When Tobi Kahn begins one of his paintings, he sets himself up for a layering process that is repeated almost 20 times. Gesso, modeling paste and opaque paint accept the following translucent glazes. This texture and tonality is the basis for his exploration of memory and form, which has evolved over more than 40 years. Cocooned in his labyrinthine Long Island City studio, Kahn has spent the pandemic pressing and scratching paint and finish onto his wooden canvases. He broods over photos he has taken – his compass in search of the essence of things – but only the memory of the picture remains. “Tobi keeps distilling and investigating the nature of what he felt,” says art historian Mark Mitchell, Holcombe T. Green curator of American paintings and sculpture at Yale University Art Gallery, whose collection includes some of Kahn’s work.
After two difficult years of COVID-19 and social and political turmoil, critics and curators are paying renewed attention to Kahn’s messages of harmony and simplicity and what he calls “the in-between – the interplay between memory and imagination”. This spring, Kahn opened two new exhibitions, both in Washington, DC: a room dedicated to his holdings at the Phillips Collection, and an exhibition of his most recent work, a tribute to the human form, at the Dadian Gallery at Henry Luce III Center for Arts and Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary. In autumn a third exhibition, ElementaryA decade of paintings on wood and handmade paper depicting Kahn’s response to Iceland and nature will be on view at the Patchogue Arts Council Museum of Contemporary Art Long Island (MoCA LI) gallery in New York.
Kahn is drawn to the transformative elements in nature. His paintings, sculptures and meditative spaces invite introspection and perhaps healing. The works seem to invite you to linger. Over the years, Kahn has been commissioned to create meditative spaces; The result is spaces that serve as immersive sculptures. There are places like Emet, a non-denominational healing chapel in New York health ministry, and Shalev in New Harmony, Indiana, on the edge of a plain that floods majestically once a year. There a bronze form stands sheltered under a Stonehenge-style granite beam.
“It offers a moment away from the mundane and the overly detailed,” Mitchell notes, “and moves us into a more thoughtful environment of intense gaze, a kind of invitation to linger and the antidote to the age of Instagram. His art is a gift during this time of separation, isolation and ongoing hurt.”
The metaphors for meditation in his oeuvre are in his layers. As the son of a German-Jewish family, many of whom were killed in the Holocaust, Kahn’s story and the uncertainties of his life accompany him constantly. He meditates every morning; that spirituality accompanies him into the studio. This experience, and the associated sense of urgency to preserve the tiniest sparks of a life force, underlies his carefully outlined and colored forms. He is fascinated by the essence of things, and each coat of glaze he applies is his own meditation, not unlike the art revealed in artist Richard Long’s contemplative walks. Kahn’s meditation draws on a viewer’s lived experience. “My work isn’t finished until someone looks at it,” he notes, “and they bring everything they are to the experience of recording them.”
The two parallel exhibitions vary and converge in an insightful overview of his artistic development. After graduating with an MFA from the Pratt Institute in 1978, his early work earned him a career-launching inclusion in the 1985 Guggenheim Museum exhibit New Horizons in American Art. That New York Times recognized at the time that “a strong irrationality and desire have already entered Kahn’s rhythms and forms”.
Kahn’s work resonates with today’s most pressing issues—identity and harmony, disease and invasions, human rights and privilege—and questions of transformation and transition. For the artist, history unfolds where colors meet. Mark Rothko’s use of color and Paul Cezanne’s attention to detail in changing colors and shapes are among his strong influences. “Mark Rothko embodies Phillips’ belief in the restorative power of art, and similarly, Tobi is attuned to that power,” said Klaus Ottmann, Associate Director of Academic Affairs and Special Initiatives, The Phillips Collection. “There is a great connection between our commitment to the American modernists Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley, who oscillated between representation and abstraction, and Tobi’s work.”
