Unlocking the Unconscious


ARTnews, December 2001

By: Lucinda Franks

For more than 50 years, painter Wolf Kahn – and his devoted following – has relied on the unpredictability of his “restless brush.”

In a studio at the National Academy of Design’s School of Fine Arts in New York, 30 men and women huddle around Wolf Kahn, craning their necks to discover how he completes one of his country-barn pastels in less than 20 minutes. During this annual two-day workshop, Kahn has religiously refused to talk technique, insisting that if his students let the unconscious take over, their imaginations will flow. Many of them flourish, somehow inspired by osmosis to create glorious color combinations. However, some find his exercises, so simple on the surface, unforgiving in their ability to expose an absence of talent.

Kahn reaches into his box of ragtag soft pastel stumps and, with a flick of his arm, makes strokes that resemble the lithe legs of a ballerina. “Art is playing, dancing, spontaneity. Don’t intentionally choose a color,” he says, “just pick it up.” One woman marvels as he smudges in layers of olive and sienna to suggest foliage. “Are you thinking of a particular landscape?” she asks timidly. “No,” he answers, and then swipes the tops off the trees with the back of his hand, rather enjoying the gasps the gesture inspires. “You see, once you free the unconscious, the expression of landscape is always inside you.”

Of course, Kahn can afford the loss of a work or two, for in his 50 years of painting he has rendered hundreds. A devoted public, much of it outside the big cities, buys up the hundred some paintings he turns out every year, giving him a seven-figure income. In the 1940s, Kahn, a student of Hans Hofmann, came to public attention as a member of the second-generation New York School. He married the abstract artist Emily Mason, and they shared a studio and a passion for experiments in color. Leading critics were struck by Kahn’s work, which took blocks of unlikely colors and bent the pure forms into the shapes of sky, sea, and land. The artist Fairfield Porter called him one of the best landscapists working in America. Then, in the 1960’s, as nature began to scream out of his canvases in gorgeous but synthetic hues – neon orange trees against magenta mountains – the critics became uncomfortable and less approving, sometimes calling his works “candy confections.”

Kahn’s standing is nevertheless still high with the city’s art institutions. An ex-officer of the 175-year-old National Academy of Design, whose School of Fine Arts is known for its many eminent graduates, he is so influential that the faculty reveres and fears him. Besides being a painter, Kahn is an author, whose recent book of pastel paintings, published last year, includes commentary on his creative process and is often used in schools. He is a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters, and his work is in the collections of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and Museum of Modern Art and graces the walls of prominent intellectuals, such as Saul Bellow and Joyce Carol Oates.

The students at the workshop, who range from art professors to hobbyists, are mesmerized by his muted legato, with its faint lilt of a German accent. His disarming, boyish smile and shock of white hair brushing his glasses create the sense that one is in kindly hands. That is, until his ink black eyebrows bunch and the contrarian in him pops out without warning. “Everyone always wants me to tell them what not to do. Well, I won’t be party to this abuse of the cerebral cortex,” he says in response to any question of a starkly practical nature. Instead, he favors instructing with liberal quotations from Horace or Pascal or his own homespun aphorisms.

“Imagine that the emperor of Abyssinia has come to the city and the mayor is giving a parade,” he says, introducing the first exercise. “He is the strongest one; the officials behind and ahead of him are his supports. Represent the parade in abstract blocks of color.” Kahn strolls about like the emperor himself, trying to stir up little rebellions. He stops to glare at a long, wooden box of new French pastels, lined up like soldiers. He picks up the paper their owner has been working on. “This is an example of what not to do,” he says. “It’s perfectly rendered, flawless, in fact, and it’s rather boring.” He spots a winner – a succession of blurred silvery greens and browns. “Now this is pretty much of a mess, and she did not follow orders. But look at how wonderfully surprising it is. Very unpredictable.”

After another exercise, the clueless ones crumple up successive attempts to portray water swirling down a drain. “As usual, you’re not getting the idea,” Kahn says, looking around at the flat wheels, which fail to use color gradation to capture the strong push and pull of the spiral. “You’re thinking too much. Let the paper do the work. Don’t constantly impose your will. Pollock dripped the paint to get beyond this intentionality.” Then he adds, “Get mad at me, if that will help. Think of me as the pope and you as the vox populi who want contraceptives.”

