The Dog-Eared Paintings of Dan Yellow Kuhne

In the February 1973 edition of Art International, placed between an article by Karen Wilkin on Stephen Greene, and a London Letter round-up by Bernard Denvir featuring the psycho-hysterical cat drawings of Louis Wain, I first discovered the work of Dan Yellow Kuhne. Somehow, in the decades that had passed since this magazine was released, I’d gone without knowing Kuhne’s work, or even his name. My Washington D.C. upbringing had lured me to page 20, where David Bourdon’s Washington Letter covered the district’s Color Abstraction exhibitions. Among them were museum shows of works by Augustus Vincent Tack, Sam Francis and Sonia Delaunay, as well as gallery shows by Sam Gilliam, Thomas Downing, Louis Comtois, Gene Davis and a “promising newcomer whose name is Dan Yellow Kuhne.”

Rather ironically, there were black and white images accompanying the four-page profile, so I was able to see a small reproduction of Kuhne’s large (74” x 87” inches) 1972 The Dog-eared painting.

The painting seemed to be a sort of square format Morris Louis veil, finely combed out and downward with what must have been a 70-inch fan brush, until its split-end pony hairs emptied onto a Ray Parker flat-tire of a black splotch, smeared with a little white paint. Additionally, crude splashes and drips of paint peppered both sides of the work, in some sort of feigned gesture of spontaneity. But, contrarily, the painting appeared to be totally purposeful in intent, concise and controlled in execution. Tacked to the top left and right sides, perpendicular to the gravitational pull of the painting, stood the painting’s titular detail: a collection of brushstrokes mirroring the undeniable image of folded dog ears.

Reading through Washington Letter, I learned that the artist was 30 years old at the time and a former student of Gene Davis. After expressing concern for Kuhne’s “dependency on Morris Louis’ veils and certain works of Helen Frankenthaler,” Bourdon stated that Kuhne’s first solo exhibition “provides evidence of real talent and a genuine flair for color.”

I googled Dan Yellow Kuhne to see if I could find further information, more images, but my search revealed nothing more than a recent blurry landscape and a serigraph in the Smithsonian. After a little sleuth work, I contacted Kuhne through his wife, Charlotte Barry, who is also an artist. He agreed to send me a selection of slides from the Dog-eared series, and to answer a few questions about his life and his early work.

Kuhne was born in 1942, Oneida, NY. In 1949, his family moved to Baltimore, Maryland and he has remained in Maryland ever since. While Kuhne was growing up, he lived within a few blocks of the Baltimore Museum, which he visited frequently. In his early 20s, he says he was “floored” by an exhibition of German Expressionism. He also stated that he first understood the rhapsodic nature of painting itself at 23, while attending Turner: Imagination and Reality at the Museum of Modern Art.  This controversial exhibition of thirty-seven late oil paintings and two early works presented Turner as a precursor to modern painters, particularly those “whose principle means of expression is color and light,” as Lawrence Gowing wrote in the show’s catalog essay. It was a ground breaking event because the paintings were hung sans historical frames, in a calculated effect of contemporaneous artistic achievement.

Kuhne exclaimed that Turner hit him “with the impact of a locomotive bursting out of the mists.” The late Turner paintings revealed to the young artist the vast grounds a painter could cover, that art could be intimate while conversely soaring in dimensionless, incalculable space.

Shortly thereafter, a friend christened Kuhne Daniello, but the artist heard this as “Dan Yellow.” Seeing as he’d always loved yellow, feeling it to be the most ethereal of colors, he maintained the moniker, which reminded him of a 19th century caricature of Turner with a bucket of yellow varnish, using a mop for a paintbrush.

After attending the University of Maryland, College Park on and off between 1960 and 1973, Kuhne began teaching primary drawing at the Anne Arundel Community College. He also took some classes with Gene Davis, who Kuhne writes “was careful to defend his accomplishments as a D.C. color painter and to mark his territory. The main idea that I thank him for immensely was that each artist should find the vortex….you came to him with your work and he’d respond, he was not a formal teacher. Defensive!”   And, like all D.C. artists, Kuhne looked hard at the holding of the Phillips Collection and the National Gallery of Art: Van Gogh, Delacroix, Ryder, Gorky, Pollock, and, of course, Morris Louis.

Dan Yellow Kuhne in 1973

By the time Morris Louis died in 1962, his critical champion Clement Greenberg had established him as a “serious candidate[s] for Major status,” as stated in his 1960 Art International article Louis and Noland. The article not only positioned Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland on the frontline of color abstraction but also put Washington D.C.’s burgeoning art scene on the map. As a result many local artists, such as Leon Berkowitz, James Hilleary, Anne Truitt, Howard Mehring, Alma Thomas, Willem de Looper and Paul Reed became forces to be reckoned with, forces that greatly influenced Kuhne.

