May 15, 2015


H. Peter Kahn, Field, 1965, color woodcut

(The following article also appears on the Ithaca Times website.)

It’s not rare to find an exhibit at the Ink Shop that impresses with its display of professionalism, ambition, talent, and unpredictability. (I’ve written about countless such shows over the years.) But it is unusual for the print shop and gallery to put together work of museum-level historical importance. Such is the case with their May-only show, which features paintings and works on paper by the late Hans Peter Kahn.

Kahn (1921-1997) is a legendary figure in the local art community. Born in Leipzig Germany, he came to this country in 1937, his family fleeing the Nazis. He lived in New York City and studied with the Abstract Expressionist painter Hans Hofmann—like himself a German émigré and a prodigious teacher. He took a position at Cornell in 1957 and taught there beyond his retirement in 1984. For many years, he took students in his storied barn studio in Trumansburg. His younger brother is the famed landscape painter Wolf Kahn and his wife Ruth Kahn is the author of the classic children’s book My Father’s Dragon. (Both are alive and Ruth, in her 90s, attended the crowded opening).

Every year, the Ink Shop awards a Kahn Family Fellowship in his honor. The program is available to artists with a background in printmaking and awards a stipend as well as full membership in the cooperative.

Curated by the Ink Shop’s Christa Wolf, “H. Peter Kahn Retrospective” fills the lobby and back hallway of the Community School of Music and Arts. Most of the work is landscape, interpreted with a striking degree of freedom.

Two tall oil-on-canvas paintings dominate the back wall of the lobby gallery. Fall Creek recalls the Post-Impressionists with its facets of electric color. A brilliant blue river zigzags vertically through a thick patchwork of twilit autumnal tones. Green Landscape recalls Hoffman with its more agitated paint handling and unpredictable use of color.

Other paintings, most of them smaller, anchor the lobby gallery. Ghost Ranch is particularly striking with its dry muted colors and phantom-like pentimenti.  Hanging over the staircase, by the CSMA’s front windows, Samos Valley portrays a panoramic, Mediterranean-looking landscape in two conjoined wood panels. (The other paintings are all on canvas.)


H. Peter Kahn, Orchard, undated, color woodcut

Woodcuts and other works on paper occupy the lobby as well. Wolf (whom I briefly assisted in arranging the show) deprecates slightly the more “old fashioned” prints here, which date from the ‘40s and ‘50s and emphasize urban subjects. An untitled black-and-white print is the best of these, showing two anonymous figures seated on an arcing row of park benches. The stark simplicity and tilted-up perspective recall Japanese prints.

A worn-out wooden desk covered in a Plexiglas vitrine houses a carefully arranged still life of the artist’s sketchbooks. We see glimpses of work in pastel, watercolor, and ink—as well as Kahn’s working notations.

Hung in the back hallway, an untitled drawing in soft charcoal shows a levitating panorama from somewhere far above Cayuga’s waters. Cornell’s historic Foundry building and what appears to be the Johnson Museum are visible to the left.

Woodcuts make up the bulk of the exhibit, particularly in the hallway. On the evidence here, they are some of Kahn’s best work. Done in black ink with or without one or more additional colors, they engage in exploratory registration, resulting in work of compelling abstraction. These “late” prints span the sixties through the artist’s final decade.

They’re most memorable when they have a cleanness and clarity to them. Orchard places black ink “drawing” against a smooth gradient of dusky blue intermingled with olive drab. Delicate specks of unprinted paper give the scene the feeling of lace. A similar airiness characterizes many other prints. Field is both dense and yet somehow insubstantial. A horizontal band of Indian yellow courses through the dark cyan meshwork of Lakeside.

“Retrospective,” as rich as is, only hints at the full significance of Kahn’s work.  An intellectual as well as an accomplished craftsman, his interests spanned art history, artists’ materials, and graphic art. A book with images of his calligraphy (available for purchase) demonstrates another passion.

An auspicious pairing: the Ink Shop is also showing, in their second floor space upstairs, the work of local photo-artist Laurie Snyder, a student and friend of Kahn’s.


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