While his Jewish background influences his spiritual approach, Kahn’s art conveys a universal harmony. The calm and optimistic paintings are ointments many have sought during months of isolation and unrest and the divisive politics of our national and international discourse. At Phillips, the gentle sanctuary of a blue yin-yang room in the Goh annex complements the contemplative intimacy emanating from the seven paintings on display, reflecting the Phillips’ overall mission. Given that Duncan Phillips founded the museum after the deaths of his brother and father during the 1918 flu pandemic, there is a poetic continuum in Kahn’s installation. “Tobi’s practice of accumulation is very rich,” says Mitchell. “His is not a shattered work of art; it insists that you stay and watch.”
Among the works, “LYJE” (1991) features what evokes an Eleutheran crimson bud, deeply outlined and colored with rich layers of gesso and acrylic reaching through the center of the narrow vertical panel and across the top edge. The line and color express what Mitchell describes as “baroque emotion” and refer to the influence of the Passion in Caravaggio’s paintings in the Renaissance period. The illuminated background seems to glow against the blue walls of the gallery. “I think it’s more about remembering a flower than being a flower,” explains Kahn.
In “INHA” (2020), a character whose gender and ethnicity are ambiguous leans forward with an arm wrapped around his back to simultaneously show gratitude and protection. “It’s good to see right now that social injustice and diversity are so much in the foreground,” says Ottmann. “Art has the potential to be inclusive.” The color in “INHA” builds from the calm tones of the background and through the figure, culminating in a head of red hair reminiscent of the fertile and vulnerable form of the earlier “LYJE ” remind. In between hangs “AYLA” (2003) by Kahn’s Luminous sky & water Series whose undulating tones of sea green and bright sky blue are intersected by a smoldering horizon line, that “in between” like the dawn or a moment of transition between realms that Kahn treats so tenderly.
The little painting by the door, a faint lattice, (“untitled”) by him white windows Series (1977), reminiscent of Agnes Martin, encourages reflection on the act of looking through a window. Through the pale color one could recognize the bare shape of a tree. “I’m interested in looking, when you see through something to discover something new,” says Kahn. For the artist, “Art is about life and about seeing… I am a vehicle for that.”
Across town at the Luce Center, curator Aaron Rosen has compiled the artist’s most recent work, a study of the human body inspired by interactions with his students at the School of Visual Arts and the concerns and ambiguities they convey to him about four years have expressed in relation to identity. gender and body. In response, Kahn photographed individual dancers, ranging in age from 30 to 70, whose forms he distilled in these paintings. The works celebrate the body in motion and how this moment is fleeting. “There’s this sense of an awakening of the body that has a generative theological movement,” Rosen asserts. “Adam summoned from the dirt, or Eve, or Lilith, much of the first steps, and much of the electricity of creation that is important in Tobi’s work.”
The bold, vibrant outlines of “RYHA” (2019), common to Kahn’s paintings, form a dancer with no discernible age, race, or gender. The torso of the body, in motion and reaching around the edges, is both alien and familiar. This essence, according to Rosen, has a universal soul fullness; Kahn, he says, “creates images that are someone and everyone at the same time.”
Accompanying this central work are two smaller wooden canvases, each with a detail of a moving body, richly textured with a scraped, graded background in cool tones. In “EINSAH” (2019), the cropped figure—arched lower back, bare buttocks, arms reaching to the sides of the canvas—is suspended in a sea of oxidized copper-cyan. For “A’ASA” (2019), the character’s arms rest on her head, hands draped peacefully, body surrounded by the stillness of a faint light blue. The movement expression of the line creates an ascending energy.
In the Luce Center catalog, Rosen invokes the philosophy of the late Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who recognized that finding inner stillness can manifest peace throughout the world. Hoping to maximize the spiritual potential of both the space and the art, Rosen has established a sculpture garden anchored by one of Kahn’s works, “YUKA” (2019), a bronze form, poorly defined but clearly nurturing, whose Outstretched arms hold a wide slab offering space for reparative contemplation.
Toby Kahn continues through July 3 at The Phillips Collection (1600 21st Street NW, Washington DC). The exhibition was curated by Klaus Ottmann.
Emergence: images of the body continues through September at the Dadian Gallery at the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts & Religion, Wesley Theological Seminary (4500 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington DC). The exhibition was curated by Aaron Rosen.