Misch Kohn talks about his artistic career as a printmaker and painter
BROADCAST: Jan. 3, 1961 | DURATION: 00:41:51
Misch Kohn (from the state of Indiana, son of Russian immigrants) talks about his upcoming exhibition that traveled all around the country in which artwork such as "Season in hell", "My Grandfather's Mustache", "General", "Three Generals" among others. Talks about his creative process and what is the outlook of the state of visual arts.
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Studs Terkel I, I recall, I think it was 1939, '38, '39 or '40, walking into a studio on the south side, it was called the Arcade. There was a young artist recently arrived from, from Indiana, Misch Kohn. I remember, I remember Misch Kohn, our guest this morning whose works are reproduced in this January issue of the Fine Arts guide and whose works were first reproduced in the October 1957 issue of the WFMT'S Fine Arts guide. In fact, the first artist whose works were so reproduced. And I remember Misch, was it 1939? There was a stone and you were rolling something, and I, I was with the theater group at time and I remember at, it was Algren's old studio, is that right?
Misch Kohn Well I was making a lithograph and the litho process is one of drawing on a prepared stone, preparing it with acid and then rolling it up with ink and printing it on a piece of paper. And I, that's what I was doing at that time.
Studs Terkel A lot of ink under a lot of bridges form a mix, a cockeyed sort of metaphor since that time, Misch. The awards you've won, the Guggenheim, the Ford Foundation, right? This last year that you won, isn't, you received a Ford Foundation grant.
Misch Kohn Yes.
Misch Kohn Well there's going to be a series of exhibitions traveling around the country of the work that I had done for the past 20 years, selections out of that. There's 40 pieces in the show and it's traveling around. Opens in Cincinnati on the sixteenth of January and goes to Brooklyn and Cleveland, Boston and travels all over the country eventually ending up in San Francisco I guess.
Studs Terkel I hope we'll talk about some of those pieces and your attitude as an artist, as a creator to the pieces and perhaps even mentioning or discussing a couple that are in the two guides. But I'm thinking of something, I read something here in, on page 4 of the January guide, about our Chicago artist by Carl Zigrosser, he's the curator of the Philadelphia-
Misch Kohn That's
Studs Terkel Institute. And, something he says is "Misch Kohn's choice of profession, that is to say his activity as an artist of the printing press, somehow carries with it a suggestion of inevitability of destiny. Destiny is admittedly a formidable and awesome word, but the artist's achievement is so compelling and his involvement with the graphic problem so direct and natural, that one cannot imagine him any other than the distinguished graphic artist that he is. One might say that as a printmaker he is a natural". Would you, would you mind analyzing this tribute offered to you by Mr. Zigrosser, you, he describes you as a graphic artist, as a printmaker.
Misch Kohn Well I, I turned to the, to the print media as a form of expression quite early because I found that I, I work best by working with means of indirection. By that I mean I do a drawing but the drawing really doesn't exist till the moment that it's printed in the final form as a print. I engrave on a piece of wood and the art doesn't become a reality until a piece of paper is put on it and it's run through a press and you get a print.
Misch Kohn That's right. And it becomes obvious to him at the moment that he puts his brush down on the canvas. That's very direct way of working. In the graphic processes you work by indirection. You have to do a great many things before the image appears.
Misch Kohn OK.
Misch Kohn No, I was drawing. Now in lithography it's a little closer to the painting in that you draw with grease crayon and prepare the stone after that with acids and so forth, and then roll it up with ink and print it onto a piece of paper. If you have four colors, you need four stones. You're working in black and white but the printed result is in four colors, five colors or or what have you. So you didn't see the actual thing at the moment that you looked at the stone, you saw a part of it, a fragment of it, and it appears differently when it's printed.
Studs Terkel What does this do then to what you are saying? You used the phrase before we went on the air "making a statement". Now the statement that you make, something you want to say, the statement you make then may be different, it may be changing with each process, is that right? In contrast to the work of a painter, say.
Misch Kohn Oh I, I think so. The original conception that I have is undergoing a constant change while I'm working. And as I work the conception grows and may change quite a bit. It may end up being something entirely different from what I started out to say. But there's a process of growth all the time.
Studs Terkel The very moment. Now this seems like it's hot off the the material you're using and your soul, if I will. There's a change taking place at that very moment as you're working it. You have, do you have a full concept, I mean, what is in your mind when you begin a work? Is it something you, you fully know what you, you're going to say?
