Named Harris at birth, this second child born to Russian-Jewish immigrants Jacob and Anna Kohn was born at home. The first son, born in the local hospital, had lived only two days; superstitious, Anna had no doubt that it was the hospital’s fault, so all eight of her subsequent children were likewise home births (two others, twin girls, also died in infancy). Although Jacob and Anna were generally nonpracticing and secular, a Jewish couple was still something of a local oddity at that time; the wedding announcement in the Kokomo paper referred to the ceremony at the “Jewish church,” and the officiating rabbi had to be imported from out of town. Family members also anecdotally recount that when the Ku Klux Klan was out recruiting members, they asked well-liked Jacob, the local shoe repairman, to join their new “club.” He threw the surprised ignoramuses out of his shop.
Even as a youth, Harris had begun to take drawing seriously, using the simple materials he found around the house; he remembered, after receiving accolades for an early drawing, that by age five he had already decided to be an artist when he grew up. By age nine, he began taking art classes on Saturday mornings, and graduated to oil painting classes by age thirteen, instructed by a local doctor’s wife. Although his art education was limited – his teachers taught still lifes, for example, without reference to Cézanne or other modernists – his early work, through high school, was good enough to win him a scholarship to attend an art academy.
Kohn entered John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis in 1934, a private school funded by wealthy local industrialists and filled with students on scholarships. During this time, he decided to change his name, finally deciding on “Misch” after considering other options; his early work is signed variously: Harris Mischa Kohn, H. Misch Kohn, Harris Misch Kohn, and so on. The teaching at Herron was generally uninspired, however, and the teachers were unimpressed with Kohn’s efforts; he found out later that one had tried to convince his father to steer him onto another career path. On his own he began learning about the modernists that were generally ignored by his teachers; he was surprised that they and his fellow students seemed to be unaffected by the radical upheavals in the art world being brought on by explorations into abstraction. But his art school experience was vindicated when, in the final quarter of his final year, printmaking was introduced. Kohn was fascinated by the process, and helped the instructors install the presses and set up the studio: he began spending all of his time in the new printshop. In retrospect, it was an experience that changed the direction of his life.
Note: This text is excerpted from the comprehensive book Misch Kohn: Beyond the Tradition by Jo Farb Hernández (Monterey Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997), which includes a full catalogue raisonné of the prints as well as an exhibition history, chronology, list of works in public collections, prize list, and bibliography.