Friday, November 29, 2019


Harlem Figures: Charcoal and Oil on Canvas 24"x 54"

My friend George recently recommended a book from the 1920s by Harold Speed called “The Practice and Science of Drawing.”  Staying in print that long, I’m sure it’s an excellent primer on the art of drawing but it begs the question of whether anyone needs or wants to draw any more. Given easy access to computer and photographic images, is it even a necessary skill? When I began to study art as a teenager, drawing from life was the basis of all our training. The entrance exam I took at the age of 14 for the High School of Music & Art in New York City was largely designed to see whether or not I could draw. My best friend and I still remember the contour drawing we were required to do for the exam; neither of us had ever done one before.  It was widely accepted among artists that before you could study painting or sculpture, you had to know how to draw. I remember telling my friend Elena, a graduate of the prestigious Moscow Art Institute, that I had met graduates from the top art schools in America who couldn’t draw a hand. She sniffed and haughtily replied that in Russia, you couldn’t get into art school if you couldn’t draw a hand.

Cut-Outs Projected onto Canvas Drawings

But drawing, while it might be “technically obsolete,” has certain advantages over photo derived images. It forces you to actually LOOK (stare) at something, study it. Get to know it. It is one thing to photograph a tree and its branches, but a totally different part of the brain is required to draw it, to understand how everything connects, how light and shadow create roundness and depth, the texture of the bark. In drawing from life we learn about a subject in a way no photo can ever teach us. Just think about what we get from one of Leonardo’s anatomical drawings. Better than a photo any day!

"Dream" - Charcoal Drawing on Stained Canvas 60"x48"

There is also another kind of drawing that’s almost impossible to teach: pulling images from the subconscious, the so-called ‘inner eye.’ It’s something that can only be accessed after long experience in training the ‘outer eye.’ Many artists never learn how to access the millions of images they have stored in their brain, the so-called ‘imagination.’ Frankly, that’s where the really interesting stuff is found. But, before you get to the inner eye, you need to spend an awful lot of time learning how to draw what’s in front of you. 

Saturday, November 2, 2019


Projected Wall Image

Projected Wall Image
I recently received an e-mail from a photographer friend (one of the best I know) asking me to give him a crash course in photo composition. While my technical skills as a photographer are “weak” (to be kind), I’m really good at composing images. Those of you who know me know I hate technology; anything that requires me to press more than two buttons sends me into a panic. But all those courses I took in Two-Dimensional Design in school plus twenty-plus years of teaching art history on the college level have sharpened my eye to the point where I can take the most mediocre, banal image and crop it into a masterpiece. For many years I was invited by local camera clubs to judge their shows, although I was careful to explain that I didn’t know an f stop from a hole in the wall. But what I could do was take the really bad photos they projected onto a screen and, using my fingers, crop them into works of art. You could hear an audible gasp from the audience when the miracle took place.

“Under the El“. Overlapping projections. 6’x8’

A few years after I graduated art school, I decided I wanted to paint a series of urban scenes (a la Ben Shahn.)  I bought a ‘point and shoot’ Brownie camera for about $3 dollars plus a couple of rolls of black and white film (all there was) and went down to the Lower East Side to photograph architectural details. I never got around to the paintings and the photographs along with their negatives went into a drawer where they inexplicably remained untouched for over twenty years. As 2”x2”snapshots, they were truly awful, but for some reason, I took them into the local camera store and had them enlarged. The level of detail was extraordinary and I discovered that each print could be composed/cropped into a half dozen reasonably successful photographs. In fact, the quality of the enlargements, given the basic point and shoot technology of my Brownie camera, was so remarkable that I was even able to make 6’ posters without loss of detail. My negatives yielded a treasure trove of urban imagery I’ve been mining ever since. A few years ago a cinematographer friend, CiCi Artist and I made a movie out of the photos and around that time I put together an illustrated book of Lower East Side memoirs provided by friends. I also created and “environment” by projecting the photos onto four large gallery walls, allowing visitors to become part of the scene. By the magic of judicious cropping, my amateurish Brownie snapshots turned into a gift that keeps giving.

