Beyond Easy Pleasures


Art in America, October 2003

By Robert Berlind

Lyrical scenes of woods, pastures, lakes, streams, coastal sites and, perhaps most famously, barns, whose looming geometry figures in so many compositions: these are the basis of Wolf Kahn’s popularity among the broad public. Kahn’s landscapes range from deftly rendered observations to frankly decorative, nature-based concoctions with freely invented, autonomous color harmonies. Although his strongest affinity may be with Rothko, his work also evokes, by turns, 19th-century traditions of landscape, both French and American, and the less angst-ridden side of German Expressionism. The charm of Kahn’s chromatic daring has been conspicuous throughout a period when much art has striven to earn its keep through high seriousness (read: industrial hues, colors innate to a chosen material, a certain degree of Duchampian anti-visuality). His painterly interpretations of place and moment are bolstered by an alert formalism and a chromatic appetite that often induce him to take color harmonics to their limits. While his work, in its seductiveness, might appeal to unsophisticated tastes, there is nothing unsophisticated about the paintings themselves. Kahn, with his bright colors and pictorial presumptions, may push too far, but he always knows how much too far to push.

The exhibition “Wolf Kahn: Continuity and Change,” at Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art in New York, provided a welcome opportunity to compare early work with recent, to follow the shift from a gutsy-abstraction just verging on representation to forthright depictions of light in landscape. Beyond that, and more importantly, it revealed a different and less ingratiating side of the artist than the one with which we’re most familiar.

Kahn’s early studies and assistantship at Hans Hofmann’s school impressed upon him the primacy of the visual dynamics of form and color (“plasticity,” as it was called), the crucial importance of paint itself as a material, and the athletic, gestural performance that came to signify “Action” painting. In this arena, painting, whether figurative or abstract, could not validly exist as the illustration of some settled knowledge, but only as a process whereby some truth might be revealed. The crucial importance of improvisation lay in its requiring the artist to work through his medium, with its contingencies of every sort, to some unforeseen outcome.

Kahn started with his peers, those “second-generation” artists in the wake of Hofmann, Rothko, Pollock, de Kooning and the others, the need to move on to new ground. Reintroducing representation provided the chance for a new beginning, a revisioning of the world in the face of the various dogmas of abstraction and conventional realist styles. On Martha’s Vineyard, Summer 1962 is a canvasful of brushstrokes and scumblings, some wet into wet, some dry-brushed, with accidental runs of thinned paint allowed to remain. Its palette of greens, purples and yellows and its spontaneous, linear drawing recall Joan Mitchell and late Monet. Each mark takes on a particular weight and rhythm in relation to the whole.

From early on Kahn has visited and revisited situations at the threshold of visibility. Such situations yield recognition of their subjects slowly, only after the painting is seen as a material fact. Study for “First Barn” Painting (1964) manages to capture the nocturnal experience of wondering exactly what it is you are seeing even while you sense its proximate, looming presence. The earlier Venice in the Autumn (1958), while it may have antecedents in the snowy near-whiteouts of Twachtman or the contemporaneous paintings of Giorgio Cavallon, presages the tendencies of a number of ’60’s painters toward a dense, painterly monochromism. If Minimalism favored industrial, generic color, painterly monochromism of the period looked to the Spanish heritage of complex grays that imply a full color spectrum, as in Brice Marden’s early work. (Resnick’s densely troweled surfaces and Jack Tworkov’s ’60’s paintings are also relevant here.) Kahn had already discovered the formal tactic of giving emphasis, subtle or strong, to a painting’s borders to lend scale and spatial significance to the large, relatively homogeneous fields that dominate most of the canvas. In Venice in the Autumn, the darkergrays at the lower left and the very pale yellow across the bottom give evidence of earlier stages of the painting’s development lying beneath the misty scene’s surface, as though the fog had rolled in over another image. The effect—paradoxically, since this earlier stage is “farther away” than the finished painting—is to indicate a foreground. Off Deer Isle (1966) also uses a foreground yellow, in this case suggesting a near shore, as the strongest contrast below a field in which gray violets over gray blues capture that evancescent Atlantic luminosity that filters through dense fog and, almost imperceptibly, disappears.


