Saturday, February 25, 2017

POST #136: NEXT STOP 125TH STREET



When I was in my 20s, I took a dozen or so snapshots with my point and shoot Brownie camera of the Lower East Side. I was doing some street scenes (my social realist period) and needed reference material. I admired the work of Ben Shahn but never thought I could come anywhere near his level of technical skill. Little did I know that he worked from photos all the time, perhaps even mechanically transferring them with an opaque projector to his canvas. I don’t think we’ll ever know the truth; he was pretty secretive. But, if Vermeer could do it, why not Ben Shahn (or me)?

Anyhow, about two years ago, I abstracted my Lower East Side photos into a series of eight large paintings designed to fit together to make two 16’ long murals. I was pleased with the results, some of the best work I have ever done (See Post #68 Dear Reader page). I think now that sufficient time has passed, I’m ready to revisit the theme, only now I want to re-create Harlem, both as it looks today and as I remember it. My ‘alma maters’ (the High School of Music and Art and City College uptown) were located in Harlem and I lived in Morningside Heights when I first got married. Over the years I have watched the area fall and rise. In my early twenties, I remember going to ‘rent parties’ where folk and jazz musicians played and you donated (into a passed hat) to pay the rent. One evening I found myself on a mattress next to a curly haired, stoned banjo player who “looked familiar,” Woody Guthrie.

Now that Harlem is “safe” again, I have enjoyed revisiting it, taking photos for a new series of street scenes. Fortunately, I have a friend who walks across 125th St. once a week to teach at Columbia. I have persuaded him to snap whatever catches his attention with his I-Phone (pretending to be talking into it) while on his weekly trek across town. He doesn’t have time to be selective or compose anything but it doesn’t matter; I get his images developed at Walgreen’s and take what I want out of them. I never draw directly from photos; I absorb them. The results are kaleidoscopic, real but unreal. So far, I have finished several sketches of people on the street that I will ignore once I start to paint. In the finished work, you’ll see fragments of Harlem: the signage, the Apollo Theater, elevated train stations, vendors, and street life. I can’t wait to get to work!




Friday, February 10, 2017

POST #135: I’M JUST ISADORABLE


I have no idea where most of my art comes from. Images just seem to burst unbidden from my subconscious. If anything, when I set out to portray “something” it’s usually forced looking and a failure. At the moment, my studio walls are covered with four-foot high figures cut from brown wrapping paper. They are dancing with such abandon that I call them Maenads, drunken followers of the ancient Greek god, Dionysus. The closest thing I’ve seen to anything like them are Matisse’s giant cutouts on the frieze of the Barnes Museum in Philadelphia, but, if you’ll forgive my hubris, I think mine are more interesting.

The images are derived from small paper cutouts of figures I paste on cheap paper plates - my 21st century “Arte Povera” version of Greek kylixes or drinking cups. At night, before I go to sleep, I usually listen to (not watch) some fairly uninteresting talk shows and while my conscious mind is distracted, I cut 5” figures freehand out of black or tan paper. Then I stick them on a lampshade to get a better look. (Post #132) and the next day, I glue them down onto cheap paper plates, the 300 for $3.99 variety. I think of them as Ancient Greek in origin because of their fluted rims, a common border motif known as a ‘tongue’ pattern. I’ve always assumed that they came from my twenty years of teaching art history at the University of Connecticut – influenced by the incomparable Greek ceramics that survived millennia when much else was lost.

It recently dawned on me that my interest in the dancing figures goes much further back than my art history days – it goes back to my childhood, when my mother took me into downtown Manhattan once a week to study Interpretive Dance – the innovative techniques of Isadora Duncan. From the time I was five until about the age of 11, I took lessons from two disciples of Duncan’s style: Irma Duncan, one of Isadora’s adopted daughters (they were called the “Isadorables”), and Julia Levien, who also studied with Duncan. Barefoot, dressed in a chiffon toga my mother had made for me and with a wreath of flowers in my hair, I attempted to hop, skip and jump with the prescribed abandon of a true follower of Dionysus, the supposed basis for Duncan dance. My career ended when it became evident that while I had my heart in it, my body was just not up to the demands. I was relatively tall for my age and noticeably delicate (skinny), while the really good Duncan dancers were stocky and muscular. Nature, it seemed had other plans for me.

Since I had no “ear” for music, the only remaining option was to become an artist. So, here I am, decades (many, many) later, turning my failure as a Duncan dancer into another art form, filling my studio with cut-out figures who enjoy dancing to a gypsy fiddler – the best I can come up with since no one really knows what 5th century B.C. music actually sounded like.