Projected Wall Image

Friday, October 11, 2019

POST # 177: HOW TO BE HAPPY: (lead a creative life)

Projection 4’x3’

Projection 6’x6’
In the car the other day, I accidentally tuned into a Ted Talk on the value of a “creative life.”  The speaker (didn’t get his name) was talking about two psychologists who were familiar to me: Abraham Maslow, a founder of the Family Therapy movement who died about fifty years ago along with a present-day disciple of his, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, creator of something known as ‘Flow Theory’. It turns out that many of MC’s ideas came from Maslow. My late husband, a PhD Clinical Psychologist, was a follower of Maslow, considering his family therapy techniques to be far more helpful in “curing” neurosis than Freud or Jung or any of the dwellers in the unconscious. Want to be psychologically healthy? You need to find something creative you enjoy doing and do it!

Since I tuned in late to the interview, I only caught the tail end of the discussion on the therapeutic value of creativity.  Both Maslow and MC (and my husband) believed in its “curative” powers. Sam had great success with patients, accustomed to having therapists who probed their unconscious and listened endlessly (at great cost and to no avail) to their neurotic complaints. He focused on his client’s healthy parts, not his or her neurosis. If the patient liked to write or play an instrument (whether he was good at it or not) he or she soon learned that that was what Sam wanted to hear about. He didn’t want their same old neurotic complaints. Therapy sessions became joyful and positive and within a short period of time, change in the “kvetcher” (Yiddish for complainer) was obvious to everyone. Maslow called it “Self Actualization” and MC referred to “The Flow.”

Projection 8’x6’
When Sam caught me whining (yes, I occasionally whine) he would open the studio door, put his hands on my shoulders and shove me inside, slamming the door behind me. “I know what you are doing! You’re just trying to distract me,” I would yell. But after a few minutes in the studio I would notice something that needed my attention: a painting on canvas, a large charcoal drawing.  Within fifteen or twenty minutes, my mood lifted and I would begin to dance around the studio, brush in hand. Life was good. It didn’t make problems go away; it just put them in perspective.

Projection 7’x4’
Maslow believed that what he called “Self Actualization” was critical to human happiness and suppressing the creative part of ourselves was what makes us neurotic. Doing what you love, writing, playing music, performing has a deep therapeutic effect. My husband’s mantra was: “Activity binds anxiety and Creative Activity makes it go away altogether.” So, take out your crayons or your fiddle and get to work  (and read some Maslow or Csikszentmihaly’s Flow Theory if you want to understand why.) 

Renee Kahn (now off to her studio to create)

Friday, September 6, 2019


Before my accident I completed my latest (last?) 12’ triptych, the fourth in the series. I guess I’m fortunate not to be a commercial success; it makes it easy for me to move on and explore new ideas. Every week I scan the art sections in the New York Times in the vain hope that social satire will come back in style. I think the last time there was anything like what I do was during the Great Depression. There’s a lot of social “commentary” in the art world today, but it primarily deals with gender or racial issues. Artists – and the galleries, the museums and the collectors – are understandably reluctant to bite the plutocratic hand that feeds them!

My attic contains a slew of giant Trump-like characters that I created a couple of decades ago out of 8’ sheets of industrial cardboard. Now, all I have to do is add a blond comb-over to the main man and I’ve got “The Donald” down cold. I also portray his entourage: the bimbos, the goons, the corrupt moneymen and politicians, the lawyers, the accountants and the bankers who make him possible. Oddly enough, I had never heard of “Trump the Developer” at the time I created this series, but I had met enough like him in my civic work as a preservation consultant to create a “Theater of the Corrupt” without being specific. Using an Exacto knife, I cut out close to two-dozen, six-foot cardboard figures that could be carried around the stage (Brecht-like) or placed on wooden stands in a gallery – using lighting to create giant shadows. I’d encountered dozens of these characters while trying to save beautiful old buildings from demolition. While expensively dressed and bejeweled, with phony airs of culture and gentility (several were actually noted art collectors), I soon discovered that when you got the trappings off, they were just thugs. They came from different ethnic, educational and economic backgrounds, but they had one thing in common: interfere with their profits in any way and they would slit your throat. I never found a place willing to exhibit the figures (no surprise) and I don’t even know where to look. No gallery owner or museum director in his right mind would want to bite the hand that feeds him. It’s okay for the art world to protest the mistreatment of transgenders and minorities and women (all worthy causes) but don’t affect their bottom line by making fun of customers.

A few years afterward, I created a follow-up series: this time cutout paper dolls (male, X-rated, therefore never exhibited as well). I stripped my Real Estate Moguls of their Manafort-style clothing and covered their middles with removable towels. You’re better off not knowing what’s underneath.

Renee Kahn

Saturday, June 1, 2019


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


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


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)