Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Seeing Wolf Kahn

Barn Study #246, 6"x6" Oil on Panel, 2010

Last Friday I was cruising around on the internet looking for galleries and museums that really need to be learning all about moi and my fab work soon. Heh. I was checking out The Brattleboro Museum's website and noticed that they were hosting a lecture by Wolf Kahn. Now, I have a long and checkered past with Mr. Kahn (I wrote about that here and here) and have always been interested in meeting him, even if I am not always very happy about my work being compared to his so often. Anyway, since the lecture was the next day and my schedule was relatively clear, I took that as a sign that I should go. No babysitters available so I decided to take my son, Julien, who is probably headed towards art school in a few years. An added plus about that was that he actually knows who Wolf Kahn is and what kind of work he does, so he was excited about going as well.

After deciding in advance about the VERY IMPORTANT issues (we settled on playing my iPod on the way there, and his on the way back) we had a nice drive to Vermont on a beautiful day. I had kind of hoped we could stay overnight cause Tracy's night vision isn't exactly stellar these days, but I had been unable to find anything before we left. Found out why when we got to Brattleboro; turns out that nearly everybody in New England was actually in Vermont for the weekend, looking at leaves and clogging the roads for me. So I mentally prepared myself for another three and a half hour drive back, bleh.

Despite being crowded, Brattleboro was great. We had a few hours to pass until the lecture, so we walked around and went into a few stores. There was an excellent record store where we bought a few gifts for Doug's birthday, including two Bob Dylan albums that we had never heard of and a Grateful Dead album where all the band members are dressed suspiciously like the Bee Gees on the cover.

We had an excellent dinner here and got to the lecture early enough to get front row seats. The lecture was held in a packed, small and dark theater but after an introduction by the Museum's director, Mr. Kahn got up and stood at the podium under a spotlight. The topic of the lecture was "Can Art be Taught" and right away he joked about how he had written a rather formal presentation and would now rather just tell a bunch of stories, which is exactly what he did starting with two of his teachers: Stuart Davis and Hans Hoffman, who had very different styles in the classroom. Stuart Davis talked mostly about jazz music and baseball, he had very little passion for teaching. Hans Hoffman spoke of a lot of things that no one understood and in fact he told his students that they wouldn't understand what he was even talking about for at least 5 years. He also had a tendency to draw into his student's drawings if he felt it needed correction and was even known to cut up the drawing if he felt it should have a different angle to it. He did ask before he went into a student's painting however, so that was good;)

Other highlights from the talk:

-He greatly dislikes the work of Jeff Koons and Gerhard Richter (I am repeating this only because this the talk was being videotaped and well, he did say this out loud in front of many people, so hardly a secret).

-This led to a discussion of the differences between artists and art students, that most are amateurs and others have a calling to make art, and how teachers are doing a disservice to them if they don't understand the differences in their students. He also thought though, that art is worth doing if it is something one enjoys and if one gets a little bit better each time, even if one is probably not going to a be really successful and famous artist. (phew!super glad to hear that!)

-He discussed his experiences as a teacher in the 60's and 70's and the various politics involved with that, then he went on to describe how in every class there were maybe 4 hotshots, 15 mediocrities and 10 who shouldn't be there at all. This didn't sound so harsh when he said it and anyway, based on my years in art college, I don't think it is entirely inaccurate. Guess which category that I think I belonged to?????

-He described the exercises that he had his workshop students do. I thought they all sounded interesting even though I would probably be a pretty crabby student and complain about starting off with making a gray scale. ha. However, he was redeemed in my opinion by using the term "shot their wad" while describing the next exercise. It was the perfect term. Really, it was.

And I was able to decipher a few more more advice related tidbits from my mostly illegibly scribbled notes:

-Don't let ideas enter your mind.

-He talked about how his macular degeneration has led him to be less fussy about the details and that he has to now pay more attention to the big picture.

-He joked that as his worked has changed due to his eyesight he has been getting much better reviews and wondered if he would have to be blind in order to be considered a genius!

-He said he knows his work is too nice and maybe even sweet, but that you have to work with the emotion that you have. He said his friend Joan Mitchell had a lot of anger and it really showed in her art and worked well for her.

Mr. Kahn was VERY funny, a very appealing mix of self-deprecating humor and self confidence too. While some of the things I have written here might sound a bit harsh in print, hearing him say them was quite different. His discussion of his teachers, of the art he dislikes, how crazy teens are; it was all delivered in a very endearing manner.

