Artist Biography

Wolf Kahn

(1927 - 2020)

Table of Contents

    American Abstract Expressionist Famous for Chromatic Landscapes

    By Margarita Karasoulas

    Painting the American terrain in a vibrant, expressionistic palette, Kahn is celebrated as one of the leading figures of the Hansa Gallery Cooperative and the second generation New York School.

    I. Biography

    Born in 1927 in Stuttgart, Germany, Wolf Kahn was raised in Frankfurt by his paternal grandparents, avid art collectors who played an influential role in his early penchant for art. Kahn was quite precocious as a child and was noted to have excelled both academically and artistically. He was “always drawing,” creating caricatures of military or athletic subjects. His grandmother particularly recognized his talents and interest in art, and provided him with private art lessons under the artist Fraulein von Joeden. A native German of Jewish descent, Kahn’s artistic aspirations were disrupted by the burgeoning threat of Nazi forces. He was given refuge in England in 1939 and rejoined the rest of his family in America in 1940.[1]

    Kahn’s move to New York City signaled the beginning of a promising career. He was immediately accepted at the High School of Music and Art, a school for the gifted, where he studied drawing and painting and contributed to the school newspaper, the Overtone, as an art and graphics editor. Kahn additionally honed his technique by working at a commercial art firm after school. He was an exceptional draftsman who spent his free time sketching the locales of the city. He went on to serve in the United States Navy where he was commissioned to paint portraits of the commanding officers. His earliest works reveal a mastery of form and a superb ability to capture the expressive personalities and characters of his figures.[2]

    Under the financial support of the GI Bill, Kahn pursued his artistic studies in the post-war years with a renewed fervor. He briefly studied under Stuart Davis and Hans Jelinek at the New School and later enrolled at the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts.[3] He additionally attended Meyer Schapiro’s art history lectures at Columbia and at the New School for Social Research. Kahn suffered a brief crisis of confidence after art school and briefly turned to philosophy, enrolling in 1949 at the University of Chicago. Kahn, however, continued to sketch and paint and was inspired to return to the art scene after a brief trip out west in 1950. He wrote to his father, “I think I ‘have something to say’ – that is, some things around me speak strongly enough to me, certain color harmonies, aspects of landscape, other artists’ work, that I would feel justified in trying once more to make an energetic attempt at becoming a painter.”[4]

    Upon his return to New York, Kahn became linked to an elite and interconnected circle of American artists and was actively recognized as a member of the Hansa Gallery Cooperative and the second generation of the New York School. Of the artist’s Kahn associated with, his mentor and teacher Hans Hoffman had the most formative influence on his artistic development. Hofmann instilled in Kahn a love and reverence of nature and encouraged the “structural color” and push & pull spatial theories that would become a signature of his art. Hofmann additionally espoused the “practice of borrowing from other painters – of seeing all painting as an impersonal activity, the participation in an ongoing discourse.”[5] This mantra would inform Kahn’s artistic style throughout his career. Kahn’s art is characterized by indefatigable experimentation and a constant reinterpretation of the works of his predecessors and contemporaries. The ideologies of many nineteenth and twentieth-century art movements, particularly Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, figure prominently in his art.

    Although a native of New York City, Kahn sought out the intimate landscapes of the American countryside for inspiration, sketching en plein eir. He traveled frequently during his lifetime and depicted the New England landscapes of Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont as well as Mexico and Italy. Working primarily in oil and pastel, Kahn forged an expressionistic yet representational style with an emphasis on nature. During the 1950s and 60s, he sought to reintegrate figurative representation into the dialogue of contemporary art, employing gestural drawing and a daring use of color.[6] Kahn acknowledged, “I realized I was painting my lifestyle. In doing so I was doing something that wasn’t allowed – painting everyday life. Figurative work wasn’t supposed to be art, but we were breaking those rules.”[7] His early works reveal the strong impact of Bonnard, Soutine, Van Gogh, Rouault, Matisse, and Monet.

