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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

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JUNE 2020 Issue
In Memoriam A Tribute to Wolf Kahn

William Agee

Wolf Kahn, <em>Upper Potomac III</em>, 2010, oil on canvas,  52 x 60 inches, © 2020 Wolf Kahn / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
Wolf Kahn, Upper Potomac III, 2010, oil on canvas, 52 x 60 inches, © 2020 Wolf Kahn / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Working with Wolf in his studio was like watching a hawk circling its prey. We would be talking but his eyes were glued to his paintings hanging on the walls. He was always looking, searching, and ready to dive back into his paintings at a moment’s notice. Maybe it was only a little mark or two, but that day something had caught his eye that needed fixing, correcting, or expanding. He told me “as long as the paintings are in my studio, they’re up for grabs.” He missed nothing and his paintings were only finished when someone took them away. Otherwise, they were under constant surveillance. I once asked him if, like Pierre Bonnard, he had worked on a painting while it was hanging in the galleries. He smiled, probably not, but not out of the question. This was a mark of his intensity, his insistence on making every painting as paramount as he could.

There was always something new to see, often of surprise. Other times, these things were only visible to Wolf. But the work, to the end, never let up in its intensity, its freshness, its sense of new exploration of novel problems, or more likely, a continuation of pictorial adventures started earlier. He worried that maybe it was getting too easy for him, so he always set out to discover more. He said he always had problems with the lower left-hand corner of his canvas, but I sometimes thought he was deliberately making trouble for himself, the better to find new painterly challenges. He loved the drama of and in painting, pointing to Mark Rothko’s belief that his forms were like actors. In his last works, Wolf formed shapes at the sides, like theater curtains that bracketed a central stage, on which his intense colors played out their own struggles. In this he referred to Nicolas Poussin and Paul Cézanne’s use of the encircling elements. Indeed, he told me that he wanted to do Rothko over again, after Poussin, a play on Cézanne’s famous words. He loved the art of the past and let it inspire him, unlike others of his generation who believed they were the best artists of all time and would nary admit to any interest in other artists. At any time, Wolf would speak of and then point to passages that recalled artists as varied as Canaletto and Albert Pinkham Ryder, the latter being one among what he termed his “gods.”

His color was unique both in its inventiveness and power, and he said he liked to push it to its extremes, sometimes too sweet or too acidic. Wolf was one of the greatest color painters of our time, as well as one of the most accomplished landscape painters. He had started with known sites, but in due course the paintings could have been from anywhere. He sought not to depict the familiar, but rather, to let concrete but unidentified images emerge from the working of the paint and color. He understood art as a process of self-discovery, and was happy to let it play out as it would.

I loved everything about Wolf: his dedication, and warmth, his generosity of spirit toward others (especially other artists), his humility, his openness, his transparency, indeed his long life itself, and not to mention his gift to us of a stunning and deep body of art.

Wolf Kahn, <em>Surprising Blue Background</em>, 2014. Oil on canvas, 52 x 60 inches. © 2020 Wolf Kahn / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
Wolf Kahn, Surprising Blue Background, 2014. Oil on canvas, 52 x 60 inches. © 2020 Wolf Kahn / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Contributor

William Agee

is a curator and art historian.

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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

All Issues