Capturing the way in which light coalesces around form, substantiating or dissolving it, is a central theme in Wolf Kahn’s painting. His work is recognized to masterfully balance the sensuous qualities of color, light, and paint with a relatively stark geometry of form, giving free reign to complex investigations of perception. Possessing an exceptional ability to discern fleeting atmospheric effects, he gave them presence in a two-dimensional world. His canvases are palpably about place, and yet they transcend mere description.

Perceptual phenomena were a central concern of Kahn’s across seven decades. Hovering between abstraction and figuration, his oils and pastels brilliantly capture the manifold ways in which light interacts with form. They are evidence, too, of his unflagging mastery of color. During his final decade, with diminished eyesight and working with new materials, he continued to coax the subtlest whisper or the most assertive oratory out of his chromatic combinations.

Photograph by Christopher Burke, courtesy of Miles McEnery Gallery

Born in Germany in 1927, Hans Wolfgang Kahn was exposed to the arts at a young age as the son of Stuttgart Philharmonic conductor Emil Kahn and his wife, Nellie Budge. He spent most of his childhood in the care of his paternal grandmother, Anna Kahn, in a house filled with art. With Hitler’s rise to power, his grandmother managed to place eleven-year-old Kahn on the Kindertransport to England. Anna Kahn and his maternal grandparents did not survive the Holocaust. He rejoined his father, stepmother, and siblings in 1940 in New York and attended the High School of Music and Art, graduating in 1945. 

After serving in the U.S. Navy, he took classes at The New School for Social Research under Stuart Davis. Kahn then enrolled in Hans Hofmann’s School of Fine Art. Fellow students include Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, and Richard Stankiewicz. Kahn remained for an additional 18 months as Hofmann’s studio assistant, including in Provincetown, MA, in the summer of 1947.

Kahn came of artistic age in post-World War II America. His peers at the Hofmann school and around New York City became known as the Second Generation New York School. This designation derives from the title of the Meyer Shapiro’s 1957 Jewish Museum exhibit The New York School: Second Generation. Many of these younger artists were including figuration in their work – a daring move, as abstraction was the ascendant art movement of the time. Kahn maintained his own course; his sense of “belonging to the landscape” as a refugee to this country reflected his attention to, and gratitude for, his new home.

After earning a B.A. from the University of Chicago in one year, Kahn returned to New York and rented a loft at 813 Broadway near Union Square, where he maintained a studio until 1995. He also taught art to young people in New York settlement houses for two years. 

He organized the 813 Broadway Exhibition with fellow Hofmann students John Grillo, Lester Johnson, Jan Müller and Felix Pasilis. This show gave rise to the artists’ cooperative Hansa Gallery at 70 E. 12th St., the venue where Kahn had his first critically-acclaimed solo show in 1953.

In April 1956, Kahn met artist Emily Mason at The Artists’ Club in New York and they spent the summer together in Provincetown, MA. Kahn’s painting In the Harbor of Provincetown was soon after acquired by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and included in its 1957 Recent American Acquisitions exhibition. Kahn also joined the Grace Borgenicht Gallery, where he had 29 solo exhibitions until its closure in 1995. 

In Provincetown, Mason and Kahn spent time with Milton Avery, a close family friend of Mason and her mother Alice Trumbull Mason. Emily Mason was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and Kahn followed her to Venice, where the two married in March, 1957. They spent the next two years abroad before returning to New York in 1959, where their first child, Cecily, was born.

In 1960, Kahn accepted a visiting professorship at the University of California at Berkeley, where he and Mason met Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud and Nathan Oliveira. His work was included in the Whitney Museum of American Art Young America 1960: Thirty Painters Under Thirty-Six, and the following year was shown in the Whitney Annual Exhibition.

He and Emily spent time in the summers in Maine and also returned to Rome in 1964, where their second daughter, Melany, was born. He continued to travel widely, lecturing, teaching, and making art, across the U.S. and to France, Kenya, Italy, Egypt, and Namibia, and finally to Germany after a long absence. 

When their studio neighbor, the painter Frank Stout, moved to Vermont, Mason and Kahn were introduced to the area and in 1968 decided to purchase their own farm in West Brattleboro. The couple would spend the summers in Vermont for the remainder of their lives. Each worked daily in their painting studios. Paintings begun over the summer were transported to New York City to be reconsidered and finished. Kahn drew every day in plein air or in his pastel studio. 

Kahn was presented in solo museum exhibitions across the country and internationally. His work is in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Whitney Museum of American Art; The Museum of Modern Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Hirshhorn Museum and the Smithsonian American Art Museum; and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He worked with Miles McEnery as his gallerist the last 20 years of his life.

He received numerous awards, including the U.S. Department of State’s International Medal of Arts, the National Academy of Design’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Vermont Arts Council’s medal for Outstanding Achievement.

Emily Mason died in Brattleboro, Vermont on December 10, 2019 with Kahn by her side reading poetry. Wolf Kahn died three months later in New York City on March 15, 2020.