Friday, July 10, 2015

Wolf Kahn: Excerpts from a Conversation

I recently spent an hour with Wolf Kahn for a profile I’ve written for Art New England, which will be published in the September/October 2015 issue. I wound up with a lot of good material that wasn’t going to make it in. Here are the quotes as I wrote them down (though not necessarily in order). All of the paintings are, of course, by Wolf Kahn.

On why he chose and stuck consistently with landscape: Always gnawing the same bone allows me to have a coherent development. Of course, you know, only after 70 years does that appear.

I tried to paint the figure, but I found out that if you needed an extra limb you’d have to be Michelangelo to do it. In landscapes you can add another limb and no one is the wiser.

I was a faithful (Hans) Hofmann student. Probably I still am. 

I thought I was going to be like Bonnard and van Gogh, who painted everything (landscapes, the figure, the still life) but I found out that it was in landscape that I could contribute, that I had something personal to say. I painted a painting called “The Artist On the Way to the Motif” - but it didn’t have the artist in it. I kept painting him in and out and in again. Finally I painted him out all together. Then I was home free.

I’m interested in an overriding rhythm. I’m trying to get beyond intention. As soon as you have a brush in your hand you have a tool that’s going to make you descriptive. I didn’t want to be a descriptive artist.

I never think about color. Color came as a byproduct of other concerns. 

I thought of myself as a formalist, building recognizable structures - that would arrive at their meaning easily. 

I’m not a programmatic painter. I try to let things happen. 

I try to do things I haven’t done before and that I haven’t seen other people do and that allow me to be surprised.

If it’s a surprise for me, it might be a surprise for the audience.

I never had any kind of program. 

Like T.S. Eliot said, immature artists are influenced, mature artists steal. Who did he steal from? Oh, well Rembrandt, Kokoshka first, Bonnard, van Gogh, Vuillard... 

More recently I’ve allowed myself to become very influenced by Jackson Pollock - his process of painting was that he didn’t want to know what his painting would look like when it was done. 

I like to paint. I go to the studio, I go out with my friend Raymond in his Volvo, and we drive around till we find a place that’s conducive to work. How do you know it’s conducive? Until you see some relationship between things, and you can start out that way.

People say there’s a spiritual element in my painting. But I say if there is, you put it there.

People think that I’m painting Vermont, but I keep saying I’m painting paintings. 

What really interests me now is to create textures. I’m still painting the landscape, but I find the more stuff I put on, the better the painting. 

On the influence of abstract expressionism: It gave a certain weight to being an artist - What did you have to go on? Some kind of idea of accident and beauty and strength, and trying to stay away from description. 

On not becoming an abstract expressionist painter: I found out that the fact that I liked to draw kept getting in the way. I was always a hotshot draughtsman. I didn’t want to make that sacrifice. 

But I wanted to draw with as much freedom as I could possibly could. As soon as you TRY to describe something you’re already abrogating that freedom. 

I was always on the edge of abstraction without being an abstract painter. I was always interested in the brushstroke and the way different forms appeared on the surface. 

On the oft-proclaimed “death of painting”: You know, I went to school with Alan Kaprow and he said, “Every brushstroke I make reminds me of another artist.” So he quit painting and became a “Happenings” guy, and he said, “Painting is dead.” But at the same time we had a show in San Diego, and he gave a lecture in which he said some very nice things about my paintings. So what is that quote - about how only a fool would not permit himself to hold two contradictory ideas in one head? (His assistant later dug up the quote in question - Wolf was thinking of Emerson’s “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”) 

What advice would you give to beginning painters? To express enthusiasm, which literally means to be inspired by the gods. The most important thing is the capacity to feel and express enthusiasm. Allow whatever enthusiasm you have - whatever it is - to come into your work.

I have a feeling painting is its own discipline, has its own language. Painting is one of the things that makes life more interesting. It’s like talking in public - you try to make painting as interesting as baseball. It is like some exciting sport - painting has its own set of rules. You don’t really get to know them all, but you can sure as hell see when they’re being violated or not considered. 

But I don’t think of myself as an intellectual. I think of myself as a workman.

The official art world doesn’t recognize my work because it’s not provocative - I’ve never tried to be provocative. I think when you paint you should be wearing your best Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes - so that the best of you comes out rather than things that are going to shake people up. I never wanted to shake people up .... shaking myself up, yes!


  1. This is fabulous! Thank you so much.

  2. Great quotes. No doubt good questions and prompts. Thank you!

    1. Thanks Dana! Truthfully, this man's so agreeably enthusiastic about his convictions - he "knows what he's about" as the English say - that I had very little to do but keep my pen moving.

  3. His words and works are always so inspiring! Thank you very much!

    1. Donna - It's my pleasure to be able to share this.

  4. Truly enjoyed -look forward to your article.

  5. So many great nuggets in here, empowering to the newbie trying to find their footing! Thanks!

  6. Truly enjoyed -look forward to your article.

  7. Thank you so much. Each quote is a gift.

    Looking forward to sharing this with my students painting plein aire this week.

  8. Beautiful and meaningful. Thanks so much for giving me access to these insights.