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Review: Bill Kohn's work sizzles at Bruno David

Sunset from Hopi Point Acrylic on canvas (diptych) 67-1/2 inches x 15 feet 16 inches 1989
Sunset from Hopi Point Acrylic on canvas (diptych) 67-1/2 inches x 15 feet 16 inches 1989

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Just as Saint Louis University has added dashes of electric blue highlights to the mid-city skyline, Bruno David Gallery has brought Bill Kohn’s sizzling electric paintings to Grand Center. The Monumental Paintings retrospective includes Techos Uno, the earliest work in the exhibit, and the immense Jaisalmer Fortress. Both are examples of the artist’s work inspired by years of world travel.

The five large-scale paintings at Bruno David surround the gallery visitor with a unified vision of the natural and built environment that casts an intense fiery glow. Each painted vision - from the immense 12th-century sandstone fort at the historical crossroads of Persia, Arabia, Egypt and Africa in the Thar Desert to the luscious layers of rock formation that make up the Grand Canyon - is an exploration of geometry and color.

The exhibit is personal to me, as I grew up across the street from Bill Kohn and his family. I have decades of memories of him that are mostly auditory. Without effort, I can hear his booming laugh and his wonderful, deep singing voice. Bill’s life was, like his art, joyous. Growing up surrounded by Bill’s brilliant, saturated colors granted me lifelong permission to enjoy expressions of artistic exuberance.

My sister, Lucy Hg Solomon, an artist living in LA, remembers invitations to Bill’s studio. She recalls the excitement of seeing works in progress and a notable, enviable confidence that guided his practice. Unlike many artists whose intentions can be muddled and whose artistic process can be riddled with anxiety, Bill seemed to come to his work with great clarity. Lucy recalls that watching him create pencil sketches and watercolors on location in Mexico, she was moved by his ability to produce work that was as beautiful in its first casual iteration as in the final, formal painting on canvas.

Many St. Louisans feel personally connected to Bill Kohn’s paintings. The magnificent two-panel Sunset From Hopi Point (Grand Canyon) that anchors the current Bruno David Gallery exhibit hung at Duffs Restaurant on Euclid for many years. As my sister said about those fabulous strips of color: “All those colors are there in the rock. Your eye might only see browns and grays at first glance, but the deep fuchsias, ambers, crimson, azure … they are all there in the geologic architecture. Bill could extract the essence of color from life and give that magnificence existent within nature full expression.”

Kohn, who died in 2004, captured the distinctiveness of the places he knew and loved: St. Louis and Chicago, Machu Picchu, Arizona, Oaxaca, Andalusia and Florence… He steeped himself in the individual characteristics of these uniquely evocative places. He was a student of their histories, literature, material culture, food and especially music. Yet, an assemblage of Kohn's paintings, such as that on view at Bruno David, fits together like clues connecting to reveal a truth.