    After a brief phase in the early 1960s where Kahn was inspired by a minimalist technique, he revisited the bold colors and representational elements of his earlier style in the mature works of the 1970s and 80s. Drawing upon a 500 year old tradition of landscape painting, Kahn cited Claude Lorrain, Caspar David Friedrich, J.M.W. Turner, and Jacob van Ruisdael as influences while reasserting the native landscapes of the Hudson River School and Luminists. The barn became a frequent motif in his art for which he became famous. Kahn likened the American barn to an American monument. He wrote: “We in America don’t have any antiquity, so for us there is only 18th and 19th century rural nostalgia. It was then we had our heroic age, and a New England barn is to us as a Greek temple was to Poussin.”[8]

    More recently, Kahn turned his focus entirely to nature, straying away from depictions of man-made barns and farmhouses to images of ponds, rivers, and forests. Kahn’s landscapes were typically uninhabited, nondescript locales invigorated with bold applications of color. Like the color field painters, Kahn recognized the emotive and structural importance of color and aspired to “do Rothko over from Nature.”[9] He wrote: “I’m always trying to get to a danger point in color, where color either becomes too sweet or it becomes too harsh, it becomes too noisy or too quiet, and at that point I still want the picture to be strong, forceful, and the carrier of everything that a painting has to have: contrast, drama, austerity.”[10]

    For Kahn, “painting landscape [was] a habit that won’t go away.”[11] He was represented by the gallery Ameringer, McEnery & Yohe. He produced a rich body of work that established him at the forefront of Abstract Expressionism in American art. His works are collected by many major museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

    II. Chronology

    • 1927 Born on October 4 in Stuttgart, Germany, the fourth and last child of Nellie and Emil Kahn. His father, Emil Kahn was the conductor of both the Stuttgart Philharmonic and the South German Radio
    • 1930 Sent to live with his grandparents in Frankfurt, Germany
    • 1937 Kahn’s father, stepmother, and siblings left Germany for the United States.
    • 1938 Began taking private art lessons under Fraulein von Joeden
    • 1939 Kahn was given refuge in England by the British government due to the rising threat of Hitler and Nazi Germany. Began attending the Cambridge County High School
    • 1940 Sailed for America to reunite with his family. Emil Kahn divorced his second wife Ellen.
    • 1942 Kahn’s family moved to the Upper West Side. Began attending the High School of Music and Art and became the art and graphics editor of the school newspaper, the Overtone. Worked after school at a commercial art firm and also spent his time in Louis Hahn’s studio creating illustrations.
    • 1945 Entered the Navy radio technician’s school in June
    • 1946 Left the Navy in July and returned to Manhattan in the fall. Enrolled at the New School and later entered the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts.
    • 1947 Studied with Hofmann in Provincetown for the summer. First exhibition at the Seligmann Gallery entitled “New Provincetown”
    • 1949 Enrolled at the University of Chicago to pursue philosophy
    • 1950 Traveled out West where he experienced the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, which inspired him to turn to painting again. Returned to New York City where he lived with artists Felix Pasilis. Exhibited with Lester Johnson, John Grillo, Miles Forst, and Jan Muller in “813 Broadway.” Began working part-time at the Manhattanville Settlement House teaching arts and crafts to children and teenagers.
    • 1952 Became part of a group of artists known as the Hansa Gallery Cooperative, including Jane Wilson, Allan Kaprow, Richard Stankiewicz, John Chamberlain, Lucas Samaras, George Segal, and Robert Whitman. Visited his brother Peter Kahn in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
    • 1953 Spent the summer on Cape Cod. Held a one-man exhibition at the Hansa Gallery.
    • 1954 Returned to Provincetown in the summer. Second one-man show at the Hansa Gallery. Exhibited at Second Annual Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture at the Stable Gallery.
    • 1955 Moved to Tepoztlan, Mexico under patronage of Libby Norman, returned to New York in September.
    • 1956 Met future wife, the artist Emily Mason, at a meeting of The Artist’s Club. Spent the following summer with her in Provincetown. Held a successful exhibition at the Borgenicht Galleries.
    • 1957 Moved to Venice where Emily was studying under a Fulbright scholarship. Married Emily Mason on March 2.
    • 1958 Returned to America
    • 1959 Traveled to Martha’s Vineyard
    • 1960 Accepted position as visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley. One-man exhibit there and at the Whitney Museum of American Art, entitled “Young America 1960: 30 Painters under 36”
    • 1961 Bought a house in Stonington, Maine. Became an adjunct professor of art at Cooper Union, where he taught until 1977.
    • 1962 Received Fulbright scholarship to Italy; lived in Milan and Rome.
    • 1967 Received Guggenheim fellowship, moved to Deer Island, Maine. First began experimenting with color.
    • 1968 Bought a farm in West Brattleboro, Vermont, began producing a number of exceptional barn paintings through the 70s
    • 1979 Advised by art collector Martin Ackerman, which yielded an increased income. Began to focus intently on color and moved away from farms and buildings to the natural landscape
    • 1986 Traveled to Washington, D.C., commissioned to paint the Chesapeake and Ohio canal
    • 2020 Died March 15 in New York City at the age of 92.

