Over the years I had a thin but important relationship with the famous artist, Wolf Kahn who passed away in March of 2020, just when the Covid lockdowns began. His wife, the artist Emily Mason whom he was married to for over sixty years, had died three months earlier leaving me with romantic undertones of love and commitment.
When I was studying art at Queens College in the late 1970s, my painting professor Robert Birmelin, invited Wolf Kahn to our painting class as a visiting artist. With an explosive personality quite opposite from each other, Wolf let us up to the roof of the building and gave us a very short blast of time to capture the sunset, perhaps fifteen minutes or so. We then returned to the studio for the intense critiques that followed. Apparently, my sunset painting with quick bold brushstrokes and vivid color moved Kahn enough to use my painting as the model for all the other paintings that he eviscerated. I felt rather proud of myself, to say the least.
Instructed to return on Monday with two more paintings, I worked diligently over the weekend to paint my own environment. These paintings were diametrically opposed to the style of the rooftop painting, they were smooth, measured and detailed in my own personal vision. At the Monday critique, Wolf, not knowing or caring who any of us were personally, savaged my two paintings to the same degree that he’d lavished praise on my work just three days earlier.
I must have looked horrified. I know I was in anguish. I felt that my guts were bleeding and hanging outside my body for all to see. Just then Robert Birmelin, invited me into the hallway, outside the studio to speak with me about my work. He told me that I had my own style and it was valid. That I needed to continue to explore it myself and not take what Wolf was saying about my work to heart. It was only his opinion. I know he said more but that’s the gist of it. That conversation changed my life. I knew I had something to say, and my own way of saying it and Mr. Birmelin knew it too.
Fast forward about 25 years. I apply for an art show at the Heckscher Museum in Huntington NY and who are the judges going to be, Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason. Well, imagine how vindicated I was to have my work accepted into the show by them. Actually, I don’t think you can imagine. This validation for my art didn’t come from Wolf but from Robert Birmelin who saw in my work something that resonated. He was someone who transformed my life. Someone who helped me gain the confidence I needed to pursue my own vision. It wouldn’t have happened in the same way if I hadn’t brushed up against Wolf Kahn and I thank him for being that trigger.
What made me think of this brush with Wolf Kahn this weekend was reading this article about the two foundations set up to support artists by Wolf and his wife, Emily Mason.