Saturday, June 1, 2019

POST #175: JUDGE OR BE JUDGED


You may or may not know (or care), but I make it a point not to enter juried art shows. There’s no way on God’s earth I am going to have my work judged by some twit who has open contempt for “suburban art” and is just trying to pick up a few bucks in the boonies. I just happened to be at Silvermine on a day when artists who were rejected for their annual show had come to pick up their work. They were a disappointed, humiliated lot and based on what they were carrying out, not much worse that what had gotten in.  No one who has ever watched a juror at work in one of those competitions (ten seconds, in, out) would ever waste hard earned cash to enter, not to mention the soul-wrenching blow rejection gives to their ego. Over the years, I’ve encountered jurors who literally didn’t know what they were doing; they were picked because they had a “title” somewhere or knew someone. I’ve encountered jurors who were looking only for what was “in,” knew what was trendy and not much else. I’ve met jurors who gave preference to people they knew (or wanted to know) and so on and so forth.



Having said that, I confess, guiltily, that I was once a juror myself –only once. It was a Biennial exhibit in 1997 at the New Hampshire Institute of Art. I got the honor because they had just given me a one-man show and it was the least I could do in return. I recently came across the catalogue and discovered my forgotten Juror’s Statement. Here are a few paragraphs you might find interesting.


Random Jottings by a Guest Juror


The dangers inherent in trying to be a judge of art have been well known since the mid 19th century when artists began to paint for their own satisfaction rather than commissions from a selected clientele. Every artist we deem significant today was turned down by the Salons of French academic art, leading today’s art critics and connoisseurs to be exceedingly cautious in judging work that is new and different. Even the 19th c. Salon prizewinners, rich and famous in their time, are barely known today, while many of the “refused” are now considered “geniuses” and given places of honor in museums all over the world. What one generation values, i.e. perfection of finish, high-minded themes, becomes trite and facile to the next.

So much for trying to judge art.

I must confess that I assumed the responsibility of selecting work for Biennial 1997 at the new Hampshire Institute of Art with a great deal of trepidation. It’s not that I don’t feel knowledgeable: 50 years of studying, creating and teaching art on the university level have given me more than enough expertise. It’s just that I’ve also acquired some humility along the way. Art does not have “right” answers,,,two and two do not always equal four. Sometimes “five” is correct, or, there is no right answer. This is by way of consolation to those who were not chosen; nothing disturbs me more than to think that failure to be accepted into this show has discouraged anyone from continuing to produce art. Unfortunately, I have known artists who stopped working after being rejected for a show. If they could only have watched the process, seen the difficulty - in some cases impossibility - of evaluating work - they would not take acceptance or rejection as a valid critique.

First of all, I believe that it is crucial for an artist to show his or her work. No, you’re not going to be ‘discovered’ like a Hollywood starlet at a soda fountain, and your chances of selling anything are remote as well. But, it is important for an artist to see his work out of the context of the studio, with proper lighting, surrounded by work of his peers. By taking his art out of the environment in which it was made, an artist is better able to evaluate it, determine future direction. Also, whether one wants to admit it or not, it is flattering to see one’s work in a prestigious exhibition, listed in a printed catalog. The life of an artist has so little external monetary reward that even small gratifications are to be seized upon and enjoyed.



At this point, I’d like to say a few words about how I selected the pieces for the show. What were my criteria?

Most work was chosen “viscerally,” that is, by instinct based on experience but without any conscious thought. Later, when I started to analyze that process for this essay, I discovered I was using primarily two criteria. The first was whether the level of technical skill was appropriate to what the artist was trying to convey. Van Gogh certainly did not have or need the skills of a salon painter. On the other hand, a super-realist like Dali did need superb drawing ability. Abstract Expressionists must be able to work directly from the subconscious without any desire to create an image. In other words, I looked for mastery of those techniques appropriate to the “message.”

