Friday, August 19, 2016

POST #126: THE PRICE OF SUCCESS

An artists’ life is filled with pitfalls and challenges. If his work doesn’t sell, he can’t pay rent or buy art supplies or feed his children. And if his work does sell, he’s got another problem: he will probably get stuck in a style. Think of poor Jackson Pollock, forced by his dealers to keep producing “drip” paintings because that’s what his buyers wanted and that’s what they were willing to pay millions to get. So what if he wanted to explore new territory? or go back to the Jungian dream abstractions he had been experimenting with before the drips? Forget it. His public wanted drips not dreams. There are many artists who did their best work when they were no longer in the public eye, freed by failure to move on and experiment. Philip Guston is a case in point.

In some small (very small) way, I’m facing a similar problem. Do I want to continue painting dreamy NYC rooftop scenes? I sold almost ten of them at a recent exhibit of my work. It’s a record for me! My typical satirical paintings while much admired, rarely sell. Not many people want to live with corseted babes and their leering lovers. But give them dreamy water towers and Roman rooftop arcades, that’s another story. What to do? Keep producing what buyers can live with, or, go back to Lust and Avarice and borrow the house tax money from my kids? If I were George Grosz or Max Beckmann I might get away with Sin, but there’s no market for it in the suburbs. 


In the past, I was able to resolve this dilemma easily, earning the money I needed by teaching art history or writing articles on historic preservation for government agencies. Not a bad compromise and one I could happily live with. But now, in my “advanced” years, I don’t have the energy to do three different things at once. I need to concentrate on the artwork before it’s too late. I actually loved painting the rooftop scenes; they were based on drawings I did several years ago during an enforced stay (broken ankle) in an eleventh floor New York City apartment. Although the view from the window was the same, the paintings are all very different from one another, depending on time of day and weather. I also took a lot of ‘artistic license,’ re-arranging the scene without regard to what was actually there. Even the style of painting evolved during the two years I worked on the series, moving from a dreamy sort of romantic realism into surrealism. These rooftop paintings are some of the best, most original work I have ever done. They’re easy to live with and I’m not surprised they sold so well. And if I stay with the subject matter, who knows where it will take me? Maybe further into abstraction? Or into Magic Realism? 


Street Scene (diptych)   oil on canvas      72"x 96"

On the other hand, my wild and lusty characters are calling me back. I’m eager to start on a series of paintings of Harlem, 125th St., similar to ones I did that were inspired by photos I took of the Lower East Side right after I graduated college. Both neighborhoods are part of my history and I’ve watched them evolve over the past few decades, losing character while becoming chic and safe.


I’m taking the summer off, allowing the “well” to fill up again. In September, I plan to tack a couple of large, brown-toned canvases up onto my painting wall, pick up a piece of charcoal and see where it goes. 


Friday, August 5, 2016

POST #125: I THINK YOU NEED GLASSES


Art historians often note that artists who live long and productive lives become much “looser” in their later work: fewer brushstrokes, less detail. I can name at least a dozen artists from Titian to Matisse, El Greco, Rembrandt, Degas, Monet, Cezanne, Velasquez, just a few off the top of my head. Just compare the refined and detailed Pieta Michelangelo created as a young man to the powerful, more  expressive version he did at the end of his life.

The explanation we usually hear is the “less is more” theory, that the more skilled an artist becomes, the less effort it takes, the fewer brushstrokes he needs to evoke a scene, a face, a hand. It is assumed that years of experience have given him the ability to reduce images, Turner-like, to their bare essentials. This may very well be true, but, having taught art history for over twenty years and being a working artist of advanced years myself, I’ve come up with another theory. Maybe an older artist just can’t see well enough to do the detailed work he or she did when they were younger. Cataracts? Myopia?



To test my theory, I looked up the history of eyeglasses and although they were first invented in the 13th century, until relatively recently they were mostly crude magnifiers. Today you can go into any CVS and, for a few dollars come up with a fairly good corrective lens for aging eyes. Even better, you can go to an eye doctor and get your eyes ‘redone.’

