Tobi Kahn’s life is laborious. Yes, he is an artist whose work has been celebrated, commissioned and exhibited for decades, but what the New York-based sculptor, painter and faculty member at the School of Visual Arts revealed to those gathered at the University of Pittsburgh’s Israel Heritage Room lecture last Sunday is that one of his greatest challenges is to “make the work look like I do nothing.”
Securing sculptures with unseen steel rods, searching for shrubbery of a certain size so as not to disturb a viewer’s line of sight and applying countless layers of paint and glazing — these are all part of the process, he explained in an hour long talk aided by imagery detailing the evolution of his works.
Kahn’s talk, “Art as Prayer,” was conceived in tandem with Adam Shear, Pitt’s religious studies chair, roughly a year ago.
“When Adam called me I thought this is intriguing — to understand my Jewishness and how it makes me the artist I am rather than Jewish art,” said Kahn. As opposed to discussing Jewish pieces, “I want the work to be what it is to look at things from a Jewish lens considering the Talmud: Could it be this? Could it be that?”
Kahn’s choice to revisit works from the past 20 years from that perspective was “fabulous,” said, Irina Livezeanu, Pitt’s director of Jewish studies.
“He’s a really interesting artist. He puts a lot of thought and feeling and his own personal experience — and memories of his uncle during the Holocaust — into his art.”
As Kahn explained, Arthur Kahn, whom the artist is named for, holds the unfortunate distinction of being among the first victims of the Nazis.
On Wednesday, April 12, 1933, Arthur Kahn, Ernst Goldmann, Rudolf Benario and Erwin Kahn (all Jews) were executed “at a Nazi camp in the obscure Bavarian hamlet of Prittlbach,” wrote Timothy W. Ryback, author of “The Last Survivor: Legacies of Dachau” and “Hitler’s Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life,” in a 2012 piece for The New York Times. “These four killings framed the constituent parts of the genocidal process formalized at the Wannsee Conference: intentionality, chain-of-command, selection, execution. In the years to come, the process was refined, the numbers expanded monstrously, but the essential elements remained.”
Sunday’s talk afforded the artist ample opportunities to reference his uncle, whom he never met, among scores of other influencers.
“I mention all their names,” he said, “because we’re in dialogue.”
It is a conversation fueled by learning, added Kahn, who attended New York City’s Yeshiva Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch for elementary school, the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy for high school and spent four subsequent years studying in Israel prior to receiving a B.A. from Hunter College and an M.F.A. from Pratt Institute.
“I cannot separate my Jewish education from my artist’s education,” he said.
Kahn showcases the way he “thinks about his work and who he is,” said Shear.
Ben Schachter, an art professor at Saint Vincent College who attended Kahn’s remarks, said he learned much from the presentation and hoped Kahn’s comments the following day to students at the Latrobe campus would be equally illuminating.
“I hope they get the spiritual and religious side of things,” said Schachter. “It’s not just practice and getting pieces to look the way you want. It’s about getting the inspiration or the feeling.”
“The reason I lecture and travel, and why after lecturing at Pitt I’m going to Saint Vincent, is I believe it’s the job of an artist to help educate people how to see,” he said.
“There are people who love art and that is their mode of communication. That’s why I teach at an art university,” he added.
“The reason I teach and lecture extensively at other institutions is that most people in the world don’t think in those terms. The next time those people visit a museum and see something they don’t relate to, I hope they stop and think, ‘What was the artist trying to say?’ They become more aware of how art can enhance their lives even if they do not see art as their main source of communication.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.