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January 26, 2006

Matt Kahn celebrates 55 years of teaching, creating at Stanford

By Barbara Palmer

Art Professor Matt Kahn traces his passion for color back to the day in 1939 when he went with his mother to see The Wizard of Oz in a New York City theater. Today, just thinking about the moment when the door of Dorothy's black-and-white farmhouse opened up into the Technicolor Land of Oz still gives him chills, Kahn said. "A lot of what I do has a conscious or unconscious link to that experience."

In Matt Kahn: A Commemorative Exhibition—55 Years of Teaching at Stanford, the artist has worked his own Oz-like transformation within the cool gray walls of the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery. Just inside the door swirls the multicolored surfaces of Hope, a three-dimensional work inspired by the Hope Diamond. The shimmering lines of Medusa evoke the bioluminescence of aquatic life and almost seem to quiver, jellyfish-like. Duo, in which two canvases appear to float together, suggests a pair of butterflies, one in shade and one in sunlight. "When they come together there is a little warm glow between them, which the lighting is meant to bring out," said Kahn.

Although Kahn's tenderness and humor are apparent throughout the exhibit, which features artwork created over six decades, there is nothing candy-coated about his artistic vision. "I'm not interested in sugarcoating something, making it sort of nice, decorative, fun, cute," the artist said on a walk through the exhibition. "All those things are enemies."

At Stanford since 1949, Kahn has taught painting, drawing, sculpture and design, but has focused his teaching career on design, he said. Generations of students revere Kahn, even while struggling to reach his high standards. ("Matt Kahn is still my idol," a graduate of the Class of 2000 who is now working as a designer in Brooklyn wrote in a note recently posted on the Department of Art and Art History website.)

Over the years, Kahn's work has appeared in multiple exhibitions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art's show on "Good Design," and he served for a decade as artistic consultant to Joseph Eichler, the developer of ultra-modern Eichler homes during the 1950s and 1960s. Although the emphasis on the exhibition in the Art Gallery is on his painting, Kahn doesn't separate painting and design in his work. "I make my paintings more than painting them," he said.

The exhibition fits dozens of paintings—plus sketches from travel journals, examples of Kahn-designed metalwork and enamel, and photographs of his jewelry—into the gallery space, but the result doesn't feel overcrowded. Instead, the proximity of the works helps make clear their relationships.

The works range from an untitled oil painting, created in 1947 while Kahn was still a student at Cranbrook Academy of Art, to Egg Hunt, painted in 2005. His recent reunion with one of the earliest paintings in the exhibit, Powdered Man I, painted in 1954, served as the catalyst for the exhibit, Kahn said. The oil painting, a profile of a clown's head painted on a dark background, was first sold long ago. It came back into Kahn's hands after he bought it from the painting's most recent owners in Illinois, who called Kahn for advice on how to assess its value.

Powdered Man I was followed by another clown profile, Powdered Man II, more than 30 years later. Although the works share the same subject matter, they are so different in execution and effect as to look as if two different artists created them. The earlier work, which depicts a figure with a large cranium and an unsmiling, tiny mouth, is interior and emotionally neutral; the jubilant Powdered Man II, open-mouthed and laughing, completely fills the canvas constructed for the work.

The works underlined for Kahn his tendency to use new ways to mine the same subject matter. "Some people exhaust an area before they move on to the next. I tend to move away from it, deal with other things, and then when I'm in a new place—a little bit of a new place or a lot a new place—I may return." The retrospective exhibition holds many such examples of Kahn's rethinking.

The paintings also illustrate the development of Kahn's use of specially constructed canvases, which he first builds as cardboard models and then has fabricated by others. For Kahn, the technique is an interesting alternative to framing "because the whole shape of the painting works," he said. "People tend to presume content is pictorial. Content, as in music, is in the treatment. It's in the form."

The most recent work exhibited, Egg Hunt, is "like my little Mercedes Benz, my second childhood painting," he said. Inspired by an Easter egg hunt in the grass, the painting combines movement and color, with bright eggs seeming to tumble through long grass into a basket. "The painting is colorful and whimsical—I hope there's charm in it, but I don't want it to be trivial," he said.

Nearby, hanging alongside works created following the assassination of John f. Kennedy and during the Vietnam War, is the recent Preying Mantis Praying, an anthropomorphic representation of a glossy, malevolent insect in a prayerful pose.

"This is a sort of symbol of a politician who uses prayer to cover his hideous acts. Bin Laden is the obvious first person to think of when you look at it, but not the only person to think of," Kahn said. The painting makes a statement about people whose militancy is justified to themselves and in speeches because it is done in the name of God, Kahn said.

The barbed statement is one that he can best make as an artist, said Kahn, who describes himself as very socially conscious and socially critical. "It doesn't keep me from doing Egg Hunt. It's all part of life."

The exhibition will be on display at the Thomas Welton Art Gallery through Feb. 6. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and from 1 to 5 Saturdays and Sundays. The gallery, which is free and open to the public, is at 419 Lasuen Mall. A reception will be held at the gallery on Jan. 31 from 5 to 7 p.m. For more information, call 723-3404.

Editor Note:

A slideshow of work featured in the exhibit is available on Stanford Report Online



Barbara Palmer, News Service: (650) 724-6184,


Lisa Vestal, Department of Art & Art History, (650) 725-3107,


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