Friday, October 21, 2016


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.

Friday, September 30, 2016


I envy people like mathematicians or engineers who know when they’ve solved their problem; there’s a sense of accomplishment that artists rarely feel. We often ruin our work simply because there is no way to determine when we have reached our goal, when the piece is finished.

Watercolorists have it easier. They must get it right the first time or throw it away; there is no such thing as reworking a watercolor. Spontaneity is the name of the game. The rules for watercolor are pretty simple. When someone asks me if I can teach him or her how to use the medium, I say, I’ll teach you the basics in fifteen minutes and then you have to practice for the next twenty years. You can’t rework a watercolor the way you can oil paint or gouache. You go from light colors to dark, not the other way around. The trick in watercolor is to not overwork it; keep it loose and transparent and get it right the first time or throw it out. Any piece that takes more than fifteen minutes to complete usually lacks the spontaneity and spark the medium requires.
Oil paintings, on the other hand, lend themselves to NEVER being finished. You can easily wipe off anything you don’t like and if you are the least bit patient and wait til the paint dries, you can keep applying layers forever. You can “scumble” light paint into dark areas and “glaze” over the lighter ones.  The joke among artists is that there are two people involved in creating a work of art: the artist who makes the work and the person who takes it away from him. Some artists are notorious for never being able to call it quits. For example, there are legendary stories about Albert Pinkham Ryder who often ruined his work by never being able to finish, always needing “a little something more” to be done He would put on so many layers of paint, that the surface became cracked and unstable and a restorer’s nightmare.

Seriously, how did Mondrian know when the last stripe he applied was exactly right and should be his last? Or how did Cezanne decide that the wedge of green he just painted perfectly resolved the form?  A few years ago, Renoir’s son did a movie of Picasso painting on a sheet of Lucite so you could watch the process from behind. He kept painting and repainting over and over again. When he finally decided the piece was “finished,” I thought it looked no better than it had in several previous versions. In fact, it was often worse.

Some artists have it easier than others; they treat their work as if it were a page in a coloring book. When all the spaces are colored in, it’s finished. Today’s New York Times art section has an interview with an artist I never heard of where they ask her how she knows when a work is finished. She chatters on for an entire meaningless (it seemed to me) paragraph about a “sense of arrival,” finally comparing it to focusing a photo on your phone. If it’s “in focus” it’s done.  But what if you have astigmatism?

Basically, there is no way of knowing when you’re done. It should be when anything more you do to the piece will only spoil it. In my case, it was when my husband would walk into the studio, look at what I was doing, shake his head and say, “Leave it alone. You’re ruining it.” Now that’s what I call real criticism.

Renee Kahn

Friday, September 16, 2016


One of the great things about being an artist is that you never grow old. This is true of everybody in a creative field: writers, composers, musicians, inventors. Maybe your age numbers get higher but your soul remains forever young. If there are disabilities, you learn to work with them; they may even lead you to explore new terrain.

The New York Times recently featured the latest hot ticket item in the art world: a 101-year old Cuban born woman painter, Carmen Herrera. A member of the Hard-edge, geometry-based movement popular in the 1950s and ‘60s, she has had moments of recognition since then but like many of the others in the field, faded from view. I’ve always admired Hard-edge painting, impressed by anyone who could achieve a flawless layer of paint or remove a piece of masking tape without making a mess. Perfect edges were never my forte; I got a C in drafting in college and only because I burst into tears when I heard I was getting a D.

Anyhow, Ms. Herrera is finally making the “big time” at the age of 101 with a retrospective of her work from the 1960s and 70s at the Whitney Museum. It doesn’t get much better than that. It turns out that while she never achieved the upper echelon of the Hard edge/Minimalist movement like Albers, or Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly or Frank Stella, she consistent kept working and exhibiting and even today, at 101, manages to paint several hours every day. She’s “in” on several fronts: her age (older artists are now being recognized), she’s a woman, and she’s Hispanic, a triple whammy of political correctness for the Whitney. Frankly, I’m most impressed that despite being crippled by arthritis, she’s going strong.

