The wrath of Kahn

Colors of Life: Wolf Kahn at Eighty

Wolf Kahn’s landscapes often down plays the role of human presence in nature, as in the oil “Half Hidden Barn.”

Wolf Kahn’s landscapes often down plays the role of human presence in nature, as in the oil “Half Hidden Barn.”

What’s the color of a verb? An adjective? How about a relatively complex concept, such as “waiting fearfully,” or “enviously perplexed?” There’s no emoticon or street sign for “alluringly timeless.”

German-born, Neo-impressionist painter Wolf Kahn uses an unabridged dictionary of color to ferment the tree lines of woodlands and forests into brutally climactic art events in his delirious pastel compositions.

Drunk with color and using, apparently, a color palette the size of a dinner tray, the 80-year-old Kahn uses fields of color to tell complex stories and relate even more complex emotions. Some of his works are present with a kind of timelessness; some tell the viewer everything they need to know except for what is about to happen next. Suspense through colors.

Kahn moved to America with his family in 1939 to escape the Nazis. Once settled in New York City, he attended an arts high school, served a stint in the Navy and later worked with abstract expressionist painter Hans Hofmann, eventually becoming his studio assistant. Hofmann, also German born, famously said “the ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” Wolf Kahn obviously took this to heart, as well as his mentor’s use of nature as a primal source of subject.

The Guggenheim Fellow’s works are in the permanent collections of The Whitney, The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the MOMA in New York, just to name a few.

A typical pastel like “Parkside Path,” one of more than 30 of Kahn’s works on display until Jan. 5 at the Stremmel Gallery, depicts a park path (presumably Central Park) stretched out ahead. Kahn has an extraordinary ability of defining precise geographical location through very subtle color combinations. By use of blacks and purples, Kahn manages to make the path inviting yet filled with urban angst. The viewer eyes the path ahead. It leads somewhere just out of sight. The viewer is thrust into that set of emotions and must decide whether to go forward. The trees and grass are colored with the iridescence of an oily sunfish.

Though now reportedly suffering from macular degeneration, Kahn has achieved his unique light and internal texture.

Where Rembrandt worked oils, looking for that holy glow, and Georges de la Tour perfected the effect of candlelight on objects, Kahn’s esthetic agenda often riffs on a Milton Avery-like emotional use of color and paints his often tree-screened landscapes with a stranger, sometimes almost controlled psychedelic vision of tropicalia. Psychedelic, maybe, but without all of the usual nonsense.

Of course, Kahn’s colors aren’t straight-out-of-the-box primaries. His reds are often tainted with light blues, browns. His whites, upon close inspection, aren’t really all that white after all. His grass is sometimes green, sometimes golden, sometimes even pink, but Kahn manages to play one color against the others to achieve an eerie translucence and suspension of disbelief. It’s as though he takes each color and somehow removes the cliché from each.

The only works that show a remote human presence are his pieces that feature the recurrent themes of barns and cabins, as in “Barn With a Light Purple Roof.” From 60 feet away, the emotional gravity is bent into form through some kind for visual gravity better left to physicists to explain. From close-up, wicked chaos becomes very apparent and startling. Kahn articulates the horror and raw delirium of nature with his layers of tree-like threads and branches of color. Even his signature leaves one feeling a bit uneasy.