MATERIA: Recent works on paper by New York artist Tobi Kahn

Through January 31, 2007

Works on Paper, Inc.

1611 Walnut Street, Mezzanine, Philadelphia

(215) 988-9999,



         The notion of a foreground and a background in a painting is an illusion. Painters use a variety of tricks to fool the viewer into thinking that pictorial space can contain real space, including perspective (objects higher up in the picture frame tend to be more distant) and palette (“warmer” colors are closer, “cooler” ones further). 


        Additionally, one of the many “problems” of painting is trying to show the space between objects. Air is formless and colorless, and the artist often has a hard time convincing the viewer in paint upon a flat surface that a certain amount of air separates two objects, and a different amount separates other objects.



“Kudoht (study#1A).” By Tobi Kahn. Acrylic on paper. 2006.



         Tobi Kahn’s Materia, which is inspired by rock formations, is a body of paintings that shows nothing but positive space. The works evoke aerial photographs (indeed Kahn is at work on a series of paintings based upon aerial views of Israel) and are so bold that they would probably work well in textile or clothing design.


         Kahn is no stranger to these pages and needs no introduction – only an update on his work since the last review. On June 28, 2006, Richard McBee observed, “Tobi Kahn’s ritual objects and mysterious paintings demand Jewish sensitivity without admitting their Jewish content,” and on February 2, 2005, he wrote, “Eschewing traditional Judaic form and symbol, Tobi Kahn is determined to eke out objects and images that bring each mitzvah into the present modern reality.”



“Nodeh (study).” By Tobi Kahn. Acrylic on paper. 2006.



         When the Jewish Museum acquired Kahn’s Saphyr, Omer Counter, McBee covered the “totally new form of omer counter [which] is a delightfully intriguing wall construction.” And on July 18, 2003, he reviewed Kahn’s Sky & Water series: “At once modern in its abstraction and postmodern in idiosyncratic naturalism, this assertive exhibition has deep links with Jewish meditation even as it champions a non-denominational spirituality.”


         Perhaps most ambitiously, McBee conceived of Kahn’s Microcosmos series as the very Talmud itself: “The tension of differences seen in the same text or image becomes a pathway to greater knowledge. This is the context in which to see the paintings of Tobi Kahn.”


         It seems that Kahn cannot touch anything without making it Jewish and art, and happily, he continues to produce more and more work. This is all the more remarkable, because his paintings involve many painstaking layers of paint, which makes the works’ surfaces – somewhere midway between cloudy and pasty – so fascinating. Kahn exhibits a thrill about his work, which ought to be standard fare for all serious artists, but is quite rare and refreshing. He is obsessed not only with Jewish art, but with Jewish artists, particularly the next generation of people interested in Jewish art, which he says did not exist when he was growing up.



“Yynah (study).” By Tobi Kahn. Acrylic on paper. 2006.



         And yet, Kahn’s current exhibit at Works on Paper in Philadelphia is arguably most relevant to Jewish art due to its departure therein. In his review of Kahn’s show, Edward J. Sozanski, art critic at The Philadelphia Inquirer, made a startling argument that Kahn’s work should be considered as Eastern, rather than Western, art. “Kahn’s paintings don’t look particularly Asian, yet their exquisite balance and quiet intensity make them as serenely contemplative as the calligraphy of a Zen master. The more one studies these paintings, the more one realizes how much craftsmanship contributes to that result.”


         Sozanski used the word “craftsmanship” twice in the review, which left Works on Paper owner Evan Slepian unhappy. Slepian told me he felt the references to craftsmanship downplayed the art, which he felt was so powerful that he was tempted to hang just two or three painting on each wall, “because they hold the wall.” In the press release, Slepian wrote, “Kahn’s new work, based on rock formations, exemplifies a meditative abstraction with the rich surface and sinuous line that are his distinctive signature.”


         The work in question is a rock formation study that began when Kahn, a Kohen, first visited a cemetery after his mother’s death. The funeral was in Israel, and Kahn lingered about the edge of the cemetery where his mother was buried, so as not to become impure. (Kohanim, or priests, are not permitted to be in cemeteries or to come in contact with other impurities.) For the first time, Kahn saw the stones mourners left behind on the graves to mark their visits, and he was so fascinated that he began working on a piece about rocks. He also gathered rocks from Maine, El Paso and Cape Cod (where he visited for exhibitions of his work). The body of work became Materia.




“Zahram (study).” By Tobi Kahn. Acrylic on paper. 2006.



         Both Zahram (study) and Nodeh (study) – all of Kahn’s titles are pseudo-Hebrew – evoke rivers. Zahram is a blue-gray and white painting that resembles a river with islands. Nodeh looks more like a meandering tributary, fighting its way around rocks and small hills. Upon close inspection, both paintings (and indeed all of Kahn’s paintings) reveal a great deal of variation in color and brushstrokes, which further lends the painting an aquatic feel.


         On the Works on Paper website, Slepian insightfully posted the paintings beside close-up shots of details from the paintings. Seeing those zoomed-in shots, the paintings appear to have a great deal of bold movement, and yet looking back at the original paintings, I am always struck by the serenity and balance in them. Kahn has achieved balance not by using inert and dull objects, but by setting each object in so much dynamic motion that they balance each other. This is perhaps the way they most closely resemble Zen thought.


        Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at