Studs Terkel Do
Misch Kohn Well here you'll see the way the two figures merge and become one figure. You lose and find the two figures, sort of a double figure image, but it really is one figure that's struggling with himself. You have this form of the, well this egg shape form, and the figure is struggling out of that into the dark space around the, the figure.
Misch Kohn Well actually, in talking about it after the fact, there's all sorts of things that you can read into the, into this piece. However at the time, I was only thinking of a figure struggling with himself to be divided and then coming together again, dividing again, and struggling out of this and he's struggling from one part of the composition into the other. Actually, the whole thing probably derived from the idea of an individual's struggle with himself. When I got through with the piece and printed it and it was all over, then I looked at it and it reminded me of Rimbaud's Season in Hell and I titled it that, but it didn't derive from that but that was applied later as
Studs Terkel What you say Misch is so fascinating at this moment, what you say is fantastically interesting. Even though you did not, the title was not derived from the poem that you had read some time ago in your life earlier. The title was not derived from the poem by Rimbaud. It came to you while you were doing it. Is that, the work, you were speaking of man here and this fight, whatever it is, to find himself, the same fight this guy had as a poet in a way. And so the title came to you, not because of the poem because of the very work you did.
Misch Kohn Yes. And then there seemed to be this relationship after the fact. I think mostly, when you talk about works of art and verbalize it, it becomes a creative act in itself. The verbalization doesn't really have too much to do with the work, the work of art, but becomes another thing. It's, it becomes a creative act in itself.
Studs Terkel Especially as of now when this is non-visual, when radio itself, I mean if we were just talking about something that is in, may I suggest, this is a suggestion that if the listeners could pick up that January guide right now, we will re-fervently refer to a couple of the works in the current guide, how you came to do them, your attitude toward them, your approach. On page 12, for example, is this figure that jumps right out of the page. It says Misch Kohn's Baron von Z, you did this nine-last year. You just finished, an etching, this is an etching.
Misch Kohn Yes, just this summer. This is one of a series of imaginary ancestors. I created a whole family tree for myself and this one happens to be the Prussian General, very unlikely group of family portraits. There's one called Sigmund and another called My Grandfathers Moustache that's also
Studs Terkel Yes, Grandfather's Moustache is on page, you say this, as I'm turning I'm asking you a question here. This is, this is a, an unlikely group of ancestors for you. This is one, you, you're having fun just inventing
Studs Terkel Where's Grandfather's Moustache, I saw it here. Just missed it. Here it is. No, it was The General, there's The General too on page 45, I'll ask you about him in a moment. These are, oh My Grandfather's Moustache is on page 48. This is an etching, this was
Misch Kohn Yes.
Studs Terkel The postmaster became a sergeant in World War I. See, you, you capture a flavor here and just like sheer invention on your part. You're having fun at the same time. What you create, well now it comes to something else which you create, has the element of truth to it, though it be wholly imaginary. Do you feel this or, or am I saying something that is not so
Misch Kohn Well, no I'm interested in making statements about things that are, well about truth. I think in the Three Kings, that is also in the guide, this, these three figures sort of symbolize for me
Misch Kohn They symbolize for me kind of a timeless quality of a sort of a lost grandeur you know, a civilization that's lost. The Kings are no more. They have a patina and an encrustation of an old pot that's been dug out of the sea. They, they're also my ancestors too, you know some 2000 years ago. I, I find them quite exciting as forms of sort of a lost grandeur.
Studs Terkel Would you describe yourself, and this comes now perhaps to one of the, is it a controversy today or not? I don't know whether it's passe as a controversy. But would you describe yourself as a humanist, as an artist, as a humanist, one of whose statements about man to be made?
Misch Kohn Yes I think that I am a humanist. I think that there is a great group of artists today that are humanists as such. I think that humanism shouldn't be confused with say the storytelling aspect of art. I'm not interested in telling stories as such. The literary aspect of art in itself doesn't interest me. I'm also not interested in a, a journalistic kind of art, although in the past I had been so impressed by things that was happening at the moment that I did derive from those, these things that I felt that I had to say. But I don't think that one should confuse humanism with storytelling.
Studs Terkel Well this, the point you make, I know leads, leads to many other questions. There is something that Ben Shahn, who, I'm sure falls into the category as we know it of humanist, Ben Shahn. An article he wrote for the Chicago Review some years ago reprinted in the anthology in which he blasts away at, not at the abstract school, he blasts away at those who say style is all and content is nothing. Now, is he inferring here that, what, that a humanist or you, you agree that a statement must be made you, you see, you're always seeking to make a statement. But must it always be through content?
