In 1985, The Guggenheim Museum in New York mounted an exhibition of latest younger artists, referred to as “New Horizons in American Art” that included the work of Tobi Kahn. Kahn’s featured work have been abstractions of landscapes, the photographs anchored in black artist-made frames, the palette darkish, the paint utilized thickly and labored strenuously, the impact critical and, at instances, somber. In some ways, that exhibition established Kahn as an artist value watching and following.
Now, an entire profession later, the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., which is celebrating its 100th yr, has put in a retrospective of the Kahn works of their assortment – seven works in a single room spanning Kahn’s profession from 1977 to the current. This is an excellent retrospective of a dwelling artist who continues to be very a lot mid-career and whose work continues to evolve and to succeed in for deeper truths, in works of accelerating emotional energy and wonder.
In the earliest work displayed, from Kahn’s 1977 White Windows Series, a white rectangle is dissected horizontally and vertically into thirds, making for 9 equal squares. At first look, the works appears a wedding of Kasimir’s Malevich’s white on white Suprematist work and Agnes Martin’s white grids. However, on nearer inspection, what we see is a window searching from the artist’s studio, wherein among the detritus from Kahn’s studio has been integrated into the portray’s floor.
This is all of the extra putting as a result of, at this similar second, the Phillips has additionally organized a concurrent exhibition of Picasso’s Blue interval, which incorporates a number of work Picasso made searching from the home windows of his first studios lending Kahn’s portray a further resonance.
Similarly, outdoors the room exhibiting the Kahn work is a portray by one among Kahn’s favourite artists Arthur Dove – whereas within the subsequent room is a good looking work by Richard Diebenkorn. To expertise these works, and stroll between them is to expertise a dialog about portray throughout generations and time.
The subsequent portray within the exhibition chronologically, GRYA, from 1986, just like the work within the Guggenheim present, abstracts a panorama in methods concurrently foreboding and but calming. What appears to be like like a river is a zig-zag with angles too sharp for nature however that lead the attention proper off the portray, an impact that’s managed and on the similar time expansive, whereas the brushwork, intense and intensive, speaks to the energies, frustrations, and ambitions of the younger artist.
In my very own creativeness, I’ve at all times seen Kahn’s early work, darkish with thickly labored paint, as reflecting a younger artist’s interior dialogue; whereas the later work, lighter and extra swish, extra meditative than obsessive, converse to me consciously or unconsciously of the satisfactions of grownup private life (marriage, kids, profession).
Accordingly, by the point of 1989’s SIDO, Kahn had pushed his abstracted landscapes to a spot extra involved with the tensions between types and colours. SIDO teases an optical phantasm: Are we taking a look at a purple river and a gray sea passing between two boulders and round two rocks? Or are we taking a look at an anthropomorphic kind – an area alien? Or is that this Kahn’s frum interpretation of Gustave Courbet’s “The Origin of the World”? The final is unlikely (apologies for my errant creativeness) – however Kahn leaves the interpretation to the viewer. There is one thing mysterious and mystical to this piece that speaks to Kahn’s search to mirror the religious in artwork.
We see this as effectively in LYJE, from 1991, which abstracts a flower. Here the flower stands tall, like an icon, its purple petal commanding our consideration. In distinction to the sexualized botany of Georgia O’Keefe (to whom Kahn’s work has been in contrast), this flower stands as a declaration of the holy within the on a regular basis.
For me, essentially the most highly effective portray within the exhibition is RIGU from 1999. Six toes extensive and solely two toes tall, RIGU is a canvas suffused with gray wherein three tendrils emerge from the left facet of the canvas, whereas simply left of middle is one triangular form. One can simply see this as shoreline and inlets and off the coast, a rock (or island), all on a gray day when there’s little to tell apart sea from sky. Although, Kahn has hinted at types beneath the floor current like rocks beneath water, what offers this portray its large energy is the dynamic pressure between the 2 darkish lots and the seeming clean house surrounding it. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
Two more moderen work are additionally noteworthy. AYLA is a meditation that appears to be expressive of the calm that comes with mastery of 1’s expertise and contentment with one’s place on the earth. Although AYLA might be in comparison with a Rothko with its coloration blocks, the impact may be very totally different. Rothko takes us into the darkish recesses of the soul, whereas Kahn has his eye on the additional horizon, a spot of limitless risk.
Finally, INHA, Kahn’s most up-to-date work from 2020 represents a departure, or maybe a renewal, as we see a hand reaching round what looks like the human kind that’s each curved and elongated in a way that recollects, coincidentally, the figures in Picasso’s Blue work. Again, this resonance between the 2 exhibits on the Phillips makes strolling backwards and forwards between the 2 all of the extra richly rewarding.
There’s a sport wherein persons are challenged to inform a narrative in simply 5 phrases. Here in simply seven work, we see the breadth and evolution of Kahn’s work. What has remained fixed is Kahn’s utility of paint to create pressure between types and coloration and to create temper in methods natural, religious, and existential, all in a pursuit of transcendence.