    III. Collections

    • Arts Club of Chicago, IL
    • Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY
    • Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
    • Columbus Museum of Art, OH
    • Dallas Museum of Art, TX
    • Harvard University Art Museum, MA
    • Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
    • Indianapolis Museum of Art, IN
    • Los Angeles County Museum, CA
    • Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, NY
    • Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
    • Milwaukee Museum of Art, MN
    • Minnesota Museum of American Art, MN
    • Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
    • Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
    • Museum of Modern Art, NY
    • National Academy Museum & School of Fine Arts, NY
    • New Orleans Museum of Art, LA
    • Princeton University Art Museum, NJ
    • San Diego Museum of Art, CA
    • Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
    • University of California, Berkeley, CA
    • Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, VA
    • Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
    • Worcester Art Museum, MA

    IV. Exhibitions

    • 1952-1954 Hansa Gallery, New York
    • 1956-1995 Grace Borgenicht Gallery, New York
    • 1960 Art Museum at University of California at Berkeley
    • Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
    • 1983 Bruce Museum, Greenwich, CT
    • 2002-2009 Ameringer, McEnery & Yohe Fine Art, New York, Boca Raton

    V. Memberships

    • American Academy of Arts and Letters
    • The Artist’s Club
    • National Academy of Design

    VI. Notes

    [1] Justin Spring. Wolf Kahn (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996), pp. 9-13.
    [2] Justin Spring. Wolf Kahn (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996), pp. 13-14
    [3] Justin Spring. Wolf Kahn (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996), p. 15
    [4] Justin Spring. Wolf Kahn (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996), pp. 22-23
    [5] Justin Spring. Wolf Kahn (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996), pp. 18-20
    [6] Justin Spring. Wolf Kahn (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996), pp. 18-20
    [7] Justin Spring. Wolf Kahn (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996), p. 32
    [8] Justin Spring. Wolf Kahn (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996), pp. 66-67
    [9] Justin Spring. Wolf Kahn (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996), pp. 82-84
    [10] Justin Spring. Wolf Kahn (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996), p. 79
    [11] Barbara Novak, introduction to Wolf Kahn Pastels by Wolf Kahn (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000), p. 6.

    Suggested Resources

    Wolf Kahn: Toward the Larger View, a Painter’s Process. New York: Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art, 2009.
    Kahn, Wolf. Wolf Kahn’s America: An Artist’s Travels. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.
    Sawin, Monica. Wolf Kahn, Landscape Painter. New York: Taplinger, 1981.

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