Monday Morning Art School: what we can learn from Wolf Kahn

Color is the dominant theme of our age.

Autumn trees, undated, Wolf Kahn, from a commercial lithograph

Wolf Kahnwas a mid-century American landscape painter who was influenced significantly by Abstract-Expressionismand Color Fieldpainting. The fog on Deer Isle, Maine led to an epiphany about color: “I began to let the color come through on my canvases,” he wrote. “My pastels were always intense, and finally my painting caught up with them.”

Brilliant Green Trees, 1997, Wolf Kahn, courtesy Walter Wickiser Gallery

Kahn’s canvases are deceptively simple. What can we learn from them?

Color is the dominant theme of our age

That was beginning to be true in the 1960s when Kahn was coming into his own, but we now live in the full maturity of color. We are surrounded by a surfeit of chromatic intensity. Imagery has always been influenced by what’s around us, and today that’s our cell phones, monitors, and televisions. Printing technology is far better than it was even thirty years ago, so the photos in our books are clearer and brighter than ever. Paint and pigment technology have undergone similar improvement, which is why we’re seeing houses with navy blue vinyl siding—they’ve managed to make a dark blue that doesn’t fade.

Will this trend last forever? For all I know, there will be an equal and opposite reaction into monochrome. But for the moment, we’re living in an age of intense color, and if you are painting in our times, you’d best know how to use color.

That includes understanding and using modern organic pigments.

Midsummer, 1993, Pastel, Wolf Kahn, courtesy Walter Wickiser Gallery

The ‘real’ hue is irrelevant if the value is right

Kahn is famous for substituting impossible colors into the landscape: orange scrub, fuchsia woods and purple hills. One of his favorite techniques is to make the trunks of saplings the exact same value as the background, but the complementary color. The brain reads this as the screen of trees.

Stripped down to their essential form, objects are still recognizable to the human brain

Our minds are programmed to read images from the faintest stimuli, which is why we see faces in the steam on our shower door. This tendency to perceive meaningful images in ambiguous visual patterns is called pareidolia

This is not a purely human response, either. Occasionally, one of my hiking trails will be blocked off with a sawhorse festooned with signs. Until he’s close enough to investigate them, my dog finds these shapes very threatening. He’s seeing a vaguely-animal shape.

Our human pareidolia is the same response. We’re programmed to investigate visual stimulus that looks sort of familiar. Kahn and other abstract artists are exploiting this.

That’s an aspect of modern art that is likely to stay with us, as it’s built on our fundamental brain architecture. If we want to paint within our times, we need to stop spelling everything out.

Reluctant Green, 2001, Wolf Kahn, courtesy Walter Wickiser Gallery

It’s all an interplay of warm and cool

While Kahn’s selection of substitutionary colors might seem random, he is careful about color temperature. Where he wants objects to recede, they’re cool. Where he wants them to pull, they’re warm. Again, he’s playing with our brains and eyes and how they’re designed to perceive color.

Bright Center, 2015, Wolf Kahn, courtesy Addison-Ripley Fine Art

Chromatic intensity matters

In most instances in Kahn’s work, one hue leads. That color is given the greatest chromatic intensity. In others, two colors are balanced in chromatic intensity, but one leads by virtue of being warmer. None of this is accidental. Kahn was acutely aware of chroma and its importance.

We painting teachers bang on and on about value, and it’s certainly fundamental. However, color temperature and chromaare also important.