Technique can be learned and lots of artists have technical facility, but it is craft not art. Art is another matter; it requires developing a personal language. The artist must have a rich inner life and the ability to be a non-conformist. He must be able to think for himself. In choosing pieces for this show, one of the first things I looked for was a spark of originality, an idea I hadn’t seen a thousand times before. Most art today – as it always has been – is a pastiche of the fashionable and the familiar. Unfortunately, what passes for creativity and originality in today’s art is “shock value.’ – a short-lived and narcissistic attempt to gain notoriety in an exceptionally competitive environment without standards.

I found much to respect here – much to enjoy – and much to admire. Thank you for giving me the honor of selecting the work for this show

And, if you didn’t get selected, please keep working. I don’t want you on my conscience!

Renee Kahn

Saturday, May 25, 2019

POST #174: THE BEST OF TIMES; THE WORST OF TIMES

Dickens’ oft-quoted line about these being the best and worst of times seems pretty descriptive of what’s going on now. There’s obviously less poverty and actual suffering than ever before in human history; most plagues have been conquered and modern medical advances are allowing us to live longer, more comfortable lives. We can get free or almost free educations, medical care. We can marry for love or not marry, have a fridge full of food, own cars and possessions galore. Of course, there’s a way to go for many people but for someone like me who was born during the Great Depression, when many of my neighbors lived on a $25 weekly welfare check, I’ve got no complaints.  My parents couldn’t even begin to imagine my lifestyle, let alone that of their grandchildren.




Then why are so many of the people I know so unhappy? I don’t think I’ve ever lived in such a joyless time. Love relationships are more like hookups than caring connections. Is it because of our present government? We have a leader who reminds me of Mussolini: same pugnacious jaw, same arrogant posturing. (He made the trains run on time) Where are the artists who are usually in the front line against tyrants? Scared into silence by our President? He doesn’t worry about them; he knows they’re just make-believe radicals, paper tigers who present no real threat. The most interesting and well-attended art exhibit in New York this winter was of work created in the early 1900s by a previously unknown woman artist, Hilma af Klint, whose “inner voices” directed her to create the first abstract paintings in the history of art. It tells us something that hers is the most significant new work the current art scene has to offer. Tens of thousands lined up this winter to get into the Guggenheim Museum to see paintings she created for a circular temple that existed only in her mind. How prescient was that!




I’d like to think we are on the verge of another Age of Aquarius such as the one we had in the sixties, but so far there are no signs of it. Golden Ages generally emerge after periods of repression or social upheaval, but where are the artists who are capable of creating this bright new world? The art schools certainly aren’t turning them out. The current crop is taught to look for gimmicks, ways to get attention. One can’t afford to be a starving artist nowadays; ideals need the backing of a trust fund. There are no more cold-water flats in unsafe neighborhoods, only 4k to 6k a month luxury lofts. Paints cost a fortune and canvas is out of sight. No wonder there’s so much detritus art; at least the materials are inexpensive. When I get together with my artist friends, all we talk about is commercial success; who got into what gallery, sold something. Theory? Ideals? Bah, humbug!                

Renee Kahn

P. S. The illustrations for this post were painted in 2012, abstractions derived from photos I had taken of the Lower East Side before it got gentrified (and boring.) The panels are 68” tall and are grouped in two series of four.

Friday, March 22, 2019

POST #173: SWEET DREAMS BABY


6’x9’ Projection

I think I have interesting dreams, but the problem is I don’t know for sure because I never remember them. At one time, I did collect quite a few surreal examples in a little spiral notebook I kept next to my bed, but in the past year or so, nothing of interest has turned up and even if it did, I wouldn’t remember it. Last night however, after sleeping poorly, I managed to doze off around 6 a.m. and woke up a couple of hours later to this doozey: Maybe my readers can explain it; I know I can’t.


