Friday, November 16, 2018

POST #168: ON BECOMING INVISIBLE




While shopping at Trader Joe’s today, I passed an interesting looking man, late 50s, 60 maybe. I glanced at him but received a blank stare in return. It took a moment for me to realize that he hadn’t noticed me at all – I was an invisible old(er) woman.
I think it has more to do with age than gender since I’ve heard similar complaints from older men; they too become invisible with age. But it is worse for women, especially good-looking ones who have become accustomed to being admired, flirted with, able to manipulate both men and women with their looks. They have a tough time adjusting to being invisible, but hey, that’s the price we pay for growing old. What was the line in some ‘50s novel I once read? “Die young and have a good looking corpse.”


There’s something to be said for being invisible. You don’t have to put on makeup when you go to the supermarket, or a bra when you go walking at the gym. You don’t have to have some guy leering at you wondering if you’re wearing underpants.  Nobody sees you; invisibility is a protective cloak. It allows you to be the observer, not the observed.

I don’t mind becoming sexually invisible as I age but I do resent being treated as intellectually disabled, as is often the case. There’s a perverse side of me that takes great pleasure in the look on the faces of the younger generation when they discover I know more about the subject under discussion than they do. Yes. I do know who Sartre is and I can also quote Baudelaire (badly).  In other periods of history, older meant wiser, someone to be looked up to, listened to. Obviously, that no longer the case.


I was chatting with some friends recently about this subject and we were reminded of a wonderful c1970 movie starring Ruth Gordon: “Harold & Maude.” Maude is a full of life seductress approaching her 80th birthday - with a lot to teach her adolescent lover. In the words of the immortal baseball coach, Leo Durocher: “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

Friday, November 9, 2018

POST #167: Art in a Time of Terror




As the Trumpian night descends upon us, it will be interesting to see how the art world responds, if it responds at all. So far, our esteemed President has accurately appraised the insignificance of the arts in his Pantheon of Power. They aren’t even important enough for him to attack. At one time, artists were formidable critics of power, a respected elite to be reckoned with. Now they are lap dogs, in thrall to rich patrons  (investors, really, not even collectors) backed up by a museum structure struggling to come up with a new flavor of the month, preferably a previously undiscovered minority that needs to be brought under the tent. At least, in the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy thought artists, writers and filmmakers important enough to frighten into silence.

Every morning, I open my New York Times Art Section in the vain hope that there will be something new that’s worth a damn but I find only meaningless abstraction or cliché “rights” movements or assemblages of detritus (lots of assembled detritus) Humanism? Satire? All passe, died in the 1950s, killed off by the esteemed Senator  under the tutelage of his mentor (and Donald Trump’s), Roy Cohn. If there is some “protest” art around, it is so cliché-ridden as to be worthless. Satire? Forget it. It can be dangerous to your financial health. The so-called elite didn’t get rich by encouraging people to make fun of them. It costs so much today to even be an impoverished artist that no one in their right mind is going to be stupid enough to make fun of the hand that’s paying the bills. Certainly not the artists who are around today; they are all gratefully circling the money trough.

And, oddly enough, none of this retreat from life is deliberate. The social realists of the ‘40s such as Philip Guston and Mark Rothko who turned to abstraction in the 50s during the Age of McCarthy didn’t consciously say to themselves: “I’m scared so I’ll only paint colored brush strokes.” It’s not like Nazi Germany where the terror, the repression was overt. Times change; fashions in art change. Be safe and avoid depicting the real world; no one can blame you for what you didn’t say.

So where am I going with this screed? I’m trying to explain (to myself mostly) why I’m now painting imaginary cities occupied by mysterious fragmented men and beasts instead of my usual gangsters and plutocrats. None of this is conscious or deliberate since I paint without premeditation. It’s like reality has now passed the point where satire is even a possibility. How do you satirize a Donald Trump with his orange hair and dangling penis tie? Barbie Doll wives? the goons that surround him? It’s forcing me into a make-believe universe that I’ll probably hang around in  until the next election;  it’s more tolerable than reality any day.

