Albert Michael Kahn dies at 86 Ex-S.F. artist used Shoah themes

He began with chalk on sidewalks, as an impoverished immigrant child in New York. In his adult life, oils on canvas became his medium, with displacement and loss — and especially the Holocaust — recurrent themes in his work.

Albert Michael Kahn, an artist and a noted graphic designer, died from heart failure on May 28 at the age of 86. He was living in Miami Beach at the time of his death, but Kahn previously had resided and worked in San Francisco for more than 25 years.

Born in 1913 in Gorki, Russia — formerly Nizhni Novgorod — Kahn was the son of a well-to-do merchant and importer. A target of the Bolsheviks, the father was taken away from his family during the Russian Revolution. He became ill with tuberculosis and died when Kahn was a small boy.

Having no means to support Kahn and his four sisters, Kahn's mother fled to Poland, and the family moved from relative to relative, until they managed to immigrate to the United States.

Kahn's artistic impulse began early. Having seen artists draw on the sidewalks in Europe, Kahn did the same in New York, to earn a few extra pennies for the family. He then attended the Pratt Institute and the Art Students League.

He served in the U.S. Army for five years, drawing technical diagrams and posters. He earned the title of master sergeant and an Army commendation ribbon.

After marrying Rose Menacer, Kahn came to San Francisco.

"My parents were avant-garde people," said his daughter Brenda Kahn, who lives in Berkeley. "He thought the West Coast was fertile ground for someone with a fertile mind."

There he founded his own graphic design firm, A. Michael Kahn Advertising Art. The firm was known primarily for package design, with a client base that included the Foremost dairy company and Matson Navigation.

Every few years, Kahn would leave his business to take a year off and paint. Working in oils on canvas, Kahn in his early works was influenced by Mexican artist Diego Rivera as well as painters in South America, where he spent several years.

But in the 1960s, the Kahns spent a year in Israel, and Jewish themes became predominant in Kahn's work.

While he left Europe well before the Shoah, it was a recurring subject, which he saw as a symbol of the long history of Jewish persecution.

"He would weave together his personal experience and trauma of escaping from Europe, together with Jewish tradition," said Brenda Kahn. "He would mix his own personal story with the story of the Jewish people."

According to his daughter, Kahn's traumatic childhood loomed large in his work, and many of his paintings from that period are filled with images of Jewish migration and suffering.

Jewish ritual items like Torah scrolls, tefillin and prayer shawls appeared often in his work, as did images of himself as a young yeshiva student, with sidecurls and a yarmulke.

Drawing heavily on symbolism, "his paintings were really finely crafted, like you don't see anymore… very finely detailed, with a real mastery of the oil medium," said Brenda Kahn.

He exhibited his work locally at Pomeroy Galleries, and was listed in Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in America, Who's Who in American Art and Who's Who in the South and Southwest.

After the Kahns divorced in the mid-'70s, he relocated to Miami Beach.

In addition to Brenda Kahn, he is survived by another daughter, Sharon Kahn of San Francisco; a son-in-law, Barrie Rokeach; and four grandchildren, Ari, Zachary, Rose and Gabrielle Rokeach, all of Berkeley.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."