Wolf Kahn: Sizing Up


Art in America, September 2007

by Elisa Decker

“Wolf Kahn: Sizing Up,” a two-part exhibition of the artist’s recent work (accompanied by a two-volume publication with an essay by critic Karen Wilkin), featured 15 large-scale oil paintings followed by a second show of 21 smaller related pastels. This arrangement evidenced the interconnectedness of drawing and painting in the artist’s practice while providing an opportunity to observe each medium on its own terms.

Kahn’s paintings never lose touch with their source in nature. He’s always drawing outdoors, which feeds an ever-evolving color sense and counterbalances the more synthetic process in the studio. It is that real experience of the landscape over time that comes through in the palpable atmosphere he conjures. Gorgeous color chords and carefully adjusted tonal modulations glow beneath gestural strokes, forming complex layered surfaces. In both paintings and pastels, whether we’re up against a curtain of tree trunks or an allover treatment resembling a dense thicket – and the majority of the pieces have that confrontational quality – there’s still plenty of air for the eye to move through freely.

One of the most mysterious paintings in the show, White Sky (2007), 68 by 86 inches, could be a metaphor for the elusive nature of perception itself and the quest for some kind of underlying unity in the chaos of existence. It feels like a storm during which all of the windblown elements are held for an instant in perfect balance. Glimmering through openings in a layer of loosely scumbled, sometimes opaque lavender, microcosms of pale yellow– and blue-greens along with incidents of pink and orange pull you into deep space, almost as if there were another picture under the purple haze.


An assault of dry-brushed, white calligraphic marks brings you back to the surface. The gestural strokes dart pell-mell, becoming more concentrated near the top of the picture where they suggest a high horizon line (a recurrent motif) of brush or trees dissolving into white sky with hints of pink and lavender. Though more dispersed here, the mark-making recalls an earlier group of paintings shown in 2003 that was inspired by desert thornbush thickets seen in the Namibian light [see A.i.A., Oct. ‘03].

The overall mood is more sostenuto in Chiaro to Scuro (2007), 52 by 72 inches. Narrow tree-trunks, which bring to mind Giacometti’s existential wandering figures, form a veil across the canvas. Composed of broken color notes in orange, pink, light browns, greens and golden yellow, the parallel verticals quiver against a shimmering field that gradually transitions from deep violet to purple pinks as it pales from left to right. Loosely applied white horizontal brushstrokes suggest branches. At the top left, violet meets white at a clearly defined horizon line, while trunks extend to the top of the canvas. The demarcation is barely discernible on the right where the ensemble of narrow columns and horizontal swipes luminesce in a unified tone. At first, earth is nearly indistinguishable from tree base; it gradually turns into green and then yellow as it moves into the light. Chiaroscuro could be an equivalent here for the passage of time.

The pastels have a greater immediacy due to their more intimate scale and an emphasis on touch. Here we see Kahn trying out unusual color combinations on motifs that also appear in the paintings. (There’s even a row-of-trees pastel titled Early Sam Francis Blue Inspired, 2006, 20 by 26 inches.) These radiant harmonies transport the viewer beyond surface reality.