Misch Kohn No, I don't believe so. But I think that it has to relate, not literary content, but I think that it has to relate to man, that's simply humanist from my point of view, that it has a relationship to man. And I think that what he is talking against, as I understand it, is a kind of a disregard for say human values and actually destroying a work of art, creating a work of art by destroying art.
Studs Terkel He says here something, "I, I am impatient with the great mystique of pure form, which is leading art out of the lives of ordinary citizenry". And early he was blasting the artist, just the general, the artist, capital A, who say I have a contempt for those who cannot understand what I'm saying. They don't understand, I do, see. What's you're feeling about this approach?
Misch Kohn Well I think he's making a mistake in thinking that those who work with pure form are having contempt for people. I think he's also making a mistake if he's asking that people have more than pure form in the work of art. That's strictly the individual's problem. The fact that a person does not understand at first glance a work of art is not a bad thing. I think it's quite easy to understand a work of art if it tells a story you can understand.
Studs Terkel A
Misch Kohn That's right. But this isn't necessarily a good thing. You have to work hard to understand anything. And in the case of, say, a work of physics, I can't understand it. I don't expect to be able to understand it because I haven't worked at understanding it. And I think that this holds true to a certain extent to a work of art or work of music or even a work of poetry, say. It doesn't have an immediate statement.
Studs Terkel But if, if the man watching, the viewer, if the viewer watches it and studies it long enough and tries to understand it. And he goes back again and tries to, and asks and try some more. Your point here there is, he will find the nugget that he seeks.
Misch Kohn That's right. And there are understandings on many different, different levels. And I think that a person can get immediate reaction to a work of art and then by study get a deeper, penetrate deeper into the meaning of a work of art. But to talk about the sculptors, say a sculptor works with pure form, as this being something that's wrong because it doesn't take into consideration his public, I think this is a bad, bad thing.
Misch Kohn That's
Misch Kohn Yes I think so. I, he was developing toward the end of his life and I think that he was trying to bring together into some sort of focus all of the things that he was feeling in relation to, you know, himself in relation to man. And I think it's unfortunate that he didn't live to be able to really develop this thing into its fullest possibilities.
Studs Terkel But back to you again and no matter, in other words, no matter what the form, no matter what school, if we may use whatever label has to be applied, an artist may belong to, he can be a humanist right? And belong to any school, traditional or the most abstract, the most modern.
Studs Terkel Well Misch Kohn, you, you, your anchorage is Chicago. You work here, you live here, you teach at the I.I.T, you're one of Chicago's most distinguished artists. Yet we know in the field of jazz and other fields, there have been schools, a Chicago school, New York School, San Francisco school, even writing they had this. There is something called a New York school of Artists. Is, isn't there a New York school?
Misch Kohn Yes, there is a New York school, but there's a tremendous number of artists who are outside of that school. In New York you have the group that are the social realists the, the new image of man, kind of artist, you know, who's working with this theme at the moment, and you find all kinds of people. But there is a what so-called New York school, it usually applies to the abstract expressionists. There are abstract expressionists also working in Chicago.
Studs Terkel But there, is, is there a Chicago? It's, I mean that as a phrase that's used to apply to this group in New York that's definitely located there and have this outlook, this approach, is there a Chicago prototype of that?
Misch Kohn Well in the past there has been an attempt I think to find a Chicago school, but I don't believe that as such one exists. I think that there are too many individuals all going their own way and I think-
Misch Kohn No no, I think it's a very healthy thing. I think each man is an individual and he's making his own statements and if somebody finds a school out of it, well that's fine. This is just a, a label that doesn't mean anything.
Studs Terkel That's right. Just as earlier you said "what a man says", I mean or, how he says it is really up to him, isn't it? How he says it. It's the "what". Or am I wrong here? Again, the why, I guess I'm wrong here too. You, you would correct me, wouldn't you, when I say the "what he says" because you say form itself, form itself can involve a humanist approach. Isn't that what you said earlier?
Misch Kohn That's right. I, I think how he says it is very important. But that's his individual, you know, all of the things that go up to make him as an individual creative person. What he says may change from time to time. If you look through the guide and see some of the different kinds of things that I've done or if you look at the show at the Art Institute that's going to open up.
