Friday, January 13, 2017

POST #133: TALK TO ME, BABY!

Oil and charcoal on canvas
6'x4' 2016
For more than twenty years, I taught Art History at the Stamford Campus of the University of Connecticut. (We locals called it “the Branch,” a concept frowned upon by the hierarchy in Storrs.) I remember putting on “performances” in front of my class, designed to entrance the sweet, young people who sat in front of me for more than two hours at a time. The least I could do was make the subject interesting for them.  I always looked for stories about art that would “humanize” what could have been dreadfully dull. One of the anecdotes I loved to tell was one about Donatello, an early Renaissance sculptor famous for making his statues lifelike. The story goes that Donatello was working on a life–size figure of a prophet for the Cathedral of Florence. Because of the subject’s bald head, the piece was nicknamed Zuccone, or “pumpkin-head” and according to the story, the sculptor would scream at it, commanding “Speak! Damn You. Speak!”T Ironically enough, the piece, one of the greatest works of all time, does “speak” to you, although not in a very pleasant tone of voice.   

Oil and charcoal on canvas
6'x4' 2016
I’m a painter of people. I like to think of myself as a Humanist rather than an Abstractionist, or a Social Realist, or a cubist, although I recently digressed (temporarily) into a series of dream-like paintings of New York City rooftops. I’m back on track now, creating a cast of characters I consider successful only if, like “pumpkin-head,” they “talk to me.”  Unfortunately however, this makes me an outlier in the current art world. Humanism went out of fashion in the late 1950s when anything that smacked of liberal thinking (like Humanism) was declared un-American - and it never came back.  Humanism is the thread that runs through all my work. Sometimes my art is clearly satirical, but even then, it’s affectionate such as my “Developer series,” or “Men’s Bathhouse” series, or my Local Mayors, or the maquette for “George Washington, Father of his Country” (surrounded by pregnant women,) My humor isn’t angry, unlike the work of the German satirist, George Grosz; my characters may be despicable creeps, but they sorta grow on you.

Oil and charcoal on canvas
6'x4' 2016
Lately, I’ve gone back to painting people. I never use models or preparatory sketches; there are enough characters rattling around in my head not to need them. I tone a large canvas (usually 6’x4’) in shades of umber and then begin to draw in charcoal, pulling figures from my subconscious. Each one is treated as a shape and each shape coordinates with shapes around it. It’s a juggling act: the first shape is easy to manage; the next one a little harder. After that, everything must “work” with what has gone before and, as the drawing gets more and more complicated, more difficult to hold together. The problem now is when to stop; when is enough “enough.” One superfluous line can ruin everything. That’s why I use soft charcoal; it’s easily removed until I decide to apply fixative and then there’s no going back.

But when am I actually done?
It’s when the image “feels right,” tells me it’s time to walk away. It also has to “speak to me!” Like Donatello, I want my creations to come to life.


                                                                   

Friday, December 30, 2016

POST #132: PICK A STYLE – ANY STYLE!



I feel sorry for art students nowadays. The old days of drawing from life, both animate and inanimate, are gone, along with learning the craft of being an artist: how to mix colors, use different mediums, gesso a canvas, etc.  useless skills in today’s art world. A friend who attended the Royal Academy of Art in London a half century ago said he spent his first week there just learning how to clean a brush. Why learn technique when a computer can do it for you  - better than you ever could – or turn a photo into a painting using Photoshop? “What kind of a painting?” you ask. “Any kind. You name it.” The computer can transform your image into Impressionism, Expressionism, Photo Realism. Who needs to know how to actually do anything?

What today’s artist does need to know is how to find a gimmick and run with it, turn it into something new and newsworthy. There are no art values anymore, no underlying design quality, no expressive drawing, no message – it’s all a search for the gimmick.  Look at Damien Hirst and his embalmed shark. Look how much press Marina Abramovic got with her “shtick” at MOMA. All she did was take her clothes off and sit without moving for a week in front of an audience. In a prior event, she and a male friend stood naked in a doorway, forcing viewers to walk between them. These are clever ideas and should be appreciated as performances, but how do you teach students Cleverness? I feel sorry for the art schools.  Do you give classes in Gimmick I and Gimmick II? I recently read a great essay by Sarah Thornton in her book, “Seven Days in the Art World”. It describes a MFA Senior Class “crit” at CalArts, considered one of the best (and priciest) art schools in the country. Without editorializing, Thornton demonstrates the difficulty of teaching someone to be an artist in a commercialized art world with few rules and no shame.

In the past, even a journeyman artist studied the liberal arts; today’s art schools give only a smattering of culture, mainly a couple of semesters of art history. This puts young artists at a disadvantage in their creative life; all the really great artists were remarkably literate. Without a broad cultural background to enrich his or her work, an artist can easily get hemmed in by a “shtick.”

