On the occasion of Wolf Kahn’s new exhibit at Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art, which will be on view till May 26th, painters David Kapp and Robert Berlind paid a visit to the artist’s Chelsea studio to talk about his life and work.
David Kapp: Who initially encouraged you to be a painter, and what were your earliest influences as a child?
Wolf Kahn: Dostoyevsky said that only five percent of humanity ever realizes the dreams of their youth, and I’ve always wanted to be an artist. I don’t remember ever having the idea of wanting to be anything else. I was drawing from the time I was four or five years old.
Kapp: What kind of paintings were you surrounded by?
Kahn: My great uncle was an academic painter who had showed his work in the Salon in Paris, so our house was filled with those sorts of paintings.
Kapp: Was there a point when you became aware of any modernist trend?
Kahn: Yes, my grandfather had a Picasso hanging in his house and I always thought it was terrible. Actually, I even made a cartoon of my grandfather, moving out of his house carrying a Picasso painting under his arm, when I was seven years old. At any rate, I come from a fairly cultivated background. My father was a conductor and at one point thought he might want to be a visual artist. I’m glad that he didn’t, because from what I saw of his earlier work I think he made the right choice. So after having spent a year in England with my aunt, I finally came to America to join my family (they had already left in 1937 and settled in New Jersey). Soon after that, I went to the High School of Music and Art in New York. I used to make caricatures of the teachers on the blackboard before they arrived in the room. I was pretty good at getting the resemblance. I wanted to be a political cartoonist. David Low was my great hero in those days. This was the early 40s.
Kapp: Around that time, did you become aware of the current trends?
Kahn: I had no interest in modernist painting at that point.
Kapp: So you were still doing somewhat academic work.
Kahn: I was doing “high school work.” We’d take the ferry across the Hudson to go into Piermont or Teaneck and draw from nature. I had a job after school as a commercial artist’s assistant because this was during the war and this was a job that my brother Peter had had. I inherited it from him at the age of fifteen while he was drafted and sent off to Europe. I made a lofty sum of 35 cents an hour and was the richest kid in the class because of that. My boss did a very indelicate thing: he wrote a letter to Peter saying he was very pleased with his brother, who promises to be even better than he is. I think when you’re fighting the Battle of the Bulge you don’t really want to read that.
Kapp: You became aware of life in the commercial studio and working with different materials. What about New York School painting?
Kahn: No, New York School painting didn’t exist in those days. The people who were then great were Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and Hopper, of course.
Kapp: However there was an art scene going on in New York at that time.
Kahn: Yes, but it didn’t interest high school kids of my age at all. We were more interested in going to the Central Park Zoo, we did a lot of drawings of animals. I graduated in 1945 and went to the Navy, where I kept drawing and found my other great hero, Artzibashev, who was making covers for Time magazine. He made every face go from deepest dark to lightest light; he had a great sense of chiaroscuro. So I drew all my friends in dark and light, then I was sent around to do drawings of admirals.
Berlind: You worked your way up through the ranks.
Kahn: (laughs) Yes, and in return I got three-day passes. I could see it was very advantageous to be a talented draftsman.
Berlind: And then when you got out?
Kahn: I went to the New School, where I studied with Stuart Davis. He was the world’s worst teacher, because he didn’t take it seriously. He was a very renowned, elderly man, and he just spent all of his time talking about baseball and jazz, which were the two things that interested him greatly. One night he said, “All right children, it’s ten o’clock. Let’s close the magic portals. We’ve generated enough art atmosphere for one evening.” For an idealistic nineteen year old that didn’t sit so well.
Berlind: But you were exposed to his work at that time.
Kahn: No, not really. I wasn’t interested in his work.
Kapp: You weren’t aware of the fact that he was considered an important modernist painter?
Kahn: All I knew then was that he was a bad teacher. Later I was told about Hofmann. All of the good students, including those with the GI bills, were going to his school. That was when I decided to study with him.
Berlind: Was that your introduction to contemporary art?
Kahn: At Hofmann’s I got a very quick immersion in contemporary art, whereas at Stuart Davis’s I was sort of doing a caricature of modern art.
Berlind: So was that like a conversion experience for you? Was it a sudden plunge?
