With Wolf’s passing, time absorbs into memory the other half of the nest I felt welcoming me when I arrived in New York. I just wrote my recollections for the Rail when Wolf’s wife, Emily Mason, died a few months ago, so I won’t repeat. Here, instead, I retrieve a few thoughts from an essay I wrote, also for the Rail, some time ago. It’s tender that they left us almost hand-in-hand, almost at the same time.
A few years ago, the late art historian Robert Rosenblum went to Wolf’s studio and after a lengthy and attentive visit turned to him and said: “There is nothing here that Monet hasn’t done already.” Wolf 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, Wolf’s art challenges. If he were alive, he would perhaps disagree with my interpretation of what he said, but Rosenblum somehow 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 That which was before is superseded by that which comes after.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 whatever existing 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. According to such a standard, one responds to the Reductive with the Excessive, to Abstraction with Realism, to Painting with Anti-painting, etc.
In his early days, Wolf was painting almost monochrome surfaces of extreme sensibility in which one could detect slight allusions to nature. The allusiveness then faded and the subject matter became increasingly explicit. He started zooming out of the gray tactile fields he was painting as if they had been close-up details of the complexities of nature. He thought: why not depict clusters of color that one could name as trees, barns, fields, sky? The particular knitting of his touch became integrated into recognizable landscapes.
In landscape, he discovered forms that other artists synthesized into shapes where landscape no longer can be recognized. For instance, if Wolf arranged a series of vertical chromatic stripes, they would have connotations sufficient for us to identify them as a range of trees fronting a wood. Similar stripes, in sharpened color, streamlined and deprived of details could become a painting by Gene Davis. Could Wolf have painted like that? Yes, had he wanted to, but he preferred avoiding a systematic approach and the call for novelty.
Painting has now cut the umbilical cord from dependence on any agreed-upon consensus about its purpose other than whatever the artist wishes to earmark it by.
Wolf understood the watershed mutation that painting has undergone. It took guts to select a field of art such as landscape painting and persist in a venture around which so much else bustles with attitudes that dismiss the very art one makes. All matters counted, at the root of Wolf Kahn’s art there is his passion for painting as filtered through the landscape.