Wolf Kahn, The Per Contra Interview with Miriam N. Kotzin
PC: What are some of the ideas that you might want to give your students about making art?
WK: The idea that composition isn’t useful because it presupposes prescriptions. You can’t cut it in half. You can’t leave a corner uncovered by paint.
PC: Three words that kept repeating in your books and in the writing about your work were “Anxiety,” “Connection,” and “Austerity.” If it’s okay with you let’s take them one at a time.
WK: Anxiety. It’s the missing intellectual kernel. In making a painting, I’m trying to overcome anxiety [within the painting process.] I get the picture to the place where it no longer overcomes me with its need.
PC: “Overcomes with its need” is an intense connection. And it goes back to what you said earlier about how you know when the painting’s complete like using the word “requires.” Both are insistent.
What about “Connection?
WK: E.M. Forster said, “Only connect.” [Pauses] But I’m an unsentimental person when it comes to... People use the word “connectedness,” which is psychobabble.
PC: In your book on pastels you mention connection within a work: how elements connect with one another, or serve to connect other elements.
WK: Sometimes I say my book, Wolf Kahn’s Pastels, of which I wrote “a how to book with metaphysical pretensions.”
PC: It made me want to take up pastels.
What about the last of the three, “Austerity.” Why that?
WK: “Austerity” addresses a misunderstanding of my work. I’ve been criticized as “a stroker.”
PC: What do you mean by that?
WK: My work’s been criticized as being too easy to look at. The people who say that aren’t seeing the edge in my work.
If you’re just craving new sensation, stay away from what I do.s
PC: I can see the connection between that edge and some advice you’ve given students, Jean Cocteau’s advice that “you should always go further than you should go.”
You don’t have particular correspondences of color to emotion for yourself. What about connections that the viewer might have between certain colors and emotions, either personal or cultural?
WK: No, although my main emphasis is on color, I’m a formalist. I make the colors in my paint box relate to each other and secondarily to the perceived natural world.
I try not to draw. Toulouse Lautrec exulted at the end of his life when he said that at last he no longer knew how to draw.
The main thing is that I’m a formalist. If part of a painting doesn’t work, I change the color, the size [of that section], the texture.
A painting is about something momentary, so I go hunting for moments. Calculation in art is something which only a great genius could control without detriment.
PC: In your book on pastels you talk about loose, quick, often circular or circle-like, lines you call “scribble scrabble.” How do they compare with what appear to be spontaneous, but, nonetheless, more deliberate calligraphic marks in your painting?
WK: The scribble-scrabble in pastels is used to get a feeling of air. In the paintings, the calligraphic marks are different. They’re more deliberate. But they have the same function. [Gestures towards a painting.] But, also, they’re the branches of the trees. I used a lot of them here so there would be white.
PC: A couple of craft questions, if you don’t mind. When you go out with pastels, you use a variety of size pads?
WK: Yes. I use a different size according to what I’m doing. I use spiral notebooks, which means the work can be transported without getting smudged. Then when I get back to the studio, I can take them out.
PC: You’ve mentioned that you’ll do a pastel, then only after you’ve completed it will you take a photograph because the photograph will include things that you don’t want—visual accidents. Do you use electronic camera? Photoshop?
WK: No. I don’t use electronic devices like that. I don’t take the photographs myself. My wife, [Emily Mason] –we’ve been married fifty-one years—takes the photographs.
She’s a painter, as is my daughter [Cecily Kahn] and her husband [David Kapp]. Their work is on what I call my familial gallery wall.
PC: I don’t know how you feel about giving advice. But I’m hoping that you might be willing to give some advice to younger artists.
At the beginning of your career you were one of the founders of the cooperative Hansa Gallery. [Some other founding members were Allan Kaprow, Jan Müller, Felix Pasillis, and Jane Wilson.] What advice would you give to artists who are considering forming a coop gallery?
WK: My advice to young artists is to become a part of a group. Don’t be afraid of being influenced. You’ll always have influences, some of them from art history.
As for the co-op—and for being a part of a group—have artists as good as you are or better.
PC: What advice would you give to artists who are experiencing a down time in their career, either because they’re having trouble getting their career off the ground or because they’re having a slump.
WK: Optimism. And perseverance. You just keep going.
And you have to know what you’re going for.
PC: You have a reputation as a colorist. A landscape—with no cows—a barn, which has become more than a barn, a line of trees. These are some of the images one might have associated with your name.
You wrote about doing cityscapes, including views from your window and in Gramercy Park. You said that snow covering the city covered irrelevant details, and made the park and the cityscape a subject you liked better than the city without snow. The last thing I would have expected to see on your studio wall is a large painting of the Empire State Building. You manage to make it look almost ethereal.
How long have you been working on cityscapes?
WK: A couple of weeks.
PC: A couple of weeks!
WK: Two months. They grew out of Gramercy Park pastels, with huge blocky buildings rising behind fragile open trees. I found a tonality true to cityscapes.
The Empire State building is such a thing and I wanted to merge it with the surrounding atmosphere. I had a conscious program to create ambiguity in something unambiguous.
If there are any influences on it, it would be Giorgio Morandi, in the awareness of edges.
PC: You succeeded. And there’s a lot of edge in the height of the building. Does the iconic nature of the Empire State Building have inherent challenges that a less recognizable building might not have?
WK: I suppose so. To have it become a light experience and only secondarily have it be recognizable as a specific building. A painting has to be first a painting and not a portrait of a specific building.
PC: You’ve put your finger on the difficulty of painting an icon. What is its title?
WK: “The Tallest Building.”
PC: One final question, you’ve written, “The Good Example of Hans Hofmann” and “The Good Example of Milton Avery.” If someone were to write “The Good Example of Wolf Kahn,” what should they say --what would you like them you and about your work?
WK: John Updike said that my writing had an amiable quality, that it didn’t make heavy demands. I like that—amiable.
And for the good example of Wolf Kahn, it would be consistency. I’m always gnawing on the same bone.
© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
1 - 2
Summer Copse, 2008
Oil on canvas
32 x 52 inches
81.3 x 132.1 cm
Nighttime in Gramercy Park, 2007
Pastel on paper
14 x 11 inches
35.6 x 27.9 cm
In a Pink Context, 2006
Pastel on paper
8 x 10 inches
20.3 x 25.4 cm
Signed W. Kahn (lower center recto).