Philadelphia

Wolf Kahn

Grace Borgenicht Gallery

“Things to ignore” Wolf Kahn once wrote, “The fads of the moment.” This landscape painter for more than 20 years apparently refers to ephemeral artistic conceits and ideologies of the city, without interest in distinguishing these from more lasting ideas, or basic accomplishments, equally irrelevant to his interests. In Kahn’s work, whether oil or pastel, an atavistic mind holds on, cultivating its episodes of private observation, the quaint, quietist individual reflexes and moods drawn in through the artist’s lone eyes before nature, and later rendered complete in the studio. There are hundreds of painters who have chosen these bosky meadows and massed them with stumbled surfaces, but more nostalgically than he, and more recently. Modesty becomes these humdrum poets of escape, for the out-of-doors is not only a subject of refuge for them, but an alibi for sentimentality.

It would not matter, then, how justly an artist speaks against new platitudes, if he adheres to older ones. The gentle melancholy of the Vermont slopes, seen at sunset or rise, with deepening shadows, no one around in these long lighted vistas, with perhaps a barn or a shed tucked away in a corner, all this with soft focus and given in thin or clotted substance, the vantage gently above the horizon or close to the ground: such are the routine configurations of Kahn’s art. But he sometimes visualizes them feelingly.

One senses in his paintings two opposed currents, and the difficulty of fusing them lends his works an understated tension. There is the slightly vapory space, with fuzzed silhouettes and frazzled densities, the chiffony bulk of the timber, and air only in the darks. We are not so far here from late Inness or Blakelock, while the pastels often seemed reminiscent of the bleached quiverings of Twachtman. Occasionally, though, underneath the dissipating halftones, coming through or spasmodically dabbed over them, and then sometimes lost, but for an accent here or there, he whispers of an expressionist background, a vestige of Bonnard. All this is articulated in color as much as touch. Kahn may resort to greened grays, etched by creams against madders, and his favorite hue is muted lavender. But he does not hesitate to douse a field with yellow or flood a sky with pale orange. For those interested in historical affinities, the reference may be to the somewhat more assonant Averys, while the overall abandonedness of these zoned tableaux would suggest Hopper, excepting the hesitant impastos that everywhere populate his vision. For the protagonists here are really the discoveries made by the wrist that hopes to equivocate about substance itself, and yet declares its presence bluntly enough. It is a hoarse kind of subtlety, and unstudied. Still, the process does not work, I think, as often enough as the artist wants it to. A number of canvases are overly schematic, or else they display a labored tentativeness. One that does not, Pond and Pinewoods, reacquaints us with the precision of the nonfocus that characterized the tradition at its best.

Max Kozloff