Tobi Kahn

(American, b. 1952)

OHRA, 2003 

Acrylic on canvas stretched over wood; seven panel suite, each 88 x 60 1/2 inches 

Gift of Anne Dale Owen and Jane Blaffer Owen, 2021

July 2022 – Ongoing  

The New York-based artist Tobi Kahn seeks to be the working receptacle between his viewing audience and the divine. In his paintings and sculptures, Kahn consistently creates art that facilitates a meditative and healing experience. While his paintings may seem deceptively simple in their design and construction, they are meticulously formed with each work containing up to thirty layers of gesso, modeling paste, paint and glaze, sometimes taking years to complete. Dense layers work to create rich textures and subtle variations in tones that provide a balanced contrast to the repetition of the panels. Kahn’s works are simultaneously direct and enigmatic, as ambiguous as nature itself.  

OHRA was commissioned by the late Houston philanthropist and arts patron Jane Blaffer Owen. She had first worked with Kahn in 1993 when she commissioned a sculpture from him for New Harmony, a town along Indiana’s Wabash River established in 1824 by Robert Owen. Following her marriage to Kenneth Owen, a New Harmony native descended from the Welsh industrialist and social reformer, Blaffer Owen became among the town’s most important benefactors. Beginning in the 1950s, she underwrote the work of many influential architects, urban planners and artists—including Phillip Johnson—at New Harmony, supporting its preservation and continued development. SHALEV (1993), Kahn’s resulting sculptural commission, is a large granite and bronze monolith with a likeness to prehistoric monuments yet set against the town’s serene environment.

Blaffer Owen turned to Kahn once again in 2002 for the design of a non-denominational chapel for New Harmony. Reflective of the town’s foundational ethos as “a community of equality,” the chapel was to bring people of all faiths together in communion. Designed in close collaboration and conversation, the chapel merged Blaffer Owen’s hopes for a better world for all humanity as well as Kahn’s understanding of art as a conduit for healing and understanding.

Kahn’s plan called for the chapel to house the multi-panel OHRA along with several sculptures and specially designed furniture. Regrettably, the construction of the chapel was halted but not before the completion of OHRA. With nine identical panels (seven of which survive), the work functions as an immersive experience that transports the viewer into the interior of oneself and of nature. From early in his career, Kahn has been inspired by the tradition of Romantic landscape painting and this expansive work of art is part of the legacy of Romanticism’s sublime transcendence. OHRA is one of Kahn’s most ambitious works as well as the most significant of his Sky and Water series which focuses on that slight space on the horizon between land and air.

OHRA was included in his prominent 2003 solo exhibition Tobi Kahn: Sky and Water at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York, featuring more than eighty paintings. The work was later shown in 2010 at the Evansville Museum as part of the exhibition Tobi Kahn: Sky and Water Meditation, held in honor of Jane Blaffer Owen’s 90th birthday. 

In 1985 Kahn was included in the Guggenheim group exhibit New Horizons in American Art, after which his career flourished. Later, Kahn was commissioned to create a unique sculpture for the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s ten year anniversary. He has produced installations in the form of meditative spaces and chaplaincies and his paintings and objects are prominently placed in sacred spaces and memorials around the country. As a son of immigrant parents who survived the Holocaust, Kahn was raised in the New York Jewish community and remains an active participant in its cultural legacy. Kahn proclaims, “I’m very committed that every person should have a way to experience peace in this world.” 

LOCATION

University of Houston 

Health and Biomedical Sciences Center Building, 1st floor