To the contemporary American (and especially Californian) eye, Joan Kahn’s paintings appear to move the investigations and postulations of Minimal art into – that is, back into – the realm of painting. Since the initial iteration of Minimalism in the latter 1960s, after all, its amplifications and elaborations have extended well beyond sculpture, outward into installational and even performance formats and inward to painterly concerns. But, while Kahn could not have refined her practice as she has without the minimalist model, she could not thus have defined her practice in the first place without the model of an earlier tendency rooted in a geometric vocabulary.
Kahn’s painting should not be regarded as a reiteration of minimalism, but as a reconsideration of prewar constructivism. Certainly, many constructivists anticipated Kahn’s rigorous approach to form, and her debt to artists such as Mondrian and Malevich, Schwitters and Albers – as well as to postwar American inheritors such as Newman, Nevelson and Reinhardt – is quite apparent. What is at least as clear is the value Kahn places on the positing of similar and disparate forms, all within a refined formal language, in a dynamically asymmetric manner. The subtlety of Kahn’s style suggests a comprehension of Minimal art’s compositional neutrality; but certain crucial decisions keep her rooted in – indeed, dedicated to – the tradition of relational composition.
For example, Kahn’s decision to produce paintings based on intuitive rather than systematized (or minimized) palettes and compositional schemata steers her away from articulating the grid that underlies every painting. Rather than bring the visual pulse of the grid to the fore, Kahn employs it, as Mondrian did, as an armature on which to structure her relational, even eccentric, displays of verticals and horizontals. This in turn reveals Kahn’s emulation of modernist values we now associate in particular with 20th century architecture – not simply in the determination, even choreographing, of formal counterbalance, but in the use of texture in color (with the addition of varnishes, sand, pearl essence, dried pigment, and other unusual materials) and in the use of texture as color. This last gambit Kahn realizes by painting directly on un-gessoed panels of wood, panels stained or varnished in order to bring out rather than suppress the wood’s natural grain.
Kahn admits as readily to the influence of modernist architecture and design (citing as sources such luminaries as Le Corbusier, Rietveld, Wright, Schindler, Pei, Philip Johnson, and John Lautner) as to the influence of modernist painting. She also attributes her current direction (and indeed, most of her work) to the study of indigenous aesthetic sources, both the sources themselves and the modernist artists they impacted. For instance, Kahn cites not only Cézanne, Picasso, and Braque in her pantheon of forerunners, but African masks and body decoration, Islamic weaving and ceramics, Italian marble inlay, American quilting, and various forms of Native American artifacture as well.
While Kahn’s body of work in this decade may most resemble the neo-plastic painting of Mondrian, in fact her sensuous and contemplative approach to a rigid vertical-horizontal arrangement of linear forms hews closer to that of another influential figure, the mid-century southern California painter John McLaughlin. McLaughlin’s reductive sense of relational composition shared Mondrian’s quest for a spiritually driven disembodiment; but while the Dutch painter’s aesthetic was sourced in a quasi-religious drive to achieve a revelatory purity, McLaughlin sought simply to practice, to inhabit such a purity. Kahn’s practice, exploratory rather than prescriptive, hews closer to McLaughlin’s state of being rather than Mondrian’s state of becoming. Like McLaughlin’s, each of Kahn’s paintings is its own condition, its own philosophical micro-climate.
As with the work of McLaughlin and Mondrian both, the vertical-horizontal relationships in Kahn’s paintings are more significant than the “presence” of vertical or horizontal alone, or than the underlying grid. Again, Kahn does not give primacy to the grid, distancing her formally from Reinhardt, Newman, Agnes Martin, and other New York-based proto-Minimalists; however expansive or serene, her compositions rely on formal relations established on the picture plane, relations that engage visual components in a dynamic array. Still, it’s clear that, with her reductive formal language and her regard for the painting as an obdurate presence rather than (simply) a visual proposition or diagram, Kahn’s debt to Minimal art is not insignificant. In fact, she participated in what may have been Minimal art’s most contrary and yet most faithful offspring, Pattern Painting.
In the early 1980s Kahn, working in a painterly fashion she later abandoned, produced a body of work sourced Pattern and Decoration, a practice that had emerged in the United States a few years earlier in direct response both to minimalism and to feminism. Such Pattern Painting (to focus on the principle medium employed by artists in this vein) regarded the grid as an armature for more than austere re-inscription; on the grid the pattern painters, heeding the models of “folk” sources – particularly decorative and utilitarian art forms, most of whose practitioners were (presumed) women – constructed elaborate, even extravagant imagery, valorizing such heretofore undervalued phenomena as quilting, dress patterning, and hand-painted wallpaper. As mentioned, Kahn has cited marble inlay, tile decoration, quilts, and indigenous fabric design as influences; her attention was drawn to these “folk” sources in great part through the lessons of the Pattern and Decoration movement.
As a result, formal, coloristic, and even textural eccentricities play significant roles in Kahn’s painting. Her approach may be intuitive, but it is certainly not unguided or uninformed. Those eccentricities allow intimations – for all the physicality and emphatic planarity of Kahn’s painting method – of an illusory deep space. The use of added textures, of rhythmic elaborations, even of the grain of the wood, prompts us to view the interstitial rectangles between the bars of opaque pigment not simply as compositional gaps, but as spatial apertures – “windows,” if you will, onto an ambiguous, perhaps infinite space.
Indeed, the eccentricities Kahn engages allow us to regard the painting not simply as an object, but as a “natural” object, a thing fabricated – like its folk-art models – from materials related more or less directly to the natural environment. Of course, Kahn employs synthetic as well as natural substances, but the resulting physical presence of the work, seen and sensed, models an ecological balance in which a kind of material honesty prevails. In this, Kahn maintains the idealistic thrust of her sources, helping to posit a new ideal in the wake of the modernists’ spiritual ideals and the minimalists’ conceptual ideals: an ecological ideal, in which compositional and textural and coloristic harmonies intimate a natural harmony, one that scientists measure and artists feel; and a social ideal, in which the quotidian functioning of human life, in cities and in the country, strives against entropy and towards synergy.
This may seem like a lot to intimate from a series of paintings. But Joan Kahn is a self-professed neo-modernist, willing to manifest in her work a model for extra-artistic evolution. Dedicated not to progress per se, like the modernists, nor to a critique of progress, like post-modernists, neo-modernists like Kahn still see not only room, but possibility, for the improvement of the human condition, and regard their art as metaphorical models for this improvement. Kahn’s work is thus meant not just to be seen, but to be known – as it has been painted, intuitively but informedly.
Peter Frank, Los Angeles, February 2008
Peter Frank is Senior Curator at the Riverside Art Museum and art critic for Angeleno magazine and the L.A.Weekly.