Max Kahn & Eleanor Coen
Contemplating a Couple of Rollers
By: John Corbett
In the middle of the twentieth-century, Max Kahn and Eleanor Coen were not only well known in Chicago , they were celebrated modern American artists, respected, collected and exhibited nation-wide. In his 1958 book Printmaking Today , Jules Heller wrote: "No presentation of contemporary lithographs would be complete without a print by Max Kahn," and he chose one Kahn's and one of Coen's lithographs as two of eight examples of the state of the art. These were not marginally successful artists. They were hot tickets, winning prizes left and right and breaking barriers that separated various media in visual arts - notably painting and printmaking and color and black-and-white lithography.
In 1946, at the Weyhe Gallery in New York , Kahn mounted the first proper exhibition of color lithography, thereby championing a medium that had previously been ostracized from the fine arts, a medium that Kahn had been exploring assiduously since the late '30s. Coen showed her color lithographs soon thereafter at the Smithsonian Institution in a special one-woman exhibition in 1951. So, where they can be seen in some ways as representing a Chicago mainstream - and they do, as two of the most popular Chicago artists of the '40s and '50s, define a particular moment in Chicago's aesthetic sensibility - Kahn and Coen were not ultimately conservative (unless, perhaps, you consider Milton Avery conservative for remaining a figurative artist), but instead they were concerned with the specifics of their artforms, with expanding the possibilities inherent in their media and looking for new expressive vehicles. In this sense, they were great experimenters.
But even within the Chicago mainstream, such as it was, it would be wrong to see Kahn and Coen as mere exemplars of popular taste, as their work diverged significantly from the American Scene painting and printmaking that was so dominant in the '30s and '40s. They may have studied with Francis Chapin, as most of their generation did, but they did not emulate him, as many young artists chose to. Chapin was a huge force, convincing a whole flock of Chicagoans to depict scenes of the city with whimsical, hyperbolically shaped ambling figures or to paint rustic landscapes of ruined industrial machinery in pastoral settings. An affable, charming man and sophisticated image-maker, Chapin's signature manner of depicting the Midwest of the '20s was perpetuated in the work of his students of the '30s, like Robert Amft and Katherine and Briggs Dyer, and the aesthetic was passed to yet another generation in the '40s, with artists including Kenneth Nack and Tristan Meinecke. So strong was the Chapin concept that Nack and Meinecke learned it not from Chapin, but second-hand, via Briggs Dyer. All of these artists evenutually moved away from the Chapin's influence, learning from him but charting their own path the way any of the worthwhile students of Hans Hofmann did. Both Kahn (who was nearly Chapin's age when he studied with him) and Coen (who was just too idiosyncratic to see through another artist's eyes) were too powerful in their own right to borrow a colleague or teacher's ideas, or at least, in borrowing them, to leave them untransformed for more than a sweep of the second hand. Not only were they fiercely individualistic, they were, in spite of the fact that Kahn had studied in Paris, less exclusively French in influence, incorporating a good bit of German elements, particularly George Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann. A French aspect certain arose in Coen's work later in the '50s, but in her formative years she was as influenced by the Neue Sachlichkeit artists, which is interesting given the political climate and anti-German sentiment that was prevalent at the time.
Kahn (1902-2005) and Coen (b. 1916) - known to friends and family as Max and Coney - set out on their artists paths at different times and at different speeds. Indeed, Coen was a scandalous 14 years younger than Kahn, who had already studied sculpture with an acolyte of Rodin in Paris before Coen was in double digits. Kahn had moved to the U.S. at age 4 from pre-revolutionary Russia , and he'd settled in Illinois . While a student in France , in the mid '20s, judging by his earliest paintings Kahn seems to have absorbed something of the Purist and Constructivist sensibility. A composition from the early '30s with an odalisque features remarkably complex construction of space, the reclining nude afloat in a floral background that recalls Léger and Le Corbusier, Kahn's handmade black-and-white deco frame adding a further formal flourish. Though he had already made a small body of works of sculpture and some paintings, Kahn returned to school in the mid-'30s with his soul-mate, Eleanor Coen, whom he had met in Peoria . If Kahn's first two decades of work was rather painstaking, Coen's burning desire to dive into the art world must have been quite a flash of adrenaline, given the dizzying productivity for both of them during the subsequent years.
As a student at the School of the Art Institute (SAIC), Kahn had not only studied printmaking with Chapin, but apparently worked as his assistant in the print shop. Robert Amft made a litho of the Kahn at this time, already sporting his trademark bald dome and mustache. Mark Pascale has pointed out the significance of Bolton Brown as an influence on the nascent Chicago printmaking community, particularly in terms of the painterly element that is such a defining feature of Chapin, Kahn, and Coen. This is a characteristic of much of the Chicago post-war printmaking community, though there was a less painterly, more linear tradition as well; see for an obvious example Ivan Albright's lithographs, as well as Misch Kohn's and various Institute of Design artists coming out of the Moholy-Nagy camp. It's noteworthy to mention that these three artists, Chapin, Kahn and Coen, were equally well known as painters and as printmakers, and the direct, brushy, fluid, loose approach that they took to printmaking, particularly lithography (the most inherently painterly print medium), meant that they experienced a continuity, rather than disjunction, between their chosen artforms. They were painters with a submerged graphic sensibility; they were printmakers who prized motion and flow. It was all part of a whole.