6’x9’ Projection
I find myself in the middle of a crowd of sophisticated-looking people standing around in what appears to be a dimly lit hotel ballroom There are tables with food everywhere. I have no idea who the people are or why I am there. They certainly have no interest in me; they’re busily chatting to one another. I suddenly realize that I am there to direct a new movie and the people around me are my technical staff and performers. They in turn have no idea of my importance and continue to ignore me (a little old white haired lady.) I have never directed a film before, have no idea what I am going to do but all I know is that I am in charge and have to take over and get it done. I get up on a chair to address the crowd. I call them to order, tell them I am the director of the movie they are supposed to be working on, but they mostly ignore me and continue chatting with their friends. All of a sudden, I feel a surge of anger and power and I take charge. My normally soft voice changes into what my children used to call my “Bronx Junior High School teachers voice,” the one that could bring a class of screaming inner city twelve year olds to heel. They once confessed to me that they were frightened of that voice, but it meant that I was in control. And that’s what happened to the crowd in the ballroom. There was a hush while I addressed them, explaining that that I didn’t know what the movie was about, that I had no script but I knew I was in charge of making it. A man in the audience began to heckle me and I fired him on the spot. The crowd was stunned, staring at me in disbelief. Even in my sleep I could feel that surge of anger and power; I was not going to tolerate any disobedience or disrespect. It was MY movie and nobody was going to stop me!

6"x9" Projection
To look at me, you might think I’m a powerless eighty-eight year old lady, but when I get my Bronx Junior High School teacher’s voice, NOBODY fucks with me! I grabbed my pencil and pad and proceeded to write the dream down before it faded, (dream like) away.

P.S. Now I’m curious. What was the movie about?

 Renee Kahn (Director)




Tuesday, February 26, 2019

POST #172: SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDI




spent a gloomy winter afternoon in my studio today cleaning out a box of old exhibit invitations that date back decades. I had stacks of leftover invitations for a couple of dozen one-man shows, some in prestigious places such as the Bruce Museum or the Hurlbutt Library Gallery in Greenwich, others in small local venues, mostly for my friends.  Since I’m not much of a traveler, my work tended to stay close to home; the furthest north was a one-man show of three-dimensional installations that took up the entire first floor of a museum in Manchester (New Hampshire) My furthest venture south was a small gallery in Georgetown, D.C. which I filled with larger than life-size cardboard cutouts that satirized local politics. My shows all went completely under the radar of the major art world, although the openings made for great parties that got talked about for years.

Some of the invitations were for exhibits I barely remember but was pleasantly surprised when memories of them came back. One of my favorites was a collection of a hundred or so tacky supermarket boxes filled with Xeroxed photos of street scenes with my unsavory figures inside. They were shown piled up in the oversized windows of a gallery on Prince Street; everyone passing stopped to look, crowds gathered. A friend who worked nearby told me about a co-worker coming in late from lunch and explaining that she had lost track of time staring at stacks of inhabited boxes in the window of a nearby art gallery.  


The boxes were also a big hit at a show of a group of slick Westport artists who called themselves “the Boxists,” only unlike my gloomy street discards, they created finely finished work visibly derived from Joseph Cornell. They hated my work on sight (“garbage!”), wouldn’t give me any wall space and forced me to place my boxes in a giant, sloppy pyramid in the middle of the gallery floor. The critic for the New York Times (they had critics who came to local art shows in those days) reported that she would “fall on her ball point pen” if people really looked like mine. Nevertheless, my pile of detritus, was generally agreed to be the best (and most original) work in the show.

My favorite incident – it happened dozens of years ago when I was just beginning to exhibit my work – took place at a one-man show of my paintings held at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich.  I was in my “Suburban Satire” period, trying to outgross George Grosz. At the end of the show, when I took my work down, I found a piece of paper tucked behind one of the paintings. In a childish scrawl someone had written: “I HATE your work.”
Now that’s what every artist wants: honest criticism!

Renee Kahn

Friday, January 4, 2019

POST #171: HILMA AND ME


A couple of years ago, I came across a May, 2013 copy of Frieze magazine, that featured the work of an early twentieth century Swedish artist I’d never heard of before, Hilma af Klint (1882-1944). I guess the “af” is the equivalent of the German “von.” To say that I was blown away is an understatement. Although I taught Art History for over two decades at the University of Connecticut, I had never heard of her. In fact, until recently, nobody seems to have heard of her. She was turning out large, brilliantly colored biomorphic abstractions several years before Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich did their innovative work. Not only did she predate the triumverate credited with the creation of Abstraction, she (in my opinion) outdid them all. The irony is, outside of a small circle of Swedish mystics, no one knew she even existed. After her death at age 81, at her request, more than 1,200 items went into storage for over 20 years. She wasn’t sure the world was ready for them.

