Walter Hahn Winged Serpents c. 1958 oil on canvas 36 x 36 inches
Walter Hahn Medusa I 1954 oil on canvas 24 x 24 inches
Photograph of Walter Hahn
Early in the 1950s, Walter Hahn was a force to be reckoned with in Chicago painting. In 1951, his final year as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Hahn won first prize in oil in the Chicago and Vicinity exhibition. As this was a purchase prize, this placed his work in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, provoking jealous awe from some of his teachers. Adding insult to injury, this was the year the AIC had resumed allowing students to enter the juried show, largely under pressure from the legendary Momentum exhibitions, a project instigated by Leon Golub after students were barred from entering in 1948.
Born in 1927, in Milwaukee, Hahn studied with Kathleen Blackshear and Paul Wieghardt and he was a colleague of Golub, who attended SAIC a year before him. In the early ’50s, Hahn was a central figure in the Momentum shows. Mies Van Der Rohe expressed admiration for “Feeding Time,” Hahn’s contribution to the 1950 Momentum show, and Golub used the back of Hahn’s extremely unusual painting “Aquarium,” which as a note-pad on which he scrawled suggestions for potential jurists for the 1951 exhibition.
Hahn’s early canvases and drawings are playful, figural and highly architectural, extrapolating from Paul Klee’s delicate lines and angles, but featuring a distinctly American sensibility that might in places be akin to Golub’s early monsters, Robert Gwathmey’s outlined figures and elsewhere Milton Avery’s unmodulated patches of color. The Klee influence make sense, as his teacher Wieghardt had worked alongside the Swiss painter, though when asked whether Hahn’s work reminded him of Klee, Wieghardt said: “No, this painting looks like a Walter Hahn.” A noteworthy feature of Hahn’s style is his obsessive attention to detail – indeed, in some cases hair is painted strand-by-strand, grass blade-by-blade, a tree leaf-by-leaf. Hahn applied this sensibility to his designs for jewelry, which he and his wife Maude made and sold to augment their income. Hahn mounted solo exhibitions at Hull House, ETC Gallery, and the Chicago Public Library, and participated widely in group exhibitions.
In 1955, Hahn was awarded the Prix de Rome. While in Italy, he painted large, often mythologically inspired canvases – Janus-faced figures, Medusas, 100-eyed women. Late in the ’50s, Hahn moved to New York, where he was represented by Gallery G, alongside an as-yet-unknown artist named Lee Bontecou. At Gallery G, he had a one-person show titled “Winged Things,” featuring swans and winged snakes. By the mid ’60s, his work had grown somewhat more naturalistic, influenced by a growing immersion in Asian culture, and in 1964 he stopped painting and by-and-large left the public art world – not unlike Bontecou. Hahn’s creative life has continued through his design of Japanese tea ceremony teaspoons, of which his is one of the very few non-Japanese masters, and in the form of highly personal collages, which he has yet to exhibit.