I once knew a pretty famous abstract expressionist sculptor (yes, there were a few) called Reuben Nakian….a colorful old rascal. When asked how to achieve fame and fortune in the art world, he would reply: “You have to live long enough.” And that’s exactly what I am trying to do.

But here’s where I get into trouble with the political correctness police. I really resent someone who achieves success for any reason other than the quality of his or her work. There’s enough competition without adding extraneous factors. I don’t approve of an artist being neglected or rejected because of their sexual orientation, their ethnicity, their age or their race. On the other hand, I resent it when they get a break because of these factors. I know the rationale is that this is ‘catch-up time,’ but I still think it’s wrong.  In the case of the Hard-edge movement, I can name a half dozen other artists from that era, i.e. Nicholas Krushenick or Chuck Hinman, relatively unknown today, who I think are as good as or superior to (and much more original than) Ms Herrera. This is not to say her show won’t be excellent (it will be) and she’s not worthy of belated recognition (she is,) but in the best of all possible worlds, this should come to an artist because of their body of work, not because they happen to be “the flavor of the month.”


The illustrations for this post don’t really relate to Hard Edge. They’re photos I took several years ago of a dead neon sign graveyard in Las Vegas. It was the most interesting part of the trip. 

Friday, August 26, 2016


Well, maybe more than 99. Maybe more like 200 or even 300; I’ve lost count. For decades, I’ve been creating “serious” art on paper plates. I only use clean plates, no pizza stains, no ketchup or remains of chocolate cake. I like the sound of “99 paper plates on the wall.” Reminds me of a camp bus group-sing “99 bottles of beer on the wall,” but it’s pretty hard to draw on beer bottles.

I have a notoriously short interest span; my husband of fifty years used to shake his head in mock wonder “How did I last so long with you?” he would wail. It’s not pathology; it’s just my creative intolerance for repetition. Some people can spend their entire life at the same job and find comfort in its predictability. I’m just the opposite; once something is routine; I will climb sheer walls to get away.

Hence paper plates. Cheap, available, with a slightly rough texture that takes pencil or crayon well. If it’s no good, toss it. Meant to be thrown out anyhow. I began by drawing at meetings, endless boring meetings - at the University when I taught art history, at government agencies when I was a preservation consultant, and as a member of a half dozen community organizations. Hundreds and hundreds of meetings over the past 40 years have produced lots of art on paper plates. I drew to entertain myself, keep from screaming out loud. After a while, I got pretty good at sketching my fellow sufferers, able to catch a likeness with a few strokes. There was always a “learning curve;” the first few plates were usually clumsy, ready to be tossed out, but by the third or fourth, I would loosen up and there would always be a few worth keeping. Then boredom would set in, the quality would deteriorate and I’d stop. I was always amazed at how unaware my colleagues were that someone was even looking at them, let alone using them as a free model. 

Over the past year or so, I have stopped going to meetings, dropped out of civic life, so my “Paper Plate Portraits period” is over. That doesn’t mean I have abandoned the medium! I’ve just taken it to a higher level.  I now refer to using paper plates as my version of Arte Povera, a post World War II art movement that glorified the use of “humble” materials. And what could be more humble than a paper plate? But instead of sketching someone sitting across the table, I cut semi abstract figures out of black or grey paper and carefully compose them on the plate. I also cut letters out of newspapers and glue them down without meaning, just because I like the way their shapes fit into the composition. At first, I used only plain white supermarket plates, 200 for $3.99, treating the fluted rims like the borders of ancient Greek kylixes, their shallow-bowled drinking cups. Now, I’ve graduated to the Party Store where I buy more elaborate versions in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes.

Several people have told me that I should find a dinnerware manufacturer who will turn them into a commercial product, although for the life of me, I can’t imagine anyone bizarre enough to want to eat off them. But who knows? There’s a market for everything and no accounting for public taste (bad pun). 