Respectfully (and sadly) submitted,
Renee Kahn

Friday, September 14, 2018

POST #166: SOLITUDE AND THE NEED FOR UNINTERRUPTED TIME





If you want to become a really good artist, musician, writer, scientist – If you want to do creative work in any field, you need a distraction free environment and an unlimited period of unbroken time. There are people who claim they can create in chaos but I don’t believe them. Some can work with distraction around them, but not create. If you want to be innovative in any field, you must arrange your life so that when ideas finally begin to flow, you can stay with them as long as necessary. EVERY creative person I know,or have read about, insists on solitude without interruptions. If you have to stop to put wash in the dryer or answer the phone, the FLOW is lost, often never to be retrieved. You will be amazed at the difference unbroken time makes in the quality of your work. If you’re writing poetry for example, you can’t get up every ten minutes to check your e-mail, or answer the phone; it disrupts the rhythm of what you are doing and you have to start all over again. Not everybody has a life they can control that way, but if you can’t fully immerse yourself in your work for a distraction free period of time, nothing terribly new and interesting is going to happen and you are going to do the same old, same old again. That’s why so many creative people stop being creative once they achieve success. The phone keeps ringing; they have to give talks, go to parties, be celebrities, etc.,etc. They probably did their most significant work before becoming famous. The smart ones know how to protect their “flow” and, like Philip Roth with his writing cabin in the woods can keep coming up with new ideas into old age.

When you start looking at the lives of “geniuses,” most seem to have done their best creative work when young. I don’t believe it’s age that stops the flow of ideas, it’s the obligations of a mature life (marriage, children) coupled with the distractions of worldly success. Einstein did his most innovative work before he became a celebrity. I’ve read that most math geniuses made their discoveries when they were young (and had lots of undisturbed time). Artists like Picasso might live in social turmoil during the day but do their creative work at night when no one is around. I remember reading a biography of the artist Philip Guston, one of my favorites. He would lock himself in his home studio and (despotically) insist on total silence in the house. His long suffering wife and children were ordered never to make as sound; no phone calls or visitors were allowed, anything that would disrupt the flow of the “great man at work” was forbidden. And it paid off with the best, most creative art of his life.

And here I am, in later years, turning out work that is far beyond my – or anyone else’s - expectations. Why? I think it’s because I live alone. I can be in the studio for as long as I want, whenever I want. I don’t have to make conversation or dinner. I can allow the flow of my painting to be uninterrupted leading me into paths I never imagined. I can think clearly, sequentially, without distraction. For some unexplained reason, the Universe has given me the gift of uninterrupted  time and I am determined to make the most of it.
Renee Kahn







Friday, August 31, 2018

POST #165: TRAVELING IN MY HEAD


I’m a notorious armchair traveler. This is an expression I haven’t heard used much nowadays. At one time it was used to describe someone who did his or her traveling through books – there were lots of travel books when I was young - in the comfort of their own home. Today, everyone I know is flying off to somewhere grand and exotic. “Morocco?” “Bosnia?” “You haven’t been to the Carpathians? “ No, and neither do I intend to go. I am perfectly happy traveling in my head, or if I need to get out, within a twenty mile ratio of home. If I’m going to get an upset stomach, I’d prefer to be close to familiar facilities.

In The Bardo

Diptych   66”x86”. Oil, charcoal and collage on canvas



I come by my stay-at-home genes honestly. My parents came to New York as teenagers in the early 1900s and never budged. Why should they? New York had everything they could ever want in terms of culture and ethnic diversity. There were Greek neighborhoods, Italian neighborhoods, Chinese neighborhoods. Food shops, restaurants, clothing stores. Maybe the Metropolitan Opera wasn’t equal to La Scala (although it probably was), or the art museums the size of the Louvre, but they were more than enough to amply fill their cultural requirements. My sweet father had an extensive library of travel books, most written in the early 1900s when the world wasn’t McDonalized. I’ve kept a few. At night, he would sit in his comfortable armchair, next to out cabinet radio, listen to WQXR (the classical music station), get a book (with photos) and travel (safely) in his head.

After college, most of my friends set off on travels. Because I was needed at home to take care of my parents (I was an “only” child with elderly, unwell parents), I had a one-hour travel radius and could only go where I could be reached quickly in an emergency. Somehow, I don’t remember being envious of my wandering friends. I was studying Art History in graduate school and it seemed to me that a version (maybe not as grand) of everything I would have seen in Europe, was within my one hour time frame. So the Catskills weren’t the Alps and Coney Island not the Riviera; I didn’t feel deprived.

