- The Washington Times - Friday, December 12, 2003

Wolf Kahn, the popular, high-priced American painter whose upgraded French impressionism appeals to admirers of Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley, returns to Washington with “Wolf Kahn: Celebrating 75 Years,” his sixth exhibit at the Addison/Ripley Gallery. This time he’s showing pastels and oils of Vermont trees and barns in a puzzling, peculiar mix of styles and media.

For example, the German-born Mr. Kahn, 75, paints some of the trees as spare, almost Asian, vertical clumpings, but when he smears leaves with turpentine-thinned oils, the trees appear to float as though they have a buoyant life-defying gravity.

By contrast, the barns, many done in pastel, are more grounded. The painter takes a variety of these simple structures — most drawn from his summer home in Vermont — and shapes them geometrically.

These tiny pastels are the best works in the show and should have been exhibited much more prominently. (Christopher Addison, director of Addison/Ripley, says the artist sketches constantly with this colored chalk material.) Mr. Kahn achieves a tension of form and line in the chalks that escapes him in most of the oils.

In the meditative “Woods in Silhouette,” a pastel exhibited in a smallish back room, Mr. Kahn uses his familiar division of space, with a flattish area at the bottom — actually a triangle laid on its side — a wide, flat plane above, and a lighter area of sky at the top. Calligraphic, bare trees struggle up from a dull-colored green meadow, through a brown area — probably undefined mountains — to a slate-blue sky.

The pastel “Scraggly” hangs nearby. It’s a happier work and is decorated by a hot-pink background and bright greenmeadow at the base.

Despite the superiority of the pastels, oils account for most of the $230,000 worth of works sold before the exhibit’s opening. The images on display range from $1,000 for a work on paper to $70,000 for an oil. Most were painted during the past two years.

The show coincides with the publication this month of “Wolf Kahn’s America: An Artist’s Travels,” enhanced by an introduction by writer John Updike, a friend of the artist’s.

Life wasn’t always this good for the refugee German artist. His father was the director of the Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra, but with the rise of the Nazis, his family was forced to leave Germany in the 1930s. Wolf was left behind with his grandmother, who was killed later at the Theresienstadt concentration camp. It was not until 1940, after escaping to England on a children’s refugee transport, that he was reunited with his family in New York City.

He studied with top painters such as cubist Stuart Davis and legendary abstract-expressionist teacher and painter Hans Hofmann in New York in the 1940s and has painted his signature calm, hazy landscapes for the past 50 years.

An extraordinary range of trees represent a major part of these landscapes and of the exhibit. Stands of bare, vertically drawn trees rising from a grassy base are a favorite Kahn theme. However, not all are good, and several bear a striking resemblance to the work of other artists, such as the Seattle abstract-expressionist Mark Tobey. The branches and twigs of Mr. Kahn’s “Stuyvesant Park in Winter” (site of his Manhattan home), for example, have Mr. Tobey’s unmistakable calligraphic strokes. The Seattle artist often used white tempera and gouache squiggles on a darker background, and the New Yorker achieves much the same effect in “Stuyvesant Park” — but with white oils on canvas.

“Glowing Tree Row,” the most intensely colored oil painting at Addison/Ripley, mixes neonlike deep greens, purples, oranges and blues. Again, Mr. Kahn arranges the picture geometrically with delicate white trees shooting through the purple and orange horizontal masses. The trees seem pushed into the earth like pins rather than growing from the ground.

The artist’s use of color is inconsistent. In his 1944 lecture “Good Intentions,” Mr. Kahn spoke of color. “All I know is that sometimes I put one color next to another, and that makes me open my eyes wider,” he said. “When I add a third color, the pleasure either increases or goes away. These are the rules of the game for me.”

In “Tree Row,” Mr. Kahn’s rule doesn’t work. The jarring oranges and purples need a modulating hue in between.

The painter fills in “Stand (Dark)” with black trees silhouetted against a lavender sky. This is the worst oil in the show. Perhaps the gallery lighting wasn’t sharp enough to pick up the contrasts in the blacks, as they look like a globular black mass.

The best painting, which Mr. Addison wisely hung in the gallery window, is of trees with golden leaves swaying against a lavender background. There, in “Green Grove With Violet,” Mr. Kahn made his colors jump and dance.

Among the artist’s images of barns and houses, the pastels are, again, the best and most interesting. In “Alone,” a picture of a small, solitary house on top of a hill, he poignantly captures loneliness. In “Rusty,” he accurately depicts a different kind of structure, a weathered brown barn with a rusted roof.

“Wolf Kahn: Celebrating 75 Years” displays works that are, on balance, calm and pleasant — and often trite. Viewers will have to hunt for the few good works. Still, there is a market for this sort of oversweetened art, and customers are lining up to buy the works as if they were cotton candy.

WHAT: “Wolf Kahn: Celebrating 75 Years”

WHERE: Addison/Ripley Gallery, 1670 Wisconsin Ave. NW

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday through Jan. 17


PHONE: 202/338-5180

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