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.