Misch Kohn Yes.
Misch Kohn No this is a different retrospective that Harold Joachim from the Art Institute, curator of prints at the Art Institute, got together and it's a somewhat larger show than the Ford Show and it's a retrospective covering the same period, having many of the same works in it but also having additional works.
Misch Kohn Yes.
Studs Terkel I don't want to just leave this avenue on which we're traveling right now. You said something "what he says may change from time to time". You, you yourself, what you say, as you feel you mature, you grow. And this can be even seen in some of the works in the, just a, just a touch of it in, in the January Fine Arts guide here, changes. But you say, but does it, how he says it change too?
Studs Terkel So
Misch Kohn This is very important in graphics, you know, in the print processes because the, the image is constantly changing simply because of the character, the means that you use to express or to, to create the image. If you cut into a block of wood that's very hard with a sharp gouge, the quality of that image is going to be different than you use a very delicate point on a piece as smooth as paper.
Studs Terkel So the what you use, as well as the what you use, and the how you use it influences what you say. And this is, marvelously, the interplay here between them all. So then we come back, there are some artists then whose form, need not be any mention of names, but some artist whose forms, the how he says it hasn't changed, is that right?
Misch Kohn No, that's true. And, and this is a person with a well-developed style that he continues to use. Picasso I think is so interesting because of the infinite richness of his changing means. He's recently come up with a series of color linoleum cuts, a new medium for him at the, what is this advanced age that he has now. And he's found a new medium to get excited about. Well this, the work that he produces with this is entirely different. The character, the quality of the line the, the flatness of the color and so forth grows out of the material, the new material that he found.
Studs Terkel So the material and the medium, the fabric, anything can alter a man's statement that much since he does work with things and he talks about, he can work with things and the different things he works with then will say different things about man. Is that right? Do
Studs Terkel Back to Misch Kohn. Back to you again and your work, your development. You say your, your, your outlook changes, this is as you develop. This probably is due to many things, due to your world outlook as well as to the different media that you use.
Misch Kohn and you compare that say with the work that just preceded it, the, oh say the Grandfather's Moustache or, or the General, the medium itself, they're both etchings. The medium is quite the same but the approach to the material is entirely different. In the Oedipus, I had something to say about what I felt about this Oedipus-type character, what he felt, I felt what he felt. My approach to the medium then was influenced by that. So I, I used very swirly lines and the thing is all pockmarked with all sorts of encrustations because I felt that he was a pretty beat-up character at this point, you know, he, was pretty sad.
Studs Terkel Yes, it's interesting, you use the form of etching here. Why etching? The subject Oedipus and the swirling forms you talk about, the beaten up aspect, was an etching but you wouldn't, suppose this were a, a wood engraving? Would have been a wholly different, not wholly but somewhat different.
Studs Terkel Here's something wholly different we haven't touched on yet, the cover, the cover of the January guide. This is an oil of gold leaf can- this is the result of your traveling in Europe, the Florentine facade this is. Would you mind telling us about this?
Misch Kohn Well, this is just the reproduction of part of the painting that I did. I did a whole series of paintings while I was visiting Europe. This was my first trip to Europe in 1950 when I started making sketches and thinking about the, the delightful architecture and whatnot that I was seeing there. And I did a whole series of paintings on landscapes and so forth, quite abstract but still having, I felt, the essence of the quality of this old culture. It also came into my wood engraving in a thing called Processional, whole group of very strange vague figures parading in front of cathedral-like forms.
Studs Terkel Misch you're probably the one to ask this, Misch Kohn. Often you hear an old-time artist, a great many of them, perhaps justifiably, perhaps not, bemoaning the current state of art. And many say some of these young artists like, eve-don't know fundamentals such as drawing, for example. And they speak of lack of statements being made, the lack, their attitude. One of the, these, these old-time artists I talk, or I say I may or may not be justified. I'm asking, what you think, you as a, an engaged, definitely committed artist. What's your, what's your feeling as to the outlook?
Misch Kohn Well being involved in education too, as well as being an artist, a practicing artist, I am aware of the problem of the young artist and the necessity for his background in drawing and the techniques and so forth. I think that these, drawing is most important. It's the most important thing. Seeing is drawing and it's most important that the people learn to see. Perhaps there is too much negation of this aspect of the training of the young artist because of the, say the New York school. This has been a tremendous influence. No discernible drawing, no, is visible. You are not sure whether the individual can draw an apple or a sheep or what have you. But we do know that the people who are most capable in the New York school like Jacks-, well Jackson Pollock, de Kooning, these people were able to draw, and in their early work you see that they, they did draw. As a result I think that their forms are more real, they have something to base them on. I think drawing is most necessary.