Dan Yellow Kuhne, Untitled, 6’ x 7’ 1972, acrylic on canvas, collection of the artist

Dan Kuhne’s Dog Eared series was created between 1970 and 1974. It is comprised of approximately 45 canvases, most of which are around 6’x7’, plus a couple hundred smaller versions on paper. These works introduce the modern viewer to a young artist not just proficient at assimilating style, as Bourdon’s review implies, but also interested in the structural and behavioral elements of paint, elements particularly located in a series of paintings by Morris Louis now known as the triadic veils.

Dan Yellow Kuhne, Molton Molt, 6’ x 7’ 1972, acrylic on canvas, collection of the artist

One of the main anomalies found in the Louis’ triadic veils, the one for which they’ve been named, seems to have informed and generated Kuhne’s early paintings. Louis incorporated the shrouded imprints produced by the manipulation of liquid paint over wooden stretcher bars, creating a form of triptych in his compositions. These perspicuous vertical divisions within the color space, which produced a structural framework for Louis veils, can be seen clearly in 1958-1959 canvases such as Blue Veil, Turning and Dalet Aleph.

Morris Louis Blue Veil, 1958-59, 8’ 4 ½  x 12’ 5”, acrylic resin on canvas, The Fogg Art Museum

Morris Louis, Turning, 1958, 7’ 8 1/4” x 14’ 10 1/4”, acrylic resin on canvas, private collection

Morris Louis, Dalet Aleph, 1958, 7’ 6 1/2 ” x 12’ 6”, acrylic resin on canvas, private collection

By dividing the canvas this way, Louis was able to successfully address issues of asymmetry, allowing a structural pinning down of his color improvisations to the vertical edges of the canvas. These edges appear to be internalized and repeated, almost as a memory within the transparencies of color.  Such vertical divisions of space are not the basis of Kuhne’s paintings, which are clearly bisymmetrical and almost static, but their extension of Louis’ interest is obvious.

Dan Yellow Kuhne, Untitled, 5’ x 7’ 1972, acrylic on canvas, collection of the artist

As a side note relating to both artists’ work, I came upon an odd ­­­suburban feature near Morris Louis’ home in Northwest D.C. It’s quite possible Louis took notice of this wishboned walkway on the corner of 42nd  St. NW and Military Road. This mirroring, or Rorschach like folding, of pictorial space is one device that both Kuhne and Louis­ use successfully in their paintings.

Little information on Louis’ visual source material can be found: Some, however, has been implied. In Narrating a Proto-Minimalist Misfire. Or Noland’s Largeness…, Shepard Steiner wrote that [a Morris Louis] “… very often seem to be sopping wet from a recent downpour.”  To a close observer, the residual effect of rainwater on the pedestals of the abundant public statuary in Washington D.C. can be viewed in great detail.  Witness an example below, in a photo of the Liberty Statue in front of The National Archives after a downpour.

Here rivulets of descending and evaporating water upon the fold of the reed molding and around the corner die of the pedestal produce similar pictorial effects to the mirroring found in many of Louis’ triadic veils. One can easily imagine Louis taking in this particular effect in relation to his painting, possibly even attempting to reproduce it.

When questioning Kuhne about his compositions, I asked if “the pleating and imprints that produce the structural vertical divisions within the space of the triadic veils inform your use of bisymmetrical composition.” In commenting about the cropping and pooling of paint at the bottom of many of Louis’ canvases, I queried: “How important was this to you when making your paintings?  You seem to have taken this almost literally, creating fountains in response to his pooling.”

Dan Yellow Kuhne, Untitled, 6’ x 7’ 1972, acrylic on canvas, collection of the artist

Kuhne replied: “These pictures, although abstract, took on a highly suggestive effect: mesas, WWI airplanes, fountains, valleys. I was working very intuitively. I’d start by wetting the paper or canvas, then I’d spread beads of watercolor from the tube, or acrylic bands on the canvas, irrigating and eroding them with H20 or washes. I was thinking of color and imagery…”

Dan Yellow Kuhne, Untitled, 6’ x 7’ 1972, acrylic on canvas, collection of the artist

Surprisingly, Kunhe worked on the Dog Eared paintings without ever discussing them  with his fellow artists. He confronted the pictorial legacy of Morris Louis and the overarching influence of Washington Color School alone. The paintings were included in several exhibitions, including a prominent 1973 show of works on paper at The Phillips Collection. Then they were rolled up and placed in storage, where they remain to this day.

Dan Yellow Kuhne, Chief, 6’ x 7’ 1972, acrylic on canvas, collection of the artist

In a form of radical regionalism common in different degrees to many of the D.C. color painters, Dan Kuhne has never shown his work outside of the Baltimore/D.C. area.  This is a profound loss to artists and art enthusiasts living elsewhere, as even in reproduction, these 40-year old paintings can generate great excitement. For those who’ve wondered what sort of challenges young artists working in the direct shadow of the Washington Color School faced, the Dog Eared paintings by Dan Kuhne provide some beautiful clues.

