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With his frugal use of line and brilliant bursts of color, the paintings of Bob Kuhn are as distinctive as fingerprints. A Kuhn painting presents an illuminating study in animal behavior, an accurate weather report and a concise geography lesson. Each brushstroke rings true.

Kuhn is an artist enamored of gestures. Occasionally, an animal strikes a pose that is “so full of design that I know it when I see it. I take a picture if I have my camera, make a note on a pad or try to remember it so that I can reconstruct it later,” he says. He finds himself drawn to the form of prime specimens, much like a trophy hunter, when selecting a subject for a painting. Kuhn’s animals are sleek and powerful. Their might and movement are communicated not by the definition of individual muscles, but with brushstrokes that indicate mass, accentuated by his masterful treatment of light and shadow.

His paintings are mosaics of textures; look closely at any two-square-inch area and an abstract pattern of colors and shapes is revealed. “Every decent painting is full of abstractions. All your skies, grass and trees are abstractions.” The difference between an abstract painting and a realistic one lies in the focal point, he notes.

Born in Buffalo, NY, Kuhn lived near the zoo as a child. Even then, he loved to draw animals. Once he was old enough to read, he collected magazines featuring the work of two of his favorite illustrators. At the age of 16, Kuhn met one of his idols, illustrator Paul Bransom, who offered this advice to the young artist: “Keep going to the zoo and keep drawing. When you look at an animal, look at it as though you may never see it again. Learn everything you can about it.”

Kuhn attended Pratt Institute. After graduating, he married and worked as an illustrator in New York doing assignments for outdoor magazines. During World War II, having been classified 4-F, he joined the Merchant Marine. After the war, he illustrated for numerous national magazines. In 1956, an editor asked Kuhn to accompany him to Africa, and it marked a turning point in his life, as would later become evident in his easel paintings. The patterns of the animals and the color-splashed landscape of Africa intrigued him, moving him to capture its very essence and mood. He continued to accept illustration assignments while his three children were in college, including the Remington Arms calendar. He also painted independently, mounting his first one-man gallery show in New York on the night of the famous 1965 blackout. Despite the circumstances, he sold 15 of his 17 originals. Later, at the age of 50, he gave up illustration to focus exclusively on easel painting.

Kuhn does not usually make a preliminary color sketch; instead he does only the roughest of pencil sketches. Often, he allows evidence of the underlying drawing to show on the finished piece. “I leave it in deliberately,” he says. “It gives the painting a sense of time and evolution. I think that the realism of a painting is honored in the occasional breach. It’s the little glitch that often gives life to a piece of work....something that surprises.”

Eager to paint the myriad subjects he finds fascinating, Kuhn confesses he doesn’t have the patience for oils. Acrylic is his preferred medium because one of its attributes is that it dries quickly. But this advantage can also be a drawback. To compensate for its tendency to dry before it can be blended, Kuhn uses a fair amount of pointillism in his work.

“I take a very broad view of the term ‘art,’” he says. “I think...if you function in a highly personal way which strikes a chord in others and reveals truth in a new way, you will be producing art.” By his own definition, Kuhn is an artist. By the definition of other artists, he is a splendid one.


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January 27, 2015