Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul. -Wassily Kandinsky
There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres… Geometry is knowledge of the eternally existent. -Pythagoras
Joan Kahn creates elegant abstract paintings that connect the reductive tradition of High Modernism with its roots in the ancient belief that mathematics–specifically geometry–formed the basis for cosmic creation. Kahn weaves exquisite veils of color over rectangular panels of wood, so that the revealed organic surfaces, with their curving, seductive grains, produce the “voids” of the compositions. The voids are framed by simple painted shapes: lines, squares, diamonds, and ovoids. These pigmented forms sometimes anchor and overlap the open spaces. At other times, they seem to push the wood forward. Such alternation provides an optical shuttle between foreground and background that makes for subtle visual tensions in otherwise peaceful arrangements. Sensual, mysterious, and meditative, Kahn’s paintings are, without doubt, intriguingly beautiful objects.
One of the artist’s most gracefully minimal compositions is Mountain from 2005. A central yellow zone is framed by two organically curving shapes articulated by the wood grain. The revealed wood cascades past two adamant lines, a vertical red on the right-hand side and a horizontal black just below center. The black slides beneath the central citrine void that is accented with almost subliminal golden highlights. Subtle colors merge with basic mathematical shapes to create a peaceful visual oasis that invites quiet contemplation.
The question for this essay is not whether Kahn’s oeuvre has aesthetic value. Of course it does. Instead, the question is, What does the work signify? How does the artist create resonant meaning with simple geometric forms arrayed over a flat surface? The answer lies in the link between geometry and spirituality that has echoed across Western Culture for millennia. The geometry-spirituality connection, so eloquently articulated in Kahn’s paintings, began in Ancient Greece, resurfaced in the Middle Ages, echoed through the Renaissance, and found completion in Early Modern abstractions.
Ancient Greece and the Gothic Middle Ages
From the time of sixth century B.C. philosopher Pythagoras, the Greeks considered the study of mathematics, specifically geometry, to be a spiritual practice. According to Aristotle, Pythagoras and his followers were “the first to take up mathematics;” they believed that “the principles of mathematics were the principles of all things.” Indeed, Pythagoras founded a religious movement known as Pythagoreanism, which posited that geometry constituted the building blocks of the cosmic order.
Plato was strongly influenced by Pythagoras’s ideas. In his Timaeus, Plato had the eponymous character argue that the god or demiurge who created the world did so with ideal geometric forms.
Over a millennium later, an anonymous French Gothic artist illuminated the Book of Genesis with a full-page painting of God creating the earth. Divine creation was shown as a mathematical act: God holds a geometer’s compass. (Today, the manuscript illustration–which was part of a Bible and had no separate title–is known as either God as Architect of the World or Christ as Geometer.)
Another French Gothic artist, Villard de Honnecourt, depicted the contemporary belief that everything in the material world was based on geometric forms. In the line drawings of his notebook, Villard imaged equilateral triangles as the basis for the human body and a five-pointed star as the foundation for the human face.
Renaissance and Romanticism
Villard’s ideas about the geometric basis for anatomy are echoed in what may be Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous drawing, the Vitruvian Man (c. 1490). An ideally proportioned male figure stands inside a perfect circle, which is inscribed in an equally perfect square. Leonardo’s accompanying notes list the mathematical interrelations between the dimensions of the body: the height of the man is equal to the length of his outspread arms; the distance from the hairline to the chin is equal to one tenth of the man’s height, etc.
In the seventeenth century, German mathematician Johannes Kepler continued the conflation of geometry and divine creation: “Geometry existed before the creation. It is co-eternal with the mind of God… Geometry provided God with a model for the Creation.” British Romantic artist William Blake illustrated Kepler’s assertion in his 1794 image, Ancient of Days. Blake portrayed the creator deity holding a geometer’s compass–much like the divine figure in the Gothic manuscript.