At any rate, I never made the connection between my short-lived career as a Duncan dancer and the wrapping paper cutouts chasing each other around my studio wall until a few weeks ago when one of my beautiful granddaughters came for a visit. We spent the afternoon looking at old family photos and came across a couple that were taken of me at a performance when I was about ten or eleven years old. There are even shadows on the wall that look like my recent silhouettes - I’m the skinny one with the long hair on the right and in the group photo, I’m the second from the left in the middle row.


Thursday, February 2, 2017

POST #134: WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH IT ALL?



My son Ned, who creates major Public Art projects throughout the world, claims that I am a “higher order” artist than he is since I only do what I want to do, not what I’m hired to do. Aside from the fact that throughout history artists were almost always on someone’s payroll, I’m not so sure being at the mercy of a buyers’ market is a badge of honor. And since no one has commissioned my art, there’s a possibility no one is ever going to want it and that leaves me (and my heirs) with one hell of a problem. What’s going to happen to it (an attic full) after I’m gone? Every artist I know, facing inevitable mortality, has to deal with this problem. Since I personally won’t be around to care, my heirs can give away as much as they can and since new canvas is expensive, they can just put a coat of gesso on everything that’s left over and recycle it. The good news though is that my recent, smaller pieces sold quite well, so, maybe the answer to the backlog in the attic is to cut everything into 2’x3’ paintings; they might go like hotcakes in pretty frames. I’m told that’s what art dealers used to do in the 1920s with those big Baroque paintings nobody wanted to buy.

My daughter Eve decided to tackle the problem while I’m still around and hired a photographer to archive everything.  That way, when I go to that great studio in the sky and my children move everything to a storage locker or have a giant tag sale, there will be a record somewhere “in the cloud.” At least they won’t have the problem I’m told that the famous sculptor George Rickey’s son has of spending half his life going around fixing his father’s work.

Starting (hopefully) in February, my friend Hilly Dunn, an expert art photographer, will set up a photo studio in my attic. One by one, we’ll record everything: title, size, date, etc. This is assuming I will be able to recall it. Hilly and Eve even found a new site specifically designed to document artists like me: POBA.org., a “cultural arts center” designed to celebrate artists who have “died without recognition of the full measure of their talents or creative legacies.” POBA takes its name from a Tibetan phrase describing the “transformation of consciousness at death to begin a new life.” At least it gives me something to look forward to…! I’m not being morbid; just realistic. When someone prepares a will, we understand that he wants to be prepared for the inevitable.

But even better…what if I actually achieve fame and fortune while I’m still around? ….and the work sells and provides me with a rich and exciting old(er) age? Underappreciated “mature” women artists seem to be in vogue now and while there’s life there’s hope!


Friday, January 13, 2017

POST #133: TALK TO ME, BABY!

Oil and charcoal on canvas
6'x4' 2016
For more than twenty years, I taught Art History at the Stamford Campus of the University of Connecticut. (We locals called it “the Branch,” a concept frowned upon by the hierarchy in Storrs.) I remember putting on “performances” in front of my class, designed to entrance the sweet, young people who sat in front of me for more than two hours at a time. The least I could do was make the subject interesting for them.  I always looked for stories about art that would “humanize” what could have been dreadfully dull. One of the anecdotes I loved to tell was one about Donatello, an early Renaissance sculptor famous for making his statues lifelike. The story goes that Donatello was working on a life–size figure of a prophet for the Cathedral of Florence. Because of the subject’s bald head, the piece was nicknamed Zuccone, or “pumpkin-head” and according to the story, the sculptor would scream at it, commanding “Speak! Damn You. Speak!”T Ironically enough, the piece, one of the greatest works of all time, does “speak” to you, although not in a very pleasant tone of voice.   

Oil and charcoal on canvas
6'x4' 2016
I’m a painter of people. I like to think of myself as a Humanist rather than an Abstractionist, or a Social Realist, or a cubist, although I recently digressed (temporarily) into a series of dream-like paintings of New York City rooftops. I’m back on track now, creating a cast of characters I consider successful only if, like “pumpkin-head,” they “talk to me.”  Unfortunately however, this makes me an outlier in the current art world. Humanism went out of fashion in the late 1950s when anything that smacked of liberal thinking (like Humanism) was declared un-American - and it never came back.  Humanism is the thread that runs through all my work. Sometimes my art is clearly satirical, but even then, it’s affectionate such as my “Developer series,” or “Men’s Bathhouse” series, or my Local Mayors, or the maquette for “George Washington, Father of his Country” (surrounded by pregnant women,) My humor isn’t angry, unlike the work of the German satirist, George Grosz; my characters may be despicable creeps, but they sorta grow on you.