Growing pain

The Yellow Christ, Paul Gauguin, 1889, is no longer the “art of the present” but it’s one of my favorites at the Albright-Knox. 
The Albright-Knox Art Gallery has announcedthat it plans an addition to its venerable space on Elmwood Avenue in the city of Buffalo. While it’s true that the current 19,000 square feet of floor space is crammed, one wonders—of course—who is going to pay for the addition.
The museum’s collection contains about 6,740 works, of which it can only exhibit about 200 at a time, according to Thomas R. Hyde, president of the museum’s board. “Campus development is no longer an option; it is a necessity,” he added. “We are, in many ways, a middleweight museum with a heavyweight collection.” And then he mentioned the cracks in the marble floors of the gallery’s original building.
(Veterans of capital campaigns will recognize that last gambit: throw in some deferred maintenance and people are supposed to stop kvetching about major changes.)
Side of Beef, Chaim Soutine, c. 1925, is another of my favorite Albright-Knox pieces.
Meanwhile, gallery director Janne Siren insists that plans are still in the ‘conversation’ phase. Having said that, the board has been rattling the can for expansion since publication of their 2001 strategic plan.  “Siren took over the directorship of the Buffalo gallery shortly after city fathers in Helsinki, Finland rejected a plan he had spearheaded to build a large Guggenheim museum there using public funding,” reported WGRZradio.
In 2007 the Albright-Knox Art Gallery deaccessioned a Roman bronze sculpture that subsequently netted $28.6 million at Sotheby’s. It was part of a larger deaccessioning of works that fell outside the ‘core mission’ of the gallery, which then-director Louis Grachos defined as “acquiring and exhibiting art of the present.” Alert Buffalonians immediately wondered what that meant for their own favorite works.
The deaccession vote was approved only on the contingency that the funds raised would be used to buy additional artwork. That meant that the money from the sale would be added to the paltry $22 million acquisitions endowment. (The overall endowment of the museum was then about $58 million.)
Being from Buffalo, I first visited the Albright-Knox while in diapers. Deaccessioning the Roman sculpture and clearing that exhibition space for other work was the right thing to do. But I share the Buffalo cynical mind, and I have my doubts about the viability of this project.
Buffalo is now half the size it was the year I was born, and there’s no sign that the population drain will abate any time soon. Clearly the board is counting on tourists to make up their numbers, and with the elegant expansion of the Burchfield-Penney Art Centeracross the street, an argument can be made that an arts corridor is possible on Elmwood Avenue.

La Maison de la Crau (The Old Mill), Vincent van Gogh, 1888, is another Albright-Knox piece that can no longer be termed ‘of the present.’ 

But that doesn’t address the question of how it will be paid for, or where the expansion will go. The Albright-Knox is landlocked, with Delaware Park at its front and Elmwood Avenue by its back door. Any kind of significant expansion would infringe on its parking lot, its neighbors, or the park.
1957-D No. 1, Clyfford Still, 1957. The Albright-Knox has a large collection of Still’s paintings. Last time I was there, I noticed how many 20th century paintings needed conservation. It’s not as sexy as expansion but still necessary. 
I await future developments with great interest.

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Abstract-Expressionism bails me out

Underpainting of a hailstorm. That’s painting #6 underpainted; one more to go.

When I had a composition problem on this underpainting of a hailstorm, I reached back to an old friend: the color field painter Clyfford Still.

Living on the Lake Plains as I do, I know that a level field is perfect for growing crops, but not so attractive for painting. It resolves into bands—a border of green at the bottom, an expanse of gold, a distant, straight hedgerow of green, and then the sky. (This is the same problem with painting Lake Ontario, with its regular shoreline.)
1956-D, 1956, by Clyfford Still
Clyfford Still’s compositions—while emphatically non-representational—still carry the whiff of the natural world about them. In part, this comes from their texture: they may be of color fields, but they are gloriously impasto. But in part it comes from the shapes themselves, which are evocative of the real world.
One of Still’s devices was to lay a contrasting band right along the edge of his canvas, which is then elegantly and perfectly balanced against the other shapes in his canvas. So when I find myself at a loss about how to deal with that edge band of grass that always shows up in a flat landscape, I go and potter among Still’s paintings for a while.
1952-A, 1952, by Clyfford Still
Perhaps it is because I grew up with them. Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery owns 33 paintings dated between 1937 and 1963, and they are as familiar to me as my own skin.
That’s small potatoes compared to his oeuvre. The majority of his paintings were never sold in his lifetime and are now on display at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Group of Seven

Study for “Northern River” by Tom Thomson

Like every other kid who grew up in Buffalo, I spent my formative years at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. This was by no means a bad thing, seeing as the collection is housed in a fantastic building designed by EB Green and Augustus Saint-Gaudens and includes important works by a host of important 19th and 20th century artists, focusing particularly on Abstract-Expressionism (which was America’s first home-grown art movement, centered in Manhattan).

