Tobi Kahn: Formation: Images of the Body
On ViewArthur & Marjorie Dadian Gallery At The Luce Center
May – September 2022
February 12 – May 31, 2022
The matter of spirituality permeated the panel that convened in the auditorium of The Phillips Collection to celebrate Tobi Kahn’s installation—seven modestly sized paintings dating from 1977 to 2020—as well as his concurrent exhibition of new figurative work nearby at the Wesley Theological Seminary. That Kahn’s room at the Phillips naturally communed with Mark Rothko’s luminous chapel across the hall felt entirely fitting. So did the animated conversation between the artist, Klaus Ottmann, Debra Bricker Balken, and Aaron Rosen that fleshed out themes and art-historical affinities.
Kahn has painted in the fertile gap between representation and abstraction for more than forty years: landscapes, seascapes, flowers, cells, and human bodies distilled into evocative images. An ethos unites Kahn with kindred modernists—Hilma af Klint, Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky, Arthur Dove and Albert Pinkham Ryder, Rothko and Barnett Newman—who courted ambiguity as a pictorial language of equivalence. Many artists (dancers, musicians, poets) deploy ambiguity—as gesture, word, image—to enhance their work. Kahn runs in notable company. His puzzling titles are best approached as poetic handles.
At one point during the forty-five-minute session, after informing us that he was raised in Washington Heights, New York, by observant Jewish parents, both of whom were holocaust survivors, Kahn described himself as a “person of faith.” Faith can level difference by acknowledging our common humanity. One has a moral obligation in Jewish culture to remember those who have disappeared, and without malice, to make the world a better place. In the hands of a committed artist, Tikkun Olam (to mend, repair, and transform the world) becomes a calling. In the company of activist art, Kahn’s meditative poems raise awareness through introspection rather than demonstration. His studio functions, in much the same way Rothko and Newman’s studios functioned more than seventy years ago, as a refuge for the imagination. When it comes to how ideas become ritual settings, however, there’s a porous line between vision and engagement.
Much of the work on display at the Phillips—GRYA (1986), SIDO (1989), RIGU Variation III (1999)—can be described as beautiful, regardless of its surreal and moody undertones, angular edges, and mysterious configurations. Lest we forget, beauty, particularly in matters of art, has a long and complicated history (read John Ruskin’s “Of False Opinions Held Concerning Beauty” and Dave Hickey’s “The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty”). Aspiring to beauty doesn’t rule out an emotional palette as deep as the human condition.
It’s easy to feel a little sheepish when addressing the matter of spirituality in art, as though there’s something cultish about its legacy. During the panel Balken mentioned Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912), a prescient text foregrounded in The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985, the publication documenting Maurice Tuchman’s landmark exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1986. Kandinsky’s book was a clarion call, in the face of escalating materialism, for modern artists to look inward, to trust their intuition when depicting the natural world symbolically. Adolf Hitler’s appropriation of Theosophic tenets to bolster fascism complicates the story of modern art. From that time on anyone aspiring to make abstract art, let alone an art imbued with spirituality, could be, for better or worse, targeted as a renegade. Some cultures have been more tolerant than others. Artists navigating authoritarian regimes are inherently vulnerable. Capitalism poses its own challenges.
How does spirituality persist when art circulates as assets in a fluid economy: exhibited and collected, bought and sold? Context counts. Enter a church, synagogue, or Shinto temple, adorned with mosaics, frescoes, or ceremonial objects, and the effect is undeniable. There’s nothing ephemeral about sacred space. Is this why the difference between Rothko’s Houston Chapel and a single canvas up for bid is so stark? Some might argue there’s nothing lost when an artwork soars at auction. Others are more suspect. How should art be valued? According to its intrinsic ability to move us aesthetically, empathetically, intellectually? By its net worth? Are such considerations mutually exclusive? Do we tolerate one to enable the other? Why, when you mention to museum visitors that the 1952 Jackson Pollock painting is insured for more than one hundred million dollars, do they suddenly perk up? If there’s no easy way to circumvent the lure of lucre, creating a stable site for one’s art safeguards its integrity.
AYLA Variation XXVII (2003), a sky-and-water painting, signals Kahn’s dedication to sacrosanct spaces. (See Tobi Kahn: Sacred Spaces for the 21st Century, 2009) Shalev (1993), fabricated in granite and bronze for an outdoor site in New Harmony, Indiana, was his first public commission. Others followed: Gan Ghazikaron: Garden of Remembrance in Tenafly, New Jersey (1997); the Holocaust Memorial Garden in La Jolla, California (2000); the Meditative Space (2001), an intimate room furnished and painted by the artist for the HealthCare Chaplaincy in New York City; and Embodied Light: 9–11 in 2011 (2011), a multi-media installation commemorating the loss of human life when the World Trade Center collapsed in 2001. Each honors death as it affirms life through the act of remembering.
“Obsessed by memory,” Kahn wrote in the catalogue for Embodied Light, “I have always believed that art can be redemptive, a force in healing the world.” Memory fueled by faith has been a creative catalyst since the late 1970s. When Kahn and I met in the early 1980s, we were both coming of age in the New York art world. We went everywhere and looked at everything. We discovered artists, excellent ones, still under-recognized. Underdogs and best-kept secrets, they became our art-world heroes. Kahn’s—George McNeil, Agnes Denes, Jack Whitten, Susan Rothenberg, Martin Puryear, Mierle Laderman Ukeles—all rose with this distinction. At this propitious moment, he, too, rightly claims it.