only recently completed. It hung unfinished on a wall at the rear of Kahn's studio for the best part of a decade. He started the painting just about the time he began to notice the effects of macular degeneration. Changes in his perceptual field added new possibilities for exploration. Ever curious, he has embraced those changes and pushed his art to a new level.

Kahn's most recent paintings hark back to work he did forty years ago in Italy. As before, by reducing the formal structure underpinning a painting, he allows perceptual phenomena to move to the fore. The new work is austere, but not in the same manner. Far from it; these paintings are alive with sensation-a thicket of brushstrokes dance across the canvas. The overall effect is dazzling. These are virtuosic compositions, symphonic in scale and complexity. They are at once original and a précis of the art historical influences of a lifetime. They are rigorous, dramatic, inimitable-the work of a master.

* A full biography and a detailed analysis of Kahn's work are beyond the scope of this essay. I draw your attention to Justin Spring's fine book Wolf Kahn (Harry N. Abrams, 1996). Spring combines the best of biography with art history and clear, insightful analysis of painting. The book includes Louis Finkelstein's essay "The Development of Wolf Kahn's Painting Language," which is perhaps the most perceptive and beautifully written critical essay I've had the pleasure of reading. The book is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in Kahn's work.

About the author

Mara Williams is curator for the exhibition.

 

About the exhibition

A major exhibition, Wolf Kahn: Landscape of Light, 1953-2006, premiered at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center on July 29, 2006 and will be on view through November 12, 2006 sponsored by Foard Panel. Filling BMAC's two large galleries, the exhibition focuses on Kahn's explorations of color and light from the 1950s through the present.

Capturing the way in which light coalesces around form, substantiates it, or dissolves it is a central theme in Kahn's painting. Curator Mara Williams says, "Over the course of fifty years, he has become a master of color, able to coax the subtlest whisper or the most bombastic oratory out of his color combinations." For more than half a century, he has balanced the sensuous qualities of color, light, and paint with a relatively stark geometry of form. His paintings hover between abstraction and figuration; palpably about place, they nevertheless transcend mere description.

Born in Stuttgart in 1927, Kahn fled Germany for the United Kingdom at age 12 and moved to the United States in 1940. After attending the High School of Music and Art in New York City, he continued his studies at the Hans Hofmann School in New York City and Provincetown, on Cape Cod, becoming Hofmann's studio assistant. He later relocated to Chicago where he received a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago.

Kahn's exploration of the tensions between form and color began when he was a student of painter Hans Hofmann, a legendary teacher of the dynamics of color. He came of artistic age in post-World War II America, when abstraction was the ascendant art movement. Many of his peers at the Hofmann school and around New York City were including figuration in their work-a daring move at the time-and Kahn garnered favorable critical notice for his figurative work in the 1950s.

In December 1956 Kahn followed artist Emily Mason, whom he had met earlier that year, to Italy. His artistic maturation took place there over the course of two years, as he explored how to capture the fleeting optical effects of light in fog, haze, and harsh winter light. These canvases, inspired by nature and light, are stark, refined, and taut. Kahn and Mason returned to New York City in 1958 (they had married in Italy in 1957), and in the summer of 1959 they traveled to Martha's Vineyard, where Kahn continued to paint from nature.

By the mid-1960s Kahn was working in a near-abstract manner, without reference to humanity. During summers on Martha's Vineyard or in Maine, he encountered New England's iconic silhouette -- the barn -- an object implying human meaning and purpose. A large volume set amid simple surroundings, a barn's looming presence was for him intriguing and confrontational. He could not resist working with such a large, simple shape.

His First Barn (1966), which appears in the BMAC exhibit, is a hulking, inky purple-black shape, almost filling the entire large canvas. Capturing dusk light in the forest and its play against so large a surface may have been Kahn's immediate aim; but it is striking how psychologically fraught and foreboding the image is. The ability of a painting to convey meaning beyond the artist's intention is the alchemy of the aesthetic experience.

Although his barn paintings were his best-known works during the 1970s and 1980s, barns were not the only subject of Kahn's prodigious artistic output. Having bought a farm in West Brattleboro, Vermont, in 1968, where he and Mason based their family during the summers, Kahn found many views to attract his eye-forests, meadows, rivers. Each new vista offered possibilities for making the imperceptible perceptible through color relationships.

Kahn's use of color had always maintained some relationship to the natural world. During the 1990s, his color explorations knew no bounds. He when he found an industrially made artificial color that interested him, he set to work discovering how he could make it believable. Panache, dash, swagger, verve describe both the artist and his art of this period. Daring and brash as the paintings are, they succeed because of Kahn's nuanced understanding of tonality.

