The memories that preoccupy Kahn are of horrors that took place before he was born.
"I grew up in Washington Heights, N.Y., a neighborhood in which everyone's grandparents were either killed by the Nazis or got out," says Kahn, whose retrospective, "Metamorphoses," opened last weekend at the Skirball Cultural Center. And memories are all that are left of his own family's 400-year history in Germany. While Kahn's parents and grandparents escaped the Holocaust, two of his father's siblings perished. The artist is named for an uncle, a medical student and anti-Hitler activist who was one of the first Jews murdered in 1933.
A second conflict in Kahn's life emerged when he was a budding artist growing up in an observant Jewish community that valued language over the visual. Jews, after all, are the People of the Book; words, not images, are believed to provide the path to the Divine. But even as a child, Kahn thought that "the visual can be a benediction." Entering his Orthodox synagogue on Yom Kippur, when the sanctuary was covered with white fabric, "was like going to heaven," Kahn, now 47, says. At the age of 10, the young artist tried to create a replica of the Holy of Holies, the chamber the high priest entered only on Yom Kippur, described in Leviticus.
"Very early on," Kahn says, "I learned that the visual is how I 'breathe.'"
His first artistic medium was the camera, which Kahn took with him during three years of yeshiva study in Israel. Upon his return, he enrolled at Hunter College and began photographing sections of demolished South Bronx apartment buildings, with their burned-out walls and exposed, colorful bathrooms. He began painting on the "ruins" to enhance them, courtesy of his budding preoccupation with memory. "I tried to turn these places where people had once lived into something spiritual," he says.
When a professor suggested that the painterly photographer try painting, Kahn enrolled at the Pratt Institute and studied with George McNeil, a founder of the American Abstract Artists Group. He began creating white-on-white images and his first landscapes, based on his travels, ranging from Norway to the Negev. Kahn's big break came when he was one of a handful of artists selected to participate in the Guggenheim's landmark "New Horizons in American Art" show in 1985; he has since had more than 25 solo exhibitions.
Since the early 1990s, Kahn's timeless, transcendent landscapes have been increasingly influenced by cell formations and fractal geometry -- the notion that shapes repeat themselves over and over again in nature. Fingerlike shapes may convey tides sweeping around land masses or cells under a microscope. For the Orthodox artist, the concept is a manifestation of the Divine.
Other Kahn landscapes are influenced by the legend of the Golem, especially those in which giant heads seem to loom from sheer rock and silhouettes lurk in gray waters.
Kahn, who in earlier years thought that he had to play down his Jewishness to be taken seriously in the art world, has also created Jewish ritual objects and a series of "shrines" based on his lifelong fascination with the Holy of Holies. Each shrine is a small box that houses a sacred object in its dark, innermost chamber: In "Lifanah," a bronze angelic figure resides inside a red-and-black space that's reminiscent of a Greek temple; "Ziba II" is a tall, narrow structure housing a humanoid "relic."
The shrines, like all of Kahn's work, have names that are invented by the artist, names that are secret. "Once, I revealed what a title meant, and it ruined the painting for me for six years," Kahn says. "I couldn't look at the piece in the same way. It just didn't have the same mystery anymore."
"Tobi Kahn: Metamorphoses" is showing at the Skirball Cultural Center. Curator of fine arts Barbara Gilbert will discuss the exhibit on July 8, 8 p.m.; July 11, 2 p.m.; and Aug. 5, 6 p.m. For more information, call (310) 440-4500.