Abstract Expressionist Wolf Kahn: Spontaneous Tendencies

This article originally appeared in the November 2005 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

It’s a gray day in New York City, but there’s light everywhere in Wolf Kahn’s studio. It’s hard to tell whether it’s coming from the rows of windows and the skylights or from the paintings themselves, whose unapologetic colors and lively brushwork generate a light of their own.

Wolf Kahn: Large Tree Line (oil)

“I’ve got a lot of enthusiasm for color,” says Wolf Kahn. In Large Tree Line (oil,52×72), one block of color is set against another, and they’re kept “overt and separated.” That’s distinctly different from 19th-century paintings that can, in his words, “squander color” by including a bit of every hue. “You have to work very carefully to adjust tonalities.” he says.

Wolf Kahn himself is tranquil but intense. He revels in paradox, alternately vexed and delighted, like a Zen master. One moment he’ll say that you need to be free of worry when creating a painting; the next moment he says, “Painting really profits from stress.” When asked how it can be both ways, he takes a thoughtful pause and answers with an honest shrug, “I guess it’s one of those paradoxes.”

 

An Abstract Expressionist’s Pursuit of Now

At first, it seems that he just doesn’t want to be pinned down about his work. But then it becomes clear that he resists definitive statements because it’s questions, not solutions, that he finds interesting. He relishes unsolvable puzzles and runs from anything limiting. It’s kept his work from stagnating during his career of 50-plus years.

“I was brought up as an abstract expressionist,” he says. “Knowing stuff ahead of time was considered a sin. Abstract expressionists believed in spontaneity. You’re supposed to perceive freshly each time and be very alert to the moment.”

Kahn still largely subscribes to this philosophy. You don’t paint, he says, to express your religiousness or your patriotism. You paint to make a good painting. “I don’t want to have an agenda. I don’t even want to have a style—that happens by itself. The main thing I want is to be allowed to express my enthusiasm at the moment for whatever I’m doing. Aims, goals, programs and agendas are my enemies.”

Wolf Kahn: Foliage in an Orange Setting (oil)

One of things Kahn says he might have absorbed from his teacher Hans Hofmann “was the feeling that your job as an artist was to create an unpredictable order. Hofmann used to quote Mondrian, who talked about the positioning of unequal but equivalent oppositions.” In works including Foliage in an Orange Setting (oil, 36×52), Kahn says, “I’m primarily thinking about creating a kind of density that’s believable and a volume that’s equalized.”

Colorful Conversations

Kahn often works on location with a campstool and a set of pastels. “When I’m working outside, I’m looking for the hint of something. To have it spelled out clearly before the start of the work takes away too much of the fun,” he says. “I’m looking to find out what it is that attracted me to a place. A lot of times, it’s bad stuff that attracts you—namely, it’s something you’ve done before, or that someone else has done, or that looks impressive somehow. To really see something in a fresh and new way is rare, but it’s what you most want to do.”

Wolf Kahn's Barns in Ruin (pastel)

“I hate the whole idea of blending,” Kahn says as he starts to talk about Red Barns in Ruin (pastel, 13×171⁄2). “I have arguments with my wife, who wants to have two different kinds of fruit to make jam. I like one kind of fruit—I just want each thing to assert its own nature. It’s the same with color in a painting. I don’t like the idea of moving smoothly from one area to another. Contrast is really what I like.”

Kahn is adamant that he doesn’t start out from a descriptive point of view. Pointing to In the Gloaming (below), he says, “I start out with the color and everything evolves from that, rather than from the fact that I saw magenta in the landscape. I never saw magenta in the landscape.”

Wolf Kahn's In the Gloaming (pastel)

“People don’t understand that colors have to be discovered; to know ahead of time the color of something is wrong,” says Kahn, who does many of his pastels, including In the Gloaming (pastel, 11×14), on location. “As I get older, I see colors as being more themselves than they have been earlier. That’s what gives me added power.”

When he talks about color, Kahn sounds as if he’s describing personalities. “Orange,” for instance, “is very blatant and vulgar. It makes you immediately start having feelings. I use it as sort of a device to get attention.” He quickly adds: “My own attention.” He starts rooting through the messy pile of paint tubes on his taboret, holding them up or squeezing them onto the palette and describing them with enthusiasm. “This color right here—radiant violet—turns me on regularly. I put it on the palette and right away something happens to me—I feel like working. And violet gray—I call it ‘Instant Vermont.’ You put that down and you have a sky. I know where I am once I have that color down,” he says.

