Memory and Inheritance: The Legacy of Tobi Kahn

Written by Leigh Pennington

With a career spanning more than forty years, over seventy solo exhibitions, and with works featured in storied institutions like the Guggenheim, Tobi Kahn has a resume that could knock any visual artist off their pedestal. However, he comes across as a mensch and a teacher, and does not shy away from a good exchange of ideas either. A broad and deep mensch. This persona comes across through Kahn’s works in spades. His pieces are nonlinear dialogue starters. He thoroughly believes that art is a redemptive process that fulfills a role in beginning conversations, crafting bridges of affinity, as well as honoring and ensuring the continuity of intimate and shared memory.

Tobi Kahn

Kahn’ excitement, energy, and warm countenance permeated his latest exhibition Memory and Inheritance: Painting and Ceremonial Objects by Tobi Kahn, which features a collection of his work spanning most of his career, and hosted in the historic and visually stunning Museum at Eldridge Street.

Kahn’ excitement, energy, and warm countenance permeated his latest exhibition Memory and Inheritance: Painting and Ceremonial Objects by Tobi Kahn, which features a collection of his work spanning most of his career, and hosted in the historic and visually stunning Museum at Eldridge Street. Kahn recalled that one of his mentors Peter Selz advised him as a young artist that, “if you really think you want to make this your life, even in the best years, don’t sell everything, keep half of it for yourself, so that it’ll be easy to document how you think.” The exhibition, a catalog of Kahn’s thoughts, principles, and memories, is ein gebachen in die beiner, baked into the bones of the Eldridge Street Museum’s space and meaning.

Rhododendrites 

The Eldridge Street synagogue was built in 1887 during an international mass wave of immigration to the United States, in which some 2.5 million Jews from Eastern Europe settled in the Lower East Side. The synagogue became a symbol of religious freedom and a diversified Jewish community. Today the museum stands as a reminder of the beauty and continuity of not only American Jewry but all immigrant communities and still very much functions as a space for community memory making, an additional detail that elevated the essence of Kahn’s works.

Museum at Eldridge Street

Curator and Archivist Nancy Johnson shared her thoughts on the museum’s powerful and pure spirituality and history, “I don’t know anybody who’s ever walked in there and hasn’t felt the presence of something larger than themselves…It gives you a feeling of wanting to just sit in the space and take it all in. For me, it’s not anything dogmatic. It doesn’t matter what your background is, when you walk into a space like that, in the end, it’s how it makes you feel.” This effortless absorption of substance also permeates Kahn’s works. Although housed in a historic Jewish space, Kahn explained that his works are “not for a specific small community, it’s for a larger community, and I care more that other people bring in their experience.” Kahn informed me that for himself “my Jewishness informs the artist that I am, but I am an artist first.”

“I don’t know anybody who’s ever walked in there and hasn’t felt the presence of something larger than themselves…

Kahn looks at the potential of space and matter, carving new meaning out from what is already familiar to the eye and spirit. He mentioned that, “I am an image maker, I am not a painter or a sculptor. I always say that I’m an image maker.” In this spirit, it is very fitting that as an image maker Tobi Kahn got his start seeing the potential of space and imagery by adorning buildings in the Bronx with his own scope of architecture.

During his time at Hunter College Kahn began exploring the abstract possibilities of creating new meaning from existing structures. At first Kahn engaged in this experimentation through photography. Eventually he began to add his own lines, colors, and shading, to create new visions and stories. Khan recalled, “I used to love to go to the South Bronx when they were knocking down buildings….I would go to the buildings and take my paints and continue what I wish had been there…that’s when I got interested in texture…So I basically went under the gates into these buildings that were being knocked down and would do what I thought were beautiful paintings that looked very much like cave paintings….Then my teacher said to me, you know you’re more of a painter than a photographer, you should really be doing this.”

During his time at Hunter College Kahn began exploring the abstract possibilities of creating new meaning from existing structures.

Kahn continued this exploration during his MFA studies at the Pratt Institute. Wall Fragments, a collection of photographs, collages and paintings of Kahn’s redesigns on South Bronx buildings was shown at Fordham University in 1979. One of the paintings, Window Light, created in 1977, is now a part of the permanent collection of The Phillips in Washington, DC.

While Kahn obviously does not bemoan the commoditization of art, his favorite works and what he strives to create are what he calls “pure art”. He expounded on this notion. “I love art that’s pure. Don’t get me wrong, I make a living as an artist. So I’m not putting down the fact that I sell my work. But I want art to be about the pureness of expression…it’s about the idea of seeing something beautiful, and wanting to enhance it…I like works that come from the pure essence of the artist because they feel that it has to be done….giving enough information that lets the viewer continue the story.” The purity of creation for the sake of creation sits at the heart of each of Kahn’s pieces, even those that were commissioned for specific sites, institutions and communities. “When I make a sacred space. The only thing is, as with all my work, I want you to feel better about yourself in the world, when you leave the space than when you entered.”

“When I make a sacred space. The only thing is, as with all my work, I want you to feel better about yourself in the world, when you leave the space than when you entered.”

For this reason Kahn has a healthy obsession with cycladic art which informs and inspires many of his personal creations. For him the purity of artistic creation finds no better example than cave paintings, and particularly the site of Stonehenge. His first large scale installation, Shalev, was inspired by Stonehenge, a place that Kahn considers to be a holy site. For Kahn holiness finds a foothold in everything that surrounds us. Many of his ceremonial objects and paintings are containers of holy energy or meant to pay homage to the holy energy of our natural world.

