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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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…”
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.
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