Saturday, October 8, 2016

Early Wolf Kahn in Boston exhibit

Acme Fine Art Gallery in Boston's SOWA district is showing a compelling group of very strong paintings from an early period in Wolf Kahn's career. The exhibit's up now through November 26, 2016.

Cypress Rows

Created during the early 1960s, these abstract landscapes reveal a moodier side of Kahn, different from the exuberant explosions of color, light, and shadow for which he is best known today. Acme Gallery obtained the work because Kahn (who's 89 years old) is downsizing his New York studio and couldn't store it any longer. Kahn's early works are rarely shown; he's reportedly been watching the auctions and buying back his initial experiments, presumably to fine-tune his legacy by removing them from the market, if not from history. (Some artists destroy earlier work they feel will dilute their overall achievement.)

Kahn made these paintings during travels in Maine and in Italy in the early 1960s. They're striking for their rich, cool blues and purples intertwined with grays, subdued greens, and only occasional hints of the high-keyed palette that dominates his oeuvre. The grays are still present in his paintings today, but primarily as foils for the flaring brights - here in the early work the roles are reversed. 

Wolf Kahn, Untitled (Landscape from Penobscot Bay), c. 1963

"I was using the language of abstract expressionism to play my own games," Kahn's said of the paintings of this period. The painting above struck me as a sort of amalgam of Claude Monet and Joan Mitchell. 

Claude Monet, Blue Waterlilies, c. 1910?
Joan Mitchell, Rufus's Rock, 1966 (with art dealer Riva Yares)

The surface is dense, layered, textured with expressive brushwork agitated by the drips and accidents of action painting.  Here are three details of the Penobscot painting:

There's a wonderful series of sailboats from this period, too. (Who'd imagine something as cliched as a sailboat would lend itself so well to a visionary, nuanced abstract treatment?)

The painting below was my favorite of the fleet. It's at first glance "just" an all-white conceptual painting. It's a radical rendering, however, of a moment of perception - sheets and waves of brilliant sunlight drenching and dancing off the white sails of a boat.

As the wall text points out, the cascading glare is actually composed of subtle tonal shifts of warm and cool color and, seen from further away, the painting resolves itself into the familiar motif. 

Wolf Kahn, Disappearing Sailboat

Closer pic of "Disappearing Sailboat"
The largest painting on exhibit, "Into a Clearing," is a delightful paradox - a representation of ebullient foliage rendered in non-representational, Mitchell-like scribbles of subdued, grayed-down color.

Wolf Kahn, Into a Clearing, closer up.
The subject matter, scale, brushwork, and overall perceptual / expressionistic character of this one put me immediately in mind of contemporary painter Eric Aho. 

Eric Aho landscape
Here are a number of closeups of Wolf Kahn's surface in "Into a Clearing":

This small-scale but no-less potent show is certainly worth a walk-through. Rumor has it this is Acme Fine Art's final exhibition before the owner retires, which is a shame because Boston needs every daring, progressive gallery of contemporary art it can get.

Wolf Kahn, Early Work, installation view.
Check here for a thorough write-up on Acme's website and here for a selection of the works on view.