The art of Wolf Kahn is challenging to categorize. Working primarily in oils and pastels, his loose, gestural brushstrokes take their cue from Abstract Expressionism. He regularly uses horizontal bands of color, as seen in his 1992 pastel, Pond in a Red Landscape. These planes are reminiscent of the works of Mark Rothko with one small exception. Kahn includes subtle verticals with myriad tree trunks: Kahn’s subject matter is very much representational. He is best remembered for his expressively and energetically colored landscapes.
Kahn studied and worked with Hans Hofmann in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Hofmann is considered to have been one of the most influential teachers of the 20th century, and was pivotal in the rise of Abstract Expressionism. Both Hofmann and Kahn use intense and expressive palettes.
Kahn’s landscapes vary in their realism and representationalism. He varies his representation of space and depth, sometimes creating the illusion of a receding landscape, and at other times creating a flat layering of color. The primary element Kahn manipulates is color.
Some of these landscapes, such as Blazing Beaver Pond have palettes based on nature, but with heightened intensity. The yellows and oranges of the foliage are akin to the colors seen in New England during the height of the leaf-peeping season in strong sunlight, although the periwinkle and rose tones in the cloud cover preclude such light.
Other landscapes, such as Trunks the Color of Orange, are more intensely colored and highly keyed for emotive effect. In Trunks the Color of Orange the tree trunks are saffron and orange as they might become with the “golden hour” light of the late afternoon. The leaves just budding out on the trees, likewise take on this tonality, but in combination with the chartreuse of young spring leaves. Behind them all is a wall of lavender, perhaps a rolling hill cast into shadow by the setting sun. These colors are wildly expressive and exuberant; they communicate the joy of a spring afternoon, set alight by a sun low on the horizon.
Drawn Downhill is more expressive still. Autumn grasses appear to be not just golden, but on fire. The fruit trees just creeping into the blazing fields bloom white but with intensely green shadows. The trees further back are again ablaze, this time in orange, and beyond are rolling hills the color of red wine. Over all is an impossibly blue sky. The result is a crazy quilt landscape of riotous color celebrating the vivacity of fall colors in New England.
In all three works, the colors are presented in large bands that flatten space and with brushstrokes that further energize the palette. Whether your tastes run to a palette that is merely heightened nature or one that is utterly expressive, Kahn created thoroughly modern landscapes.