By John Dorfman
Wolf Kahn’s work seems to balance on a fulcrum between representation and abstraction. Officially, his oils and pastels are landscapes – rows of wispy birch trees march across the canvas, masses of color convey the outlines of hills, lakeshores, and barns. But they’re also abstractions in the tradition of Color Field painting. If you try and tilt the seesaw one way or the other, to decide whether it’s basically figurative or basically abstract, you can get quite a discussion going among critics, dealers, or collectors. But two things they all agree on are that Kahn’s work is tremendously appealing, and that the artist himself is tremendously appealing.
Still active and creative at 85, affectionately called “Wolfie” by everyone who knows him, the artist usually dresses in colorful shirts and neckties that match the palette of his paintings. The very opposite of a forbidding modernist mandarin, Kahn is close friends with the dealers who represent him and is an eloquent explainer of his own work. “He figured out a long time ago, rather than having an adversarial relationship with dealers, to have a collegial relationship,” says Miles McEnery of the gallery Ameringer McEnery Yohe in New York. “Despite the difference in our ages, he’s one of the closest friends I have.”
“He’s well loved and enormously well collected,” says Charlotte, N.C., dealer Jerald Melberg, who has worked with Kahn for years. “For some reason, people everywhere just feel a connection to his work. Maybe it’s the subject matter, maybe it’s the color, maybe it’s the fact that it’s partly abstract and that they can bring their imagination to it.” Vered, a dealer in East Hampton, N.Y., notes, “I have sold more Wolf Kahns to artists than any other artwork. Why is that? I don’t know – maybe they want to be him!”
His talent is certainly enviable, but not everything about his life has been. Kahn was born in 1927 into an artistically inclined Jewish family in Stuttgart, Germany. His mother was an art collector; his father was the conductor of the city’s symphony orchestra. (Speculators about the inner connection between color and musical tones might consider looking into Kahn’s work.) Kahn had his first art lessons in 1938 (at that time he mainly drew and painted military and historical subjects), but the next year he was sent away to England to protect him from the Nazis. Many of his relatives who stayed behind were eventually murdered in the camps. In 1940, Kahn emigrated to New York, where he attended the High School of Music and Art and found his vocation as an artist. After graduation in 1945, he did a stint in the Navy, then, taking advantage of G.I. Bill funding, went to study with Hans Hofmann – also a refugee from Hitler – and became Hofmann’s studio assistant.
From Hofmann (see Art & Antiques, May 2013) Kahn learned about modernist abstraction from probably the only man who could truly convey it, a pedagogue so dedicated that he placed his own creativity on hiatus for decades while he taught full-time. “Hofmann taught that abstraction couldn’t be self-referential; it had to be rooted in the natural world, specifically in landscape. At the end of the day Wolf Kahn is not a landscape painter; he uses the landscape as a vehicle for his palette. If you go back to late Monet – Wolf’s work is analogous to that.” On the other hand, Vered opines, “Although he likes to think of himself as an abstract artist, it’s very hard in many cases to look at the work and think like that.”
Hofmann was a rigorous and demanding master – one of his favorite words was “struggle.” After several years in the studio, Kahn took a break from art studies to get a B.A. in philosophy at the University of Chicago, which he accomplished in just one year, taking his degree in 1951. In a recent interview he was asked why he chose philosophy. “I have a taste for absolutes,” he replied. “I’m really a Platonist and a Kantian. Everyone’s mind contains a category for beauty. In painting, each individual painting has its own requirements. When I’m working on a painting I keep going until I meets its requirements. Then I stop.”
In 1952, back in New York, Kahn and a group of fellow artists founded Hansa Gallery on East 12th Street, a cooperative where Kahn had his first solo show. Among the other members were Allen Kaprow (soon to be famous for staging “Happenings”), Robert Whitman, George Segal, Richard Stankiewicz and Jane Wilson. Future Pop Art impresario Ivan Karp was a director. Hansa closed in 1959. In 1956, Kahn began to be represented by Grace Borgenicht Gallery, where he continued to exhibit until 1995.
Kahn’s first solo show, at Hansa in 1953, was received by no less a critic than Fairfield Porter, who wrote, “Probably Kahn started with the same happy pleasure in color and light that delighted Post-Impressionists, and so he studied these things very hard, with an unusually successful result. His pink, violet, orange and green paintings made in various parts of the country do not indicate that he pursues picturesqueness. He was in these places for other than painting reasons, and painted what there was.” That has continued to be Kahn’s practice, during his frequent travels with his wife, the painter Emily Mason, and his children, though after he settled in Brattleboro, Vt., where he now spends half the year, he started concentrating on that area.
This month, Ameringer is opening a show a [sic] recent works by Kahn, both paintings and pastels from the past two years (starting June 6). McEnery describes these as “a late, great blossoming, with the palette keying up. Only after a lifetime of making art could he make these. They’re getting more reductive and less depictive in nature. If you compare it with Wolf’s work from the late 70’s and early 80’s, his color choices are more dynamic now, less obvious, if you will.” Kahn’s color choices are not exactly naturalistic, but as Melberg points out, they are optically accurate. “It’s not necessarily a natural color,” he says. “But then I’ll look at something and say, damn, Wolf’s right, that grass is purple right now, or bright orange! He captures nature unnaturally but at the same time naturally.” It is telling that while Kahn constantly sketches en plein air, he creates his landscape paintings in the studio, from memory. He is creating what Melberg calls “something in between a natural landscape and an imaged landscape.”
Lately he has been drawing outdoors with pastels, and these works on paper constitute what McEnery calls “a parallel track to the paintings, not second fiddle at all.” Melberg says, “I believe that today, when you think of a pastel as a medium, it’s hard to think of anyone else who is as known for making them as Wolf Kahn is. He likes the immediacy, the intensity of color he can achieve.”
In general, Kahn’s works, whether in oil or pastel, remain relatively affordable, which is a good thing for collectors. Pastels run from about $5,000-30,000, with the majority selling in the $7,000-12,000 range. Oil-on-canvas works start at about $15,000 and can go over $100,000.