Happy Birthday to Wolf Kahn, who Draws the City like a Landscape
The renowned painter Wolf Kahn was born on October 4, 1927. In his oral history with GVSHP, Wolf Kahn brought wit, snark, and great, detailed memories about his time in the Village and the role he played in the art scene there, attending salons, renting half his apartment to Robert De Niro Sr., and spending time with Willem de Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg, among a great many others. Read or listen to Kahn’s Oral History here.
“Inspiration comes… from the changes in seasons, the hours in the day, and one’s available enthusiasm. Such stimulation offers a catalog of visual pleasures, a catalog that is so richly provided by New York, the city of cities.” –Wolf Kahn
Wolf Kahn was born in Stuttgart, Germany in 1927. He immigrated to the United States in 1940 after serving in the U.S. Navy for one year, when he was 17. He wanted to fight the Nazis, and worked in the mechanic’s paint shop since he had listed himself as an “artist” on his forms. Through his service, Kahn was granted U.S. citizenship and benefits under the GI Bill. He used those benefits, when he left the service, to study with Hans Hofmann in New York, about which he commented:
“the Hofmann School was located in the Village, [was] near the corner of Sixth Avenue and 8th Street in a place that on the ground floor had a movie house called “Art Movie.” And the Kahn-6 Hofmann School itself was on the top floor. It had about thirty students that were enrolled.”
“I found an apartment on the fifth floor of number, I think, 400-something, East 6th Street, which was right near Tompkins Square. And it was in a building that was the old law tenement, which meant that your bathroom and your kitchen were in the same room. And in order to go to the toilet, you had to go out in the hall and share it with three other tenants, you know? Well, the great advantage of that was that my rent—you can’t believe this today, but my rent in those days was $9.50 a month.”
Kahn left New York to finish his Bachelor of Arts degree in one year at the University of Chicago, after which he took a job as a manual laborer in Oregon for a year. He returned again to New York and joined the art scene there. He lived all over the Village, and got a job as a social worker in Harlem, where he “worked my heart out” and learned about progressive politics, especially as related to real estate in New York, which was rife with discrimination.
“I had all sorts of adventures as a social worker in Harlem… And because I was working with a bunch of left-wing Black social workers, I became a blockbuster. … [A] Blockbuster is a white guy—or woman, I guess, but mostly guys—who goes and signs a lease for an apartment. Talks to the super, landlords. And then lives there together with a Black guy. At a certain point, the white guy moves out and the Black guy stays. And I found a place on Bank Street in the West Village….”
He met his wife at “the Artists’ Club, right on Broadway and 12th Street… Her mother’s a painter: Alice Trumbull Mason. And so her mother brought Emily to the Artists’ Club… And I took one look at her and said, “This is the most beautiful girl I’ve ever taken up….She was born on Horatio Street. She’s one of the few New Yorkers who is actually born in New York. ”
Kahn and other former Hofmann students established the Hansa Gallery, a cooperative gallery for which Kahn negotiated rent with the landlord, and later mounted his first solo exhibition. He described the art world as less organized, and more mutually supportive then. “We were very interested in each other’s work. That was another nice thing about it. Even though we were competitive and wanted to have the first show, at the same time we admired each other.”
In 1956, he joined the Grace Borgenicht Gallery, where he exhibited regularly until 1995.
Of the changes in the Village and how he sees his place in it, Kahn reflected:
“What catches my eye mostly are the changes that are constantly taking place. You know right now they’re changing St. Vincent’s and making it into condominiums. That seems very strange to have a whole area of a city that has no hospital in it just because there’s one hospital that can’t make their ends meet. I don’t know if I’m really at home in the Village. But then, having been a refugee, you’re never at home anywhere when it comes right down to it… It’s so hard to be an artist. The chances of you being able to survive on this narrow ledge are so small. I should just be pleased to be sitting here paying my rent. The rents have gone up so much, good god. Do you know how much rent I pay here? You’ll be shocked. ”
Kahn has received a Fulbright Scholarship, a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, and an Award in Art from the Academy of Arts and Letters. Kahn’s work may be found in public collections including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; The Jewish Museum, New York, NY; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; The Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. and The National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C. Kahn is a member of the National Academy of Design and the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the recipient of numerous awards including a Fulbright Scholarship, a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and an Award in Art from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The artist lives and works in New York City and Vermont.