Saturday, July 1, 2017

POST #143 WOES OF WOMEN (ARTISTS)


 "Rooftops"44"x66". Oil and charcoal on canvas   $1,200.  
The problem with being a woman artist is that nobody takes you seriously. Too often you’re considered a diletante, a dabbler. It’s a little better for the present generation than it was when I first started out. The only women I knew who had any degree of success were either gay or were married to artists and got by on their coattails. The gay women were usually better off – they at least had “wives” or a circle of friends to support them.

Dream Towers #16
 2017   Oil on canvas    48"x35 1/2"     $750
What set this off was a discussion a group of us had a couple of weeks ago based on Linda Nochlin’s classic (and still much discussed) treatise “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists.” It’s the lead essay in a book from the early ‘70s entitled “Art and Sexual Politics.” I’m pretty sure you can get a copy on line. She dealt with the subject historically, pointing out all the handicaps that women faced preventing them from achieving their full potential, of course assuming that they do have similar potential to men. Forgive my lack of political correctness, but maybe you do need testosterone (i.e. Picasso) to be great. Since the Renaissance, there have been quite a few women artists of exceptional skill and talent, but none (in my humble opinion) come anywhere near Goya, Brueghel, Rembrandt, van Gogh et al. As much as you might admire Mary Cassatt, there’s no way she comes close to her mentor, Degas. In my last blog, I wrote about recently attending a major retrospective of the work of Georgia O’Keeffe and while she certainly was important as a groundbreaking woman painter, I don’t think she never equaled her male contemporaries:  Hartley, Demuth or Sheeler.

Dream Towers #3   
2017 Oil on canvas    52"x36"
Sold
It’s easy to understand why women of past generations were never able to become major artists, let along “great” (testosterone aside). You would think that since many of the restraints of childbearing, domesticity and limited education are no longer holding us back, the art world should now be well-populated with women candidates. Sad to say, while there are lots of good women painters, sculptors, filmmakers and performance artists around, no one has come close, (in my humble opinion) to greatness. Come to think of it, not many contemporary men are that hot either. If I could venture a guess based on personal observation, I think women, despite fifty years of the Women’s Movement, still have a problem with being “over socialized,” taught to decorate rooms rather than dominate them.  Good looks are still over valued in women (although it helps a male artist to be drop-dead gorgeous too) and women spend too much time and energy turning themselves into works of art. While a male artist can (and does) bellow his genius to the world, women as still expected to be laid back. Loud-mouthed, self-promotion might be acceptable in a man, but just let a woman tell you how great she is and everybody hates her. I must say, however, I think things are improving in that area; more and more women artists are allowing themselves to be as arrogant and obnoxious as men. 


Dream Towers #2    2016     Oil on canvas       25 1/2"x34 1/2"    $650

This is an enormously complex subject that goes way beyond the usual explanation of lack of opportunity and training. First of all, the entire premise of what causes “genius” needs to be examined. Is it genetic? an accident of birth? exceptional early training?  Women have theoretically achieved equality for at least half a century and still, no geniuses have turned up. I have my own theory: we’re just too nice, too caring, too decent. This might sound a little simplistic but it’s as valid an explanation as anything more complex I’ve read: To be a genius – in any area, not just art - you have to be a monster (they ALL were), care about nobody but yourself, be willing to destroy everyone around you on behalf of your greatness. It’s no fun being the offspring or spouse of a “Great One.” They might be exceptional artists, scientists, writers, but you wouldn’t want to live with any one of them.

Friday, June 9, 2017

POST # 142: HIGH AND LOW ART

My friend Phyllis recently asked me if I wanted to go to the Brooklyn Museum with her to see the Georgia O’Keeffe show. She was going to reserve tickets for us and said she would drive in. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I haven’t been to the Brooklyn Museum in decades, literally, and besides, I hoped to be able to squeeze in a studio visit to my son Ned’s friend, Chico MacMurtrie, at his Amorphic Robot Works in nearby “up and coming” Red Hook.