By the late 1990s he returned to a weather phenomenon that had fascinated him throughout his career -- fog. Fog banks allow the artist to create a dialogue between what is seen in, and what is felt through, the painted surface. In his earlier work, a translucent atmospheric effect mediates the viewing experience. But in many of the later paintings, fog appears as a giant grey slab occluding vision.

The Fog Bank on view in BMAC's exhibit was begun in 1997 and only recently completed. It hung unfinished on a wall in Kahn's studio for nearly a decade. He started the painting just about the time he began to notice the effects of macular degeneration. Changes in his perceptual field added new possibilities for exploration. Ever curious, he has embraced those changes and pushed his art to a new level.

Kahn's most recent paintings hark back to work he did forty years ago in Italy. As before, by reducing the formal structure underpinning a painting, he allows perceptual phenomena to move to the fore. The new work is austere, but alive with sensation. These are virtuosic compositions, symphonic in scale and complexity, at once original and a précis of the art historical influences of a lifetime. They are rigorous, dramatic, inimitable -- the work of a master.

Kahn is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has received honors such as Fulbright and John Simon Guggenheim fellowships and an Award in Art from the American Academy. His works are in the permanent collections of major museums, including the National Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Brooklyn Museum, as well as numerous international museums.

 

Wolf Kahn Biography

Born in Stuttgart in 1927, Wolf Kahn fled Germany for the United Kingdom at age 12 and moved to the United States in 1940. After attending the High School of Music and Art in New York City, he continued his studies at the Hans Hofmann School, becoming Hofmann's studio assistant. Kahn later relocated to Chicago where he received a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago.

Kahn is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has received honors such as the Fulbright Fellowship, a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, and an Award in Art from the American Academy. His works are in the permanent collections of major museums, including the National Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Brooklyn Museum, as well as numerous international museums.

 

Acknowledgements from exhibition catalogue

It is an honor to have a show surveying the career of Wolf Kahn at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. This exhibit would not have been possible without the generous financial support of Foard Panel. I extend our gratitude to Bo Foard as well as the individuals who supported the production of this catalog.

As with any major endeavor, there are a number of people to be acknowledged and thanked for their contributions to the planning, development, and execution of this exhibition. First and foremost is curator Mara Williams. She spent many hours sorting through and thinking about Kahn's prodigious output. She selected the paintings and pastels to be exhibited and wrote an insightful essay to accompany the catalog. The catalog was edited by Judith Bellamy, designed and project directed by Dede Cummings, and printed by Springfield Printing. Andy Yoder, Tracey Brinson, and Diana Urbaska of the Wolf Kahn Studio provided invaluable service during the production of the show. Helen Henry and Linda Rubinstein performed condition reporting of the work. Jim Giddings, Tim Allen, and Bob Spring installed the show. Administrative support was provided by Teta Hilsdon and Liz Turner.

The running of a museum is not possible without the leadership of a committed Board of Trustees. In particular, I would like to recognize the extra efforts extended by Judith Freed and Petria Mitchell in producing this show and its related special events. Additionally, museum staff, as well as all our volunteers, have demonstrated tireless dedication and professionalism above and beyond the call of duty. I extend my deep appreciation to all.

Most of all, I wish to express my gratitude to Wolf Kahn. His artistic vision produced this remarkable body of work. He also contributed much to the efforts of sorting through his archives and producing the catalog. More than an artist, he has been a dear friend of the Museum for decades. It is no exaggeration to say that the growth of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center is due in large measure to the wise counsel and financial support he and Emily Mason have extended over the years. On behalf of the Board of Trustees, staff, and community, I thank them from the bottom of my heart.

Konstantin von Krusenstiern
Director
Brattleboro Museum & Art Center

 

Resource Library editor's note:

The above essay was rekeyed and reprinted on October 24, 2006 in Resource Library with permission of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Margaret Shipman, Gallery Manager, Brattleboro Museum & Art Center for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above texts.

 

(above: Wolf Kahn, A Quiet Summer, 1982, oil on canvas, 50 x 66 inches. Collection of the artist)

 

(above: Wolf Kahn, Blue Ridge II, 1998, oil on canvas, 52 x 60 inches. Collection of the artist)

 


(above: Wolf Kahn, Blue Ridge in the Distance, 2005, oil on canvas, 44 x 44 inches. Collection of the artist)

 


(above: Wolf Kahn, Bright Tree Row, 1995, oil on canvas, 22 x 38 inches. Collection of the artist)

 


(above: Wolf Kahn, Calm Sea, 1995, oil on canvas, 43 x 60 inches. Collection of the artist)



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