MOCRA exhibitions

MOCRA presents a survey of painting and sculpture from 1982 to the present by artist
Tobi Kahn, curated by art historian Peter Selz

Tobi Kahn - Natah (1987)

Tobi Kahn, Natah, 1987. Acrylic on canvas over panel. 50 7/8 x 72 7/8 in.
Private collection, Palm Beach, FL.

Tobi Kahn


March 8 - May 8, 1998
opening reception for the artist   Sunday, March 8   2:30 - 4:30 p.m. 

Renaissance and Modern: An Afternoon of Programs at MOCRA
     Sunday, March 22, 1998    2 p.m.
     free and open to the public
     for more information click here

     Matrons and Motives: Why Women Built in 16th-century Rome
     Dr. Carolyn Valone
     Professor of Art History, Trinity University, San Antonio, TX

     The Artist and the Art Historian Dialogue
     Tobi Kahn
     artist, New York
     Dr. Douglas Dreishpoon
     Interim Director & Curator of Collections, Weatherspoon Gallery
     University of North Carolina - Greensboro

 General Exhibition Information
Hours: Tues - Sun, 11 am - 4 pm
Directions and parking information
Group visit information
Tobi Kahn: Metamorphoses catalogue thumbnail

An illustrated 80-page color catalogue with essays by Peter Selz, Michael Brenson, and Dore Ashton accompanies the exhibition and will be available for purchase at MOCRA.

The catalogue is available for purchase at MOCRA during the exhibition.
It also can be purchased online in the MOCRA store.

Kahn - Lifanah (1985) 

Tobi Kahn, Lifanah, 1985.
Acrylic on wood, bronze with patina.
16 5/8 x 10 3/4 x 10 1/2 in.
Photo by Cheryl Ungar.
Courtesy of the artist.
Place, memory, and mystery
Curated by the distinguished art historian Peter Selz, this exhibition brings together 37 paintings and 20 sculptures of an artist who extends an American tradition-the distillation of the natural world into elemental forms. Kahn's antecedents in landscape painting include Albert Pinkham Ryder, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, and Georgia O'Keefe. As with these earlier American painters, Kahn translates his subjective impressions of places into formal compositions, always aware of the transcendental equivalencies of natural forms to spiritual truths.

Kahn is not alone in his pursuit; pioneers of abstraction such as Vasily Kandinsky and Kasemir Malevich were aware of the spiritual implications of their work. And twentieth-century figures such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Agnes Martin had contemplation and transcendental response as artistic concerns.
Kahn employs a well-developed technique in his paintings. He transfers a graphite drawing to his painting surface-wood or canvas, prepared with layers of gesso (an acrylic polymer emulsion that provides a ground for the paint). Then acrylic paint is applied: first vibrant, opaque bottom layers, then translucent washes. Along with variations in brushwork, this technique lends Kahn's work a density of color rich in subtlety and nuance.

Of the early paintings in the exhibition, art historian Dore Ashton writes, "While the allusions are much more obviously to landscape in a conventional definition, they are already once-removed from immediate recognitions." More importantly, as Ashton notes, "By 1990, Kahn's imaginative allusions to natural form take on almost surrealistic overtones." These works introduce forms which might be read as flowers, birds, and microscopically enlarged cells--or as nothing more than their own unique shapes and colors.

Two notable characteristics of Kahn's paintings are their perspective and their lighting. Ashton reminds us that artists have long experimented with different ways of viewing a scene. In many cases Kahn removes the groundlines from his paintings. Ashton writes, "It is this spatial ambiguity that provides the tension in several of Kahn's recent paintings. Despite the simplicity of composition, there is a figure-ground challenge. Associations shift." Of Kahn's use of light, curator Lisa Dennison writes, "Though there is no discernible light source in Kahn's work, there is a magical luminosity that emanates from the white ground and is enhanced by the delicate translucency of his veils of color." Peter Selz links this suffuse, mysterious light to the work of the Luminists, a group of mid-nineteenth century American landscape painters.

Regarding the often elusive titles given to the works in this exhibition: They are made up, but not arbitrary. They are ambiguous but evocative, inviting us to make associations. Phonetics and orthography tease our memory, just as the painted images jog recognition. At times, the titles may derive from actual words. Kahn notes, "Within the name Shalev are intimations of [Hebrew] words for 'peace,' 'tranquility,' and 'heart.'"

Kahn's shrines are distinct from, yet related to, his paintings. As with the paintings, a prepared surface is built up with layers of paint and washes. The figures within the shrines are carved from scrap wood, then cast in bronze. Like the paintings, the shrines are concerned with place. In discussing the shrines, Kahn recalls the Holy of Holies from the Book of Leviticus. "Throughout my travels I noticed that it was the space surrounding the sacred object in various cultures that interested me. In these sculptures I try to replicate the aura of a chosen object in communion with its own constructed space." Small in size, the relation between the shrines' architectural and figural forms suggests a much larger scale. The buildings and the figures exist in an uneasy tension. Art critic Michael Brenson notes the contradictions: The figures are presented to us, but shrouded; the threshold cannot be crossed and the viewer is kept at a distance. The dynamism of the figures is checked by an air of austerity and formality. Brenson links these works to artists such as Susan Rothenberg and Joel Shapiro, and further back to sculptor Alberto Giacometti.

As the child of refugees who lost family members in the Holocaust, Kahn is well aware of the nature of loss and of exile. Kahn has said, "My work has been a quest to distill what we remember into essential images, into archetypes that allow the past to be transformed by imagination into a living future."
About the artist
In 1985, Tobi Kahn was one of nine artists whose work was selected for the Guggenheim Museum's national exhibition, New Horizons in American Art. Since then, Kahn's paintings and sculpture have been shown in more than 30 solo exhibitions and more than 80 museum and gallery group shows. His work has been acquired by major American museums and has been the subject of significant critical attention. Kahn has completed commissions for Jewish liturgical objects and installations. Notable examples are the set for Jonah, directed by Elizabeth Swaydos, at the Public Theater in New York; The Twelve Tribes and Creation of the World, a set of paintings for the Jewish Family Congregation in South Salem, New York; and Gan Hazikaron: Garden of Remembrance, a Holocaust Memorial in Tenafly, New Jersey.
Tobi Kahn: Metamorphoses was organized and circulated by the Council for Creative Projects, Lee, MA and New York. The presentation of Metamorphoses at MOCRA is made possible through a grant from the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

Additional information

Tobi Kahn website

Tobi Kahn: Metamorphoses in the media

Tobi Kahn - Eyda, detail (1995) 

Tobi Kahn, Eyda (detail), 1995. Installation of
seven paintings. Acrylic on canvas over wood.
Collection of Mitchell Investment Management Co., Inc.
Higher purpose. Greater good.
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