Kahn stands at the top of a long, warped stairway and ushers a visitor into his Chelsea studio. Thumbs hooked to the belt of his jeans, hair high, stride wide, he is both guarded and seductive, as he plies the visitor with sweet Koshi pears from his Vermont garden. (He keeps a studio in Vermont, where he spends half the year.) His tanned face and slim, sinewy build hardly betray his 74 years, but the hundreds of paintings wrapped, numbered, and stacked in ceiling-high compartments lining the walls testify to the longevity of his career. The anteroom of his 4,500-square foot loft is as spacious as a museum foyer. On one side hangs an out-of-focus painting of a grazing cow. “I painted that in 1969; it’s part of the archives. I wouldn’t know how to paint that way again,” he says. He shrugs when asked about the critics who fault him for limiting his subject matter to fields, barns, and forests. “I lack imagination,” he says, but later he declares, “I’ve always said the subject is the subject.”

On the other wall, there is a huge abstract bush, exploding with light and rendered in dense, wiry lines of muted lilac and yellow – a striking departure for him. “It’s an African thornbush,” he says, and describes his recent trip to Namibia, talking animatedly about painting the portrais of tribesmen who had never seen an artist form the West. Kahn, the intuitive painter who eschews color theory and other formal techniques, proceeds to talk about the formal problems he is now trying to solve. “You see how the bush springs from nowhere? It’s a landscape, but you do not see the ground. I want to get to the point where the sky has no horizon, where there is a surface that is weightless.”

We pass the framing room and the pastel studio on the right, where small works are stacked on shelves. On the left is the oil room, where some 50 canvases hang or lean against the wall “in various stages of undress.” Some of them are as large as seven by eight feet. There are many cypress groves similarly painted in various color combinations. But gone are the blinding juxtapositions of purples and greens, oranges and hot pinks that were the hallmark of his January show in New York at the Beadleston Gallery on Fifth Avenue. (Next March, some of his larger canvases will be featured in another show at the gallery, and through the 22nd of this month, works inspired by his trip to Namibia will be on view at Reynolds Gallery in Richmond, Virginia.) “It’s a relief to get away from those bright colors,” he says, admitting that they were in part “an attempt to up the ante in this jaded culture. To create something surprising.”

Now he is obsessed with muting color. He has fallen in love with gray. “It’s an underrated color,” he says, going to his palette, which contains little volcanoes of salmon and violet and several hues of gray. He turns to a large spotlighted canvas with an auburn background and loads his brush with a bluish gray, running it down violet branches – “they are too insensitive, unnuanced,” he says of the limbs – until they look like snow-speckled dancers in an autumn grove.

Kahn points to one of his newer “old hat” barns. It hovers like a bubble between trees that seem to have no edges. “It’s more floaty, evanescent,” he says. Some of the new wooded groves seem veiled in mourning. There is an arresting painting of pale lavender cypresses with dark, wet, sensuous roots. “Those are from Corkscrew Swamp near Naples, Florida. I don’t know whether they really looked like that, but it’s what I saw, apparently.” He points to a large dark canvas that depicts water lapping onto a seaweed covered shore: “This light patch in this corner makes the eye follow the shoreline to the light on the opposite side, creating a unity.” There is a stunning five-by-five-foot barn that bulges surrealistically off the edge of a hill. “Well I’m changing that,” he declares, rather defiantly. “I reserve the right to ruin my own paintings if I want to.”

A later visit reveals he has done just that. The wet-foot cypresses have gone from a warm violet to a rather gloomy pale blue. The gloom is broken by the clothes the artist wears – a green plaid shirt with a tie in fluorescent lime upon which swim a school of grotesque fish. The suspicion that there is mischief behind these clashing colors – an attempt perhaps to interest, or shock, his visitors – is reinforced when he later attends a string-quartet performance at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall and is stopped by several friends who declare that they have never before seen him in a necktie.

Although Kahn works quickly, he also fusses obsessively with many of his paintings before he lets them go. They hang on his walls sometimes for months, victims of his restless brush. “I’m here ten hours a day, every day. I get here in the morning and look at my work and immediately become depressed,” he says, suddenly taking his brush to a sunlit shed he has been eyeing, splashing and swirling paint around until the picture becomes a different one altogether, the shed now in burnt orange shadow.

Kahn’s detractors say he paints too many works too fast. “ I love to paint, and I get bored quickly. I’m undeliberate and sloppy,” he shrugs, standing in a space that is stunningly neat and clean for an art studio. Even the pastel room seems free of dust. Laid out on an endlessly long table are boxes of pastels separated by shape – sticks big and small, chisels, round chunks. Some are made by artisans according to Kahn’s recipe, which calls for a granier chalk than usual. These pastels, in turn, adhere more easily to a special paper he has marketed, called Wolf Kahn’s Lana. It is silky smooth, which is completely unlike the standard toothy paper designed to hold the layers of color required for pastel painting.

