Wolf Kahn Splashes Color on Canvas and Bridge

Known for ebullient landscapes, the New York artist has ventured onto a bold new surface: Harlem River's rusty bridges

Wolf Kahn's latest color-saturated landscapes are well-timed to the vibrant shades of spring now bursting forth around us.

Born in Stuttgart, Germany, Kahn is one of America's leading landscape painters. In the 1940s, he studied with artist Hans Hofmann both in New York and Provincetown, Mass., where he later became Hofmann's assistant.

He is known to approach his own teaching of landscape painting with the same crocodile smile and toughness as his famous teacher. ''I say outrageous things -- with a smile,'' Kahn says.

His use of color is dazzling -- the result of an especially thoughtful approach. ''Every time I use a color, I want it to really be there, to have a life of its own, to be autonomous, to be recognizable ... so that it means something in the scheme of things,'' he says.

He is mindful of the need to harmonize colors. Every color must sound its own note and yet at the same time create a tuneful harmony of color, he says.

''The brighter the colors are, the more important it is for them to be harmonious, so that one color doesn't take over or two colors don't start having an endless argument,'' Kahn says.

A conversation in color

In the catalog of an earlier gallery exhibit, Kahn para- phrases what Haydn the composer had to say about the string quartet as a conversation between lively individuals: If the new addition is not up to the level of discourse, then the conversation grinds to a halt.

''Each color should be a lively individual that talks to the others in a lively fashion. And, of course, that's a very difficult thing to do,'' Kahn says.

''Art is not just good taste, it's celebration, it's surprise and delight,'' Kahn says.

And indeed, the artist's new paintings are an invitation to make his glowing palette of yellows, oranges, roses, blues, greens, and violets an end in itself.

As a member of the New York City Art Commission, Kahn has come up with an innovative solution to New York's riverside ''rust belt'': ''Why not paint each of the five rusty Harlem River bridges (between 125th and 155th Streets) a different and surprising color?'' he asks.

''This is an opportunity for us to express the [beautification] aspect of our mandate,'' Kahn says.

Kahn's recent memo to his fellow commissioners, in which he proposes this idea, has created a stir among New York preservationists. They believe that preserving the city's history is more important than turning the Harlem River bridges into a sunny rainbow of color.

But Kahn says that historical preservation isn't enough when one is presented with a radically deteriorating urban landscape.

Elevating bridges as art

''I think bridge decorum really is a many splendored thing. It not only [keeps] a bridge [from] disappearing into the rust belt ... it means letting it emerge out of this chaos of industrial detritus and become something in its own right....

''The bridges in the past were the only industrial structures in that area, and today they're sort of another crushed body in a scrap pile.''

Of course, Kahn is not the first artist to want to turn rust into rainbows or to use brilliant color to redefine an urban landscape. A foot bridge to Ward's Island near Manhattan is now a pale violet color, thanks to a former student of Joseph Albers, the late Herb Aach.

Thus far, the Art Commission has given the nod to painting some of the Harlem River bridges.

It has selected a bright lawn green for the Willis Avenue Bridge, claret red for another, and a preservationist-ivory white for a landmark bridge that has intricate girders and metalwork.

Now, as any city dweller will tell you, wearing white without quickly looking like week-old laundry presents something of a challenge -- even for a bridge.

''It's actually a compromise we had to make with the historic preservationists, who found out that the bridge had been painted that color to begin with,'' Kahn says.

The power of white

Should the bride wear white? Well, yes, but only if she has colorful bridesmaids. ''The white's going to look quite nice if it's surrounded by colors that are more outrageous,'' he says.

At the opening of his recent exhibit at New York's Grace Borgenicht Gallery, the artist showed up in his signature colors (burnt-orange shirt, lavender tie). Asked how the campaign for Harlem bridges harmonizes with his own use of color, he quickly replied that it doesn't.

''I don't like color coordinated at all,'' Kahn says. ''It's suburban in the worst way.... Whenever I see a woman wearing a red scarf, a red handbag, and a red hat, I say, 'Gee, she ought to be wearing an orange hat or a purple hat to set off those reds!' ''

What will New Yorkers think of the new look of their bridges? ''They'll see them either with delight or with horror,'' Kahn says.

Back in 1959, the artist made a curious statement about ''getting over the idea of understanding a picture.'' To understand his art, he said, was to make it commonplace and to have no more use for it.

And if your sunny Kahn landscape begins to pale and veer into the commonplace? Follow Kahn's own advice from 1959: ''Hang it over your sofa. The decorator will probably approve. It will gaze down upon your naps and never disturb them.''

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