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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

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JUNE 2020 Issue
In Memoriam A Tribute to Wolf Kahn

Virginia Mecklenburg

Wolf Kahn, <em>High Summer</em>, 1972, oil on canvas, 50 x 58 5/8 inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Sara Roby Foundation.
Wolf Kahn, High Summer, 1972, oil on canvas, 50 x 58 5/8 inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Sara Roby Foundation.

It was a hot day. The sky was hazy, the air was still, and the sun had turned once-green grass to gold. Insects buzzed softly, and warm currents of air gently nudged the tops of the trees sheltering a barn. I was there—emotionally and experientially transported to the summer studio where Wolf Kahn created the most affecting landscapes I had ever seen. It was 1986 and I was standing in a museum storage facility in Washington, DC looking at High Summer (1972), a recent gift to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, far from a gently sloping hillside in rural Vermont. But the place was real, a respite from the bustle and noise and constant demands of the American city. Somehow Wolf understood how light-suffused land, trees, and barns could activate a serenity that few of us take time to notice.  

Wolf’s sense of color and place was deft and intentional. Brilliant turquoise touched by strokes of orange and pale blues placed delicately beside soft yellows, as well as scruffy underbrush masking the vertical strength of trees planted long ago, remind us that there is a simple purity in the world. Clustered trees take on the attitude of friends who lean together in casual conversation. The paintings and the oh-so-lovely pastels were, as Wolf explained all those years ago, meditations on a world, sometimes at peace, but sometimes disordered, as though landscape could echo the anxieties as well as the enchantments of our lives. Horizon lines—he called them nature’s dividing lines—seamlessly bond sky and earth as though there is a constancy and timelessness to the world that reinforces joy and defies the disquiet of the moment. 

When I first met Wolf, he became an instant friend, which surprised me since he was a celebrated artist and I a junior curator. But on visits to New York (unfortunately never to the Brattleboro studio), we looked and talked; he was ever the mentor who guided thought, but never “instructed.” Through Wolf, I learned that real art has little to do with style, movement, or moment. Instead it’s about the human spirit and how, if we see beyond surface, we understand what matters in human relationships.  

Wolf’s artistic pedigree was impressive, but the Wolf I knew dismissed his distinguished accomplishments. He was generous, his twinkling eyes an invitation to humor, friendship, and affection. The last time I saw him was special, a kind of pilgrimage for Beth and Jimmy Eisenstein, who had traveled from Boston to meet him. Jimmy had grown up with a Wolf Kahn landscape and had acquired work so his own children could share the joy he remembered feeling as a child. Wolf welcomed them warmly, as though he was seeing longtime friends. The always boyish Wolf, the man with the impish grin, bubbled with ideas for the next painting, he was ready for the next adventure.  

Contributor

Virginia Mecklenburg

Virginia Mecklenburg is an award-winning writer and senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She has organized exhibitions on African American Art, Ashcan Art, mid-20th century abstraction and realism, and New Deal art, as well as Romaine Brooks, Gene Davis, Edward Hopper, William H. Johnson, Norman Rockwell, and a host of other artists of the 20th century. Her articles on George Bellows, Richard Estes, Robert Indiana, Latinx artists Amalia Mesa-Bains, Emanuel Martinez, and Jesús Moroles, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Sloan, and others have appeared in exhibition publications and in American Art, American Art Review, and The Magazine Antiques. Her essay on American Art at the Armory Show was included in M. Kushner and K. Orcutt (eds.) groundbreaking publication The Armory Show at 100. She lectures widely and has served as a vice president of College Art Association and on advisory committees for the Inter-American Development Bank, the Museum of Latin America (OAS), Reynolda House Museum of American Art, the Sara Roby Foundation, and the Washington Sculptors Group. Mecklenburg received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Maryland, College Park.

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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

All Issues