Friday, August 19, 2016


An artists’ life is filled with pitfalls and challenges. If his work doesn’t sell, he can’t pay rent or buy art supplies or feed his children. And if his work does sell, he’s got another problem: he will probably get stuck in a style. Think of poor Jackson Pollock, forced by his dealers to keep producing “drip” paintings because that’s what his buyers wanted and that’s what they were willing to pay millions to get. So what if he wanted to explore new territory? or go back to the Jungian dream abstractions he had been experimenting with before the drips? Forget it. His public wanted drips not dreams. There are many artists who did their best work when they were no longer in the public eye, freed by failure to move on and experiment. Philip Guston is a case in point.

In some small (very small) way, I’m facing a similar problem. Do I want to continue painting dreamy NYC rooftop scenes? I sold almost ten of them at a recent exhibit of my work. It’s a record for me! My typical satirical paintings while much admired, rarely sell. Not many people want to live with corseted babes and their leering lovers. But give them dreamy water towers and Roman rooftop arcades, that’s another story. What to do? Keep producing what buyers can live with, or, go back to Lust and Avarice and borrow the house tax money from my kids? If I were George Grosz or Max Beckmann I might get away with Sin, but there’s no market for it in the suburbs. 

In the past, I was able to resolve this dilemma easily, earning the money I needed by teaching art history or writing articles on historic preservation for government agencies. Not a bad compromise and one I could happily live with. But now, in my “advanced” years, I don’t have the energy to do three different things at once. I need to concentrate on the artwork before it’s too late. I actually loved painting the rooftop scenes; they were based on drawings I did several years ago during an enforced stay (broken ankle) in an eleventh floor New York City apartment. Although the view from the window was the same, the paintings are all very different from one another, depending on time of day and weather. I also took a lot of ‘artistic license,’ re-arranging the scene without regard to what was actually there. Even the style of painting evolved during the two years I worked on the series, moving from a dreamy sort of romantic realism into surrealism. These rooftop paintings are some of the best, most original work I have ever done. They’re easy to live with and I’m not surprised they sold so well. And if I stay with the subject matter, who knows where it will take me? Maybe further into abstraction? Or into Magic Realism? 

Street Scene (diptych)   oil on canvas      72"x 96"

On the other hand, my wild and lusty characters are calling me back. I’m eager to start on a series of paintings of Harlem, 125th St., similar to ones I did that were inspired by photos I took of the Lower East Side right after I graduated college. Both neighborhoods are part of my history and I’ve watched them evolve over the past few decades, losing character while becoming chic and safe.

I’m taking the summer off, allowing the “well” to fill up again. In September, I plan to tack a couple of large, brown-toned canvases up onto my painting wall, pick up a piece of charcoal and see where it goes. 

Friday, August 5, 2016


Art historians often note that artists who live long and productive lives become much “looser” in their later work: fewer brushstrokes, less detail. I can name at least a dozen artists from Titian to Matisse, El Greco, Rembrandt, Degas, Monet, Cezanne, Velasquez, just a few off the top of my head. Just compare the refined and detailed Pieta Michelangelo created as a young man to the powerful, more  expressive version he did at the end of his life.

The explanation we usually hear is the “less is more” theory, that the more skilled an artist becomes, the less effort it takes, the fewer brushstrokes he needs to evoke a scene, a face, a hand. It is assumed that years of experience have given him the ability to reduce images, Turner-like, to their bare essentials. This may very well be true, but, having taught art history for over twenty years and being a working artist of advanced years myself, I’ve come up with another theory. Maybe an older artist just can’t see well enough to do the detailed work he or she did when they were younger. Cataracts? Myopia?

To test my theory, I looked up the history of eyeglasses and although they were first invented in the 13th century, until relatively recently they were mostly crude magnifiers. Today you can go into any CVS and, for a few dollars come up with a fairly good corrective lens for aging eyes. Even better, you can go to an eye doctor and get your eyes ‘redone.’

The problem with scholars who write art history is that they are not artists themselves, although many will brag of having been a ‘painting major’ at one time or another. They know a lot about art theory, but they never walked in an artists’ shoes, so to speak. Unfortunately, that leads to a lot of well-intentioned misinformation getting transmitted to students.