The problem with scholars who write art history is that they are not artists themselves, although many will brag of having been a ‘painting major’ at one time or another. They know a lot about art theory, but they never walked in an artists’ shoes, so to speak. Unfortunately, that leads to a lot of well-intentioned misinformation getting transmitted to students.

I ran my “weak eyesight” theory by a friend who taught printmaking for many years. She’s an authority on Goya and Rembrandt, two artists whose work definitely became freer as they got older. She believes it might have been arthritis, (she has arthritis) as well as failing eyesight that changed their work. Whatever the explanation, it’s reassuring to know that as an older artist, despite my infirmities, I could actually be doing my best work. Towards the end of his life, Matisse was only able to work a couple of hours a day; he had severe arthritis and heart disease and was largely bedridden. But this was when he created some of his best work, the giant cutouts he drew with a long pool cue with a piece of chalk attached.

 Three months ago, I had a small stroke, not noticeable to an outsider, but bad enough to keep my left hand (the one I draw and paint with) from functioning properly. After I came back from the hospital, I decided to assess the damage by tracing a large projected image in charcoal onto a blank canvas. Much to my dismay, I found I had lost control of the hand; nothing came out the way it was supposed to. I would tell my hand to ‘draw a straight line’ but the line would come out crooked. ‘Go left’, and it would go right. Could I ever paint again? But when I stepped back and looked at my six-foot “failure,” I decided it was one of the best drawings I had ever done. Pure  German Expressionism; it could have been by Kokoschka. I sprayed it with fixative and decided to wait and see what was going to happen. Lately, my left hand has begun to follow orders again, but my artwork is no longer as wildly wonderful as it was when it was out of control.


p.s. While I’m still not fully able to control a paintbrush, for some odd reason, I can still draw on a small scale and create fine cut-outs with scissors. The illustrations for this blog were taken from a recent series of drawings in white crayon on 7” black paper plates. Looks like my hand does pretty well on its own.

Friday, July 15, 2016

POST #124: IT’S ALL IN THE HANDS

In the good old days before “modern” art reared its convention-breaking head, every artist knew how to draw. The worst academic hack could turn out a visually accurate rendition of the human body.  I was discussing this with a friend, a product of the leading art academy in Russia and I commented that American art schools were churning out tens of thousands of expensively educated artists who can’t even draw a hand. She stuck her nose in the air and snootily replied that in Russia, you couldn’t even get into art school if you couldn’t draw a hand. In the United States today, I’m not sure that any major art institute is teaching these kinds of skills. The current state of ART does not require the ability to draw. You can always find something “on line,’ in the unlikely event you need it.

It’s time for a personal confession: I can’t draw a credible hand for the life of me, I’m great at faces and pretty good at figures and given my “cubo-expressionist” style, that’s all I need. I can create a shape that functions within the overall design, but it’s rarely anatomically correct. You would think that after ten plus years of intensive art training, somewhere along the line, someone would have insisted I learn how to draw a hand, but here I am, at the end of my career and still faking it. The best advice I got about drawing hands came from Victor Candell, the wonderful Hungarian teacher I told you about in Post # 29. I was struggling to get the prominent hand in one of my paintings to “look right” but quite frankly, I didn’t know enough about hand anatomy to pull it off. Candell, in his infinite wisdom, pointed out that all I needed to concern myself with was the abstract shape of the hand. Did it fit into the overall composition or didn’t it? Once I accepted that, I was able to draw a perfect hand; maybe not anatomically correct, but then, it didn’t need to be.

Let’s go back to my conversation with my Russian artist friend. She commented that she had colleagues in art school with incredible skill in reproducing what they saw, but they weren’t artists, at least not in any contemporary sense. They had a camera eye but not an ounce of creativity. The need for academic drawing skill probably died with Ingres and the invention of the camera, and certainly today’s artists with their concentration on creative ideas (novelty) don’t need to draw. My son Ned, an environmental artist, draws mostly on the computer. And Photoshop is pure magic; you can change a painting from Impressionist to Expressionist with the click of the mouse. No drawing or painting skill required.


However, I hope art schools don’t abandon their life drawing classes. They may be totally useless in the current art world, but everyone I know remembers them fondly, one of the highlights of their years in art school. The models alone were memorable. Who but an eccentric character would want to earn his or her living getting naked in front of strangers, mostly blushing adolescents? And as for our learning how to draw a hand, who looked at their hands?