Studs Terkel Aside from this, what of the outlook, what of the young artist today? What, is there a trend? Are you inferring there is a trend back to, or I shouldn't perhaps, should not say back to a trend toward humanism, never has left really. Or is, or are we going away?
Misch Kohn Well-
Misch Kohn I think one way that you can see that there is a trend toward humanism again is just that the figure is reappearing in, in art again. It's changed quite a bit since the figures say of the impressionists. It's, has all of the developments of the changes of art for the past hundred years, but it's still now the figure is reappearing.
Misch Kohn Well I always used the figure, you know, some, somewhere in my work. Or, I always was involved with making statements about man and using the figure to do it with. But other artists haven't felt the necessity of depicting the figure.
Studs Terkel I think the, the, the best way in which, the second best way perhaps, in which the listeners can appreciate Misch Kohn's works, the best way is to see his works of course, and may we suggest the Art Institute January twentieth for the next month. But to supplement it, and to read about Misch perhaps, may we suggest, for those of you haven't the guide, the January guide of WFMT and the reproductions of some of his works, he says this is his family. And so if I may make this suggestion, Misch, I see it, your family, this is my feeling about you, as the family of man. I don't mean to be romantic about it but because you are the man as well as the artist, you are, I guess you can't separate the two, can you? Anything else you care to say Misch about your own growth, attitude, changes or that of in the world of art itself today, of the world as an artist.
Studs Terkel Yes.
Studs Terkel Yes, he was, Burri was an Italian prisoner of war here, and he was working in one of the camps while here, and I don't think he, I myself, I'm not sure whether he, he got his medical degree or not. He did go to medical school. He went to the University of Perugia, I think, Perugia. Now what, why, why do you ask the question, that's interesting?
Misch Kohn Well I was interested in looking at Burri's paintings. This is a, a man who works completely non- figurative and yet there are parts of the painting that seem to be quite literal, certain statements quite literal. For instance, I saw recently at the Institute of Design in an exhibition that was held there of Italian art, the painting by Burri in which it looked like an operation, an open wound all sewn together very delicately. And the, all, a collage of various kinds of cloth put together and sewn with quite a fancy stitch. And I felt, here's a person that's supposed to be completely non-figurative and so forth, and yet I felt that there was an example of some humanism.
Studs Terkel I think you raise, to me you were the first one, again I'd say I'm no artist, but I know him very well as a man and some of his works. I like him very much as a man. I'm not quite sure I understand all that he's saying. But the point you raise is the first one I've heard raised in this manner, and it's possible this is connected with what you said earlier about the media with which a man works too, isn't that, always is, is a factor in making his statements. He uses, as you know, burlap, you know, among other things and plaster, and the sewing, the thread, you see. He was a medical student, perhaps an M.D. ed-I don't, not discussing that with him fully. And you, you see a connection here, quite possibly,
Misch Kohn Well I thought that this was very interesting, that the man did all of this sewing of different types of material and so forth. I had the feeling that he was trying to reorder, you know, life in his own image, sort of. And I wondered if this was true. I had just heard
Studs Terkel It may well be, I don't know. There's one thing he did say to me, he's very non-verbal, as you probably can gather. Very, very shy. But he did say one thing when I asked him once, we had some little Bardolino, Bardolino wine or something there that he brought, and we were drinking and and he was freer, he was free with me, anyway I remember, and he said, "I use the burlap". Burlap, why do you use the burlap? Because burlap is the lowest of all the fabrics in Italy. Burlap is, is the container in which garbage is tossed. And yet, if I could make of this burlap something of beauty, you see, I should feel good. It was something of this nature is what he said, which was quite moving, I thought. That's a statement certainly, isn't it?
Studs Terkel Well this is a, an unexpected and fascinating end to interview with Misch Kohn. I think it's indicative of you. Here your interest was now, was in the work of a contemporary, another artist of a different continent whose form is wholly different from yours, isn't it? The form.
Studs Terkel And yet each of you, each of you is making a statement. And to describe Burri as a humanist comes as a shock to me, and yet may well be. I know he is as a man, you see, and somehow it would be inconceivable to think of the artist separated from the man he is. You-