Luise Kaunert (Mrs. MacMurtrie) and Renee Kahn inside Chico's Robot workshop
I have fond memories of the Brooklyn Museum with its grand entry stair and neo Classical facade. They have some really great collections including a sculpture garden composed of relics salvaged from demolished Manhattan buildings. The O’Keeffe exhibit was beautifully designed but not terribly exciting and didn’t add much to my knowledge of her. However, we unexpectedly came across an installation of Judy Chicago’s famous “Dinner Party” from the 60s that blew me away. I’m no fan of Judy Chicago, but I have to confess I’ve never seen her iconic feminist piece in person and this was a stunning installation, alone well worth the trip to the museum. I was also surprised and overwhelmed by the row of monumental, 7’ high alabaster wall reliefs from the Assyrian palace at Nimrud, c 880 B.C. - the granddaddy of site- specific installation art. I knew the museum was famous for its Egyptian art collection, but this was an exhibit I never expected to see.

Chico MacMurtrie - Amorphic Robot Works
After a couple of hours at the museum, we’d had enough “high culture” and were ready to head home, but I figured it was early enough to call Ned’s sculptor friend Chico, and see if it was convenient to pay him a visit. Ned had shared a studio with him about thirty years ago in San Francisco. At the time, Chico was creating small robotic figures who fought mock battles on the city’s streets. According to Ned, a crowd would gather to watch and eventually the police would arrive to break it up. Chico would then quickly scoop up the combatants and disappear



MacMurtrie's studio in converted
Norwegian Seamen's Church in
Red Hook, Brooklyn
The voice from the dashboard said we were only twenty minutes away from Chico’s place so I called the number he had given me a while ago (saying “stop by any time”) - but only got a fax.  His studio was in an abandoned Norwegian Seaman’s Church in Red Hook, a seedy waterfront neighborhood once populated by immigrants who worked in nearby factories and on the docks. Like much of the rest of Brooklyn, I had heard that the area was being “gentrified.’ We took a chance and found ourselves at the door of a dilapidated, Romanesque-style brick basilica, home to Chico MacMurtrie’s “Church of Robotic Saints”. Chico, it turned out, was out of the country installing a piece in Austria somewhere, but his wife, Luise, upon hearing that I was “Ned Kahn’s mother,” invited us in and gave us a tour. (Ned’s “mother” apparently carried quite a bit of weight.) The church, abandoned by the seamen several decades ago, had been converted to a factory and from there to the home of fifty or so computer-controlled musicians made out of discarded machinery and other industrial detritus: They were Chico’s “saints. According to his web site “these machines mesmerize with their percussive sounds and gestures.” It goes on to say: “They express themselves through rhythm and body language, ranging from introspective solos to powerful ensembles erupting from different corners of the space.” The robotic band performs every few months so I signed up for the mailing list. I’m pretty sure I can talk someone into going with me.

Anyhow, the point of this blog – yes, there IS a point – is that the best part of the trip we agreed afterwards, wasn’t the grand museum with its carefully curated exhibits, but Chico’s ramshackle pile in the middle of nowhere – populated by a band of disreputable mechanical saints creating holy music for a new world.

Monday, May 29, 2017

POST #141: ON THE BLESSINGS OF SOLITUDE

68" tall oil on canvas with projected figures 

Someone recently asked me what music I listen to when I paint and I truthfully answered “None.” In order to get into that space in my head where creative ideas come from, I require total silence: no distractions, no e-mail, phone, ambient noise, people moving around the house etc. Only then can I access that part of my subconscious that creates art. I’m not saying this is true for everyone, some artists I know like to work in tumult, with other artists around them, studio assistants, children, spouses, dogs etc. They thrive on distraction, distraction that allows their subconscious to take over. I’m just the opposite, distraction prevents me from allowing my right brain to go to work and come up with something I’ve never done before.

The early 19th century French painter, Eugene Delacroix famously said that you should “think of the blessings that await you, not of the emptiness that drives you to seek constant distraction.” He went on to discuss the joys of a life of uninterrupted art “and plenty of it.”  Picasso was once quoted as saying that “without great solitude, no serious work is possible.” Of course, he did some of his greatest artwork in collaboration with the painter Braque, but I suspect that after their collaborating was done, each went back to his studio to work on his own .


68" tall oil on canvas with projected figures

 The brain scientists who study the phenomenon they call “Flow” talk about a euphoric experience that takes place when ideas begin to pour out of the subconscious. To achieve a state of flow takes time, often a long period in which nothing appears to be happening. It’s like pregnancy; it’s hard to see that anything is in the works until it’s pretty far along.

