When Tobi Kahn begins one of his paintings, he settles in for a layering process that repeats nearly 20 times. Gesso, modeling paste, and opaque paint accept the translucent glazes that follow. This texture and tonality are the basis for his exploration of memory and form that has evolved over more than 40 years. In the cocoon of his labyrinthine Long Island City studio, Kahn has spent the pandemic pressing and scraping color and surface onto his wooden canvases. He pores over photographs he’s taken — his compass in a quest to get to the essence of things — but only the memory of the image will remain. “Tobi keeps distilling and re-examining the nature of what he felt,” says art historian Mark Mitchell, the Holcombe T. Green Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale University Art Gallery, whose collection includes some of Kahn’s work.
After two trying years of COVID-19 and social and political unrest, critics and curators are paying new attention to Kahn’s messages of harmony and simplicity, and what he calls “the in-between — the interlude 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 a show of his most recent work, a celebration of the human form, at the Dadian Gallery at the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts & Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary. In the fall, a third exhibition, Elemental, a decade’s worth of paintings on wood and handmade paper that offer Kahn’s response to Iceland and the natural world, will be on view at the Patchogue Arts Council Museum of Contemporary Art Long Island (MoCA L.I.) gallery in New York.
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Kahn is drawn to the transformative elements in nature. His paintings, sculptures, and meditative spaces invite introspection and, perhaps, healing. The works seem to offer an invitation to linger. Through the years Kahn has been commissioned to create meditative spaces; the results are rooms that serve as immersive sculptures. There are such places as Emet, a non-denominational healing chapel at NYC’s Health Care Chaplaincy, and Shalev, in New Harmony, Indiana, installed on the edge of a plain that floods majestically once a year. There, a bronze form stands beneath a granite Stonehenge-style transom, sheltered.
“He offers a moment away from the mundane and excessively detailed,” notes Mitchell, “and brings us into a more reflective environment of intensive looking, a kind of invitation to linger, and the antidote to the age of Instagram. His art is a gift in this time of separation, isolation, and lingering injury.”
The metaphors for meditation in his oeuvre reside in his layers. Born to a German-Jewish family, many of whom were killed in the Holocaust, Kahn’s history, and life’s uncertainties, are with him continually. He meditates every morning; that spirituality accompanies him into the studio. This experience, and attendant sense of urgency to preserve the barest sparks of a life force, underlie his carefully outlined and hued shapes. He is enthralled with the essence of things, and each layer of glaze he puts down is its own meditation, not unlike the art revealed by the paths formed in artist Richard Long’s pensive walks. Kahn’s meditation relies on a viewer’s lived experience. “My work is only finished after somebody looks at it,” he observes, “and they bring all that they are to the experience of taking it in.”
Both of the concurrent shows vary and converge to form a revealing survey of his artistic development. After graduating with an MFA from Pratt Institute in 1978, his early work earned him a career-launching inclusion in the 1985 Guggenheim Museum show New Horizons in American Art. The New York Times recognized then that “a powerful irrationality and desire have already entered Kahn’s rhythms and shapes.”
Kahn’s work resonates with today’s most pressing questions — identity and harmony, illness and invasions, human rights and privilege — and those of transformation and transition. For the artist, the story unfolds where colors meet. Mark Rothko’s use of color and Paul Cezanne’s attention to the details of changing colors and forms are among his strong influences. “Mark Rothko embodies Phillips’s belief in the restorative power of art, and, similarly, Tobi is attuned to this power,” says Klaus Ottmann, deputy director for Academic Affairs and Special Initiatives at the Phillips Collection. “There is great connection between our commitment to the American Modernists Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley, who went back and forth between representation and abstraction, and Tobi’s work.”
While his Jewish background informs his spiritual approach, Kahn’s art conveys a universal harmony. The tranquil and optimistic paintings are salves many have sought during months of isolation and unrest, and the divisive politics of our national and international discourse. At the Phillips, the gentle sanctum of a Yin-Yang blue room in the Goh Annex complements the contemplative intimacy that emanates from the seven paintings on view and reflects the overall mission of the Phillips. Considering that Duncan Phillips founded the museum in the aftermath of his brother’s and father’s deaths 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 dashed-off work of art; it insists that you stay and look.”
Among the works, “LYJE” (1991) depicts what recalls an eleutherian crimson bud, deeply outlined and hued with rich layers of gesso and acrylic, reaching through the center of the narrow vertical panel and off the upper edge. The line and color express what Mitchell describes as a “Baroque emotion,” drawing on the influence of the Passion in Caravaggio’s paintings in the time of the Renaissance. The illuminated background seems to glow against the blue walls of the gallery. “In my mind it is about remembering a flower rather than being a flower,” Kahn explains.
In “INHA” (2020), a figure, whose gender and ethnicity are ambiguous, bends forward, an arm wrapped around their back in a dual display of gratitude and protection. “It’s a good thing to see right now with social injustice and diversity so much in the forefront,” Ottmann states. “Art has that potential to be inclusive.” The color in “INHA” builds from the tranquil tones of the background and through the figure, and climaxes in a red shock of hair that recalls the fertile and vulnerable form of the earlier “LYJE.” Between the two hangs “AYLA” (2003), from Kahn’s luminous Sky & Water series, whose undulating tones of sea green and pale sky blue are cut through by a smoldering horizon line, that “in-between,” like twilight or a moment of transition between realms, which Kahn treats so tenderly.
The small painting by the doorway, a pale grid, (“Unititled”) from his White Windows series (1977) that recalls an Agnes Martin, prompts contemplation on the act of looking through a window. One might make out the barest form of a tree through the pale color. “It’s the act of looking, when one sees through something to discover something new, that interests me,” Kahn says. 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 assembled the artist’s latest works, a study of the human body inspired by interactions with his students at the School of Visual Arts and the concerns and ambiguities they expressed to him over four years about identity, gender, and the body. In response, Kahn photographed individual dancers from the age of 30 to 70, whose forms he distilled into these paintings. The works celebrate the body in movement, and how that moment is fleeting. “There is that sense of a body awakening, which has generative theological motion to it,” Rosen asserts. “Adam summoned out of the muck or Eve or Lilith, a lot of the first steps, and a lot of the electricity of creation, which is important in Tobi’s work.”
“RYHA”’s (2019) bold, pulsating outline, common to Kahn’s paintings, forms a dancer of no discernible age, race, or gender. The body’s upper torso, in motion and reaching around the edges, is both strange and familiar. That essence, Rosen suggests, has a soulfulness that is universal; Kahn, he says, “creates images that are simultaneously someone and everyone.”
Flanking this central work are two smaller wood canvases, each with a detail of a body in motion, richly textured with a scraped, gradated background of cool hues. In “EINSAH” (2019) the cropped figure — curved lower back, bare buttocks, arms reaching toward the sides of the canvas — is suspended in a sea of oxidized-copper cyan. For “A’ASA” (2019), the figure’s arms are at rest on their head, hands draped peacefully, body surrounded by the calm of a low-intensity pale blue. A rising energy comes forth through the line’s expression of motion.
In the Luce Center’s catalogue Rosen invokes the philosophy of the late Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who recognized that finding an inner stillness can manifest peace in the wider 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, barely defined, but clearly nurturing, its outstretched arms holding a wide platter, offering a space for reparative contemplation.
Tobi Kahn continues at the Phillips Collection (1600 21st Street NW, Washington DC) through July 3. The exhibition was curated by Klaus Ottmann.
Formation: Images of the Body continues at the Dadian Gallery at the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts & Religion, Wesley Theological Seminary (4500 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington DC) through September. The exhibition was curated by Aaron Rosen.