Oil and charcoal on canvas
6'x4' 2016
Lately, I’ve gone back to painting people. I never use models or preparatory sketches; there are enough characters rattling around in my head not to need them. I tone a large canvas (usually 6’x4’) in shades of umber and then begin to draw in charcoal, pulling figures from my subconscious. Each one is treated as a shape and each shape coordinates with shapes around it. It’s a juggling act: the first shape is easy to manage; the next one a little harder. After that, everything must “work” with what has gone before and, as the drawing gets more and more complicated, more difficult to hold together. The problem now is when to stop; when is enough “enough.” One superfluous line can ruin everything. That’s why I use soft charcoal; it’s easily removed until I decide to apply fixative and then there’s no going back.

But when am I actually done?
It’s when the image “feels right,” tells me it’s time to walk away. It also has to “speak to me!” Like Donatello, I want my creations to come to life.


                                                                   

Friday, December 30, 2016

POST #132: PICK A STYLE – ANY STYLE!



I feel sorry for art students nowadays. The old days of drawing from life, both animate and inanimate, are gone, along with learning the craft of being an artist: how to mix colors, use different mediums, gesso a canvas, etc.  useless skills in today’s art world. A friend who attended the Royal Academy of Art in London a half century ago said he spent his first week there just learning how to clean a brush. Why learn technique when a computer can do it for you  - better than you ever could – or turn a photo into a painting using Photoshop? “What kind of a painting?” you ask. “Any kind. You name it.” The computer can transform your image into Impressionism, Expressionism, Photo Realism. Who needs to know how to actually do anything?

What today’s artist does need to know is how to find a gimmick and run with it, turn it into something new and newsworthy. There are no art values anymore, no underlying design quality, no expressive drawing, no message – it’s all a search for the gimmick.  Look at Damien Hirst and his embalmed shark. Look how much press Marina Abramovic got with her “shtick” at MOMA. All she did was take her clothes off and sit without moving for a week in front of an audience. In a prior event, she and a male friend stood naked in a doorway, forcing viewers to walk between them. These are clever ideas and should be appreciated as performances, but how do you teach students Cleverness? I feel sorry for the art schools.  Do you give classes in Gimmick I and Gimmick II? I recently read a great essay by Sarah Thornton in her book, “Seven Days in the Art World”. It describes a MFA Senior Class “crit” at CalArts, considered one of the best (and priciest) art schools in the country. Without editorializing, Thornton demonstrates the difficulty of teaching someone to be an artist in a commercialized art world with few rules and no shame.

In the past, even a journeyman artist studied the liberal arts; today’s art schools give only a smattering of culture, mainly a couple of semesters of art history. This puts young artists at a disadvantage in their creative life; all the really great artists were remarkably literate. Without a broad cultural background to enrich his or her work, an artist can easily get hemmed in by a “shtick.”

I’m on the e-mail list (at least once a week) of a master huckster, a mediocre artist but a gifted self promoter. He’s part of a group of graffiti-style  “Street Artists” who go around cities (not just New York) pasting their work up in public spaces. He came up with a gimmick all his own, a signature face that looks like it was drawn by a third grader. He will tell you that because he uses bio-degradeable wheat paste to attach his work, he is not (permanently) defacing public or private property. He seems to be quite well known as he is always notifying his readers of talks he will be giving at conferences on Street Art all over the world, plastering his perky smiley wherever he goes. Unfortunately, I think Street Art is passé and he may have to come up with a new shtick.


Everywhere I look in the art world, there are ideas, clever gimmicks passing for art. They take little if any skill to execute since the piece itself is usually produced by some commercial process. Jeff Koons, an incredibly successful sculptor, is a perfect case in point. I’m not saying an artist needs to have a Renaissance level of expertise, but at least he should be able to make the model he gives to the shop – or maybe that’s asking for too much.

It’s often hard to differentiate a gimmick from a true work of art, especially when it comes packaged in a load of pretentious Artspeak. If an artist’s goal is to come up with something innovative and expressive, I have no problem with that. What I object to is a mindset that says:  “How much attention can I attract with this?”  We live in a world where the ‘idea-concept’ supersedes the ‘craft-object’. But, I am probably being unfair to artists, asking them to have ideals when the rest of the world doesn’t know what the word means.



 P.S. The nymphs dancing around my lampshade are Maenads, followers of Dionysus.  Or maybe they’re Bacchanntes, worshippers of the god Bacchus).  They often appear on ancient Black and Red Figure Greek vases, frenzied dancers drunkenly performing in honor of their god. Happy New Year!

Friday, December 9, 2016

POST #131: THE DANGER OF PLAYING IT SAFE

As any artist will tell you, art is a tough way to make a living. Even if you are fortunate enough to meet with a modest degree of success, it doesn’t always last and you are soon back to living on a spouse’s salary.  Unless you have family money  (and that kills creativity faster than anything), most artists I have known eventually give up and take a course in computer programming. But then, you can always teach art, and, if you really want to die as an artist, that’s the quickest way to do it. I’ve known too many artists who have destroyed their careers and their talent by accepting the security of an academic position.