I ran my “weak eyesight” theory by a friend who taught printmaking for many years. She’s an authority on Goya and Rembrandt, two artists whose work definitely became freer as they got older. She believes it might have been arthritis, (she has arthritis) as well as failing eyesight that changed their work. Whatever the explanation, it’s reassuring to know that as an older artist, despite my infirmities, I could actually be doing my best work. Towards the end of his life, Matisse was only able to work a couple of hours a day; he had severe arthritis and heart disease and was largely bedridden. But this was when he created some of his best work, the giant cutouts he drew with a long pool cue with a piece of chalk attached.

 Three months ago, I had a small stroke, not noticeable to an outsider, but bad enough to keep my left hand (the one I draw and paint with) from functioning properly. After I came back from the hospital, I decided to assess the damage by tracing a large projected image in charcoal onto a blank canvas. Much to my dismay, I found I had lost control of the hand; nothing came out the way it was supposed to. I would tell my hand to ‘draw a straight line’ but the line would come out crooked. ‘Go left’, and it would go right. Could I ever paint again? But when I stepped back and looked at my six-foot “failure,” I decided it was one of the best drawings I had ever done. Pure  German Expressionism; it could have been by Kokoschka. I sprayed it with fixative and decided to wait and see what was going to happen. Lately, my left hand has begun to follow orders again, but my artwork is no longer as wildly wonderful as it was when it was out of control.

p.s. While I’m still not fully able to control a paintbrush, for some odd reason, I can still draw on a small scale and create fine cut-outs with scissors. The illustrations for this blog were taken from a recent series of drawings in white crayon on 7” black paper plates. Looks like my hand does pretty well on its own.

Friday, July 15, 2016


In the good old days before “modern” art reared its convention-breaking head, every artist knew how to draw. The worst academic hack could turn out a visually accurate rendition of the human body.  I was discussing this with a friend, a product of the leading art academy in Russia and I commented that American art schools were churning out tens of thousands of expensively educated artists who can’t even draw a hand. She stuck her nose in the air and snootily replied that in Russia, you couldn’t even get into art school if you couldn’t draw a hand. In the United States today, I’m not sure that any major art institute is teaching these kinds of skills. The current state of ART does not require the ability to draw. You can always find something “on line,’ in the unlikely event you need it.

It’s time for a personal confession: I can’t draw a credible hand for the life of me, I’m great at faces and pretty good at figures and given my “cubo-expressionist” style, that’s all I need. I can create a shape that functions within the overall design, but it’s rarely anatomically correct. You would think that after ten plus years of intensive art training, somewhere along the line, someone would have insisted I learn how to draw a hand, but here I am, at the end of my career and still faking it. The best advice I got about drawing hands came from Victor Candell, the wonderful Hungarian teacher I told you about in Post # 29. I was struggling to get the prominent hand in one of my paintings to “look right” but quite frankly, I didn’t know enough about hand anatomy to pull it off. Candell, in his infinite wisdom, pointed out that all I needed to concern myself with was the abstract shape of the hand. Did it fit into the overall composition or didn’t it? Once I accepted that, I was able to draw a perfect hand; maybe not anatomically correct, but then, it didn’t need to be.

Let’s go back to my conversation with my Russian artist friend. She commented that she had colleagues in art school with incredible skill in reproducing what they saw, but they weren’t artists, at least not in any contemporary sense. They had a camera eye but not an ounce of creativity. The need for academic drawing skill probably died with Ingres and the invention of the camera, and certainly today’s artists with their concentration on creative ideas (novelty) don’t need to draw. My son Ned, an environmental artist, draws mostly on the computer. And Photoshop is pure magic; you can change a painting from Impressionist to Expressionist with the click of the mouse. No drawing or painting skill required.

However, I hope art schools don’t abandon their life drawing classes. They may be totally useless in the current art world, but everyone I know remembers them fondly, one of the highlights of their years in art school. The models alone were memorable. Who but an eccentric character would want to earn his or her living getting naked in front of strangers, mostly blushing adolescents? And as for our learning how to draw a hand, who looked at their hands?