Anyway, he answered a few questions after the talk, then sat down at a table in the lobby and signed books etc, while I kicked myself for not bringing my own book of his to have him sign. I bought two show catalogs and he signed one for me and one for Julien. I was able to chat with him for a few minutes and naturally I made a few dumb jokes and only babbled a little, so that was good. Relatively speaking anyway. Heh. My son really enjoyed the lecture and I think he still planning to apply to Cooper Union after all that.

And except for the idiot who insisted on tailgating me while I was driving in the pitch dark, on a winding road with little to no shoulder, at 6o mph (slightly OVER the speed limit, I would like to point out) with his brights on, the drive home was rather uneventful, even if I do not understand what the heck so many drivers were doing driving around on the highways near Albany at midnight, but whatever. Leaning towards country bumpkin here, I guess.

Well, a country bumpkin who got to meet Wolf Kahn, ha!

PS. No image of Wolf Kahn's work because I don't know how to do a screen grab and no pictures of the event because neither one of us remembered to take any photographs. You'll just have to settle for one of MY barns, hehe.


Denise R said...

Wow! So glad you shared all that. I for one love his work and do think he is a genius in many ways, despite the fact he has been painting with eyesight! I think it is good you took your child too and am so happy to see the recap you gave us!

Veedell said...

Thanks for sharing your notes on Wolf Kahn! I've always wanted to hear him speak about his art or take a workshop. I think he used to give critiques at VSC. I'm curious why he doesn't like Gerhard Richter?

Melody said...

In my opinion, I'd say you were one of the 4 hotshots

Anonymous said...

Hey thanks so much for sharing your attendance to Kahns Class - I was wishing I could attend but I live out in So cal..Im a great admirer as well of his life and work and his over all simplicity - was wondering if you feel it was worth ordering the video or dvd - although some of what you shared of what he said is a repeat to some extent of other lectures - I was hoping he would touch more on the actual topic ?

nicholas Pujdak said...

sorry clicked in th e wrong box there - Im the last post

SamArtDog said...

Thank you SO much for delivering this account of Tracy's Excellent Adventure! You're also "VERY funny, a very appealing mix of self-deprecating humor and self confidence too". Ah, bag that bit about self-confidence. You should have more, but then you wouldn't be Tracy.

So glad you took your son. I'm sure he'll never forget it.

Casey Klahn said...




Okay, I'm happy for you - I am actually thinking you did a great job reporting this,too.

Danny said...

Hi Tracy -

Thanks so much for making the trip, and even more for your recap of the event! If you or your readers are interested in receiving a DVD of the lecture, we will have one available for sale within a couple weeks -- around $10, I think. Please send email to office (a) brattleboromuseum (dot) org. We also have DVDs of the lecture Wolf gave in Brattleboro last year, which was entitled "Are Artists Special?"

Thanks again,
Danny Lichtenfeld, Director
Brattleboro Museum & Art Center

Natalya Aikens said...

very interesting recap. thank you! ...and yep, you must have been one of the hotshots!

Tracy said...

Denise, glad you enjoyed the recap, and it was great fun for me to see my son enjoying this as well!

Victoria, yes, he did a lot of crits at VSC, and he talked about one of them in this lecture. I can't quite recall his exact comments about Richter, but it was something along the lines of that he didn't feel that Richter's work deserves the attention that it gets. His opinion, I guess;)

Thanks Melody, I think *I* thought I was;)

Nicholas, yes, not sure that he really answered the question of whether art can be taught, but maybe there is no answer to that? It was mostly a discussion of his experiences with teaching art.

SamArtDog, don't let the self-deprecating thing fool ya; I think I might have a bit more self confidence than it seems;)

Thanks Casey, glad to have made you so many different colors;)

Danny, wow, thanks for visiting and leaving a comment! I had to go back and read my post to make sure it was accurate:) And thanks for the info about the DVDs!

Thanks, Natalya, like I said above I probably thought I was a hotshot, but not so sure my teachers agreed!

patty a. said...

So glad you got to meet WK. That is so cool! I thought your review of the experience was great. I have been behind reading my favorite blogs - yours being one of those - and I got a big laugh from picturing you yelling Stella like MB! Thanks for making my day!

Anonymous said...

I loved reading this and your editorial perspective. Fantastic! (I think I commented on your FB link, but figured it bears repeating.)

Best to you!

caroln said...

Hi Tracy... love this post about meeting Wolf Kahn... whose work I have admired for a while... he sounds like an endearing and inspiring artist and teacher. Since I'm self taught I like to get all the advice I can from teachers whose work I admire.

Also... LOVED the post about raising meat chickens... you and I are on the same track... I had no idea about raising meat chickens, but have wanted to for some time... I was worried I would get attached to them and have a hard time sending them to heaven.