Graphic designer, Bob Callahan used the magic of Photoshop to team up
with deceased artist, Ben Shahn.


I am currently reading a terrific book,  “The Shape of Content”, a collection of talks that Ben Shahn, gave at Harvard in the mid 1950s. My friend, the graphic designer Bob Callahan who adores Shahn’s work gave it to me for Xmas. Shahn speaks, not as an academic trying to intellectualize art (usually unintelligible gibberish), but as a working artist who genuinely understands what goes into the process. He says (beautifully) what I have long believed, that a teaching position at a university, a goal sought by many artists, is his kiss of death. Shahn points to many well-known artist friends of his who never produced anything of value once they achieved the sought-after safety of an academic position.

Diner Scene    Oil on Canvas    72"x48"
Why does this happen? I spent twenty-two years teaching art history at the University of Connecticut campus, managing to avoid studio art for twenty of those years. At least, when you teach art history, you spend your time looking at the work of the greatest of the great; it’s like going to a museum three days a week. When you teach studio art, your days are spent looking at student crap (to put it kindly) and you find your judgment about what is good or not good irretrievably compromised.

In my early twenties, I was friendly with a painter who had attained considerable (and well deserved) success in the 1970s New York gallery scene. His work was an interesting combination of OP and POP Art. He showed in top Madison Avenue galleries and was on his way to a major career when he “chickened out” and accepted a position teaching studio art, first at Yale and then at University of California, Berkeley. Not bad huh? But that was the end of him as a significant artist . He lost the opportunity to become a major player in the art world; his work became repetitive. During the years he was teaching, there was little growth or development. I got to know him again after he retired and came back to this area (with a substantial pension) hoping to pick up his art career where it left off.  But it never happened, he became ill and died not too long after. While his work is currently experiencing a minor revival, he never achieved the major artist status that should have been his. The students, he confessed, sucked him dry, “bit into his leg and held on” was the way he put it. In his 30 years of teaching studio art at some of the most prestigious institutions in the country, he told me he had only encountered two or three who were worthy of his time.

I recently spoke to another artist friend who at one time was in the processing of developing a major career as a printmaker. It all stopped when she was hired to teach at SUNY Purchase. She never produced anything worthwhile of her own during decades of teaching. Other colleagues of hers, who also had significant success as artists until they started teaching, met the same fate. Death at the hands of Tenure.

An artist cannot look at student work day after day without losing his or her “eye” for quality.  One’s judgment as to what is “good” becomes distorted by always having to look at beginners’ feeble efforts. Plus, the politics of the University, the administrative responsibilities, power struggles, problem students etc. suck out even more  energy. What looked like a secure way to make a living has drained the creative person dry.


 So, the moral of my story is: If you want to be an artist, wait on tables dig ditches,  do anything, but don’t teach studio art in academia.

Friday, October 21, 2016

POST #130: WINNERS AND LOSERS


When Donald Trump took his recent jab at ‘winners and losers,’ the line sounded very familiar. Of course, we’ve all heard it before, but I had a vague memory of it being used in a local political forum. When I stopped trying so hard to remember, it came back to me: a Planning Board hearing over ten years ago.

It seemed that one of the least loved local developers had announced plans to build a giant corporate headquarters adjacent to a housing subdivision, mostly split-level houses on quarter acre lots that he had put up a few years earlier. The proposal required a fairly substantial zone change and, as expected, the neighbors, mostly hard working, first time homeowners, objected, They were quick to recognize that the new proposal with its lights and traffic, would be detrimental to their interests and they packed the meeting room to make sure it didn’t happen.

The incident I remembered was when a rather unprepossessing and nervous neighbor got up to voice his objections. He had had problems with the developer who, it seemed, had a reputation for not following through on promises. The homeowner haltingly related how he had invited him (the man now proposing the corporate “park”) into his house to see the problems he was having with the property he had just purchased. He recalled that when he outlined his complaints, the builder (the same one seeking the zone change) turned on him, yelling: (shades of Donald Trump) “There are winners in life and there are losers and I am a winner and you are a loser!” When he quoted this to the Planning Board, the audience, (obviously, also “losers”) began to hiss, filling the whole room with their resentment. In a rare show of public concern, the Planning Board denied the application, one of the few times in Stamford zoning history that justice actually triumphed. The developer’s remark: “There are winners in life and there are losers, and I’m a winner” may have killed the deal. My Trump-like character came back a year or so later with a proposal for luxury condos and, while he didn’t make out as well as he would have with corporate headquarters, he cried, as they say, all the way to the bank. And of course, the “losers” loved having million dollar homes adjacent to their humble abodes.


There’s an ironic coda to this story. I recently ran into the s.o.b. at the local health center. He was being pushed in a wheel chair, dried up and angry looking.  I guess it doesn’t matter how many people you screw, there are no winners or losers in the end.