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A New Oral History with Acclaimed Painter Wolf Kahn

“Dark Pines,” by Wolf Kahn, HW Gallery.

Once upon a time in Chelsea, New York, a young woman lived in an apartment on the sixth floor with a magical view. Facing north, there was the Chelsea Hotel, and the Empire State Building, and the spire of the Chrysler Building: stolid, yet ever-changing, amid sunrise or fog, rainbows or fireworks.

Directly across the street was a modest, low brick building, headlined in silver letters that stood up from the roof bearing the charming legend: STAR CINEMA SUPPLY CO. Underneath were three large windows, partially covered, that allowed glimpses of brilliantly colored canvases – and glimpses of a person too. The canvases moved around, disappeared, and were replaced by new ones. What could be seen of them was immensely alluring, and mysterious too: Who was their creator?

One day a stranger mentioned by pure happenstance to the young woman (who was me), that the painter in the nearby building was named Wolf Kahn. Aha! Now I knew where to direct my appreciation – and a check, should I ever be able to purchase a painting.

The other side of the window, 1999.

How fitting that Wolf Kahn and I would be brought together again – in the mind of one of us, at least – by the GVSHP Oral History Collection.  The tales told by accomplished people in our oral histories are largely about the kind of serendipity that enchants our days as New Yorkers.  As we struggle along in our pursuits, driven by ambition or necessity, we may cross paths with a person we’ve always admired…may even become friends or collaborators…may be drawn into something entirely new…may find ourselves making history, or watching it from the wings.

Kahn, now in his mid-80s, was born in Germany and sought refuge in America, joining the U.S. Navy at 17.  He was assigned to the paint shop and began painting portraits. It wasn’t too long before he was studying painting in New York under Stuart Davis and Hans Hoffman. He lived in the East Village, helping to establish the Hansa Gallery on East 10th Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues, in what was for a time the gallery row.  In his oral history — where you can listen to a short clip, or the entire 2:26:00 interview, or page through the entire transcript — Kahn relates his journey as an artist, a family man, and a housing activist, who went to the Cedar Tavern and knew painter Willem de Kooning and poet Frank O’Hara.

GVSHP is grateful to Kahn and his fellow interviewees for sharing their time and fascinating personal histories with all of us.

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