Kahn: No, I did my normal German-Jewish schoolboy thing, trying to do what the teacher tells you. Except at Hofmann’s I got really excited by it. I made Analytical Cubist drawings, which Hofmann immediately liked.
Berlind: Hofmann boiled things down philosophically and aesthetically and in terms of formal practice. That must of have been a very different way of approaching things for you.
Kahn: It was also very useful to find a person who could talk about painting, who could discuss difficult formulations and make them understandable. Hofmann was the only person who was able to do that at the time, and, probably nobody’s come along who was able to express as many of the subtleties of art as Hofmann was. I think he was a very great teacher.
Berlind: And he wasn’t dogmatic in his presentation?
Kahn: Well, he was dogmatic the way the Bible is dogmatic. You knew which way the general trend was going, but he contradicted himself all the time.
Kapp: Is it fair to say at that point you began to think of your drawing and painting in less descriptive terms and more formally?
Kahn: Very much so. I embraced formalism hook, line and sinker. Hofman’s type of formalism was very different from Clem Greenberg’s. Greenberg says formalism and I don’t even know what he’s talking about. Hofmann says flatness, but he could apply flatness to describe even Rembrandt and Titian. Whereas with Greenberg’s flatness, he just meant that there was no allowance for illusion at all.
Kapp: And color could be independent of what was being represented?
Kahn: I suppose that was implied, but he never encouraged us to be arbitrary. He talked about symphonic color and color intervals. He liked to use musical terms. He encouraged students to use their imaginative fantasy to regard color as an independent entity, which I still do.
Berlind: Who were the other students you were close with at that time?
Kahn: Larry Rivers was one. The two of us used to go off sketching. Felix Pasilis was my loft mate who hasn’t been in touch in years. Robert Goodnough was a hotshot student, Jane Freilicher, and George McNeil were also in my class.
Berlind: How long did you work with Hofmann?
Kahn: For a year and a half, and then I became an assistant at his studio on 14th Street. I even lived with him in Provincetown and was like a surrogate son to him. I had such an immense respect for the man that I felt I’d never understand life to the degree that Hofmann did. I mean, he was born knowing everything. My insufficiencies started to become so apparent to me. I thought I’d never be an artist with the equipment I could bring to the task, but I could be the next best thing, something I was always good at being, a student. So I went to the University of Chicago, got my degree—back then you could do it as fast as you wanted by taking comprehensive exams—I got my degree in 8 months. Then they invited me to go on to the school of Humanities with a scholarship. At that point I decided, well, if I’m that good I might as well go back to New York and try to be a painter again. I had regained my faith in painting, and in myself.
Berlind: Did you acquire your philosophical stance in some ways through that?
Kahn: Yes, I became an absolutist. I just took everything that Hofmann said, and everything I learned subsequently, as being the only possible truth, and then I became part of a group in New York that was mostly Hofmann students and graduates. This group included others, like Jane Wilson, Alfred Leslie, people who were into different things. My best friend was Alan Kaprow, who was into something totally different, so I had to enlarge my sense of possibilities, though very reluctantly.
Berlind: And who in the older generation?
Kahn: I got to be friends with de Kooning and very good friends with Elaine (de Kooning). And through my marriage to Emily Mason, I got to know Milton Avery very well—I went out painting with him one week in Provincetown. And later Rothko. In those days the hierarchy among artists didn’t exist like today—which I find very deplorable.
Berlind: There wasn’t much money involved then.
Kahn: Nothing to do with it. You could go take a seat at a bar and there was Franz Kline, drinking away and telling you that he was depressed and didn’t feel like painting but probably would get bored from drinking and would go back to painting after all. I became very good friends with Joan Mitchell and continued to be friends with Larry Rivers until his death.
Kapp: To go back to the University of Chicago…
Kahn: Yes, where I earned a Bachelor degree in General Education in one year. We were encouraged to study philosophy, and I was particularly interested in Kant. His “Prolegomena on Beauty” really affirmed my own idea of absolute beauty, because he had the idea that the category of beauty exists in the mind, and though it may vary from individual to individual, it tends toward one ideal. I thought that was very congenial to my way of thinking and I still believe in it. How come I want to change this part of the painting? There is no good reason for it and yet I have this strong urge to do so.
