As lyrical in describing his pastels and oil paintings, artist Wolf Kahn once described his work as “the dust on butterflies’ wing . . . the milkiness of the haze over Venice or the velvet darkness of a barn’s interior seen through the open doors on a brilliant summer day.”
For years he divided his time between studios in New York City and Brattleboro, Vt., where he and his wife, artist Emily Mason, worked while ensconced in a hillside farm.
And though he often made his paintings on site in Vermont and Connecticut, his “views of meadows, barns, and rows of trees are less about location, more about heightened perceptions of the color, light, mood, and scale of place.
Abstract painterly qualities lend the images a timeless air,” Globe critic Nancy Stapen wrote in reviewing a 1994 show at a Newbury Street gallery.
Mr. Kahn, who settled in the United States after being evacuated from Nazi Germany as a child, and was renowned for his resplendent landscapes depicting beauty and permanence in an often uncertain world, died March 15 in his New York City home. He was 92.
His daughter Melany Kahn told The Washington Post that the cause was congestive heart failure.
One of thousands of Jewish refugee children shepherded to Britain between 1938 and 1940 as part of the rescue effort known as the Kindertransport, Mr. Kahn later joined his family in the United States and established himself as an artist in the 1950s.
He was known primarily for his pastels and oil paintings that captured on paper and canvas the intoxicating colors — as Mr. Kahn perceived them — of trees, the sky, and rolling hills and sometimes the barns and cabins tucked inside them.
Reflecting on his life, he observed that he was perhaps drawn to the land because of his experience during the Holocaust, which took the lives of his grandparents and left him for a period without a home.
“After all, landscape is something that might be searching for roots,” he said in an oral history in the late 1970s with the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. He added that “nature, which is unchanging” gives one “solidity.”
His style was influenced by many traditions, including the dreamlike aura of French impressionism and color field painting techniques pioneered by abstract artists including Mark Rothko. But he insisted that he was a realist, once remarking to an Associated Press reporter, “You see, the forest is there.”
The forest was there, but not always as one might expect to find it.
“My choice of color is dictated by tact and decorum, stretched by an unholy desire to be outrageous,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “I want the color to be surprising to people without being offensive.”
In a 2016 review of a Boston show, Globe critic Cate McQuaid wrote that in sailboat paintings Mr. Kahn made on Martha’s Vineyard, “fields of nearly impenetrable mist imbued with blues and lavenders drape the simple verticals and triangles of the boats. Icing-thick white cloaks all in ‘Sailboat in the Summer’s Heat’ with just traces of a phantom vessel.
“Yet Kahn gives hints of much going on beneath the surface. The blue in ‘Summer Sail,’ while dense as fog, nonetheless holds light. The artist prods and mottles it into a living thing, plagued with grays, rimmed with breaths of paler blue.”
In Mr. Kahn’s renderings, trees could be a blazing orange, grass a radiant yellow, and a horizon a ribbon of pink.
“He brings back from his survey of nature colors — magentas, purples, orange-pinks — that must be seen to be believed,” novelist John Updike wrote in an introduction to Mr. Kahn’s book “Wolf Kahn’s America: An Artist’s Travels” (2003), one of several collections of his works. “We do believe them; his images keep a sense of place and moment, though what strikes us first is their abstract gorgeousness. Gorgeous, but they do not leave the earth.”
Mr. Kahn’s work was exhibited and housed in institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum in Washington, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In a testament to his popularity, it also filled wall calendars and address books.
In Vermont, he lived in a renovated farmhouse. Danny Lichtenfeld, director of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, told the publication VT Digger in 2017 that Mr. Kahn was “to southern Vermont what Winslow Homer is to the coast of Maine, Georgia O’Keeffe to the New Mexico high desert, and Claude Monet to the French countryside.’’
And yet, Mr. Kahn said, his bucolic scenes were also the product of the months he spent in Manhattan.
“The environment in which my paintings grow best is at Broadway and 12th Street. I can see nature most clearly in my studio, undistracted by trees and skies,” he said in an interview quoted by the Forward. “Art being emotion recollected in tranquility, I constantly find Nature too emotional, and Broadway very tranquil.”
Hans Wolfgang Kahn was born in Stuttgart, Germany, on Oct. 4, 1927. (He was always known as Wolf, his daughter said, and legally changed his given name after settling in the United States.)
His father was the conductor of the Stuttgart Philharmonic but lost his post because of anti-Semitic persecution during the Nazi regime. His mother was an artist and died when Mr. Kahn was 3, leaving him in the care of a grandmother in Frankfurt while his father traveled for his conducting career.
The widow of a banker, she provided Mr. Kahn with an affluent upbringing, including formal art lessons. Mr. Kahn’s artistic potential had been apparent since he was 4 or 5, when he began drawing the musicians of his father’s orchestra with their instruments.
Mr. Kahn recalled being physically attacked on the street because he was not wearing a Hitler Youth uniform. When he arrived in England as part of the Kindertransport, he was first placed with a wealthy family that treated him cruelly.
The father wanted “a real refugee, you know, with rickets, and dark under the eyes,” Mr. Kahn said in the Smithsonian oral history, whereas, thanks to his grandmother, Mr. Kahn’s arrival was “anticipated by the arrival of a bicycle and a huge steamer trunk.” The host family made him work for them as a servant until he was placed in another home that was less well-to-do, but where he was treated kindly.
“My class bias comes from that, I suppose,” he said. “I’ve always been very dubious about the rich, and much more in favor of . . . the less fortunate.”
In the United States, he was reunited with his father and his siblings. They lived in New Jersey before settling in New York City, where Mr. Kahn studied at the High School of Music & Art. He served in the Navy before receiving a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Chicago in 1950.
Before attending the university, he had been a studio assistant to Hans Hofmann, a German-born abstract expressionist who became a mentor.
“He didn’t believe in systems,” Mr. Kahn told the publication Vermont Arts & Living. “He said at some point some genius would arise who would know how to systematize color, but until then you have to use your intuition.”
“I have my own system for color, but I’ve never formalized it,” he added. “It all goes through my intuition instead of any knowledge. In fact, I don’t believe in knowledge.”
Mr. Kahn continued painting until the end of his life, once remarking to “CBS Sunday Morning” that “as I get older, the blue gets bluer and the yellow gets yellower.”
“I hope to live to a very ripe old age,” he quipped, “because . . . who can tell how yellow the yellow [will] become?”
Among his philanthropic work, he and his wife established the New York-based Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason Foundation, a grant-giving organization for the visual arts.
His wife died in December after 62 years of marriage. In addition to his daughter, Melany of West Chesterfield, N.H., he leaves another daughter, Cecily Kahn, also an artist, of Friendship, Maine, and six grandchildren.
Art is “about intuition, imagination and fantasy,” Mr. Kahn told the Vermont Arts & Living. “Once you have your nose pointed in the right direction, you can start smelling something. It’s not about expertise. I don’t believe in it. I believe in innocence of spirit.”
Material from The Washington Post was used in this obituary.