On the road near Brattleboro, Vermont. Late autumn. Low clouds activate the sky. When they expose the sun the northern horizon turns dark as asphalt, small stands of trees luminesce, and fade. There is a fire in the wood stove of Wolf Kahn's house when I arrive. He has been working on a pastel sketch of a view from the front window: out over a small slope where they're building him a new studio (its fresh plywood a Naples yellow in the sketch), a row of maples, warm dark distant hills. As he looks from the window to the sketch, Wolf Kahn talks about how the shifting light compels him to work.
Do artists see things other people don't? Is the artist a prophet?
I like to make small claims. Van Gogh saw colors, undoubtedly, that no one else saw. It didn't take the rest of the world very long to catch up to him, however. Now everybody sees colors the way he did. He saw the landscape sort of rippling across in ribbons, and it didn't take very long for everyone to be aware that the landscape was composed of rippling ribbons. I think the artist focuses things for people.
When you're painting well, are you outside yourself?
I think the best painting is done when there's enough paint on your canvas that the picture tells you what to do and you don't have to tell the picture a thing. All you have to do is answer the questions that the picture asks. Hopefully the picture asks the questions that you ask of nature, and they get answered in your picture. Such as, ``What kind of connections are there? What's separate, what's together?'' Things like that.
And if you're not painting well are you more aware of your emotion? Does painting ever make you angry?
I try to be toward my work the way a carpenter feels about making a table. To be severe, but workmanlike, without asking any highfalutin questions. When he's making a table, the carpenter doesn't ask, ``What's the function of a table?'' He tries to make a table that doesn't wobble. He tries to make a table that's the right height. All kinds of very down-to-earth sort of things that should [also] happen in a picture. Anything else that comes along comes along unbidden but often welcome.
Tell me about finding a direction of your own.
I never tried to find a way of my own, I never tried to be original. I was never afraid to be influenced by, and to steal from anybody whose work I was fond of. I still do. A lot of times I see somebody who's younger than I and I steal from him or her, because I think there's something that's worth appropriating. That's how a culture is formed, by people stealing from each other. No disgrace in it. The disgrace, I think, lies in this frantic search for originality, which is apt to bring forth abominations.
Where are you in your career?
I'm in a place in my career where things are going easier and better all the while, and at the same time I'm not a celebrity. I'm not Andy Warhol, nor do I wish to be. My privacy is only very infrequently invaded, such as by you, and so every time it happens I rather like it.
I think it's very problematical to be a landscape painter in this day and age. But I try not to let that influence me, and I push it way aside when I do my work.
And yet, one pays the price for that, too. Museum people and critics tend to look at my work and say, ``Well, this is just wall furniture,'' and, ``It's all been done before,'' and of course that saves them a lot of trouble. They don't actually have to look at the paintings then. To look at the paintings you have to have feelings, you have to have ideas, you have to understand the tradition. You have to see in what way I go beyond the tradition, that I do paintings that have never been done before, and so on. Most of them don't understand that.
How you go beyond the tradition?
It's not one of my concerns to go beyond the tradition. I love the tradition and I would be perfectly happy just to be ``one of the workers in the vineyard'' who helps keep the thing going. But I think I do go beyond it in color. Because I use much wilder colors than, say, the Impressionists used.
Is that what it means to be a colorist?
Colorist just means that you have a good color sense and you use color in a way that's arresting. That again is like a gift. It's sort of like having a good voice.
I read somewhere that you once said, ``I'm always trying to get to a danger point in color.'' Can you explain that?
Danger point means that people aren't used to it. If somebody comes along and says, ``That painting's too sweet,'' it means that they can't deal with the fact that you're doing a set of color relations that actually they've seen last on a candy package. Or a perfume ad. And yet, you're not doing a perfume ad, you're doing a painting. And a painting has to represent your most deeply considered sense of life. Which is, that it has to have a sense of gravity to it, contrast, austerity. When you're getting to danger points, you're working in fairly new ground, and you can be having quite a hard time of it. And you're aware that you're skirting, all the time skirting, the possible.
Is it hard for you to look at your early work?
No, I rather like my early work. It's much more difficult for me to look at the work I did yesterday, because that's still filled with anxiety, and fear and doubt, and so forth. Things that I did 20 years ago I look at now and say, ``Gee, how come I was so worried at the time I was doing those? They look pretty good.''
What were you worried about? What do you fear now?
You always fear the same thing, which is that you're not good enough, and that you're trying to get away with something, and that what you have to say isn't worth saying. This business of being an artist isn't a joke, because you've been given leave by the world at large to do something that other people do as a hobby and to do it seriously and to sustain yourself and your family by it, financially. And that puts a burden on you. You can't just do it for fun anymore. It's like being a major-league baseball player. It's no longer just a game, but it becomes something that has anxiety and tension attached to it.
What role does spontaneity play in your work? Is it fostered by your spending half the year here in Vermont?
There has to be a true response to the unique moment. Of course, being out of the studio, out in nature, is very helpful to that end, because each moment is so different. You're fresh. You're new. You're going to learn something that you didn't know before, you're going to do something that you haven't done before.
It's not as easy to do that in the studio, because there the only thing that you have to get your imagination and juices flowing is the color and the medium and maybe a few sketches. And the sketches might be holding you back. When you're out there in front of nature you see the mess that nature presents. The organized elements that you do find, that you clamp onto for dear life in the face of this chaos - those organized elements are exactly what you don't want in your painting, because that's all stuff that's predigested, that everybody knows about.
Namely that a tree has green leaves, or that there's a line where the road goes through the field, or that, as you look into the distance things get bluer. You want me to read what I wrote about that?
``Innocence of spirit is what's called for at all times. It alone allows you to take risks, because they're not perceived as risks. Anything which you perceive as risky makes you careful, and I love painting which doesn't hold back.''
Do you work differently in New York than here?
Well, I don't work directly from nature in New York, of course. And I tend to be more synthetic in my work.
I try to deal with the underlying idea of a painting in my studio in New York, whereas here I'm much more interested in getting information; not information in the sense of cataloging a whole lot of twigs and branches, but information in the deep sense, relating my canvas to my field of vision in a way where people know that I was there.
That means, again, spontaneity and the ability to see things for what they really are. If you really see the color of trees, they're not green, they change with the light. You have to be quick on your feet to catch that. If you're not interested in actually catching it, then you have to find some sort of equivalence for your experience in nature. And that's where it's good to be away from nature, to be off in your studio.
There's a statement by Wordsworth, the English poet, who said that ``Art is emotion recollected in tranquillity.'' Famous statement. Well, I say that I find Vermont much too emotional. I find New York very tranquil. Paradoxes abound in art as in life.