Berlind: And did that correspond with Hofmann’s teaching?
Kahn: Yes. Underneath Hofmann’s idealism there was a sort of absolutist strain, idealism taken to a very far degree of certainty.
Berlind: But in the post-war period the prevailing sensibility was more existentialist, and that would preclude any possibility of certainty.
Kahn: Existentialism still exists in my work, because you’re not supposed to know at the beginning of a painting what it’s going to look like at the end. It’s all supposed to happen spontaneously in the course of work. The existentialists really provided the basis for process art.
Berlind: And they’re also anti-idealist. Sartre talks against the notion of there being any norm such as human nature.
Kahn: You don’t have to embrace everything of any philosophy, just those parts that work for you.
Berlind: But there’s a sense of anxiety and uncertainty, of there being no models or authorities to follow.
Kahn: I understand that in relation to the Kantian idea. Somehow or other whenever I want to be sure of myself I think, Jesus Christ, I haven’t even changed my mind at all; I still have those strains going side by side. But I think maybe having such a strong sense of both of these ideas coexisting helps my work.
Kapp: Well, Wolf, ultimately one is interested in results.
Kahn: I’m not.
Kapp: No, you don’t think so?
Kahn: No. No. What I’m really interested in is development, the development of an artist. In that sense, I think I’m pretty healthy because I don’t really care much about what finally gets thrown off. I just forget about it.
Berlind: Did you always feel that? I know you have reason to be secure in what you’re doing, but did you ever go through a time where you questioned the premise of what you were doing?
Kahn: Yes, and I still do, but much less strongly. I’ve now decided that the ideological basis for my work is like a bad habit but one on which I build. I went through a very long period of great doubt and not much success came from it. There were years when I didn’t pay income tax because I never took a full time job. Part time jobs were more suitable because they allowed me to do my real work.
Berlind: Did you ever experience creative block?
Kahn: Not really. I’ve experienced periods in which I’ve been less productive and somewhat depressed, but I’ve never been blocked. Whatever happens I’ll always pick up the brush anyways because I’m afraid if I lay it down I’ll never pick it up again.
Kapp: Anxiety is a driving force.
Kahn: I’d rather like to describe it as being driven by my demons. The demons are probably ambition and the need to be recognized, to have some success and to be a decent artist, which in itself is a worthwhile aim.
Kapp: I want to get back to your development. There’s a change that occurred, sometime in the mid ’60s, when your work changed from monochromatic, gray paintings, and you got re-involved with color. What were the factors in that development?
Kahn: It was the summer of 1967, when I was in Maine, painting in a little shack on the edge of a cove of the harbor in Deer Isle. Every evening I look down the coast and there’s a sunset. I thought to myself, how can I do something with a sunset and be monochromatic? So I started introducing—first somewhat hesitantly—some color.
Berlind: What about the influence from Bonnard and Avery? Did that stem from your training with Hofmann?
Kahn: Not really. Hofmann’s influence on my work has more to do with how I organize space. Early in my career I was very influenced by Bonnard. I never really felt I was influenced by Avery. I saw his as a very fine paragon; in fact I wrote an article for the College Art Journal called “Milton Avery’s Good Example.” Avery painted one painting in the morning and one in the afternoon, but never really worried too much about the quality of any one of them. He figured that if he just kept working, some of them would be good, which I think is a brilliant idea.
Berlind: Avery broke with Rothko for a time; their friendship was disrupted over the issue of abstraction, although the late Averys are almost abstract.
Kahn: To me, Avery wasn’t anywhere near abstract. It’s just that he got simpler. He was trying to simplify his field of vision, and I’m very much in synch with him in that respect, because some have thought my paintings are becoming more abstract. I don’t feel that way at all. I’m just developing a different pair of eyes in the sense that I see things in my field of vision—I’m purposely not trying to represent them, I just want to make them a bit more discernable. I’m not so involved in description because I think that the greatest sin an artist can be accused of is telling people things that they already know. And you can write that down and put it in italics. Our aim as artists is to use ourselves as agents for expanding possibilities; and if you’re just doing something that’s conventional and everyday, you’re not doing it right. Of course, we constantly struggle against our own conventions because that’s one of our worst difficulties—trying to avoid doing something that we already know how to do.