What Albright-Knox didn’t collect is every bit as interesting, because it missed two seminal movements in modern art that were happening right by its own back door. It acquired only about a dozen or so works on paper by Buffalo’s own visionary painter, Charles Burchfield. And it ignored Burchfield’s contemporaries from across the Niagara River, the now-famous Group of Seven.

The Group of Seven were, above all, acolytes in a nascent cult of Canada. They had a strongly spiritualist identification with the Great White North as the touchstone of Canadian identity—the “true north, strong and free.”

“We live on the fringe of the great North across the whole continent and its spiritual flow, its clarity, its replenishing power passes through us to the teeming people south of us.” (Lawren Harris)

“Northern River” by Tom Thomson, on his easel in his painting studio/shack; originally this was behind the Design Studio in Toronto but has been moved to the McMichaels grounds in Kleinburg, Ontario.

The Group of Seven understood the artists’ role as prophets of this spiritual identification.

“Indeed no man can roam or inhabit the Canadian North without it affecting him, and the artist, because of his constant habit of awareness and his discipline in expression, is perhaps more understanding of its moods and spirit than others are. He is thus better equipped to interpret it to others, and then, when he has become one with the spirit, to create living works in their own right, by using forms, color, rhythms and moods, to make a harmonious home for the imaginative and spiritual meanings it has evoked in him. Thus the North will give him a different outlook from men in other lands. It gives him a difference in emphasis from the bodily effect of the very coolness and clarity of its air, the feel of soil and rocks, the rhythms of its hills and the roll of its valleys, from its clear skies, great waters, endless little lakes, streams and forests, from snows and horizons of swift silver…” (Lawren Harris)

Ultimately the Group of Seven’s agenda (the celebration of the unique power of Canada) drew them in a radically different direction than the main movement of western art, which was focusing on the celebration of the emotional, rebellious, nihilistic, anarchic, and idiosyncratic “genius” of the time. The Group of Seven were trained graphic designers, which meant they were primarily communicators. Because they were propagandists for a kind of Canadian nationalism, they shied away from the inaccessibility of Modern Art. It was important to them that their public understood the message, so they used the traditional tools of art—drawing and design.

In fact, some of what they did—abandoning value, abandoning the ‘scene’, ignoring atmospherics—could never work if their color mixing and drawing were not so spot-on.

“Rooftops” by AJ Casson illustrates the exceptional drafting skills of the Group of Seven painters. Note how he convinces you that the rooftops are marching past you with his deft manipulation of traditional perspective.

In fact, I think the reason Seymour Knox ignored them is that they challenged him in two key points that would really irk a mid-century American mogul: that modernism was inherently better than tradition, and that being American was inherently better than being Canadian. But at a fifty year remove, Knox seems almost pathetically provincial, blindly following Manhattan’s style lead and ignoring what was going on around him.

I can only speak as a New Yorker, but from my vantage point, there has been no clear sense of direction in painting for the last three decades. However, one thing seems clear: representation and technique have returned to importance, and Abstract-Expressionism (although it leaves its mark) has far less influence now than at any other point in my life.

The earliest core of the Group of Seven— Tom Thomson (who was never a formal member), AY Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley—were painting together in Algonquin Park by 1914, at which point their work was interrupted first by the onset of the Great War, and then by the untimely death of Thomson, who was found dead in Algonquin under mysterious circumstances. The group eventually included Lawren Harris, JEH MacDonald, Frank Johnston, Franklin Carmichael, AJ Casson, Edwin Holgate, and LL Fitzgerald. Emily Carr and Clarence Gagnon were closely affiliated with them in viewpoint and technique.

“Sopwith Camel Looping” by Frank Johnston. Several of the Group of Seven painters were conscripted into the war effort. When viewing Johnston’s aerial perspectives, one must remember how rare and new flight was and the difficulty of taking reference photos at the time.

The three important collections of their work are in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa; McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario, and Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. All three emphasize the relationship between their field sketches (undertaken in conditions so arduous I can barely imagine them) and their studio paintings.

You can read about them here.