How does he make all these brilliant colors work in a painting? “The only time I feel comfortable is when I don’t know why the colors work,” he says. The more he talks, the clearer it becomes that for him the act of painting is a conversation. You don’t control it; you respond to it. “It’s useful to think of a painting as a pet. If you have a pet, you give it food and it doesn’t overeat. Yet somehow if you haven’t given it enough, the pet will let you know it and you give it more so the pet is satisfied,” he says. “Painting isn’t really all that mysterious. You just give it enough till it’s satisfied.” Sounds easy, but Kahn acknowledges that sometimes a painting isn’t satisfied for years.

Wolf Kahn's House on a Hil (oil)

“A painter has to cultivate an innocence of spirit,” Kahn says. “If you approach a painting with too much knowledge of or concern for the outcome, it’s likely that this will prevent discovery, which shows in your painting. As you work,” he says, “you have to be alert to what’s happening during the painting process, like how high and low are balanced in House on a Hill II (oil, 36×52).

And you can’t judge: “One always has to combat being goal-oriented. Somehow, you’ve got to have a sense of play—a sense that there are things happening when you paint other than your wishes and dreams at the moment. I’ve learned not to constantly be self-critical. I don’t really care whether a painting comes out one way or another.” Of course, he cares that the elements are balanced, that the questions are asked and that the problems are resolved. But, he says, quoting a Zen koan, “the best control is no control.”

Wolf Kahn's Dark Clump of Trees (oil)

The horizon, as Kahn says, can become tyrannical in a landscape painting. “It starts being a dividing line between two totally unrelated things: empty air and heavy earth. How are you going to get past that division between these seemingly unrelated elements?” he asks. Color, density, verticality and the surface of the painting all come into play in works such as Dark Clump of Trees (oil, 30×36) to help a painting deal with this division.

New Growth

Currently, one of the things Kahn doesn’t have control over is his macular degeneration, an
irreparable problem that causes deteriorating eyesight. While it’s making fine print difficult to read, he says, “I’m seeing more tonal variation than before; I can see tones more strongly and more separately than I used to. Darks look even blacker than black, for instance. It makes you a bit nervous—some other painters who have the same condition are no longer working—but I feel very fortunate that I’m not at that point.”
As for now, he’s continuing to grow and respond as a painter. “My work really changed when I took a trip to Africa a few years ago and saw the thornbush. It’s so dense you can’t see the ground out of which it grows. So it seemed to be very worthwhile to get rid of the ground,” as in Brambles and Tangles (above). “I’m trying to do that now in the Vermont woods, which isn’t easy.
“Yet one of the things I’m rather pleased about is that I’ve got my teeth into a whole lot of new stuff,” he continues. “It’s almost like having young friends; all sorts of new things come up that you need to explore.”

Wolf Kahn's Brambles and Tangles (oil)

“I like chaos, and this is the kind of picture that deals with that idea,” says Kahn of Brambles and Tangles (oil, 36×52), one of the works that grew from his trip to Africa, where he saw bushes so dense that he couldn’t tell where they were growing from. Here, he says, “you no longer see where things get rooted in the earth.”

Artist Insights: Overcoming convention

Wolf Kahn is loathe to give any prescriptions about painting. Nonetheless, he did divulge the following experiments, which he recommends to students to help them avoid painting the same thing again and again:

  • Paint the nameless. Go out and start a painting using only elements in the landscape to which you can’t give a name.
  • Make a painting that celebrates the color gray. “People take workshops with me because they see I use brilliant color (although now I seldom do). Yet I think it’s a vulgar idea that only brilliant color is color,” he says.
  • Make every color memorable. “I went to see the Alvin Ailey dance company about 25 years ago. There was a piece in which one woman was holding a parasol, and somehow or another I was fixated on this woman with the parasol, even though there was a whole corps de ballet. It seemed to me that anything she did had meaning. It turns out the dancer was Judith Jamison, who now runs the company. I wondered whether she studied how to lift her little finger or whether it was just that her little finger did things on its own that were worth looking at. Or was it the way she held her arm? Sometimes I say to students that I want every color in the painting to be like Judith Jamison’s little finger. It doesn’t have to mean anything describable, but it’s got to be memorable,” he adds.

Marty Munson is a former senior editor for The Artist’s Magazine. She lives in New York City.

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