Heaven on Earth

Charcoal and oil on canvas
Center panel. 72” 44”
I remember listening to a woman at a party brag about her recent trip to the Carribean. I asked her if she (a native New Yorker) had ever visited the Spanish market under the elevated tracks in east Harlem? It was a typical tropical street marqueta, except that the stallkeepers all spoke Spanish with a Yiddish accent. I would go there with a Cuban artist friend and we would sketch the natives from a hiding place behind the stone pillars. But then, you couldn’t brag about going to Spanish Harlem could you?

After marrying, I had three children in five years, and since going to the supermarket with them was a herculaean effort, travel to foreign places was definitely out of the question.  When we moved to Stamford 55 years ago (only temporarily, we thought) we discovered there was no end to interesting local places to take them to and they did not grow up culturally deprived. My husband, also a non-traveler, preferred his garden to any place in the world.  He had served in the South Pacific during World Was II and when he discovered that the women of the island he was stationed on bore no resemblance to those painted by Gauguin, he lost interest in exotic places. When two of our children moved to California, we did get out and about on the West Coast, visiting the Redwoods, the Pacific Northwest, San Franscisco, but the New York Botanical Gardens are 30 minutes from our house and, except for the joy of seeing our children, we would have been just as happy going there.

Nowadays, given my “advanced” years, I definitely prefer to travel in my head. There’s enough stored there to keep me visually occupied, in fact, I’m never going to get around to using the imagery that’s already on file. I know that many, if not most, of my readers love to travel, and I’m not being critical of them. À chacun son goût (See, I even speak French.)
Renee Kahn

Saturday, August 11, 2018

POST #164: HOW TO SUCCEED IN THE ART WORLD (by someone who hasn’t)




I’ve been around (not exactly “in”) the art world for an embarrassingly long time and have come up with hard earned words of advice for someone who is trying to make good in the current scene. Even though I wrote this about twenty- five years ago, it seems to still hold true.


1)      Rent or buy a loft in an up and coming artists’ slum. An ‘unfashionable’ address (i.e. the suburbs) is the kiss of death.
2)      Find the cafe where all the artists hang out and spend your free time there.
3)      Show up at every loft party and opening. Try to figure out who is important and talk only to them. Forget friends. They know you already.
4)      Sleep with celebrities – all sexes. Make sure everyone knows about it.
5)      Say and do outrageous things. i.e. Jackson Pollock got lots of mileage out of pissing in a rich patron’s fireplace.
6)      WORK BIG. Bigger is always better. Shows you have “balls”, confidence.
7)      Exhibit at up-and-coming galleries only. (No "has-beens" or "pay to play’s")
8)      Gift a member of the board or staff of a prestigious museum some of your work. He’ll be sure to promote you to increase its value.
9)      Get a National Endowment for the Arts grant; better yet, propose something  outrageous and get the grant revoked (or investigated.)

10) Find out where all the big guys in the art world go for the summer and show up in your shorts.
11)   Get a divorce and marry someone very rich or thirty years younger. 
12)   Leave your original art dealer, the one who gave you your start.
13)  Have a retrospective at the Whitney or MOMA preferably while you’re still alive.
14)  Die and have your ex-spouses, non-functional children, and greedy dealers fight over your estate. Why should you make these losers rich?
 



Thursday, August 2, 2018

POST #163: Painting People


I’ve always been pretty good at painting people but not very good at painting portraits. John Singer Sargent, one of America’s greatest portrait painters, defined a portrait as a painting with “a little something wrong about the mouth,” (loose quotation) referring, of course, to the difficulty of capturing the planes of the area around the lips, but also to the fact that what the painter sees and what the subject hopes he’ll see are often two different things. Conventional portraiture is not so much an art form as a skill, something that can be learned, a form of pleasing psychophancy. Really good portrait painters manage to capture the subject’s interior life as well as a likeness. There’s also a great story about Picasso’s portrait of the poet, Gertrude Stein. When she complained that it didn’t resemble her, his response was “Don’t worry. It will.” (or words to that effect.)

