Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Something Wonderful Happened!

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Something Wonderful Happened!

Article excerpt

Something wonderful happened when Bill Kohn (1931-2004) started his last large acrylic painting. I could tell from the first lines on the white canvas, which looked like lightning slashing across space, that a new style was in the making. It was not at all like the faint outlines of individual buildings, cathedrals, temples, bridges, or canyons that had always been the first to appear on his studio canvases. I cornered Dale Dufer, the furniture-maker whom Bill taught art photography, and urged him to get over to the studio and document this unique happening. But that wasn't the kind of thing that interested Bill--nothing is final in his paintings until they are completed--and the slashing lines were soon enmeshed in structural details. Bill may have known that he was heading into a new style, but was probably too occupied with seeing if it would work to ponder what it meant. My brother was dying from kidney cancer and facing the reality that the experimental chemotherapy, radiation, and restorative hip surgery were no longer controlling his pain. His focus was on the exhibition, to be called "Centering on the Grand," in which his final works would be displayed. Paul Ha, director of Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis whose dramatic steel-clad building is central to the renewal program and the venue for the exhibition, quotes Bill telling him that Grand Center "embodies forces of creativity, decay, restoration, preservation, learning and innovation, interacting over time in the heart of a metropolitan region" (MESH, 12). The forces which Bill spoke of to Ha are metaphors for what was happening in his own life and help to explain his final, abrupt change in style. It's not that he wasn't willing to talk--actually he had to whisper because of the malignant tumors that were obstructing his vocal chords--because he answered all of my questions about his art while we waited in hospitals for him to be seen by doctors and receive his chemotherapy or radiation treatments. But there was a limit to what he could express in words about his work and, sadly, I didn't know until too late some of the most important questions that I needed to ask him. It was only later, when I read in Jean-Francois Lyotard "that there is something we can conceive of which we can neither see nor show ... [that] is the stake of modern painting" that I understood why Bill could only say so much. Modern art provides only "allusions to the unpresentable" (11). Much later I learned from Stanley Fish that even those allusions must be derived by the "performance" of the viewer and added to what the painting "signals and, by signaling, controls" (69). It was a heady idea that my role would not be one of "extracting significances" from Bill's art, but of "confer[ring] them," although Fish was careful to add that, despite the importance of the viewer's collaboration, he or she only "extends [the] supremacy" of the artist's work (69). It was in the course of my regular research on literary criticism in books such as Fish's that I fortuitously found material that I could translate into art criticism.

Because Bill's final acrylic depicts the same scene as his penultimate acrylic, the two paintings together comprise a kind of Rosetta Store for identifying patterns of stylistic change. It follows from viewer-response theory, as it was developed by Fish, that in the case of my brother's art other viewers might not agree that something wonderful had happened. Indeed, when it became Paul Ha's choice of which five of Bill's six large acrylics he wanted to display in the exhibition, he picked out the five that were most representative of Bill's style and without qualms passed over the ground-breaking piece that is for me the most exciting of them all. The five paintings Ha chose were done in the style that Bill had been perfecting for the past twenty-five years of his forty-year career as a professor of art at Washington University in St. Louis.

When I decided to begin an essay on my brother's work while he was still living, I immediately focused on the last two large acrylics because I had never known Bill to paint two versions of an identical scene. …

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