It’s not just artists who suffer from interrupted thoughts, I recently heard a well-known writer say that her idea of heaven would be six months in solitary confinement with a pencil and paper (or word processor). Scientists often do their most creative work before they become well known and are deluged with the distractions of success. And, given the current state of constant interaction with I-phones, e-mails, etc., it’s almost impossible to get time alone to decompress and think creatively.


68" tall oil on canvas with projected figures
I recently read a biography written by his daughter, of one of my favorite mid 20th century artists, Philip Guston. In the 1930s, he was a pretty good Social Realist painter and in the 50s, one of the better Abstract Expressionists, but, after dropping out of the New York art scene, in the 60s, distraught by the politics of the time, (McCarthy era) he became, for want of a better term, a “cartoon expressionist” and ended up doing his best and most original work. His daughter described his need for total and absolute silence while he worked in a studio in his home. His children could not invite anyone over; no one was allowed to call (the phone disrupted his train of thought). There were to be no distractions whatever while “the great one” was painting. While I sympathize with his tyrannized family, I understand completely what he was going through.  And look at what he produced!


As much as I crave solitude and require it to achieve a high level of creativity, I also need companionship – at least part of the time. It’s too bad we don’t have artists’ cafes any more, places like the CafĂ© Voltaire in Paris, or the Cedar Bar in downtown New York. After a glass of wine and a good chat about current politics, or the gallery scene or who was sleeping with whom, I’d be pretty content to go back alone into my studio and paint. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Post #140: It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

You all know the famous Yogi Berra quote: ” It ain’t over til it’s over.” Of course he was referring to baseball, a game that has very well defined rules as to when it’s over. If only we artists could have such an easy time! At what point is a painting finished, or, is it never finished? Or is it only finished when all the spaces are colored in? There’s an oft-heard saying in the art world that there are two people involved in the creation of a work of art: the artist who creates it, and the person who takes it away from him.

I briefly alluded to that issue in my last “Dear Reader,” explaining how I was struggling to decide whether my latest paintings were finished or whether I could go to the next level without destroying what I had. It’s not just artists, all creative people face this problem: writers, composers, etc. We all struggle with the decision of when to leave well enough alone. In art, there are no rules the way there are in baseball that tell you when the game is over and you can go home.


A couple of readers responded to my plea for direction by firmly telling me they liked the pair of paintings I showed in my blog and thought I should leave them alone. But how could I be sure? We artists have all had both good and bad experiences, ones when “just a few strokes more” ruined everything. On the other hand, we’ve also experienced the alternative when, by being persistent, we’ve come up with something new and wonderful. Most of the time, however, I hear artists complain about not knowing when to stop..

Here’s some hard-learned points:

1)    Keep your work reversible. I always start with an umber toned canvas, the color of wrapping paper. When the water-based ground is dry, I create a charcoal drawing from my imagination, without a sketch, often working on it for days until it’s “perfect.” When I’m satisfied with the drawing, I spray it with matte charcoal fixative. That way I can always get back to my original image no matter how many layers of paint I apply afterward.
2)    I prefer to work in oil, rather than acrylic even though acrylic is less toxic and easier to clean. I decided that oil was worth the extra trouble because it’s removable and allows you to change your mind. With acrylic, once it’s dry, you can’t paint over it without losing the layers.
3)    This is awfully obvious, but put the piece away and work on something else. Even a few hours of separation can let you know if you are going in the right direction.
4)     I offer this suggestion cautiously because it can easily backfire: Get a friend you trust to look at it. Over my painting lifetime, I have only known two people who could really be of help. Most just try to push me in the direction they are going in themselves and their opinion ended up doing more harm than good. It once took six months to undo damage caused by someone’s well-meaning suggestion. My late husband (a retired child psychologist) became an “Outsider Artist” in his old age (and a remarkably good one). Whenever I would try to give him advice, he would put his hands on my shoulders and give me a gentle shove out the door.
5)     And last but not least: Less IS More. It’s terribly easy to overwork something. You don’t need to spend a long time on a piece for it to be finished.

