In 1948 Kohn’s work changed dramatically. Up until this time, although wood engraving was enjoying a revival in the United States, most artists were still using it primarily for the purpose of book illustration, which profoundly circumscribed their approach to the medium. Kohn wasn’t interested any longer in making books; he wanted to move the print from a private, hand-held experience to a public scale, with work that would have strong visual impact when seen on a wall.
Through trial-and-error, he overcame a variety of technical problems in terms of the block, the paper, and the printing process; simultaneously, his work seemed to conceptually mature almost overnight: “a transformation as sudden and dramatic as that from pupa to butterfly,” wrote Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Carl Zigrosser. Kohn balanced bold, abstract planes with figurative imagery, contrasting these striking forms with stark embossing and interpenetrating textural intricacies. Realistic representational components seamlessly shifted into alternately intricate and bold areas of pattern and texture. Most unusual was that his work showed effectively both intimately and from further away: such was his technical virtuosity that his minute and sensitive textures enhanced rather than detracted from the monumentality of his overall design.
The content of the large engravings of this time period is almost perfectly compatible with its technical qualities. The works from the early 1950s are consistent, through title and imagery, in overtly characterizing the angst and violence felt by contemporary society confronting a world of Cold War and potential nuclear disaster. Kohn almost immediately received significant acclaim for this new and original work, including the honor of two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships, the first of which took him to Paris in 1952-53; to accept, he took a temporary leave from his new teaching position at the “New Bauhaus” Institute of Design in Chicago.
Warrior Jagatai, 1953. Wood engraving
Kabuki Samurai, 1954. Wood engraving
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.