Kapp: Is the essential pitfall of description that it tells people what they already know?
Kahn: That’s one of them. And the other thing is that description makes you become more fearful. For example, when I’m painting a tree, if I start thinking of a branch and I paint it as a branch, it doesn’t become nearly as good as if I paint it as a brush stroke. It’s not an ideological preference, but in practice I found out that if I just make a thing as fast as I can going across the surface, it’s a better branch than if I start niggling around with it.
Berlind: And yet your paintings have such a specific sense of a place, not just of space. I often have the sense of a particular vantage point and relation to what you’re looking at or what you’re looking through, and it feels very grounded, in a spatial experience as well as a color experience.
Kahn: I’m always drawing outside. One has to compensate with real experience for the synthetic process that happens in the studio. Real experience, to me, is being in a place where something happens to you that gives you a vague feeling and it could be made into a picture. In the studio you have the sense that you already know how to do a whole lot of stuff and your going on the basis of your own history. Outside in nature you feel it doesn’t allow you that.
Kapp: However, Wolf, you are repeatedly drawn to similar situations or motifs. and I know you prefer places that are devoid of incident or don’t have…
Kahn: A lot of cows in the field.
Kapp: A lot of cows in the field or a bridge going over a river or a sign. There is some consistency to places that you paint.
Kahn: That’s my limitation but I’m not trying to define myself by my limitations.
Berlind: Could you imagine putting in a road sign or a stop sign?
Kahn: I would put in a sign but I wouldn’t put in “STOP.” (laughter) I’m against “STOP.” I think one of the things that an artist has to do is to be afraid of constraints.
Berlind: It seems to me that one source of consistency in somebody’s work is that what might look to somebody else like the same situation or a very similar situation strikes the artist as something new each time.
Kahn: Cézanne said that in order to make a new painting, all you have to do is change 10 degrees of the field of vision; and I believe that. Wherever you look there is possibility of a painting. If you constantly find the places where you feel comfortable, it’s bad for you. You have to be driven into novelty in some kind of a way.
Kapp: There’s something about landscape painting that has enabled you to attach yourself to it. You did still-lives, figures, and portraits, but you didn’t pursue them. So landscape as a subject, for you, is the least constraining.
Kahn: I never became an abstract painter because I love to draw, I love to represent. I tried to do abstract paintings, and it always seemed to me that I was throwing out a baby with the bath water.
Berlind: But in your early work that David was referring to, the landscape reference asserted itself in the context of abstraction.
Kahn: How about abstraction asserting itself in the context of landscape?
Kapp: What I felt with those paintings is that they always convey a sense of being somewhere. You feel physically as if you’re the subject of the painting, as if you’re there.
Berlind: I think that’s also a quality of some of gestural Abstract Expressionist painting: that you feel your own physicality in front of the painting.
Kahn: You feel a kinesis with the artist. But I think that that’s one other thing I don’t always feel with some of the works that are being made today: the artist can’t get himself or herself out of the picture. I want the picture to exist, I don’t want people to be constantly reminded, “Oh, there’s Wolf Kahn behind all this.” I want the picture to be strong so that people don’t think about me. Sacred and Profane Love you know, you’ve got one clothed figure leaning against the fountain on the left and the figure sitting naked on the right; you don’t think about Titian when you look at that. And that’s the way I want painting to be.
Berlind: Do you take exception to expressionist painting that makes a great issue of the presence of the artist?
Kahn: Just the fact that I don’t want to do it doesn’t mean I don’t allow other people do it. People ask me occasionally, “What are you trying to say?” D.H. Lawrence said what was good about Moby Dick was that Melville didn’t really know what Moby Dick symbolized. He knew it was a symbol, but he didn’t know what it was a symbol of. In the same way, when you’re thinking about your own motivations and the meanings of your work, the less you delve, probably the better off you are.
Berlind: That is very different from the position taken by a lot of artists over the past 20 or 30 years, who are very explicit about their intentions and philosophies.