Kahn searched through dozens of small framed pictures until he finds a tender portrait of one of his two daughters, the filmmaker Melanie Kahn. “Look at this: just a few lines, but it captures her at age ten. I’ve done more than just landscapes.” Some of his other enterprises – Wolf Kahn calendar, note paper, posters – have inspired disdain among those who claim that he sold out his early talent for commercial fame and wealth. Kahn replies that his paintings, which cost from $4,800 to $80,000, are “now so expensive that it’s embarrassing. I do these reproductions so that my work can reach ordinary people who cannot afford those prices.”

To understand Wolf Kahn, one must look at his extraordinary childhood. His mother had a nervous breakdown after giving birth to him in 1927 in Stuttgart, and soon after died in a mental institution. His father, conductor of the Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra, remarried, and Wolf’s stepmother banished the infant to the care of a grandmother in Hamburg. Kahn remembers, when he was five, seeing Nazi students and communists shooting one another in front of his house. And three years later, he remembers watching a Nazi procession and crying because he couldn’t be in the parade. When he was eleven, his father, stepmother, and three siblings emigrated to the United States, leaving him behind. The young Wolf flourished, spending time in his great-aunt’s Beaux-Arts palais, complete with a bowling alley, and enjoying the lavish attentions of both sets of grandparents, who sent him to study with a private art teacher. A year later, in 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II, he escaped on a Kindertransport, one of the British-organized trains that allowed Jewish refugee children to flee Germany. The Nazis took over his aunt’s mansion and made it their Hamburg headquarters. Kahn’s grandparents died in the concentration camps.

He was then placed with a British family, who had expected a lonely waif; but when faced with a robust and energetic boy, they mistreated him. Kahn and his father were reunited in 1940 in New Jersey, but their relationship was troubled. Kahn had always turned to art for solace, and later, when he came to New York City, he gained social acceptance by doing caricatures. He entered the High School of Music and Art in 1942, and after graduation, spent a year in the U.S. Navy. He then entered the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts in 1947.

In Hofmann, the towering Abstract Expressionist, he found a formidable father figure, though not always a benevolent one. At the age of 19, Kahn became Hofmann’s studio assistant for two years, but the teacher, who kept his students anxious with his contradictory statements and moodiness, withheld praise from the hungry young artist. “He was one of the greatest men I’ve ever known,” Kahn recalls, “but he was rough, a mixture of delicacy and heavy-handedness, like his paintings.”

In 1949 Kahn, depressed about his work, left New York and studied philosophy at the University of Chicago. Within a year, however, his crisis of confidence was overtaken by his desire to paint. He returned to New York and became part of a group of artists, many of them Hofmann’s old students, that included Larry Rivers, Joan Mitchell, and Alan Kaprow. In the loft where he lived and painted, he held an exhibition of his friends’ work, which created a stir and gained the attention of critics, who were struck by the new style, which mixed French Impressionism with abstraction. The art historian Meyer Schapiro loved and collected Kahn’s work.

Two years ago, Kahn returned to Germany for the first time at the invitation of the Hamburg Museum. Officials proposed holding a special show of Kahn’s work in a gallery of the museum called the Hall of Mirrors, which had been moved piece by piece from his great-aunt’s palais. The Hamburg exhibition took place last April, and when Kahn – who admits he is an assimilationist, an American before a Jew – returned from the exhibition, he said, “I’m glad they didn’t stereotype me by making a big thing about my being in the Holocaust. They did make a big thing about my being there in Hamburg, though, and I was very pleased.”

Sitting in the kitchen of his studio, Kahn reflects on the art of today. “We are going through an age when art is right brained, full of intentional tricks, and it will pass.” Moreover, he considers that the new shock art, with all its pickled livestock and digital pyrotechnics, may have him off the critical map. “I’m old hat. My art doesn’t hurt. I feel good about what I’m doing because it gives pleasure, and like all good painting, it provides continuity in our lives.”

Kahn says, “some of the new art makes you think and elicits strong feelings – some of them negative – but I’m not going to judge anyone. I like to keep things in suspension. I just keep to myself, grow my peaches and raspberries, paint my left-brained pictures. I question some of today’s art, but I don’t ever want to be indignant, and I’m certainly not jealous.”