‘A couple at the centre of the American art world’ — Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason
Husband and wife artists Kahn and Mason’s private art collection reflects and celebrates their relationships with other artists, and represents the ‘relationships, themes and eras’ of the second half of the 20th century
American artists Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason carved out intensely singular paths with their art — and yet they were never alone.
Mason’s airy studio in Chelsea, New York, featured what she called a ‘wall of friends’: a collection of paintings by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Mary Cassatt, whom she described as ‘friends or those whom I would like to befriend’. Kahn’s Village studio included a vibrant piece by Pierre Bonnard, the French painter whose sun-dappled canvases inspired the artist’s own work, especially in his early years.
The deep-rooted connection the couple felt with other artists they knew or admired is the defining factor of their remarkable collection of modern and contemporary art, to be offered on 18 May in New York.
Featuring works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Richard Diebenkorn and Robert Motherwell, among many others, as well as paintings by Mason and Kahn themselves, the sale showcases a couple ‘at the centre of the American art world in the second half of the 20th century,’ explains Christie’s American Art specialist Paige Kestenman.
Artist relationships forged from an early age
For both artists, their relationships with other artists began from a young age. Mason was a teenager when she began taking trips with her mother, the leading abstract artist Alice Trumbull Mason, to venues such as The Club, on 8th Street, New York — a hotspot for artists including Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler. Joan Miró also had a studio next door to her mother’s, and Gertrude Stein was among her correspondents.
Kahn, meanwhile, started out in the US Navy, before joining the New School and then, in 1947, the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts. There, he studied with artists such as Felix Pasilis and Jan Müller, before travelling to Provincetown to become Hans Hofmann’s studio assistant, where he met other artists as well.
The work of their contemporaries became a lasting influence — both as collectors and artists. It was under Hofmann, for example, that Kahn began applying the abstract aesthetics of Colour Field painting to large-scale landscapes.
Kahn’s works became ‘more vibrant and brighter’ over time, Kestenman says. His Down East Sunset I, 1997 (pictured below) she adds, is ‘a fabulous example, epitomising the balance that he is able to strike between these very vibrant, almost neon oranges and blues in a way that seems to be reflective of nature.’
Time spent in Venice was formative
Mason, for her part, was greatly inspired by Miro’s ‘carborundum’ technique in her printmaking, but it was a period spent in Venice that would prove even more formative.
Shortly after meeting Kahn at the Artist’s Club in New York, and spending a summer with him, Mark Rothko, Milton Avery and his wife Sally in Provincetown, Mason went to the Italian city in 1956 on a Fulbright scholarship to study at the Accademia delle Belle Arti.
Mason shared a cabin with the sculptor Lee Bontecou on the crossing to Venice and would later purchase, together with Kahn, two of the artist’s boxes punctured by black voids. Mason and Kahn would ultimately marry in Venice in 1957, and share a studio in Giudecca, before returning to New York in 1959.
Teachers with students and friends on both coasts
Back in the US, the couple dug even deeper into the abstract art community and began building relationships through a new platform — teaching.
Kahn taught at Berkeley and at The Cooper Union and many of their acquisitions were made as a means of ‘supporting their studio assistants, [their students] and their younger friends,’ says Kestenman. They relied on their own taste, often collecting works before critics had had a chance to catch up with what they had seen.
An early portrait by Ellen Altfest, one of Kahn’s students at The Cooper Union, is included in the sale, as is a work by their neighbour Frank Stout. Friends the couple made in California are also represented: among them Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Diebekorn, whose Cups II is a highlight of the sale that the two artists corresponded about in the 1980s.
Drawn to nature
Kahn and Mason ‘were in the middle of the New York art circles in the mid-20th century when there was so much change happening in the abstract art world,’ Kestenman says, but there was something of equal if not greater importance to their lives: nature.
The subject permeated Kahn’s everyday life: their ‘daughters would talk about how wherever they were, if they were in a car, he would spot something on the side of the road and pull over to sketch it.’ Mason, while not directly representing nature in her work, ‘certainly [drew on] the colours and rhythms of nature as a major influence.’
Their interest in nature reached new heights in 1968, when the couple purchased a farmhouse in West Brattleboro, Vermont. They would spend every summer there for the rest of their lives. Kahn would ‘go out painting with his artist friends in the area, and Mason would paint many works surrounded by the natural landscape of Vermont and then bring them back to the city to finish.’
The complex connections between the urban and natural worlds became a focus of their collection, too, perhaps most pointedly represented by Georgia O’Keeffe’s Autumn Leaf with White Flower — a painting that both celebrates the beauty of the natural world and, with its dramatic vertical composition, evokes the New York skyscrapers she was painting at the same time.
Collecting, and celebrating, different artists’ perspectives
In the words of the couple’s daughters Cecily and Melany, their parents’ collection became an ‘antidote’ to their own practice. They never hung their own works in their homes; instead, as Kestenman points out, they filled these spaces with acquisitions — ‘surrounding themselves with different artistic perspectives that were very much a counterpoint to their own practices.’
Fittingly, proceeds from the sale will help sponsor foundations supporting the next generation of artists. As Kestenman points out, ‘they were teachers, and that's very much a core focus of their lives, and their legacies, going forward.’