Wolf Kahn


The Brooklyn Rail, June 2003

by Tomassio Longhi

A painter whose name has been for the most part identified with landscapes which combine abstraction, representational motifs, and an unusual repertoire of high-key colors, Wolf Kahn has finally revealed to his critics and audience that his distinguished career has had a long and complicated evolution.

Like many artists of his generation, such as Larry Rivers, Helen Frankenthaler, Nell Blaine, Gandy Brodie, Hyde Solomon, and Jane Freilicher, Wolf Kahn was a product of Hans Hofmann’s teachings. Along with Jan Muller and Miles Forst, Kahn founded the legendary HANSA gallery in 1952, one of the first cooperative galleries in New York, which was named after Hans Hofmann. The gallery later involved Richard Bellamy and Ivan Karp as directors. Kahn was also influenced by the major Bonnard retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1948, and as a result he had greater interest in European Expressionism than in Abstract Expressionism.

This survey of Kahn’s work from 1958-1966/2000-2003 is a momentous occasion for the artist. It gives a quick overview of the dramatic changes which have taken place in his work, from the somber, melancholic mood of his early pieces, to the often ecstatic, celebratory colors we associate with his paintings of the last twenty years. Although I was myself initially resistant to Kahn’s colorful lyricism, the early paintings demand, to my great surprise, an immediate physical and emotional response.

First of all, the surfaces and images simultaneously unify in the painting process as a whole. And with the translucence of the different layers of paint and the commitment to a limited palette, predominantly gray, Kahn’s painting of this period seem to be the result of trying to figure out his own personal understanding of Hofmann’s famous "Push and Pull"

dictum. In other words, the bridging factor in the two bodies of old and new work is the coherent continuity of Kahn’s ability to control tonalities as spatial devices, and to use color as a tonal means. The only difference is that the early work discloses a much greater attention to surface and an emphasis on pictorial reduction, which is almost minimal in its planar and atmospheric relationships. This can be seen in the study for "First Barn Painting" (1964) or "Misty Woods, Winter" (1964), while the more recent paintings, apart from their obvious landmark use of chromatic color, are loaded with spontaneous and irregular mark making. At some immeasurable distance, the horizon is pushed out by the field of chaotic white gesture. The picture plane becomes more frontal and flat. For example, "Long Etosha Painting" (2002) suggests Kahn’s new direction and his poetic and ambivalent affinity to both late Monet and Pollock.

While field painters such as Morris Louis or Kenneth Noland found the hybrid doctrine developed in Clement Greenberg’s famous essays, "Late Monet" and "American Type Painting," the perfect pathway to their own pure abstractions, Kahn on the other hand stubbornly refused to abandon the images and processes of nature as a source of inspiration. Ironically, Kahn appears to do the opposite in his most recent paintings— to struggle with the abstract as it exists in the natural world. That is what makes him to one of the most unique landscape painters around. As much as I prefer the older work, I anticipate the new challenges posed by his recent efforts. The rest remains to be seen.

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