I may try this next spring... I already have a pretty big chicken coop with an enclosed nesting area that I think would work well... not much green grass but I could feed them other stuff... it was great to see that post.

Katherine Tyrrell said...

Hi Hotshot Helgeson! :)

Sounds to me like you and your son just had a life event (one of those which you're not going to forget in a long time)!

That was really great to hear about him in person and his approach to talking about art and making art. Thank you so much for writing it up at length. (But I still want to hear more about the exercises he got his art students to do! Another post maybe?)

I'm even more pleased since my eyesight is deteriorating too!

I'm now tweeting this, stumbling it plus featuring it in 'who's made a mark next week'! Thank you!

kdesnick said...

It was delightful reading your description of the talk by Wolf Kahn. I felt like I was at the event. When I visited your blog I think it is safe to say you were one of the hotshots.

indigomar said...

Loved reading about "Seeing Wolf Kahn". Like you I've had comparisons made about my work to WK's--causing me to avoid looking at his work. Until recently. I picked up his book, Wolf Kahn's America (I think that's the title..the book is missing since my husband cleared the table for dinner). Anyway his writing style sounds like it is similar to his lecture style. Engaging, humorous. I've enjoyed reading his anecdotes and about his work and I loooove looking at his paintings. Yummmy color, wonderful brushwork. I think his ideas are getting in my head--what to do? Yikes!

caroln said...

I forgot... could you pls elaborate (if you can) on his advice to "Don't let ideas enter your mind"?

Curious what that is about pls.

Smtms I get all wrapped up in ideas for paintings, and really get into it... and then don't paint them... and then forget them!

Is that what he meant? thx.

Tracy said...

Thanks Patty, yeah it was pretty cool, I should really try to get out more and go to those sorts of things. And while my "Stella" is pretty good, Doug's is WAY better:)

Thanks, Kim, so glad you enjoyed my (very long) recap! It's good I wrote it down, maybe I will remember it longer?? :)

Caroln, thanks and I am glad you enjoyed my ramblings about Wolf Kahn AND meat chickens;) You should do the meat chickens, as much work as it turned out to be, I am really liking having a load of really good chicken in the freezer!

And Wolf Kahn was referring to how he thought that some people think too much when they make their art, get all bogged down in the details and then end up floundering. I have this problem sometimes too, especially when I am working on something that is really different or is extra important somehow. Listening to music while I paint helps me keep my mind off what I am doing;)

Thanks so much for sharing and tweeting (and whatever else!) this post, Katherine! The two exercises that I discussed were the only ones that I noted, the one that involved "shooting their wad" was one where he had his students use color to illustrate the ebb and flow of a parade. Starting with quieter floats and building up to the bigger and more exciting ones, he said so many students start right out with the brightest most intense colors and then have nowhere to go.

Thanks kdesnick, glad you liked my post and that it was informative. I think I thought I was a hotshot in class, but who knows, it was a long time ago!

Indigomar, yes, I know what you mean! I avoided it for a long time too, after I began getting all the comparisons. But it's hard to stay away, he and his work are so engaging:)

cissy said...

I loved reading what you wrote about Wolf Kahn, I have always wanted to meet him too! Thanks for sharing. I got homesick hearing about your night drive on country roads around Albany. I grew up in Delmar. Miss New England in the fall.

connie said...

Thank you for your great blog post. I have always loved Wolf Kahn- and am slightly jealous that you got to meet him! That was an interesting side-note about him macular degeneration- I consciously try to paint how I remember the world looked to me as a small child when I was terribly nearsighted but no one knew it-so I was without glasses. It was a very beautiful soft focused place. Loved the reference to art school also. did he mention anything about his technique?

Suzanne Roberts said...

Loved your post on Wolf Kahn. I have admired his work for some time now and this past year got to see one of his paintings at the Von Liebig Art Gallery in Naples, Florida. It was Fabulous.
I would have gone to that lecture if I had know about it.
I love your paintings. They are inspirational.

Mark Nesmith said...

I've been a fan of Wolf Kahn for awhile, particularly his pastels and his book about his travels. I've been following your blog for a few months now, and I find it very informative to see how you view comparisons of your work to his. I think all of us artists have mixed emotions when we're compared to someone else, but you're work is wonderful and certainly stands on its own. You have such a unique sense of color and light, subtle yet somehow bold at the same time, and I love your compositions. I've been especially enjoying your portraits, and I hope you're able to find an audience for them.

Thanks for the inspiration!

Mark Nesmith