Wolf Kahn, The Per Contra Interview with Miriam N. Kotzin
PC: You knew from the time you were a child that you wanted to be an artist?
WK: Yes, I always knew I wanted to be an artist. I was drawing when I was four years old. It was my favorite thing to do.
Painting still is, and I work every day.
PC: After a disappointing time at the New School with Stuart Davis, you went to study with Hans Hofmann—when you were just nineteen. What role do you see a teacher playing in a student’s development?
WK: He was a great influence not only on me, but on many painters. [A few of his students were Frank Stella, Robert de Niro, Larry Rivers.] He was the first teacher who managed to articulate clear formulations about modern art.
A word he used frequently used about the practice of painting was “struggle.”
PC: During that period, after you left Hoffman’s studio and school you decided to go to Chicago and study philosophy. Why philosophy?
WK: I have a taste for absolutes.
PC: How does that show up in your art?
WK: Paintings have to fulfill formal demands. Each painting has its own dignity, its own requirements. Sometimes these requirements are part of a large problem that has to be resolved.
PC: So when you’re working on the painting there’s the theoretical...?
WK: No. The resolution is visual, not conceptual. Always visual.
With each painting, you have to set up a situation in which you can be surprised. You have to have the opportunity to be spontaneous.
I’m really a Platonist and a Kantian. Everyone’s mind contains has a Category for Beauty. In painting, each individual painting has its own requirements. When I’m working on a painting I keep going until I meet its requirements. And then I stop.
Motherwell said ‘a painting proceeds by correcting a series of mistakes, and that it’s complete when I one I find one that I can’t correct.’
PC: That reminds me of Valéry’s comment about a poem never being finished, only abandoned. So that’s when is a painting is complete?
WK: It’s finished when its potential no longer requires articulation.
PC: Well, all right, I see now. So that’s different from abandoning it—entirely different. Which goes back to what you said about spontaneity.
Being ready to work—is why you always carry your pastels with you?
WK: Yes. The pastels and spiral notebooks. But I’m talking about spontaneity in the work itself. I try constantly to be spontaneous.
PC: Is it more difficult for you to be spontaneous now, after decades of experience painting, than it was at the beginning of a career? I can see how it might be either...the greater experience yields more approaches. And maybe greater confidence.
WK: I like to start fresh. For instance, I’m taking up all bare canvases to Vermont [W.K. lives and works there in the summer and early fall]. I’ll finish these that I have in the studio in New York, and start with new work in the Summer.
Of course everyone has baggage---their own habits, what was successful before, even the conventions of art history can be baggage. As soon as I catch myself being predictable, I stop and try to change.
PC: How do you do that?
WK: I have a large fund of perversity on which I can draw.
It’s important to be flexible and opportunistic as an artist in order to let go of all preconceptions and prejudgments.
PC: Writers are told to develop a voice—and with artists certainly you’d be able to recognize that a work is by a particular painter, Matisse, for example. You’re not saying that in looking for spontaneity, in avoiding easy or familiar solutions—or should I say resolutions?—that a painter wouldn’t have a style that is as recognizable as a signature.
WK: Sometimes people bring a painting up here to my studio, something they bought thinking they got a bargain paying maybe two or three thousand dollars for one of my paintings. They want to know about the painting, where it was done, and so forth.
PC: They’re looking for the sort of story and comment you have with the images in Wolf Kahn’s America? Not just where it was painted but some of the incidents and circumstances surrounding it?
WK: Right. And I look at the painting, and look again, and I can’t tell them about it—because it’s not mine. It was sold as mine, but it’s not. It’s easy to write a signature. To write a name on a painting.
And these forgeries, not only are they not my work, they’re such bad paintings!
PC: What about style?
WK: I agree with Mallarmé: the condition to which every work of art aspires is to have created itself.
But as for style, as soon as it becomes conscious I think you’re corrupt.
WK: Yeats wrote “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” It was in one of those dark poems.
PC: “The Second Coming.” [“The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
Speaking of poems, do you know Rimbaud’s vowel sonnet in which each vowel is assigned a color, and then associations for that color? I brought along a copy for you—and Wallace Stevens’ poem “Anecdote of the Jar,” which has a line about the “slovenly wilderness.”
WK: I don’t know those poems.
My main emphasis is on color, but I don’t have hard and fast rules about color like Kandinsky.
Take yellow. Yellow is a strange color. Flowers are yellow. It’s the color used in signs marking “danger”, and it’s the word for cowardice. No one tries to sell you yellow underwear.
I’ll be giving a lecture on color in December at the N.Y. Studio School. Do you know it?
PC: I know that in addition to studio classes they have a series of lectures by artists and by art critics.
WK: I like giving lectures. I don’t write it all out first. I talk to the audience, and I adapt what I say to their response.
The painter Tworkov said Don’t speak until you see the whites of their eyes.
PC: It sounds as though you could also be talking about teaching, too.
WK: I don’t teach much any more. But when I do teach, no matter how short the time I have with my students—lately I’ve been teaching two-day work-shops once a year [at the National Academy of Design in New York]—I teach to the group as a whole, usually twenty-five to thirty people of all levels of ability.
PC: Do you think it’s important to nurture self-esteem, to reinforce the positive elements only, which is a trend in some schools, or do you think it’s important for a teacher not only to praise but to make comments that would indicate places in the work where changes could be make to improve it...? What should a teacher do?
WK: Be severe. Make demands. But teach to the group. If I give something they don’t understand, I look at all the work that’s been done, and I use as an example—hold it up where everyone can see it—the piece that comes closest to what I was getting at. I point out how what I was talking about is there. And then the next best, and how that is connected to the point I was making. And so on. And then I ask if they understand the principle, and the students nod, some looking quite solemn. And some of them do understand.
I always back up my judgment about a work with something they can understand.
Talking about art, two words that I never want to use are “interesting” and “creative.” “Interesting” has no inherent meaning. To give “creative” any meaning it has to be by the Creator with a capital C—God.
© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
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Deep Purple Barn, 2003
Oil on canvas:
52 x 60 inches
132.1 x 152.4 cm
White Roof and Tangle, 2005
Oil on canvas
20 x 28 inches
50.8 x 71.1 cm
Signed W Kahn (lower right recto).
Where the Tide Gets Caught, 1999
Pastel on paper:
11 x 14 inches
27.9 x 35.6 cm
Signed W Kahn (lower right recto).