It is with profound sadness that I announce that Wolf Kahn passed away peacefully on Sunday, March 15, 2020.
I met Wolf Kahn in 1980. This was the beginning of our 40-year friendship. He was my best and most respected lifetime friend. He was my mentor and art teacher. We spoke frequently, earnestly, confidentially, and joyously. Wolf is largely responsible for my late-life calling and helped me to have the courage to pursue a “Full-On; All-In” second career as an artist.
He had a difficult childhood. He lived with his wealthy Grandparents in Hamburg, Germany from an early age. In 1939, Wolf’s grandparents sent him to the UK at age 11 to stay with another family in order to keep him safe from Nazi Germany.
He was later sent to live with Wolf’s family who had moved to New York City. He went on to Chicago where he graduated at an early age from The University of Chicago. Thereafter, he began his formal art career in NYC as the studio assistant to Hans Hoffman. Hoffman was a renowned artist and teacher and started the movement centered around painting what you feel- the New York School of Abstract Expressionism.
Wolf would go on, in my opinion, to become the most important American colorist artist over the next seven-plus decades. In his lifetime, Wolf never earned a penny that wasn’t from the sale of a finished painting. He truly represents “American Art Aristocracy!”
Initially, my friendship with Wolf evolved as he taught me how to paint. I took private lessons from him over a three-decade period (1984-2014), This tutelage consisted of hundreds of days of both studio and “Plein-air” 1x1 painting sessions. Wolf was an extremely demanding and teutonic teacher and his focus with me was on “how to think about and paint color successfully.”
Interestingly, over the years, I earned only a few outright compliments. For me, it was both very challenging and frustrating, but it made me push myself harder. One of his famous critiques was, “Stefano, it’s too perfect. You have to make it look like real life and mess it up a bit!” As usual, he was right.
He taught like his teacher, Hans Hoffman, who rarely gave compliments because the only way to teach was to critique and challenge everything his students did. His group lessons conducted throughout his life were infamous. An art compliment from Wolf was like receiving a medal.
Wolf was powerfully addicted to experiencing the thrill of completed painted work. Then there was always the next painting waiting to be painted in order to recreate that feeling. He taught me to seek that thrill too, a gift that defies words.
His demeanor was very different as a friend. We shared a lot of life and traveled extensively together. All this occurred within a broad locational quilt comprising of local, regional, national, and international venues. I especially recall our blockbuster international trips together to Rome and Sicily, Italy, and also, his first post-war (and grand) return to the home of his youth, Hamburg, Germany where he was given a warm returning hero's welcome by its citizens.
When we were together, no topic was out-of-bounds and Wolf’s wit and peerless intellect was always educational, entertaining and center stage. He listened, as well as he opined. He was a true class act. He was self-taught in six languages and, to practice his Spanish, he over-took NYC subways.
One of Wolf’s many skills was his ability to tell hilarious jokes which always produced raucous group laughter (BTW, including his own)....and his delivery style was almost always laced with his emphasis on using foreign accents of one type or another. Simultaneously, for the “icing on the cake,” he would accompany his comedic accent with some sort of crazy facial expressions. And, he was an 11 on a 10 point scale in delivering the punchline. He was larger than life, in many ways.
With his immediately recognizable, full mane of prematurely silver hair, his piercing steel-blue eyes, and his infectious smile Wolf cut a striking “art-swashbuckling” figure wherever he went. He loved donning clothes in outrageous colors, especially fluorescent ties and wild socks. His clothes announced his arrival.
In May 2006, Wolf and I were jointly awarded Lifetime Achievement Awards by The National Academy of Design; he as an Artist and I, as the retiring Chairman. We have Dr. Annette Blaugrund, our mutually esteemed friend, and then NAD Director, to thank for engineering this Honor of a Lifetime for us during the same year to celebrate our friendship.
I personally consider Wolf Kahn the all-time pinnacle American artist in five distinct categories: 1) greatest art lineage (Kandinsky, Hoffman, Kahn) 2) greatest colorist, 3) greatest pastelist, 4) greatest barn painter, and 5) the most impactful artist/philanthropist for working artists/art students during his lifetime. Each of these five categories could (and probably will) support future books from art historians.
I believe Wolf’s posthumous reputation is going to skyrocket like few others during the next two decades.....as just one historical American reference, think of Norman Rockwell’s stratospheric, post-demise rise. In my opinion, Wolf’s ascent will be equal to or even surpass Rockwell’s.
Wolf is survived by family and friends and over 15,000 collectors who like me love him, and whose collected paintings are a central part of their visual and cerebral lives.
God bless Wolf Kahn. Rest in Peace. Happy Trails, Until We, Meet Again!”