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Local author Bob Kohn examines a painting by his brother, Bill Kohn, with new book

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 4, 2013 - The large painting has hung in his living room for 50 years. For most of that time, Bob Kohn didn’t question it too deeply, or his brother, artist Bill Kohn.

Bob Kohn, a professor emeritus of economics at Southern Illinois University  Edwardsville, retired in 1990, and soon switched to literary criticism.


That work eventually led him back to the painting on his living room wall, “Udaipur Tinsmiths,” and this time he had lots of questions.

Bill Kohn, whose work has been featured around St. Louis galleries, was also a professor of art at Washington University for 40 years. He passed away in 2004, and the Bruno David Gallery currently handles works for his estate.

Without his brother available to answer questions anymore, Kohn began researching to try to understand the piece better. The result is Kohn’s new book, “A Darwinian Reading of Bill Kohn’s Painting.”

“I don’t have an 's' on it, so it has two meanings,” Kohn says. “One is, I’m interested in his painting as an activity in general, but I’m also most interested in the painting of his that he did in 1964 that I’ve had in my house for 50 years. I never understood it and I made the mistake of never asking Bill what it meant.”

Kohn will appear at Left Bank Books for a discussion and book signing at which he plans to show three blow-ups of important color figures in the book and discuss them.

“And the first one that I’m going to put up is a painting that my brother did when he was 14 years old. It’s the oldest piece of his in existence. I think he did it because our father died that year. I look at that painting and it’s astonishing how mature it is.”

At that time, Bill Kohn had no training in art, and his brother assumed it was in his genes. This coincided with Kohn’s literary criticism and interests.

“I wanted to see if that would help me understand my brother’s painting, his painting in general, and this particular painting from 1964.”

“Udaipur Tinsmiths” came out of a honeymoon year abroad for Bill Kohn and his wife, who spent some time in India.

Through his book, Kohn examines topics of early art, as well as what was happening the year his brother painted “Udaipur Tinsmiths.” That year, 1964, art critic Clement Greenberg began defining modern art as abstract and two-dimensional, Kohn says, and yet his brother’s work didn’t strictly adhere to that.

“Bill was not an abstract painter. What he did was he took the real world and he abstracted the real world, he added abstraction. He believed you start with the real world.”

Kohn will speak about “A Darwinian Reading of Bill Kohn’s Painting,” his research and revelations at Left Bank Books’ Central West End location, 399 N. Euclid Ave., at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 7.

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