Untitled - 72"x44"    Mixed media on canvas
I’ve often complained about the art world’s need for “tokens’ to show how liberal and inclusive it is. There’s plenty to choose from: neglected minority artists, mixed genders, women, yes, even women. Unfortunately, these tokens are often just that. Their work, while it might be good, would never warrant that degree of attention if the artist were a plain vanilla, white male. True equality in the art world can only happen when every artist is judged on the merit of his or her work, not the need for tokens. And here comes Hilma af Klint, a genius who could make it without a boost from the gender establishment – even if it took almost a century for it to happen. 

For women artists especially, it’s instructive to look at how she was able to produce the body of work she did, several thousand pieces of work carefully archived by her wealthy family, (she died in 1944).  Af Klint was academically trained and financially successful in the popular early 20th century “en plein air” painting style. To earn money, she created beautifully rendered misty landscapes, botanical studies and conventional portraits that sold well, but her serious work was influenced by Spiritualism reflected in the teachings of people like Rudolph Steiner and Madame Blavatsky, a Russian psychic. Kandinsky, along with other artists and intellectuals of the pre World War I era was also influenced by Blavatsky, but af Klint’s abstractions predate his by several years. I doubt he ever saw her work since I am unaware of any exhibits outside her own small group of five women artists who held séances and were interested in automatic writing (predating the surrealists by at least twenty years. She never married, never had children and was financially able to afford the giant spaces needed to create and store her work. (See Blog Post # 64, “The Pram in the Hall.”)  She was also part of a supportive group of women artists and fellow mystics. (I’d love to see the work of the others, if any has survived).

Untitled - 72"x44"    Mixed media on canvas
Hilma Af Klint is no token. She was a genius on her own right and an innovator.  Her work, unlike most of the abstract art we see today, was not meant to be decorative, filled with faux emotion and pretty color; it has spiritual depth, an alternate universe that came from a true intellectual and religious search, not a superficial desire to create a conversation pieces to hang in a zillionaire’s dining room.  The two hundred or so oversized water color and gouache paintings she created between 1906-1915 for an imaginary temple – with a break in between to care for an ailing mother - are only equaled in modern times by Rothko, and even he (although I love his work) doesn’t equal her.

Check out af Klint’ when you get a chance, especially the large pieces in the Guggenheim rotunda. They make you realize the emptiness of most what we’re looking at today.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

POST #170: WORDS OF WISDOM


My best friend, – for over thirty years - died about a decade ago. In addition to fond memories, she left me her words of wisdom, aphorisms from her childhood in pre-Nazi Europe. I can occasionally dredge one up but unfortunately, didn’t write them down at the time and have forgotten most of them.



Dina Pisé was born in Lithuania in the late 1920s. Her idyllic childhood came to an end when the Nazis invaded her home town, Kovna, murdering her father and brother while she watched and sending her and her mother to a German work camp where she spent the remainder of the war. Weeks before they were to be liberated, her mother died of typhus fever. Not the most auspicious way to enter adulthood but a testimonial to how human beings can live through unbelievably dire experiences. She not only survived, she lived life to the fullest, refusing to dwell on the horrors she had witnessed. She would not participate in Shoah memorials; the past was dead and as far as she was concerned, would stay that way. I remember her saying that the Nazis had robbed her of her childhood and she was not giving them any more of her life.

After coming to this country from a DP camp in Germany, she married, had a child, divorced and remarried a brilliant French entrepeneur and became an artist. She was exotically beautiful, had lots of friends and lovers, gave great parties where she cooked marvelous Eastern European food, played the guitar and sang melancholy Russian love songs. Her Friday night poker games were legendary, a “hot ticket” invite; only men, no wives allowed. (if you knew their wives, you wouldn’t have invited them either). Most of all she became a sculptor, creating a house full of life-sized figures made of paper mache or stuffed muslin. Her work was wise and loving and witty, a chance to recreate in art some of what she had lost in life.