Friday, April 14, 2017

POST # 139: TOO STRONG FOR SATIRE

I’ve written before about my former life as a suburban satirist. Why “former”? Surely there are plenty of things to poke fun at today.  And isn’t satire one of the best ways to fight tyranny and injustice? Well, yes and no. Villains usually don’t mind if you hate them; they thrive on being hated. But what they really can’t tolerate is being made fun of. I’m sure our present leader puts the Saturday Night Live cast at the top of his list for the Gulag if he gets enough power.

However, when evil goes too far, becomes the norm, there’s no way you can see humor in it. Goya was a marvelous satirist of court life in Spain but after the horrors of the French occupation, satire became irrelevant and his art turned into rage. The Weimar period in Germany prior to the rise of Hitler was a Golden Age of satire: overweight Bourgeoisie, corrupt businessmen, hypocritical clergy and worn-out whores, all the excesses of a failing Capitalist system made for some of the best satire ever seen in the history of art. But when Hitler came to power, suddenly, none of it was funny any more. The artists who could flee, fled, and those who remained carefully stayed away from anything controversial.

 American art has never been big on satire. After all you can’t expect the kind of people who buy art to pay money to be laughed at. About the only time there were some reasonably good satirists in this country was during the 1930s, the Great Depression. Since no one was buying artwork anyhow, artists were freer to speak their mind. Publicly subsidized art like WPA murals, tended to concentrate on the positive aspects of American life, but there were also quite a few unaffiliated artists who “made a living” (and not much more) - Jack Levine or Ben Shahn - out of ‘social satire.’ What little political humor there was quickly vanished when Senator Joseph McCarthy and his Committee on Un-American Activities showed up in the 1950s. Abstraction Expressionism soon took over in the art world. There was no social criticism in drips and dabs.

When I started to paint again in the 1970s, after my children went off to school, I poked gentle fun at what I though were the foibles of suburbia. I have an attic full of paintings of clubwomen, American Legionaires and DAR ladies pouring tea. They seem dated given what is going on today. However, the “portraits” I did of local real estate developers and their cronies still seem pretty relevant, especially when you consider our present Head of State. As director of a local preservation organization, I found myself constantly outgunned by the bastards who were easily able to buy off everyone - politicians, government officials - who stood in their way.

Over the years, I’ve done a number of series that would be funny if they weren’t intrinsically tragic. My favorite is one I’ve never dared exhibit (too “x” rated.) It is based on the gross ugliness underneath the expensively coiffed and outfitted Trumps of this world – he’s far from unique. I call it my “Men’s Bathhouse Series,” paper cutouts of local developers and their cronies, men who wear expensive suits but you wouldn’t want to see what lies underneath. Our current President is a perfect example. Unfortunately, the sponsors of this blog censor nakedness of any sort (even when it’s meant to be funny, not prurient) and I don’t know of a single gallery that would be willing to run the risk of showing them, dressed or undressed. So, here are some “safe” examples from my “Bathhouse Series,” men of power fully clothed or in their skivvies. For a peek at what lies beneath their high-priced outer garments, you will have to use your imagination (or come to my studio.)


 P.S. I can’t bring myself to be a satirist any more. There’s nothing remotely funny about what’s going on.

Friday, April 7, 2017

POST #138: BREAKING SET

New York Water Towers I, II, III  - Oil on panel, 12"x16" 2016-17

I know you’ve heard this a million times before, about how distractible we all are nowadays. No one seems able to concentrate on anything for very long. However, given the plethora of media in our lives, it’s a miracle that we can concentrate as long as we do. I don’t know anyone who isn’t addicted to his or her media connections. I’ve had friends check iPhones while hiking in the park with me. When I walk on the track at the health club, half the people there are talking into their phones. All the ‘breaking news’ and attention-getting media have captured even the most aware and resistant of us. The net result is that we have difficulty focusing on anything for very long. When was the last time you actually sat still and concentrated for more than a few minutes? “Multi-tasking” (or, more accurately, “Multi-switching”) is the norm in our lives, not the exception. How many times have you caught the person you’re conversing with slip what he or she thought was an unobtrusive glance down at his media device? This is especially problematic for those of us who consider ourselves “artists”. Creativity of any kind requires total concentration. When was the last time you were not distracted?