Coen and Kahn were both WPA artists, assigned to the "easel/graphics" division in the late '30s. Paid to make art, they dug deeper into themselves, gradually developing a signature style of figurative expressionism, or rather two such signature styles. In her early figures, both painted and printed, Coen created a coterie of round-faced beings, very strange, gnomish and already quite personal. Her 1937 lithograph "Jude" sports a quizzical look that is somehow dopey and profound. If these figures were stylized in a way that was too eccentric and sometimes too cupie-doll to sustain and take seriously, they led Coen to explore stylization quite deeply, and out of these figures she eventually extracted a way of depicting the human face and form that is flexible and absolutely unique. En route, she managed a number of extremely arresting images, including gorgeous American Scene images of sites in Chicago and some work that verges on social realism, like her unusual litho "Family Entrance" from 1937 and the explosively anti-fascist "Pure Anger" from 1942. Kahn, too, took some time to figure his way around the figure, though his studies in Paris had included extensive life drawing with Othon Friesz, and he was extremely adept at drawing from a model. His WPA-era lithos of figures are somewhat reminiscent of the supple, delicately shaded nudes painted by Bernard Karifol, also an immigrant from Eastern Europe . In the '40s, Kahn grew interested in surrealism, and he made some strange, rather gothic surrealist pieces, including the funhouse postmortem vignette "The Night We Died" and the shadowy "Night Forms." George Rouault, an important presence in Chicago art circles, is evident in Kahn's elegant, sad "Dark Angel," a title he recycled for a series of '50s paintings and color lithographs of tombstones. In 1943, Kahn had his first one-man show at the Art Institute, in its "Room of Chicago Art." A year later, he assumed Chapin's position teaching printmaking at SAIC. Kahn would teach there until the end of the '50s, when he was hired by the University of Chicago . Coen taught at SAIC too, and they both spent important years in the '30s and '40s teaching at Ox-Bow, the summer school in Saugatuck , Michigan . There, they taught Miyoko Ito, who made a series of classic Ox-Bow lithos in the late '40s with them. Their friend Frank Vavruska, too, was an Ox-Bow regular, enjoying the inspiring landscape and rustic painting facilities.
One of the first big breaks for Coen had been winning the James Nelson Raymond Traveling Fellowship at SAIC. The first woman to do so, she made the important decision to go to Mexico, rather than Northern Europe, which was, in 1942, not a safe place to go for a non-combat American, particularly if your name was Coen, or for that matter, if you were a Russian whose birth name was Kahn. The couple's time in Mexico turned out not to be without a political dimension, though. Hours spent exchanging ideas with a revolutionary Mexican print collective surely left a mark on them, personally and artistically. Indeed, Kahn made some small woodblock prints while in Mexico that presage the incredible ones he executed later in the decade and into the '50s, back in the States.
Into the '40s, having spent time in Mexico , Coen was clearly looking at some of Mitchell Siporin's figures, and through him at some of the Mexican muralists. (See, for example, her very Siporin-esque images of stone cutters (PLATE) and children pulling a wagon (PLATE).) Many Chicagoans had spent time in Mexico . It was in fact something of a tradition at that point, painting the landscape, the people, the buildings, the rugs and hats. Maurice and Louise Dunn Yochim had done it, as had Morris Topchevsky, Eve Garrison, Frank Vavruska, Misch Kohn, Leonard Farb, dozens of others. Mexico constitutes one of the secret archives of Chicago art of the '30s and '40s. Lured by the heroic mystique and undeniable visual impact of the Mexican muralists or just by the country itself, Chicago artists made a pilgrimage to paint and vacation there. Kahn and Coen's trip there was more substantive than many. They taught at Escuela Universitaria de Blellas Arts, San Miguel de Allende, and worked at Taller de Gráfica Popular in Mexico City (where they met Alfredo Zalce and Pablo O'Higgins), and Coen painted a mural in San Miguel that still exists today.
It was on their return that some of the most important developments began to occur in their work. Coen, in particular, began to evolve her own way of layering color lithographs that was akin to the way she worked her canvases. An extraordinary series of cityscape gouaches from the early '40s presage this incredible evolution in her style. Laying color upon color, sometimes very densely, in the '50s she created her own way of secreting figures into a ground. The ground was always the city, after 1950 the Old Town neighborhood they had moved to from their previous apartment/studio in Hyde Park . And usually Coen's figures were children, now stylized in a way that was neither cutesy nor quiescent, but representing kids as complex, playfully devious, compassionate, emotionally mutable beings. Probably, the arrival of their children, Katie and Noah, gave them real grist for their artistic mill. "Boy On Stilts" is one of Coen's great images from this period, the tiny child poised and facing the cityscape with all its potentialities for mischief and adventure. Where Coen's worked turned more gauzy, superimpositional, and indirect, Kahn's grew more graphic, linear and direct. I see connections between his late '40s and early '50s works, especially his woodcuts of birds in trees, and the work of their dear friend Margo Hoff. Like Hoff, Kahn began to explore patterning, and he sometimes drew out the inherent wood grain of a block he was working on, emphasizing its patterns and shapes in concert with the engraved image.
The Kahn/Coen story continues from the '60s to the end of the twentieth century. They were Chicago's dynamic printmaking and painting duo, an enormous presence as teachers and as artists, and their later work continued to develop, shape-shifting as they deepened their roots in Old Town and looked to the East Coast, buying a second home in Martha's Vinyard
. Kahn made assemblages (returning to his sculptural roots), monoprints and weathervanes, Coen made even more delightfully layered paintings and prints. Somehow, in that period, their prominence not only waned, but was perhaps historically whitewashed. That may be the case. There are, however, the documents - records of their prizes, their exhibitions, laudatory remarks by their admirers, the accomplished CVs of their countless students. But more than that there is the artwork. It is powerful, unique, personal, and anything but mannered or clichéd. And there's a lot of it. Working from their own home studio, their powerhouse production center and hospitality complex, they created several lifetime's worth of sculpture and watercolors and gouaches and drawings and paintings and prints, their individual efforts multiplied exponentially by their remarkable partnership.