Portraiture goes back several millennia to ancient Egypt when the pharaohs decided to place ‘photoshopped’ versions of themselves up there with their gods. Other ancient civilizations, including the Greeks and the Mesopotamians also portrayed their rulers, but in a stylized, non-realistic manner, more like gods than real people. It wasn’t until the humanizing influence of the Early Renaissance that ordinary mortals were deemed worthy of having their likenesses preserved. Over the centuries there have been a great many artists who could capture a physical resemblance but only a few who could - Pygmalion like - depict internal emotions as well as exterior appearance. Giotto, Rembrandt among the more noted

Once the camera appeared, portrait painting was doomed. Why bother? The camera can do in a second what would take weeks of hard labor and years of training to achieve in paint. However, even after the invention of the camera painted portraits remained popular producing some surprisingly great examples. Painters such as van Gogh and Modigliani and many of the German Expressionists, Kokoschka and (my personal favorite) Max Beckmann created portraits that went beyond mere photographic resemblance. However, for most of the 19th and 20th centuries photography has become the preferred way to record one’s appearance for posterity.
Today, good portrait painters are few and far between. Most of them specialize in what I call “Imperial Portraiture,” votive likenesses of Captains of Industry and Civic Leaders. And now, in the current Age of the Selfie, there’s no need now for anyone to even hire a photographer; the camera does it all.

I have never been able to “capture a likeness,” maybe because I never really worked hard enough to acquire the necessary skills, but I am good at creating “life” in my paintings. My goal is not to be a camera, but to get my subjects to talk to me, look into my eyes and tell me what they are thinking, feeling. It’s a gift and I have no idea how it came about. I recently completed a series of 54” x 24” oil and charcoal sketches on canvas.  I intended to use them in a series of paintings of Harlem I’m planning to work on next winter. However, I like the sketches so much I think I’ll stop right now. There are six “characters” currently residing in my studio, and they’re great company.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

POST # 162: Is it Art or Illustration?


At what point does one morph into the other? Not as easy to answer as it might seem. Historically, until the mid 1800s, most art was what we today would today consider “illustration.” It told a story: historical, biblical or mythological. Even something as non-literary as a 17th century Dutch still life or a Turner landscape painting had an underlying “moral” basis, maybe a condemnation of sin or a Momento Mori, a commentary on the briefness of life. I recently came across a book in my library entitled: Modern Painters and Sculptors as Illustrators, with dozens of examples of famous artists from Picasso to Matisse, Chagall and Rodin, They clearly had as their primary intent the creation of a work of art. The written word, the story it came with, was secondary. On the other hand, when you compare their work to the great American illustrators like Howard Pyle or the Wyeths, you can see the difference clearly; their primary goal was to clearly tell a story. I’m not making a value judgment; Picasso is not “better” than Wyeth, just different. You can be a hack artist or a hack illustrator. What makes the difference between artist and illustrator is intent. Is the purpose primarily to tell the story or to create a work of art? With shades of everything in between.

As you suspect, whenever anyone makes a statement about art or artists, the exceptions jump out  at you. If you gave a copy of a poem or a short story to ten different artists and ask them to illustrate it, you would get ten totally different interpretations – as you should. Let’s say, there is a continuum, ranging from a totally abstract interpretation of a work of literature to an image where there is an almost photographic adherence to the story. “Fine Artists” have always been derisive of illustrators, assuming that work done for a client is necessarily less valid as of a work of art. Certainly, there’s no historic or even artistic basis for that. Is Giotto’s mural for the Arena Chapel less a masterpiece because it tells a story? Hacks are hacks; mediocre “artists” are no better than mediocre illustrators.

Anyhow, let me give an assignment to everyone reading this blog, artists and non-artists. Find a piece of literature you like: poem, story, book – and illustrate it in the manner of your choice. You can interpret it realistically or fantastically or abstractly. Any way you like. In fact, try it a couple of different ways. It’s a great way to push yourself, get out of a rut. For example, the artist Chagall was at his peak, did his best, most creative work from around 1910 to 1920. Then, he fell into a formula that sold well, made him rich and famous: his “faux” Vitebsk ghetto scenes, with flying lovers, rabbis and (cash) cows. It wasn’t until he turned to illustrating works such as Les Fables de La Fontaine and the Arabian Nights that his genius re-emerged and he ended up one of the greatest artist/illustrators of modern times.

Here’s your homework assignment: Pick a poem or a quote, a proverb, a fable - and create an illustration for it! I don’t care if you are an “artist” or not – in fact – I’m curious to see what the non artist readers come up with!
GO!…and send me the results.

 Renee Kahn
Artist and Ersatz Illustrator