I still remember some of her sayings, and, like most folk wisdom, they were remarkably accurate.  I think most of them were Russian or Yiddish in origin, but universal in meaning. At one time, I thought about collecting them and turning them into a book, but unfortunately, I never got around to it, and then she was gone.  I have forgotten most of them, but every once in a while one will pop into my head. Although it’s a little late, I’ve started writing them down and thought I’d share a few that I remember:

1)    Three heads can’t sleep on one pillow.
 Meaning, we never really know the truth of what goes on in someone else’s life. And, as far as marriages are concerned, you can never believe what the couple tells you. Even the two heads involved have trouble figuring it out.

2)    She exchanged good shoes for slippers.
This was her comment about a friend of ours who was noted for having frivolous lovers, none of whom were equal in quality to her rather dull but devoted husband. (see #1)

3)    If he were mine I would drown him.
This referred to my late husband who got on her nerves.

The images in this post were taken of the two of us about forty years ago for a joint exhibit held at the Art Barn in Greenwich. We even looked like sisters.



Saturday, December 1, 2018

POST #169: A CASE OF “THE CUTES”



Decades ago, when my third and last child hopped on the school bus, I got around to what I hoped would be my life’s work: I was going to be a full-time artist. It soon became obvious that while I might be having a great time painting in my studio, I was never going to make a living at it – my 1920s Weimar Germany satirical style wasn’t exactly what people wanted over their fireplace. Since I was determined never to go back to teaching in the public schools  (I would go on Welfare first,) I needed to find an alternative source of income – “just in case.” Maybe I could be a children’s book illustrator?  At least that would not be a life sentence to the gulag of the Junior Highs.


But if I planned to be an illustrator, I needed a portfolio to show potential publishers; “commercial, but with artistic merit.” I found an old Eastern European folk tale, “Clever Manka” (in the public domain) and proceeded to create a series of drypoint etchings to illustrate it. Fortunately, I had come up with a way of making drypoints that did not require a press, something I could do on the kitchen table without special equipment. The results seemed passable so I “dummied” up a book and set up an appointment with a Children’s Book Editor at Harper & Row” – the big time.  Off I went to the city with my six year old (no baby sitter available) in tow.  The editor I saw LOVED my work, loved it! loved it!  Said it was ‘unique’ – (it was). She planned to show it to her boss, the famous Ursula von something – a legend in the children’s book world. And then, nothing happened. When I called to enquire, I was told that the editor I had seen was no longer at Harper & Row and since persistence has never been one of my outstanding qualities, my career as a children’s book illustrator ended before it had begun.


There was one problem however, my short foray into the commercial world had without my realizing it, done considerable damage. I had acquired a serious case of what I call “the Cutes.” Everything I did looked adorable, like children’s book illustration; I had lost my satirical bite. It took almost two years to get back to my old sardonic self. Every once in a while since then, I try my hand at commercial illustration but I am very careful not to take it too seriously lest “the Cutes” take me over again.

I have several friends who were once very successful commercial illustrators and designers; in fact some of them were at the top of the New York advertising heap, award winning and all that. They all retired to be “fine artists” but could never rid themselves of the slickness that came from years of having to please clients. Even when there was no buyer or gallery in view,  their work always looked “saleable” i.e. “commercial.” Most of the time, they were unaware of the problem, convinced that they could make it in the fine arts the way they had in advertising or publishing. And while their work was always of high quality, the desire to sell, the scarlet letter “S” on their foreheads, never went away. In effect, I was fortunate that my career as a children’s book illustrator had ended before real damage was done.

I dug out some of my stabs at being an illustrator to use for this blog and after not having seen them for years, decided they’re NOT BAD. Maybe I could have been a good children’s book illustrator. The irony is that the extra income I wanted ended up coming from teaching art history on the University level - and that, I think, made me a better artist, although definitely not a very cute one.