Scott Kahnwas born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1946 and currently resides in upstate New York. He has recently opened an exciting new show in Almine Rech in Paris. Kahn pinpoints dream-like testimonies, found in his daytime and nighttime reveries.
Kahn received his BFA from the University of Pennsylvania and his MFA from Rutgers University. He studied at the Art Students League under Theodoros Stamos and met many of the first generation Abstract Expressionist artists including Mark Rothko. He has been the recipient of awards from significant organisations including the Pollock-Krasner Foundation in New York City and the Edward Albee Foundation in Montauk, New York. His work is owned by major public collections including the University of Pennsylvania.
Who has influenced you and your work? It is best to have no gods. The artists I admire are those with depth and poetry.
What is your favourite time to be in your studio?
Generally, I work in the afternoons.
How did you develop the style of your paintings?
I went through a process in my twenties of discarding derivative elements in my work to find my own voice. Young artists generally look at and admire the artists who are in the limelight and are often influenced by the contemporary trends of the time. For me, it was artists like Noland, Stella, Frankenthaler who were popular at the time and I employed masking tape, hard edges, acrylic paint, staining and throwing the paint. I used a grid composition, which I had to discard when I was lumped into the grid painters. When you discard something, it creates a void, and voids get filled. I reached a dead end with abstraction when I moved to New York and lived on the Bowery. I was robbed and mugged and struggling. I felt my work wasn’t reflecting my life and decided to discard abstraction all together. I felt a need to express what was happening in my life. I didn’t know what to paint; where to start. I thought I’m available as a subject, so my first realist painting was a small self portrait. My partner and I moved to Sag Harbor, at the end of Long Island. There I began to paint from life. Landscapes, still lifes, interiors, and portraits. This was my true education. But once again, I was considered a photorealist, which I was not. After four years in Sag Harbor, we returned to New York where I had to paint in a studio, with no beautiful landscape out the window, I was forced to rely on my imagination and memory. My work could no longer be included in any trend or movement. I was finding my own voice and have continued down this path to the current day. My “style” has evolved organically over the years. But most importantly, life has been my guide.
What has drawn you to the landscapes that you depict in your work and are they real or imagined?
Landscapes have long been an integral part of my work. I’m drawn to nature more than made made subject matter because nature is so alive, complex, and changing. With landscapes I can express a mood, both external and internal. Initially, the landscapes were fairly straightforward, but over the years they have evolved into more imaginary, fantastic, dreamlike landscapes. The inspiration comes directly from my experience … something I see which moves me. I am not tyrannised by nature. So to answer your question, it’s really a combination of “real” and “Imagined”.
Your latest exhibition has just opened in Paris. What are the themes behind this body of work?
The exhibition is comprised of older work and new work. There is no theme. The exhibitions I’ve had in the last two or three years have all been mini retrospectives of old and new work. In Paris, there are some landscapes, but also two portraits (a self portrait and a portrait of my partner), a fantastic imaginary somewhat surreal painting of an interior with two doors, “Doorways”, and a very personal, esoteric, symbolic painting with a figure in the wilderness, “On the Path”. There is also a painting of a tree with a spiral patch of snow at the base, symbolising the serpent, “Tree of Life”.
You have described your art as being a ‘visual diary’, what do you mean by this?
My work is driven and inspired by my life as I live it. I relate strongly to painters like Van Gogh, or Degas, or Bonnard, who painted landscapes, interiors, and people. In my opinion, they too were visual diarists. Therefore, over the years, there has been a variety in my work. I am not a “one note” painter. Life is dynamic, not static. I paint from life as a way of understanding myself and the world around me.
Could you help us understand the human absence that features in many of your works?
It is important for an artist (or anyone, for that matter), to recognise their strengths and weaknesses; to emphasise the strengths and minimise the weaknesses. I am self taught (I did not go to an art school. As I mentioned, I consider the four years painting from life in Sag Harbor my true education.) I realised that I’m not very good at painting the human body. I don’t have enough training. So when the figure appears in one of my paintings, it’s often somewhat small. I don’t want to draw attention to what I consider a weakness. There are rare exceptions where the figure predominates. Also, I’m not drawn to narrative paintings, which figurative work implies. The landscape alone is enough for me to express myself. But having said that, I do love to paint portraits. Portraits solve a big problem for me: what to paint. I sometimes have to wait for inspiration to begin a painting. I don’t have a back log of ideas that are waiting to express themselves. I have to wait for life to show me what comes next. Sometimes there are breaks between paintings which are torture for me. But if someone comes and sits for a portrait, then I have a subject matter! And I love to paint people, to explore their personalities, their inner lives, and their features. Painting portraits are to an extent all self portraits. The sitter is a vehicle for me to express my own internal life. So it’s crucial who comes to sit for me. If they have little depth or substance, then I am restricted.
If you could invite 6 guests for Christmas who would they be?
This is the most difficult question you have asked me! I’m fine if I’m talking about my work or art, etc. But this is a hypothetical question which I’m finding difficult to answer. Would my guests be alive or dead? Should I be concerned about various personalities all getting along? Artists? Politicians? Friends? The selection is vast. But my inclination is to have my mother, father and brother with me. They are all dead and I miss them.
Almine Rech Paris, Matignon is pleased to present Scott Kahn’s first solo exhibition with the gallery, on view from November 18 to December 18, 2021.