I have an experiment for you: Make sure you are alone. Turn off any “media” and just stare out the window Focus on something, a tree for example, for at least five minutes. I’m willing to bet anything you can’t do it.  After sixty seconds, your mind will begin to wander, seek distractions. But if you force yourself to continue, something interesting will begin to happen. You will begin to see as opposed to just look. You will be amazed at how much there is that you never noticed: the texture of the bark, the subtle branching, the slight curve of the trunk.

There’s a concept in psychology called “Breaking Set.” It describes perceiving things around you in new and original ways. Creative artists (notice I differentiate them from “Non-Creative Artists) are good at this kind of mind-altering visualization. A “Set” is defined as the predisposition to perceive things in a certain way, either by habit or desire. One way you can “break set” is by staring at something long enough to override your camera eye and see differently. Ten years ago, when I broke my ankle and had to spend several weeks in an 11th floor New York apartment, I drew the same view over and over again. Eventually I “broke set” and was able to come up with some of the best, most original work I have ever done.

For the past few weeks I have been preparing a slide talk about the early 20th century French artist, Chaim Soutine. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea; the emotional intensity of his work is often difficult to take. He anticipated the Abstract Expressionists by about forty years and Pollock and deKooning were supposedly influenced by him. It seems that before Soutine started a painting he just stared at the subject (he always worked from life): landscape, figure, whatever, for maybe half an hour. Then, he would begin to paint furiously, finishing the entire work in one sitting, not even stopping to clean his brushes, just throwing them down on the ground and grabbing a new one. By staring so intensely before he began, he was able to “break set,” allow himself to depict his subject in a new, hyper-emotional way.

Try it and let me know what happens.

Friday, March 17, 2017

POST#137: DID I REALLY DREAM THAT?

I’ve heard people say that they never dream. Nonsense. Everybody dreams. Even my cat dreams - just watch her twitch in her sleep. She probably dreams of chasing mice, just as I dream of people and places. I started keeping a Dream Book a few years ago, putting a pencil and pad next to my pillow. Even so, I rarely manage to get something down on paper before it vanishes. When I do succeed and can go back and look at some of the dreams I was able to recall, I am amazed at their complexity and originality. I can see why surrealists and psychoanalysts were so intrigued by them. Some of my dreams make sense, have some tangible connection to what is going on in my life, while others are totally unexplainable.

 6'x4'  oil on canvas, 2015-16
I’ve seen a couple of articles lately on how to remember your dreams. It’s not easy and from what I’ve read takes considerable effort and practice. You need to have pencil and pad by your bed and you have to tell yourself, (just as you are about to fall asleep), that you must remember your dreams. This apparently works like an internal alarm clock – the kind that wakes you up when you have an earlier than usual appointment.  One researcher I read suggested looking through your Dream Book, if you have one, before you go to sleep to activate your dream center. The best, the longest, most complex dreams appear to come from deep, early morning sleep, however, we humans seem to have built in ‘dream erasers’  that start to work the second we wake up. If you don’t put the dream down immediately, it will disappear. Stay in bed. Don’t move. Review the dream in your mind first and then start writing….(and, let me know what happens.)

 6'x4'  oil on canvas, 2015-16
I rarely succeed in recording my dreams but when I do, it is always interesting to go back and read what I have written. If I hadn’t put them down the second I woke up, I would never have remembered them. Some are ‘place’ dreams where I find myself in an unfamiliar location. Others are anxiety dreams, related to actual problems in my life, i.e. the house falling down. And some are total puzzles that only a Jungian analyst could figure out. Those that intrigue me the most are like surrealist paintings such as the one I dreamt about eight years ago that took place in a decrepit old house, so cluttered that I could barely walk from one room to the other. In the dream, I went into the back bedroom and found a monster sized bare mattress on the floor. Under the coverlet lay an ancient hag dressed in rags. I pulled back the blanket and saw her lying there, asleep, knees up in a fetal position. She woke up and looked at me without lifting her head.  I pulled the cover back further and found a second old woman, identical to the first, lying at her feet, also unmoving, also bent into the same fetal position. Beneath her feet lay a third clone. To this day, I have no idea what it meant, if anything, but that puzzling trio might haunt me forever.