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Tobi Kahn’s Horizons

Tobi Kahn: Sky and Water – The Neuberger Museum of Art; Purchase College,
State University of New York. 735 Anderson Hill Road; Purchase NY 10577-1400.
(914) 251-6100 www.neuberger.org. Tuesday – Friday, 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m;
Saturday – Sunday, 11:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. Closed Mondays and major holidays.
Admission; $5.00. Until August 24, 2003.


 

Sky & Water, a new installation of 106 paintings by Tobi Kahn at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York, concentrates on one esoteric subject: the contemplation of the horizon. 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.

Set in the monumental Theater Gallery, each wall of the installation is a distinct tone poem within an overwhelming whole. Ohra (2003), a nine-panel work seven feet four inches tall and 45 feet long, occupies the dominant wall. Each heavily painted panel is placed directly next to its nearly identical neighbor. The effect is one of relentless repetition that opens into a vista of pale turquoise water bounded by a warm overcast sky. The wall to the right, 52 feet long, introduces five variations on the theme. The first three paintings, Ya-ir; XXIII, XXIV, and XXVI (1999) explore subtle shades of pink and green grays as the horizon swells up, down and up again.

Two larger paintings, Ya-ir XIX and XX (1999) provide a strong contrast of intense color and luminosity. In one canvas, dark blues weigh upon ominous green water while in the other, the water has become a fearsome crimson barely contained by a pale sky. Across the room, one is confronted with a 16-foot high wall displaying 80 paintings. A seemingly random arrangement of small to medium sized works anchored by three central canvases creates a staccato of diverse horizons. The sixty-seven foot back wall is devoted to twelve identical blue on blue paintings, Ahrav (2003), an elegant meditation on the phenomena of twilight infusing sky and water.

Although it is tempting to see this work in light of romantic landscape painting or the moody abstractions of Mark Rothko, Kahn’s work is considerably more complex as it attempts to move beyond naturalism and monistic meditation. The central element we see in Sky & Water is a numbing repetition of the image of the horizon, rarified and abstracted so that we are forced to notice every nuance between one painting and the next. This repetition has its conceptual roots in the classic Jewish methodological approach to the spiritual. From the mundane to the esoteric, repetition is central in our approach to G-d. We say the identical Shemoneh Esrei three times a day, over 800 times a year while many of us “daven” the texts of Tehillim and even the Haggadah in a rote repetition reinforced with trance-like shuckling.

Jewish meditation finds its roots in the Talmudic Heychaloth Rabbati of Merkavah mysticism that uses the mystical “name” of G-d (actually a long list of mystical words and phrases) in 120 repetitions to elevate the consciousness of the devotee. A technique involving the repetition of Biblical verses known as gerushin was used in 16th century Safed to simultaneously dominate the consciousness of the meditator and to provide mystical insight into the verse itself. Rabbi Joseph Caro used the repetition of a Mishnah as a kind of mantra to open up communication with a maggid (a heavenly being that reveals celestial secrets). The Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria) also used repetitions of selections of the Zohar to plumb its secrets. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1811) utilized repetitions of the phrase Ribbono Shel Olam as a way of opening a meditative conversation with G-d. Here, as in many of the other examples, the technique of repetition is but a means to an elevated consciousness. The specific content of the
repetition is not primary. However, in Kahn’s paintings, the content seems wedded to the technique of repetition that addresses, in his words, “the redemptive possibilities of art.”

Tobi Kahn says, “I love making art that takes you to a different place, a better place.” This desire for transformation through meditation is expressed in a room he has created at the Health Care Chaplaincy of New York at 315 East 62nd Street, an institution dedicated to those who encourage healing through spirituality. Here one is engulfed by nine of his shimmering deep green Sky & Water paintings that surround three chairs and two benches specially designed by Kahn. The darkly soothing horizon is situated between the heart and the eye, creating an environment of Zen-like calm and peace titled “Emet.”

These works, especially the Sky & Water installation at the Neuberger Museum, recall a type of minimalism. They restrict their expressive tools to very few colors and the one compositional idea of the horizontal division of the canvas. Nevertheless, it is the technique of repetition with small barely noticeable differences that dominates Kahn’s aesthetic agenda. Much like the post-modernist strategies of Walter de Maria’s Broken Kilometer and the serial music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, Kahn aims to nudge us into a contemplative state by the quiet insistence of image repetition. Paradoxically, image repetition markedly concentrates what is repeated and heightens visual distinctions while in classic meditation verbal repetition blurs the substance of what is said. The paintings navigate an uneasy border between a pleasant visual sensuality and the nagging impression of being slightly boring. It is exactly that tension that begins to draw us into their methodology of meditation and contemplation.

The horizon operates in these paintings as a symbolic meeting place that Kahn has literally etched in the surface of almost all the paintings. Wherever it is found, it is the physically empty place where the paint making up the sky stops and the painted water begins. In painting after painting, the horizon is a slim void, a breath of air between the density of the spiritual sky and the suffocating reality of the watery depths. After experiencing the painted repetition of the existential border between the supernal and the mundane, between the demands of the spiritual and the dangerous lures of the physical, it seems that this horizon might very well represent for Kahn human freedom, the free will of the spiritually sensitive individual. It is an uncomfortable place, bound by massive forces beyond our control. And yet it is exactly where we are defined as uniquely and proudly human.


(Background material on Jewish meditation is from “Jewish Meditation” by Aryeh Kaplan, Schocken Books, 1985)

Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel
free to email him with comments at
rmcbee@nyc.rr.com.

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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