Modernism in Russia and Beyond
The connection between geometry and spiritual belief continued into the early twentieth century. In the years before the 1917 Russian Revolution, painter Kazimir Malevich realized that just as the Bolsheviks were dismantling social structures from the aristocracy to the Church, avant-garde artists should reconfigure the traditional views that shackled art to the past. Malevich was aware that some of the most important artworks in his country were religious icons: idealized depictions of holy figures like Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Historically, Russian icons were hung high up in the corners where walls met the ceiling, so that the sacred image could “watch over” the room.
Malevich jettisoned the convention of realist representation and replaced it with geometric abstraction. In the first exhibition of his radical new work, Malevich installed a painting of a deep black void in the traditional place of the “watching” icon. Malevich’s Black Square became one of the most controversial symbols of the Modern Age.
Malevich’s contemporary, Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, abandoned representation in favor of dynamic geometric abstractions. Kandinsky wrote about his new work and the theories that explained it in Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912), a tiny but immensely influential analysis of how abstract color and form can be used to express the spiritual life of humanity. He asserted, “Color is a power which directly influences the soul… The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and, finally, for the supernatural… The brighter it becomes, the more it loses its sound, until it turns into silent stillness and becomes white.” The innovative painter added, “The artist must train not only his eye but also his soul.”
It was a third Russian-born artist, Mark Rothko, who inspired Joan Kahn to create spiritually infused abstractions. Art had been an important part of Kahn’s childhood: Her grandfather was a professional portrait painter and her father often shared art exhibitions with his young daughter. Then, when she was in college at the University of Wisconsin, her Professor Victor Kord showed her Rothko’s transcendent Abstract Expressionist paintings. She was “blown away” by the canvasses composed of rectangles of color that shimmer in mysterious radiance. Rothko intended his works to be quietly meditative and to this end, his mature work was totally non-objective. He said, “Art to me is an anecdote of the spirit, and the only means of making concrete the purpose of its varied quickness and stillness.” Today, some of Rothko’s most impressive and inspirational paintings hang in the Rothko Chapel, a temple to Modern Art that attracts hundreds of meditators every week.
Like Rothko and Malevich before him, Joan Kahn uses simple geometric forms to create quiet, contemplative paintings that reach past the noisy distractions of daily experience and touch the quiet spaces of the soul. Her surfaces are precisely crafted: each painted edge is adamant and knife-sharp. Her use of color is astonishing. Translucent curtains of color hover beside bright, shiny passages and next to textured areas created by mixing sand with the paint. (Earlier artists from Picasso to Pollock also mixed sand into paint in order to build depth and variety.) Kahn’s ethereal color zones are juxtaposed with light-dark contrasts of curving grains found in woods such as mahogany and birch.
Kahn’s radiant and seductive Heart from 2010 contrasts thin veils of red, orange, and magenta, the warm translucent tones hovering over a birch background. Columns of color reach across painted bands, creating an orthogonal grid that recalls the compositional simplicity and subtlety of Piet Mondrian. Kahn was inspired to do Heart after she helped a close friend through a cardiovascular crisis. The artist suggests that the painted components can be read as veins and arteries But beyond the implied tie to the physical world, the interlacing lines of color suggest passion and intensity.
Kahn’s works are peaceful yet inspiring, serenely balanced without being symmetrical, brilliantly hued yet infinitely subtle. They evoke a rich heritage that draws on ideas and images from over two thousand years of history. The strength of Kahn’s works is that even viewers who know nothing of this history are nonetheless moved by the beauty and elegance of these spiritually resonant, geometrically-based compositions that pair finely painted surfaces with evocative wooden ones.
Betty Ann Brown, Pasadena, October 2014
Cohen, S. Marc, “Aristotle’s Metaphysics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2014/entries/aristotle-metaphysics/>.
Di Liscia, Daniel A., “Johannes Kepler”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2014/entries/kepler/>.
Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art , trans. M.T.H. Sadler. London: Constable & Co., 1914.
Rothko, Mark. <http://www.markrothko.org/quotes/>
Zeyl, Donald, “Plato’s Timaeus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/plato-timaeus/>.
NOTE: All art historical images cited are available in: Kleiner, Fred S.: Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Concise History of Western Art, 3rd Edition. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2014.