Mark Dagley, 2012


Jerry’s Kids

Mark Dagley’s 222 Bowery studio (1987)
Photo by Ivan dalla Tanna

A good artist does not need anything.
Ad Reinhardt

When NYFA Current asked me to write a first-person account of the circumstances surrounding a not-so-recent exhibition of my paintings, a show that took place at Tony Shafrazi Gallery nearly a quarter of a century ago, I was surprised by their interest, but gladly jumped at the chance. I never hesitate to admit to any and all who care to listen that my 1987 New York City debut was considered a failure by local critics and collectors, not to mention the disappointed dealer. While preshow interest was high, in the end little work sold, and a well-regarded ARTFORUM writer snarkily dissed my efforts. Paradoxically, this perceived failure launched me on a fairly successful trajectory in the European art world: Spain, Germany, Switzerland, and Holland—but that’s another story.

Back to my Shafrazi solo show, which was perfectly planned and executed. An incredible studio at 222 Bowery—“The Bunker”—was secured with funds from prior sales, allowingme the necessary space to create the ambitious exhibit I had proposed, a group of paintings unlike any I’d made before: shaped canvases using video-game-referenced imagery, along with checkerboards, diamonds, and Picasso-esque harlequin designs. Cardboard models of all the shapes were experimented with for months before the full-size wood constructions were built. The long labor of painting and finishing these works came off without a hitch. In August of ’87, the 14 canvases were delivered to the gallery on Mercer Street. Soon after, advertisements appeared in several glossy magazines. Tony designed and printed a playful color poster. A brochure was also available, featuring an essay by George Condo.

Opening night, September 12, a steady stream of New York art world luminaries flowed through the gallery. Their sleek black limos flanked the entrance. An exclusive dinner at Indochine followed the reception. Yes, it was an absolute ‘80s cliché. But the party ended long before the decade. What initially seemed to be an uncontested success—three of my works sold immediately, another four were placed on hold by a very prominent collector, and two drew significant interest without a commitment—quickly proved otherwise, thanks in part to Black Monday, October 19, when stock markets around the world crashed, making history as the largest one-day percentage decline. By October 20, it became clear that the paintings on reserve would not be purchased and that any additional interest had instantly withered. Were there a doubt in my mind, or in Tony Shafrazi’s, it was soon assuaged by Kate Linker’s ruthless pan in that December’s issue of ARTFORUM.

Since the economy wasn’t entirely global at the time, I was able to continue my life as an artist abroad. In this present-day recession I suppose going overseas isn’t a realistic option. My advice to young artists back then was: “Go where you’re wanted.” Nowadays, I say: “Keep your day job.” Anything to prohibit dependence on dealers, critics, curators, or collectors. Anything to keep hold of your creative ideals. Chances are, given enough time, they’ll come into vogue.

Mark Dagley
Clone (1987)
60” x 90” x 4”
Vinyl acrylic, acrylic, polymer resin on canvas, mounted on wood

The pre-digital, low-fi fundamentals of the imagery in my early work have recently been discovered by a techno-savvy contemporary audience. Artists and writers who grew up with cell phones, laptops, and the Internet are able to understand and appreciate what was once dismissed as ironic neo-geometric endgame painting. This interest peaked curiosity about my newer work—paintings, drawings and sculpture—and spawned a resurgence in my New York career. Perfect timing. Some things never change.

I’m sure most Current readers follow Jerry Saltz’s New York Magazine column, which has, for the past eight months, focused largely on the recession’s effect on the art world. With titles like: Frieze After the Freeze, Art on a Shoestring, and After the Orgy, Saltz’s recent articles deliver fairly dire economic news along with predictions of a slew of commercial gallery closures this coming summer. Time to pull ourselves up by the sandal straps, or, according to Saltz: “It’s time to get over 1968; if we’re going to think of the past, let’s reconsider 1988, when artists, suddenly broke, were left to themselves.”

Having been a student in ‘68—does grammar school count?—and a suddenly broke artist in ’88, I can easily relate. It’s surprising to me how many artists, age regardless, can’t. Why go into the arts, after all, if not to be left to ones own devices?

In summary, while the economy (and the hairline) may recede, art—good art—goes forth. And sometimes conquers.

Mark Dagley is an artist who studied painting and sculpture at the Corcoran School of Art and electronic music at the Boston Museum School. His work can be found in the public collections of the Broad Art Foundation, University of Michigan Museum of Art, and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. Dagley is co-owner, with playwright Lauri Bortz, of the Abaton Book Company, a publisher of artist books and audio projects.