Artists Talk On Art (ATOA)
Critical Dialog in the Visual Arts


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ATOA Panel Transcript

November 7, 2003

Dialog between Wolf Kahn and Donna Marxer, "Wolf Kahn's America"

(Excerpts follow. The entire transcript may be purchased as a PDF download.)

DM When I first met Wolf Kahn he was wearing a beautiful gray suit, a bright purple shirt and a yellow tie. I'll never forget it. He was wearing his own metaphor. I know they are his favorite colors.
WK An attention-getting device.
DM Yes. And tonight, you say "Where's the purple?" He's wearing purple tonight. It is not quite showing, but it's there. (Wolf shows the edge of his purple undershirt.) He doesn't talk about color but he uses it, and he wears it. Tonight he doesn't want to talk about his new book, he wants to talk about the larger issues of art and I say, "Let him go."

WK The artist's obligation goes no further than to be true to his vision. And his vision, by being true to it will intensify and develop into a deeper vision. That's my faith and my hope.

Of course I have painted, by now, all my life. I've painted since I was a little kid. So I suppose there are a few things I do know how to do. But I always have a feeling that I am doing something new. That I'm doing something that I don't know how to do. I don't even know quite what I want to do yet. What I like to do is set up a certain confusion. . .

I try to make a few mistakes, right in the beginning. It's always useful, to have a few mistakes. I want to start introducing those violets I see, and pinks--pink first. Pink is really great today--sort of a pink haze, the whole atmosphere. So let me put that in. It helps add to the confusion. . .

Talking about accuracy. I want an accuracy of feeling, really, so that what I am painting and what I am sensing as out there are in some sort of very close relationship. I'm interested in where I am in relation to what's out there. You know, not really what's out there as much as the position of the thing in relation to me. The relation of the artist to the viewer. I want all that in my picture. I mean I really want to deal with what I see in front of me. But in the largest possible sense, not in any kind of a copycat kind of a sense. I mean, I want all these people to see, to be aware that the artist is a human being, responding to a specific situation. It's the response that I am interested in, rather than the specific situation . . .

You're guided constantly by the needs of the picture. I've already set up something here that has its own life and its own needs and I think my strengths as an artist depend upon being very aware of those needs and to be able to respond to them on almost a second-to-second basis. See, the painting has its own being and its own integrity and you have to respond to those. . . .

DM Two or three years ago, Wolf came out with a book called Pastels which is a must for every pastellist and for those who aren't.
WK I tried to write a "how to" book with metaphysical pretensions.
DM You quoted Earnest Gombrich, "All art, even the best, is composed 80% of previous art," How do you escape? You say, you go to excess. Isn't color excess?
WK Well one tries, but on the other hand, if you start out with the ideas of excess, you are never going to be excessive.

DM "Beauty" has often been used in describing your work.
Does that bother you?
WK Nothing bothers me. I certainly don't try to create beauty. I think that again would be like trying to be excessive or trying to be delicate, you know. If in spite of your best intentions you create beauty, you are to be forgiven.

DM You describe yourself as a hit-and-run teacher and that's not the way to make a career out of it. But you like doing it.
WK . . . The anarchistic spirit that actually made us into artists does not flourish in faculty meetings.

Audience Member: When you were talking about going away from illusionistic space, I began to wonder if you are continuing to work in the landscape, because I can't imagine leaving illusionistic space and still considering your work landscape.
WK I can't either. that's why I'm working on it.
DM I want to ask you where you think the art world is going.
WK I don't give a shit!

DM What makes a great painting? That's a hard question.
WK Youíve got to somehow be going after something which finally is violated in your picture, because your picture goes much further than the thing that you tried to make. I say that somewhere unless a picture has ten times as much as the artist consciously put into it, itís not even made by an artist . . .

I think each great painting has its own attribute. I think it is a mistake to generalize. In fact, most teaching I'm against. And in my pastel book, I have a section called "Composition" and I say that composition in my lexicon is a dirty word. Because it presupposes an ideal painting that exists somewhere and which all the laws that the teachers are teaching are exemplified. For example, "Can't cut off a corner." "You can't cut off a painting in half in the middle." "There's got to be a center of interest." And all this bullshit that gets taught. And I think the whole idea of an ideal painting that exists in some kind of imperiun is a mistake. Like, as soon as I heard that you can't cut off a corner, I immediately made a painting that cut off a corner. Because our perversity has to be satisfied. It is very important to satisfy our perversity. Because we don't want to be hemmed in; we don't want to be put into confining fences and most art teaching has to do with fences, for example, you read the Pastel Journal. I mean the lady who runs it is very nice and she even gave me a good review for my pastel book and I shouldn't speak against that magazine but hovering in the back of everybody's mind in that magazine is the idea that there is such a thing as a perfect pastel that you have to make in which the shadows are just the right colors and the mood of the landscape is exemplified and so on. I think all of these things come secondarily, you know, they come out of you doing the best you can on some kind of a wild goose chase. I think art is a wild goose chase. I just came up with that now. (Laughter)

The complete transcript of this panel can be purchased as a PDF download for $5.
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