Some 37 years later, in 2003, Kahn reprised the idea in The Rain in Maine, this time with more deliberate modulations set off by a dark incursion from the lower right that may be a glimpse through a shadow into the water. The older romance of the picture coming into being on its own, as it were, out of the painter’s agon, has given way to a more evenhanded working process; the rough facture at lower right is now knowingly contrived. But it introduces a dark emotional tone just the same. Atlantic (2002) shows a bright haze modulated, as it descends, to ever-darker blues. The foreground in the lower right corner, a near hillside of intense yellows and green, falls away ominously in deep shadow to the left. It is apparent that at an earlier stage Atlantic’s bright vegetation sloped lyrically down to the left corner and was revised to evoke a more portentous, even tragic possibility.
A quartet of paintings from 2000 to 2003, done after studies made in Africa, show Kahn responding to flora of the severe Namibian desert while also evoking the “white writing” of Mark Tobey, as well as Pollock’s fluidly drawn fields. Staccato stabs of dry-brushed whites over pale, scumbled colors show the distinctive locale, the early light and the pale, prickly thickets of desert thornbush. These impenetrable brambles both recede into space and hold the painting’s surface, negotiating that double sense of depth and flatness, landscape and abstraction. Of the group, Long Etosha Painting (2002) comes closest to an overall composition, although areas of yellow, magenta, violet and light green at bottom suggest a peripheral view of the near space. The unusual and somewhat daunting subject has pushed a practiced way of mark-making to meet a new challenge, the result being some of Kahn’s tougher paintings of recent years.

In a Dark Mood (2003) plays the deep purple of bare woods off against bright green and cadmium yellow and a gratuitous, limit-testing swipe of pink in the left foreground. A dull yellow over green yields the middle distance. There is a small, somehow crucial, patch of pale pink and yellow along the top edge, right of center. At left a few horizontal flicks of the brush could represent out-of-focus branches or a gust of wind. The light is seen as breaking through whatever darkness flavors the “dark mood” of the title.

As important as the tradition of modernist abstraction is to Kahn’s art, his sketchlike, on-site pastels often show him at his best. In these you take the measure of his enormous talent as a draftsman and colorist. In a beautifully produced book on his oeuvre in pastel, accompanied by his own text,  he cites pastel as “the determining medium” of his art. This is evident in the facture of his painted surfaces, agglomerations of distinct, often dry-brushed colors and textures, and an open surface that permits him to revise through additions without repainting an entire picture. Like Bonnard (who was said to sneak his paints into museums to add a note here and there), Kahn concocts complex fields of color by a skein of juxtapositions. As with Bonnard, the love of color and its sensuous seductions does not necessarily convey a happy-go-lucky temperament. Both artists produce complex, offbeat color combinations and sensations that can reveal a melancholy gravitas underneath. Of the two, Kahn’s is the less private sensibility, but he can be seen in much of his work to be as ruminative as he is sociable. His most flagrantly intense hues and combinations could be experienced as attaining a pitch where sharp pleasure slips over into pain. Could it be that the buoyant extroversion in much of his work hides a deeper stratum of feelings? The work on view at Ameringer & Yohe, both pastels and oils, showed him taking on demanding problems and, pressed by circumstances of his own choosing, going beyond easy pleasures. Kahn emerges as an artist of considerable complexity and depth. It is time for a new look at his oeuvre in a larger, well-chosen retrospective.

[1] Wolf Kahn, Wolf Kahn Pastels, with introduction by Barbara Novak, New York, Harry N. Abrams, 2000, p.15.

“Wolf Kahn: Continuity and Change” appeared at Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art, New York [Apr. 24-May 23]. It was accompanied by a 32-page catalogue with an essay by Miranda McClintic.

Author: Robert Berlind is a New York-based artist who also writes on art.