Kahn: I think that’s one of the impoverishments of art at this moment, that people don’t give unheralded and unlooked for impulses enough play. I rely more on spontaneity. The Abstract Expressionists were wonderful because they really looked for all of that. I once wrote, “Your painting turns out to be self-expression in spite of your best intention.” And the one thing that I really want my paintings to express is generosity: a sense of largeness of spirit, of embracing all things, the world, colors, form…and so on.
Berlind: You’re not interested in being hermetic!
Kahn: No, that’s like what I would call New York Masochism. No, I want to be a good guy, if I can. I know it’s not fashionable, but I don’t care about being fashionable either, because I don’t know how.
Berlind: You avoid issues of fashion because when you’re dealing with nature you’re not dealing with a historical moment in the same way as if you were showing contemporary people in a situation, or dealing with contemporary events.
Kahn: I think you can’t help but to have some relation to modern life just by the fact that you have modern nerve endings.
Kapp: And I know there’s no strict agenda. You’re not making a plea for a clean environment.
Kahn: And another thing that I think is being neglected in art too much today is the idea that art is something outside of daily life. It should stand by itself and have nothing to do with commercialism and the media. Art should be in a way an escape from everyday life.
Berlind: Does that make you a transcendentalist? Should art go to a special place of contemplation?
Kahn: I hope so, but again that’s not my intention. If people say that there’s some mystical quality in my painting, I must say that I’m not a mystic. I know people who are, like my friend, Emily Nelligan, but I’m not. I’m fully standing on the earth and I see myself as normal, un homme moyen-sensuel. I’m disciplined. I work seven days a week, from 9 to 7. Sometimes I’m not painting the whole time, but still, I’m in my studio and the older I get the less interested I am in leaving this place and going out to see other people’s shows. I don’t need that anymore.
Berlind: But also you’re very involved in literary and philosophical and social matters.
Kahn: I’m interested—I learned this from Hoffman—in trying to formulate fairly difficult ideas. I like to give lectures and talk about art, and make it interesting the way people are interested in baseball. Because I think it’s a very fascinating part of life and people aren’t paying nearly enough attention to it as they might in order to have a good time with it.
Berlind: Do some of your paintings begin from sketches on site, while others are sheer inventions?
Kahn: They’re all sheer inventions. All painters are aware of that. The trouble is that when one becomes facile, the resistance then disappears, and sometimes a painting gets finished too early.
Kapp: And then what do you do?
Kahn: Then I just feel bad.
Kapp: But one of the most important things is knowing when to stop, right? There’s always the fear of overworking something, which every artist is guilty of.
Kahn: Well, I don’t have that. I have a feeling that the harder you push and the more you get into it and the more mistakes you make the better the painting is eventually going to be.
Berlind: But you have a stylistic advantage because you work with an open surface. You can come in with another color on top because of the pastel-like nature of the way you work. If one’s working with a more closed surface, a continuous surface, if you put a mark down you probably have to repaint the whole thing.
Kahn: Yes, I’ve got a fairly loose process. Like Motherwell said, a painting proceeds through a series of mistakes, and when you come to a mistake that you can’t correct, then the painting is finished.
Kapp: Going back to your relationship with drawing and painting: Larry Rivers said that drawing is the quarterback of painting. I think the viewer anticipates the continuity of the two in your work.
Kahn: I’m so consumed by that relationship, but I suppose that has worked out to my advantage.
Berlind: I’m conscious of your painting as representations of psychological states, although you don’t talk about that. They correspond, the way music might, to emotional or psychological circumstances.
Kahn: Well, it’s in spite of my best intentions.
Berlind: Then it’s an unconscious intention perhaps, but I can’t help but think that that’s a determining factor at some level. I’m not saying that’s the subject of your painting, but there is a very large emotional range.
Kahn: The less I know about that the better off I am. I think the more you concentrate on factors other than emotional content in your paintings, the better off you are.
Berlind: But you wouldn’t necessarily object to somebody else responding to that or describing that condition?
Kahn: How can I object to what other people might feel about my work? I’m just glad that they have feelings. Feelings are hard to come by these days, you know?