The Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, is an austere space for ecumenical meditation. One of the oil town’s most famous landmarks, its walls are adorned with 14 monumental paintings by the Russian-born artist Mark Rothko, rendered in his definitive style of floating patches of color: in this case, black, deep brown and purple. The art patron Dominique de Menil, who commissioned the space and its somber paintings, reportedly said the works evoke "the mystery of the cosmos, the tragic mystery of our perishable condition, [and] the silence of god, the unbearable silence of God."
A new exhibition of abstract landscapes by the New York-based artist Tobi Kahn invites a similar kind of cosmic contemplation. And Kahn’s "reality-based abstractions," on view through Aug. 24 in "Sky & Water" at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, N.Y., bring Rothko’s work to mind. (Both the curator Dede Young and the art historian Donald Kuspit reference the Abstract Expressionist in the exhibition catalogue.) The exhibition includes maquettes for Kahn’s nondenominational "sacred spaces." They are the "Meditative Space" in Manhattan’s HealthCare Chaplaincy headquarters, a moveable space for meditation, and "Ahva," a sanctuary commissioned by Jane Blaffer Owen for the utopian community of New Harmony, Ind.
But Kahn’s creations, in their flickering palette and intimate scale, evoke tranquility and wonder rather than terrible awe.
"I would like my work to be redemptive," Kahn, 51, told The Jewish Week in an interview at his Long Island City studio, where he has been painting almost every day except Shabbat for the last 21 years. In 30 years of artistic output, Kahn has never been trendy, but he has been consistent in pursuing art’s "spiritual capacity." Today he finds himself among a growing number of artists drawing attention for their sincere treatment of spiritual issues.
Rooted in the Western Romantic tradition, Kahn’s landscapes derive some of their spiritual nature from that movement’s light-bathed splendor. "The reverence that light evokes, a sense of God in the landscape, those are part of the landscape tradition," said Young, the Neuberger’s curator of modern and contemporary art. "Tobi is tied in to all of these," she said. "What he does that’s contemporary is push out the details."
Asked if he ever tired of painting horizons, like those that make up the more than 80 paintings in "Sky & Water," Kahn said he would do another thousand. "To me, it’s holy," he said.
Kahn’s work has been exhibited in more than 100 solo and group shows since 1985, when the Guggenheim Museum selected him among nine artists in "New Horizons in American Art." "Metamorphoses," a 10-year retrospective of his paintings and sculptures traveled to eight museums nationwide from 1997 to 1999.
Kahn currently has two shows on the road: "Correspondence," a collection of landscapes reminiscent of aerial photographs, and "Avoda: Objects of the Spirit," a set of ritual objects Kahn made for his family. "Avoda" inspired an accompanying educational program in which university students of all backgrounds create their own ceremonial art.
Leading a reporter through his warren-like studio, a graying but buoyant Kahn shows how he and four assistants (all students from his fine arts workshops at the School of Visual Arts) are working simultaneously on three upcoming exhibitions. Two assistants painstakingly packed canvases for shipment to the Cape Museum of Art in Dennis, Mass. A one-man show of scientifically inspired landscapes (cells, tissues) opens there on July 19. In a stairwell, another assistant covered smaller canvases with white gesso in preparation for a series of paradisiacal flowers.
"People ask me, ‘How can you work on so many exhibitions at the same time?’ " Kahn said, resting an arm on a table covered in containers of hand-mixed acrylic paint and jars of hand-cut brushes. "I tell them, ‘Talk to me for five minutes and you’ll see.’"
Indeed, the free-flowing conversation bounds over his working method; artists he admires (James Turrell, Susan Rothenberg, Barnett Newman and Rothko); his close circle of friends (some from his days at Yeshiva University High School for Boys); the phone line he reserves for incoming calls from his wife, the writer Nessa Rapaport, and their three children; and an early sale of student work (Kahn has an MFA from Pratt Institute) to his beloved grandfather.
"I have it right here," Kahn said, turning to retrieve the canvas from a drawer.
The son of German refugees who lost most of their families in the Holocaust, Kahn was named for his uncle, an artist and medical student, who was one of the first Jews executed by the Nazis. Kahn said he feels that he’s taking his uncle’s place.
He has created Holocaust memorials and tzedakah boxes. He is currently constructing a large-scale wooden sculpture, "Saphyr," that is actually an interactive calendar for the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, known as the Omer. His paintings and sculptural shrines bear fictitious titles with Semitic resonance like "Ya-Ir" and "Ahrav."
But while he davens every day, Kahn does not want to be "departmentalized." "I’m an artist. I also happen to be an observant Jew," he said.
"Tobi Kahn: Sky & Water" is on view through Aug. 24 at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York, 735 Anderson Hill Road, Purchase. (914) 251-6100. Tues.-Fri., 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. $5, $3.