New YorkAmeringer / McEnery / Yohe
June 2 – July 16, 2011
Several years ago, the late art historian Robert Rosenblum paid a visit to Wolf Kahn’s studio and, after a lengthy and attentive stay, turned to him and said: “There is nothing here that Monet hasn’t done already.”
Kahn recounted these words when I dropped by some days later. They have lingered in my mind ever since, because I feel they contain a key to a way of thinking that, maybe unwittingly, Kahn’s art challenges. Even if he were alive and would disagree with my interpretation of what he said, Rosenblum nevertheless implied that art progresses in a linear, quantifiable manner. Art, many think, advances by dismissing the previous formats. That which was before is superseded by that which comes after. The business of an artist is to replace a given class of art with an apparently new class of art. After Abstract Expressionism comes Pop. Immediately after Pop comes Minimalism, and so on and onwards. In keeping with this pattern, to the Reductive one responds with the Excessive, to Abstraction with Realism, to Painting with Anti-painting, etc. One could tolerate answering Monet with the gestures of Joan Mitchell or Riopelle or Michael Goldberg, but not with landscapes.
Kahn took his first cues from his seniors: Hans Hofmann, with whom he studied, and Willem de Kooning. He learned from their juxtaposition of volumes and color and the tactile texture of oil painting. Like theirs, his art was at first only allusive to nature, while transcending its observation into entities that made oil paint itself the subject matter of his works. At one point, however, while Hofmann and de Kooning pitched color, Kahn reduced his palette to thick layered grays of pure sensibility. It was at that point that he started using nature as a precise referent, no matter how faintly the surface of a picture alluded to natural images.
Shortly after that stage, the allusiveness faded and the subject matter became increasingly explicit. He must have begun to wonder why he should prevent himself from zooming out of the almost monochrome surfaces he was painting as if they were details of the natural world, and asked himself: Why not depict clusters of color that one could name as trees, barns, fields, sky? The distinct touch of his mind/eye/hand became integrated into recognizable landscapes.
In landscape he discovered forms that other artists synthesized into shapes in which landscape can no longer be recognized. For instance, if Kahn arranged a series of vertical chromatic stripes, they would have connotations sufficient for us to identify them as a close-up of trees fronting a wood. The same stripes in sharpened color, streamlined and deprived of details, could become a painting by Gene Davis. Could Kahn have painted like that? Yes, had he wanted to. Like other artists, he preferred avoiding a systematic approach and the call for novelty.
For these artists, if what they do might superficially resemble, say, a Monet, they don’t worry because it would take a simple comparison—placing two paintings by either on a wall next to each other—to see the difference. Many of us feel that the mind, eye, time and place of an artist’s work are inevitably embedded in his or her pieces. There is no need to pre-define their characteristics because these reveal themselves innately.
The layering of painterly thought is an art form that attracts artists who start with an idea and accept that it will not be carried out as planned because unforeseen changes—some radical, some subtle—will smuggle themselves into the making.
Overall, Kahn’s paintings became much more complex. He was, of course, aware of the rejection that could be directed at him by his professional avant-garde peers and the unwelcome reception he could receive from parties for whom a landscape means conformity and lack of criticality.
At that time, the ’60s, he started framing his paintings with the gold-faced wooden strip that Greenbergian Colorfield painters were using. While for Rothko the side of the painting had color to it that not only showed the stages of its making but also indicated an environmental continuity between the painting and its site of placement, this strip, finished with a neutral light-reflecting color, signified a concept of separation between the discrete field of painted canvas and its surroundings. Kahn here stumbles upon an acknowledgement of the terminal emancipation of painting from the earmarks that it until then had submitted to. Painting now became a field of madly intense activity of the mind and eye that could happen in whatever format the painter is attracted to.
Painting has existed for millenia, and has been practiced by innumerable cultures for religious or political or decorative purposes. And only now is it free from having to submit to such uses. It has become an orphan of any agreed-upon consensus about any purpose other than whatever the artist wishes to earmark it by. Once a technique put to practical and economic use in Venice, Italy, in the 16th century, it has technically ceased to be of any real use. Painting is dead, long live painting. Formulaic novelty is no longer a concern because any kind of thing is assumed to have been touched upon somewhere, some time, while the way it is done has not. Kahn does not need to invent a copyrighted painterly technique of his own because he knows that the calligraphy of his hand can but be seen in every one of his brushstrokes.
Kahn intuited the watershed mutation painting has undergone. It took guts to select a field of art such as landscape painting and persist into a venture around which so much else bustles with attitudes of antagonism towards the very art one cherishes. Indeed, at the root of Kahn’s art is his passion for painting as filtered through the landscape format. He persisted when painters, suffering from an inferiority complex in respect to science and the machine, started jockeying to link their art to formulas of de-personalization.
Today, it is a crucial part of the ecology of mind to pursue an inapplicable and inexplicable art like the painting of touch and sensibility—whether abstract or representational. Kahn is a master of this art. He insists that each of his paintings is true to its subject. I, however, feel that each scene he depicts is an occasion for the pursuit of that which is the real subject of his art: the unfathomable dimensions of the painterly universe, especially its ritualistic devotion to feeling at the edge of meaninglessness. The lack of definite meaning of these works is one of its most affecting features in an epoch that calls for constant packaging of art in verbal explanations. Of course we know there is no way for a work of art to be meaningless, because every part of its semiotic field is characterized by layers of general and specific markers. But some of us feel that art that flirts with the very edge of meaninglessness is an invaluable asset of resistance in this society, which hides its disarray behind surreptitious proofs and verifications.
Kahn works a canvas with the relentlessness of the rising tide. Several times during a visit to his studio, I would become enamored by a finished and already framed painting, only to have Kahn point at a certain spot in it that, to his mind, required more yellow there, or a more intense blue here. His painting is always incomplete—another precious contribution of sensibility art to this packaged culture of ours. Can you imagine Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons obsessing about a square inch of one of the large concoctions they have others illustrate from their photoshop compositions?
Kahn has lived through all the negations that have been whispered or thrown at him: living-room art, poor man’s Monet, etc. To me, his art evokes the intensity of that short period when Mark Rothko condensed color into a metaphor of mental light, before he became the admirable practitioner of the soft square, and when Jasper Johns translated ultimate sensibility into the tactile paint of his early patterns, just before he began to stress symbol and subject matter over paint.
Wolf Kahn, whether he intended it or not, is the pioneer of the value of painting as an open field, in which any way is legitimate if its source is the blade of intellect and the flow of passion. He represents the 21st Century stand for the irrepressible vitality and necessity of painting, where the exercise of painterly thought is a field of existence in which the exchange between the author and the viewer happens by osmosis, not by pre-selected channels. The partners in this kind of exchange engage in it beyond all labels that might be attached to an object. The object, the painting, is the physical and mental site of its own tactile, retinal, hyper-sensitized realm.
This field of endeavor has long been the target of sloganistic art. In the same way adolescents feel compelled to attack their mother instead of cutting off their umbilical dependence on her, critics declare painting dead every eight years. For this reason it remains an essential part of our culture.