Monday, February 24, 2020


Whenever I create “life”, my goal is to get my subject to talk to me. Like Donatello’s Renaissance statue of Il Zuccone, I want it to speak. My late husband, a clinical psychologist, used to call it my “only child syndrome.”  I’m not painting a person; I’m creating a person, a playmate, a companion. My studio and my attic are currently filled with cut-out characters. I occasionally work from photographs that I or someone else has taken, but only as a starting point; most of the time I am totally surprised at who turns up. I never idealize people; I want them raw and rugged, the way they are in real life: lumps, bumps and all. I draw upon decades of sketching at Government Center meetings, or Breakfast at Curley’s; it’s like I have a giant photo album in my head that keeps spilling out images. Recently, I’ve learned how to use my iPhone to take photos without my victim realizing his image was being captured. I pretend I’m talking on the phone or looking at something behind them, lest they think I’m invading their privacy.

Most of my figurative work, because it is so true to life, is controversial. Am I making fun of people of different races, ages, ethnicities? Satire, nowadays, is a touchy subject. At what point does gentle humor transcend into racist insult? I have to be very careful where I show my work and hope that no misreads my intent. A few years ago, the local Downtown Council asked me to put my life size “real women” paper dolls in a storefront window but then they panicked at my pregnant teenage bride. Was she Latina? Would someone be insulted? I thought she was adorable and apparently so did the hundreds of people who walked by that weekend. The only objection came from a tormented soul who threw a cup of coffee at the window claiming I was making fun of fat people. When the dolls were exhibited in a gallery in New Britain recently, I was asked to give a talk about the work. Would someone accuse me of political incorrectness? Fortunately, the audience, a dozen women of mixed ages, races, sizes got my point. They understood the affection behind my satire.

Over the years, I have created a half dozen series of paper dolls on different topics, some exhibitable, some not. The one I’ve never shown publicly is my Mens Bathhouse series. You need a strong stomach for that one. It’s based on the observation that nudity is not what it’s cracked up to be and most people avoid it for a good reason. The dolls are 24” high cut outs of the kind of men you see at zoning board meetings: well-dressed thugs. It’s my way of getting back at them for all the damage they have done to my beloved city. They are ugly inside and out and only a George Grosz could really do justice to them. I do my best.

The most powerful series I ever did was of local gangsters – 8’ high cardboard figures meant to be held up so the carrier’s legs were the legs of the puppet. They are crying out for a script by Brecht, but he’s not available and I don’t know anyone else who can do it. They can also be displayed on tripod wood stands, lit so they cast giant terrifying shadows. I wish I knew of a gallery big enough accommodate them; it would need 20’ ceilings.

Goddess of the New Popular Restaurant.  Oil on canvas. 62”x 48”

Meanwhile, my characters live mainly in my attic. God only knows what goes on there at night when I’m not around!

Glad to be back,
Renee Kahn

Friday, February 7, 2020

POST #180: Apollonian vs Dionysian

The philosopher Nietzsche was the first to write about the presence in our lives of powerful forces that he referred to as Apollonian or Dionysian, referring to the Greek god Apollo who represents order, reason and beauty, as opposed to the Dionysian, our wilder selves represented by Dionysus, the god of wine. Dionysus creates chaos, madness, sexual depravity and drunkenness and is usually expressed by wild, licentious music and dance. It’s like a carefully organized Bach fugue versus an orgiastic Woodstock performance to a spaced-out audience. Nietzsche saw the need for both elements in a life well lived: the rule of law and rational thinking balanced by the need to let loose and have a damned good time.  In the healthy, well-adjusted person, both stay in balance; it’s when one element predominates and drives out the other that trouble ensues.  Artists tend – at least in the current art scene - to be more Dionysian than Apollonian. But given the unpredictable world we live in and our often irrational “supreme leader” it’s no surprise that most contemporary art has an air of hysteria about it: over-sized, over-pigmented and over-dramatic. How can an artist possibly be Apollonian in this crazy, irrational world?

In the next week or two I’m planning to conduct a design workshop for a few artist/photographer friends. Our topic is something we used to refer to in art school as the “Principles of Design.” I intend to talk about timeless verities such as balance, harmony, focal point, rhythm, and relationship of forms, all the qualities required to create a harmonious (Apollonian?) work of art. But what if there is no such thing any more? Why should there be harmony in art when it doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world?  Maybe the chaos of contemporary life requires a whole new set of Unprincipled Principles of Design and I’m just wasting everyone’s time teaching order and rules. Maybe I should just pass the mescaline and let everyone be his or her inner Dionysian selves?

P.S. in my pre adolescence, I used to be a Duncan dancer, a disciple of Isadora Duncan, a passionate Dionysian if there ever was one. We danced in flowing scarves and Grecian togas with wreaths of flowers I’m out hair. A sight to behold!

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