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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

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JUNE 2020 Issue
In Memoriam A Tribute to Wolf Kahn

Nicholas Delbanco

Wolf Kahn, <em>Greenhouses in a Green Landscape</em>, 2011, oil on canvas, 52 x 60 inches, © 2020 Wolf Kahn / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
Wolf Kahn, Greenhouses in a Green Landscape, 2011, oil on canvas, 52 x 60 inches, © 2020 Wolf Kahn / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

In 2013, on the occasion of his 85th birthday, there was a tribute to the work of Wolf Kahn at the Miles McEnery Gallery in New York. Flatteringly, the painter asked me to compose the introductory essay to that exhibition’s catalogue. Here are the first two paragraphs:

“I have a good relation with black,” says Wolf Kahn. This is not obvious. The painter stands in front of an unfinished oil—a pattern of trees, a slice of sky—and nothing of it argues “black”; we are in the realm of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “skies of couple-colour” and “rose moles all in stipple.” The world here evoked is luminous, bright, and the act of witness is an act of celebration. Colors laid down on the canvas are some of Kahn’s signature colors: purple, alizarin crimson, lemon yellow, phthalo green.

The painter’s shock of hair is white, his eyes are a bright blue. Trim yet sturdy, eighty-five, he wears faded blue jeans and an old plaid shirt “I like the bottom left of this painting,” he says, “the bottom right needs work. But nature in general is quite generous in providing material for one’s imagination; I will return to it later, when you go.”


Seven years later and after his death, a black-rimmed condolence card seems no more appropriate now than then. An exuberant artist, this master of shape and color always had “a good relation with black.” So I, along with legions, mourn him—but I also want to celebrate his life-long act of witness and (to borrow a phrase applied to a predecessor) flat-out “Lust for Life.” One of the things that impressed me about Wolf was his near-encyclopedic knowledge of the work of predecessors, and van Gogh was of course an artist with whom he was deeply familiar. But though his conversation (and his palette) could be sprinkled with allusions to and gestures echoic of painters from Masaccio to Matisse, he was an original, a man setting out on his own. That he came from a tradition is of course the case, but in the end he was an innovator, remaking what went before. As he remarked, “The sky in the year 2000 is necessarily painted differently from the gold leaf sky behind one of Duccio’s mountains in the 1300s, but it is the sky nonetheless.”

Again, from that catalogue and my introduction, these closing lines. Which now assume the guise of valediction: Ave atque Vale, a farewell.

When I first met this artist in Vermont, some forty years ago, I thought to myself, well, the man is as good-humored as his paintings; it’s not an accident that one of his admired models is Bonnard. More recently I came to see the fist within the velvet glove, the rigor and self-discipline that a twinkling eye and courtly charm—no matter how authentic—can’t disguise. “Wolf Kahn’s America” is a pleasing but demanding place, a landscape where the human touch is evident though absent. We see stone walls and barns and sheds but not the men who built them; as with Monet in his old age (where civilization is attested by a rowboat, bridge, or parasol but not the human figure), what offers itself for inspection exists outside of calendrical time. There are seasons, yes, and collapse and decay, but always a kind of renewal in this garden of earthly delights. We who see what Kahn has shown must be delighted too.

Contributor

Nicholas Delbanco

is the Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of English Language and Literature at The University of Michigan. His most recent book-length publications are the novel, It Is Enough (2019), and the non-fiction book, Why Writing Matters (2020).

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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

All Issues