At 86, Wolf Kahn is still a firecracker. The painter — who has spent the majority of his life in New York, and who is known for vibrantly colored landscapes and nature scenes — is the subject of a six-decade retrospective on view at Ameringer McEnery Yohe through May 31. “The earlier the painting is, the better it seems to me to be,” Kahn deadpanned, thinking back to some of the canvases he produced in the early ’60s. “I think I’ve gone downhill ever since.” On a more serious note, he’s proud of himself for not resting on his laurels: “Here I am, still trying to do things that I don’t know how to do, strike out in new directions. I think that’s very healthy, and I consider myself fortunate.”
Kahn’s studio for the past two decades or so has been in Chelsea; before that he had a space for nearly 40 years on Broadway, across the street from the Strand bookstore. As an artist starting out and polishing his chops, he moved within a varied circle — Allan Kaprow was a high school friend, and he knew de Kooning and other Ab-Ex heavy-hitters. “As a young man and a student you try to take up the whole atmosphere that’s around you,” he said. Kahn studied at the New School with various people, including the painter Stuart Davis, who he called “one of the world’s worst teachers.” (“He was already a famous artist who taught one night a week; he had his followers who came regularly, and they were interested not in art so much as in jazz and baseball.”) Kahn had better luck as an acolyte of abstract painter Hans Hofmann, who later employed him as a studio assistant. “I looked at Hofmann and through him I looked at the German Expressionists and the American Abstract Expressionists, many of whom were personal friends,” Kahn said. “I was still a young painter getting some attention, while these guys were already enthroned.”
Hofmann is an artist of color alliances, so it’s not surprising that Kahn became entranced with similar possibilities. “He said, ‘Every young artist paints whatever he thinks is most important in art.’ For me it was always color. It seemed to me to be the one thing which you didn’t have to look at anywhere else — except in your paint tubes — in order to deal with it.” Before setting his eye squarely on the natural world, Kahn experimented with portraiture — capturing his wife in a 1956 painting, “Late Afternoon” (which he categories as employing a few “Bonnard-y” effects), and a rich, dense self-portrait from 1954. “At a certain point, I found out I didn’t know what the figure should be doing and where it should be placed,” Kahn said. “So I painted it out. That gave me a lot more freedom.”
Even though Kahn has been working within a fairly narrow choice of subject matter — forests, trees, barns, lakes, fields, skies — he seems to think that this is the least important part of the picture, or at least secondary to color. And there’s variation within these confines: some paintings are alive with a sort of internal fire, all rich pinks and oranges; others are murkier, abstract planes. Occasionally Kahn breaks up land, trees, and sky into Rothko-esque blocks of color. The artist veers between fairly naturalistic paintings and ones that take extravagant liberties with landscape. “I like to paint artificial colors that look like they’re out of nature,” he said. “I don’t care whether they could be or not, I like the feeling that you have a sense that you’ve been there.” There’s a wide range of work in the exhibition at Ameringer McEnery Yohe, from the almost veiled, gnarly surface of “Trees Absorbing Light,” 1961, to the playful vibrancy of “Hot Summer,” 1990, with its clementine sky and purplish lake water. The large painting “Deer Isle-Fog Closing In,” 1968, gives the viewer a palpable sense of light, dislocation, and drift. “Quarter Mile View,” 2014, is almost hallucinatory — the trees appearing to lash out at each other — and the combination of loose marks and slivers of bare canvas show Kahn applying some of the logic of his pastel works to canvas.
Kahn often paints from memory; occasionally he invents a nature scene out of whole cloth. He’s done pictures of actual locales in Vermont, where he spends his summers, and New York City, and Africa, though his most recent paintings are striving for a kind of geographical indeterminacy. “What I’m trying to do is to make a place that still looks like a landscape and at the same time doesn’t make you think of a particular place,” he said. “It makes you think of a texture, or relation of colors. But I’m not willing to give up the idea that underneath all of that, there’s objects.” Two in-progress works in his studio feature a tangle of trees, with a mere fragment of sky visible above; everything is rendered with a rich gestural immediacy (Kahn paints with both traditional brushes and oil pastel sticks). Another finished work depicts the aftermath of a Vermont storm that left arboreal carnage in its wake, which appealed to the artist. “I have a certain taste for chaos,” he admitted. Later, observing a pink-heavy painting of a forest that he’s recently begun, Kahn offered a self-criticism: “This one is totally unambiguous. I have to really mess that painting up.”
Kahn’s Chelsea studio is both a time capsule and a sneak peek into some of his personal tastes. Unframed pastels — a significant portion of the over 15,000 artworks he’s made during his lifetime — are stored alongside early drawings of animals, or sketches completed while serving jury duty. Two framed gouache-on-paper works made when he was a teenager attest to a long-ago desire to become a children’s book illustrator; one of them portrays a troop of dwarves climbing the neck of a gigantic giraffe. There are prints by Giorgio Morandi, a drawing by Hofmann, 18th-century illustrations of mushrooms he bought in bulk in France, and a piece by Wayne Thiebaud, who Kahn is a fan of. I asked him if he actively collects the work of his peers. “You constantly have a terrible tendency to wish to generalize things that just happen,” Kahn said, with a bit of sass. “No. I’ve lived for 86 years — stuff happens along the way.”
Both as a personality and an artist, Kahn is refreshingly forthright, confident in his ambitions and his stalwart corner of the art world. It would be a mistake to dismiss Kahn’s work as ornamental, soft, or decorative — a reading that Kahn himself seems poised to address. “I don’t want to be a pleaser,” he said. “I like to paint pleasant color, easygoing compositions, but not in such a way that people say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen that before, that’s meant to stroke me.’ You have to have an edge.” He admires other painters — like Agnes Martin and Susan Rothenberg — but he doesn’t have much use for the contemporary gallery scene outside his doorstep (“I’m like all old guys — you deplore what goes after. You think it’s a terrible mistake, the fact that history goes on.”). And he offers some advice that, perhaps, might be of value to a younger generation of painters. “In order to make a living as an artist, you’ve got to be one of two things: A very nice guy, or a bad egg.” Personally, Kahn qualifies himself with a rather appropriate metaphor: “I like to think of myself as being a wide spectrum.”