I’m on the e-mail list (at least once a week) of a master huckster, a mediocre artist but a gifted self promoter. He’s part of a group of graffiti-style  “Street Artists” who go around cities (not just New York) pasting their work up in public spaces. He came up with a gimmick all his own, a signature face that looks like it was drawn by a third grader. He will tell you that because he uses bio-degradeable wheat paste to attach his work, he is not (permanently) defacing public or private property. He seems to be quite well known as he is always notifying his readers of talks he will be giving at conferences on Street Art all over the world, plastering his perky smiley wherever he goes. Unfortunately, I think Street Art is passé and he may have to come up with a new shtick.


Everywhere I look in the art world, there are ideas, clever gimmicks passing for art. They take little if any skill to execute since the piece itself is usually produced by some commercial process. Jeff Koons, an incredibly successful sculptor, is a perfect case in point. I’m not saying an artist needs to have a Renaissance level of expertise, but at least he should be able to make the model he gives to the shop – or maybe that’s asking for too much.

It’s often hard to differentiate a gimmick from a true work of art, especially when it comes packaged in a load of pretentious Artspeak. If an artist’s goal is to come up with something innovative and expressive, I have no problem with that. What I object to is a mindset that says:  “How much attention can I attract with this?”  We live in a world where the ‘idea-concept’ supersedes the ‘craft-object’. But, I am probably being unfair to artists, asking them to have ideals when the rest of the world doesn’t know what the word means.



 P.S. The nymphs dancing around my lampshade are Maenads, followers of Dionysus.  Or maybe they’re Bacchanntes, worshippers of the god Bacchus).  They often appear on ancient Black and Red Figure Greek vases, frenzied dancers drunkenly performing in honor of their god. Happy New Year!

Friday, December 9, 2016

POST #131: THE DANGER OF PLAYING IT SAFE

As any artist will tell you, art is a tough way to make a living. Even if you are fortunate enough to meet with a modest degree of success, it doesn’t always last and you are soon back to living on a spouse’s salary.  Unless you have family money  (and that kills creativity faster than anything), most artists I have known eventually give up and take a course in computer programming. But then, you can always teach art, and, if you really want to die as an artist, that’s the quickest way to do it. I’ve known too many artists who have destroyed their careers and their talent by accepting the security of an academic position.

Graphic designer, Bob Callahan used the magic of Photoshop to team up
with deceased artist, Ben Shahn.


I am currently reading a terrific book,  “The Shape of Content”, a collection of talks that Ben Shahn, gave at Harvard in the mid 1950s. My friend, the graphic designer Bob Callahan who adores Shahn’s work gave it to me for Xmas. Shahn speaks, not as an academic trying to intellectualize art (usually unintelligible gibberish), but as a working artist who genuinely understands what goes into the process. He says (beautifully) what I have long believed, that a teaching position at a university, a goal sought by many artists, is his kiss of death. Shahn points to many well-known artist friends of his who never produced anything of value once they achieved the sought-after safety of an academic position.

Diner Scene    Oil on Canvas    72"x48"
Why does this happen? I spent twenty-two years teaching art history at the University of Connecticut campus, managing to avoid studio art for twenty of those years. At least, when you teach art history, you spend your time looking at the work of the greatest of the great; it’s like going to a museum three days a week. When you teach studio art, your days are spent looking at student crap (to put it kindly) and you find your judgment about what is good or not good irretrievably compromised.

In my early twenties, I was friendly with a painter who had attained considerable (and well deserved) success in the 1970s New York gallery scene. His work was an interesting combination of OP and POP Art. He showed in top Madison Avenue galleries and was on his way to a major career when he “chickened out” and accepted a position teaching studio art, first at Yale and then at University of California, Berkeley. Not bad huh? But that was the end of him as a significant artist . He lost the opportunity to become a major player in the art world; his work became repetitive. During the years he was teaching, there was little growth or development. I got to know him again after he retired and came back to this area (with a substantial pension) hoping to pick up his art career where it left off.  But it never happened, he became ill and died not too long after. While his work is currently experiencing a minor revival, he never achieved the major artist status that should have been his. The students, he confessed, sucked him dry, “bit into his leg and held on” was the way he put it. In his 30 years of teaching studio art at some of the most prestigious institutions in the country, he told me he had only encountered two or three who were worthy of his time.

I recently spoke to another artist friend who at one time was in the processing of developing a major career as a printmaker. It all stopped when she was hired to teach at SUNY Purchase. She never produced anything worthwhile of her own during decades of teaching. Other colleagues of hers, who also had significant success as artists until they started teaching, met the same fate. Death at the hands of Tenure.

An artist cannot look at student work day after day without losing his or her “eye” for quality.  One’s judgment as to what is “good” becomes distorted by always having to look at beginners’ feeble efforts. Plus, the politics of the University, the administrative responsibilities, power struggles, problem students etc. suck out even more  energy. What looked like a secure way to make a living has drained the creative person dry.


 So, the moral of my story is: If you want to be an artist, wait on tables dig ditches,  do anything, but don’t teach studio art in academia.

Friday, October 21, 2016

POST #130: WINNERS AND LOSERS


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

POST #129: HOW TO KNOW WHEN YOU ARE FINISHED

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

POST # 128: YOU JUST HAVE TO LIVE LONG ENOUGH!

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.”

BTW


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

POST #127: 99 PAPER PLATES ON THE WALL



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).