When I was working on the first Wolf Kahn book in 1981, a modest start to the floodtide of beautiful books that were to follow, I would climb three flights of stairs to his Broadway loft and be greeted with a bowl of soup made on a gas burner with mushrooms that he had gathered and dried near his Vermont home. This image keeps resurfacing, among recollections that stretch from the opening of the cooperative Hansa Gallery in 1952 to my last visits to Wolf's Chelsea studio prior to his final exhibition in 2020. It suggests the resourcefulness that carried him from a childhood of privilege through years of uprootedness, deprivation, and tragedy, to a lifetime obsession engendered in part by the Hans Hofmann School, and to a highly respected place among contemporary artists. Along the way, he formed an indelible bond with his earthly surroundings.
It was not a smooth path. Beyond the seductive color and glowing surfaces of Kahn's later 20th and 21st century works lay periods of turbulence. Soutine-inspired brushstrokes, tilted spaces, and clashing colors led to his being hailed in the 1950s as “a forceful young expressionist.” Bewilderment followed as he shifted from high-keyed color to tonal painting in thick slabs of gray and black. Paradoxically he engaged in a dialogue with aspects of Abstract Expressionism while simultaneously looking at light on the landscape.
Another recollected image (which I actually drew as I followed him around, notebook in hand) is the artist at his easel confronting an autumn field, alert as if about to go into battle. Always on the lookout for a challenging sky, row of trees, or side of a barn, he rarely paused in his pursuit of compelling motifs. Many summers Wolf and his wife, Emily Mason, would stop for a meal or a night at my place on the Maine coast on their way home to Vermont. While the rest of us sat drinking on the porch, Wolf would settle down on the ground below, facing the water, and do three pastels before the sun dropped into Casco Bay.
Even though Wolf had mixed feelings about being assigned to a rung on an art historical ladder, he is increasingly accorded a place in history as a pivotal figure, necessary to a fuller understanding of the 1950s tension between figuration and abstraction so eloquently detailed by his friend Louis Finkelstein. His paintings and pastels are stunning resolutions of the conflicting artistic directions of his time, offering a synthesis that satisfies the dual demands of perceptual experience and adherence to the language of abstraction. His pursuit of a synthesis of the two was fueled in part by the attraction of paradox, as he expressed it. Deliberately he would leave a work verging on the edge of dissolution into its components, so that the viewer would simultaneously see an abstraction and a perceived landscape. The significance of his contribution to the panorama of contemporary American art lies in the way his works preserve certain values of modernism, pay homage to the nature that surrounds us, embody the highest level of painterly performance, and take cognizance of changing ways of thinking about and producing art while not letting go of what has gone before.