In this spirit, Kahn is perhaps best known for his Sky and Water creations. The Sky and Water piece that Kahn chose to display for this exhibition, AHDYN, explores the beauty and sanctification of when blue waters meet blue skies. Nine smaller paintings, each one with its own specific hue of sky and water blues, blend together to form one singular entity. Kahn expounded, “I think my sky and waters are the most religious work I do. Because it’s all about that communion between heaven and earth.”

Other moments of natural wonder feature in several paintings for this exhibition. Moments from the artist’s life where elements of nature and even God seemed to be in conversation with one another. Most of these paintings are rendered from photographs taken by Kahn. Each moment making a heavy impression on him and culminating in a commemorative and almost surrealist work. AH-PAHL, is a landscape work that like AHDYN speaks to the meeting of the heavens and the waters. TSELA, was inspired by the artist’s investigation of an orchid where he saw a figure engaging in a joyful and hidden dance. IHYR, depicts the Costa Rican rainforest as the sun breaks through the night that still hangs over the trees. Each moment Kahn felt himself as a small but essential cog experiencing an unseen but ever present magic.

 


In the past, many of the works Kahn has shown tend to be very large scale pieces. This time he chose smaller ceremonial objects and paintings that fit with the dialogue and history of the museum. At times it feels like his ceremonial objects are historical artifacts from the museum space. Objects that are still used by most Jewish communities today. The intimacy and historic legacy of the museum and synagogue brought Kahn’s works into conversation with one another beautifully. They also became a part of the museum’s on-going spiritual preservation.

Other moments of natural wonder feature in several paintings for this exhibition. Moments from the artist’s life where elements of nature and even God seemed to be in conversation with one another.

Each ceremonial object is grouped and displayed according to a uniting theme, in vitrines that Kahn had constructed for this particular show. Some ceremonial pieces are displayed on the lower level of the museum and other objects relating to stories of women, women’s ceremonies, and even a few shabbat pieces are displayed in the women’s balcony in the main chapel.

In every culture, memory and inheritances are carried through by different means, but one of the most favored and widely used are visual cues, visual representations, that are imbued with narratives and tradition.

In every culture, memory and inheritances are carried through by different means, but one of the most favored and widely used are visual cues, visual representations, that are imbued with narratives and tradition. These cues are then filtered through the prism of our lives. There they find personal as well as collective meaning. In 1994 Kahn crafted a spice box, Aruga II, for his young son in the shape of a rocket ship, a ceremonial object that could double as a toy. The top portion of the spice box is an acorn, another favorite of Kahn’s son who was six years old at the time of the object’s creation.

Other ceremonial objects in the exhibition are imbued with Kahn’s personal memories and beliefs. Most of these objects were shown for the very first time at Eldridge Street. Kahn’s AHKAV, or magen david (Star of David), uses non-traditional elements for a very traditional Jewish symbol. The magen david is typically illustrated as a perfectly symmetrical symbol. No side is larger or more pronounced than the other. Kahn’s rendition of this historic symbol comes with dips, slants, and asymmetrical lines. This work is meant to signify the inherent diversity of the Jewish world.

Contrasts of tradition or history do nothing to dilute the potency of a community, but rather amplifies its greater meaning.

Contrasts of tradition or history do nothing to dilute the potency of a community, but rather amplifies its greater meaning. This is true for the Jewish community, but does not begin and end there. For all of his creative life Kahn has amplified interfaith messages through his works. He recounted, “I grew up so specifically an observant Jew. I always felt that it was just one lens. I’m more interested in people that are interested in something larger than themselves…So many of the pieces I do are conceptual, based on my narrative of what the holiday or what everything should be. I then take the very personal and try to transfer it to the communal and then hopefully the community will bring their personal narratives.” This principle is reflected (quite literally) in his work SAPHYR IV (Omer Counter), that features forty-nine small sculptures, each one representing one day between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. Each square varies in shape, slope, and reflection, an emphasis on the diversified qualities of one community, one world, that create a more dynamic and interesting perspective.

Through images crafted in various mediums Kahn’s works reflect and remind us of the apparent and ever present sanctity of our world and our shared experiences therein. We find pieces of experience that feel bigger than us and in doing so imbue moments with both collective and personal meaning. These can be anything from spaces of community, ritual objects, cycladic wall paintings etc. It is our singular experience of shared time and space as embodied beings that makes each moment of our lives both distinct and indistinct. The shift in energy we feel triggers our response to create memory, to fashion reminders of times we felt connected to a place, person, experience that exists outside the confines of our embodied selves.

Memory and Inheritance: Paintings and Ceremonial Objects by Tobi Kahn is on view through November 10, 2024.

Leigh Pennington – Hailing from Richmond Virginia, Leigh Pennington has lived, worked and studied around the world. She earned her BA in Anthropology, Art History, and Religion from Concordia University in Montreal. Last year she moved to New York to pursue a Masters in Oral History at Columbia University. Prior to moving back to the US she earned her first Masters from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Jewish Studies. Currently Leigh works as a freelance culture content writer as well as an Op-Ed editor for the Times of Israel. Her writing has been published in major news and opinion media such as Quebec Heritage News, Tablet Magazine and Lilith Magazine.

Instagram: @lb_pennington