Friday, July 1, 2016

POST #123: RECYCLING ART

Projector Art,  2016
8'x10' (does not need to be sold or stored)
Everyone is familiar with art created from detritus, cast-off, unwanted industrial material, the waste of a throwaway society. Artists have been creating work out of “garbage” for over a century beginning with the Dadaists and Kurt Schwitters’ scrap paper collages in the 1920s to Rauschenberg’s Combines and John Chamberlain’s crushed automobiles in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Many years ago, I guest curated an exhibit at the Stamford Museum and Nature Center that consisted of nothing but art work culled from a local scrap yard called Vulcan Scrap Metal,where all sorts of wonderful things can be “found by the pound.” The show was a huge success, the biggest draw the Museum ever had.

Projector Art,  2016
8'x10' (does not need to be sold or stored)
But what about all the new art being created today by hundreds of thousands of so-called artists all over the country, piling up in attics and storage spaces If you multiply a half million would-be artists in America, each creating at least twenty works a year (most of it unsold), that means there’s at least 10 million excess pieces produced every year. You would think that without a market, people would stop turning the stuff out (the way any manufacturer in his right mind with unsold inventory does), but artists aren’t business people and they irrationally love what they do. They wait on tables, work at any job they can get, allow themselves to be unhappily supported by others, just for the joy of being able to create. Some need audience approval, but mostly, they do it for themselves.

Projector Art,  2016
8'x10' (does not need to be sold or stored)
The problem is that the art “market” is saturated; I don’t know a single person whose walls aren’t cluttered with art.  I recently insulted a friend by turning down a print (framed even) she wanted to give to me. She’s a well-known photographer and her work is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. It used to sell for thousands of dollars. But I walked her around my (large) house and showed her that there wasn’t a single inch of available wall space. No one I know has available wall space, even my non-artist friends. What’s going to happen to the ten million (rough estimate) works of art (most of it ranging from mediocre to truly dreadful) produced each year by all those would-be artists? Nobody can even give the stuff away!

Who/What’s to blame? Well, first, as I mentioned, being an artist is more fun than having a real job, but I also point the finger at the proliferation of art schools who turn out huge numbers of poorly trained young people, burdened by debt and deluded into thinking they can somehow break into the art world and become rich and famous.  Galleries, even the "pay-to-play" variety, are deluged by submissions they routinely return unopened. Living in the hottest new art ghetto like Red Hook sometimes helps, but not a hell of a lot. The truth is, there’s too much art being produced, and, given all the growing numbers of artists-in-training, no end in sight. And now that the computer can churn out “masterpieces” in seconds, the problem of oversupply is going to get even worse.

Projector Art,  2016
8'x10' (does not need to be sold or stored)
I recently picked up a book of essays by Robert Hughes from 1993 called “Culture of Complaint.” I like him because he avoids Artspeak; he’s erudite but intelligible. In one essay he described an experiment in the sixties I believe, in Holland where the government set up a fund to buy art by living Dutch artists. About 8,000 artists were represented; none of the work was shown and according to Hughes, everyone involved thinks it’s all junk (except the artist’s own work).  Storage expenses are huge (climate control, etc.) and efforts to get rid of it to local institutions, have been unsuccessful. No one wants it. Even for free. They can’t give it away!

So that brings me to my own attic full of artwork. What’s to become of it after I’m gone? If  I’m fortunate, I’ll have a “posthumous retrospective” (although I’d really prefer one while I’m still around.)  I might even get a dealer to agree to take it on as a collection. Otherwise, my offspring and friends can pick out what they want and take the rest to the local recycling center.  New canvas is awfully expensive and a coat of gesso primer should give someone else a chance to experience the joy I had when I created the original work. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.



Friday, June 3, 2016

POST #122: JANE JACOBS WHERE ARE YOU WHEN WE NEED YOU?

City of Stamford manhole cover, Franklin St.

I figure all my readers know who Jane Jacobs is, but a couple of days ago I told a friend that I was going to write about Jacobs and my well- educated and literate companion said “Jane who?” So I guess I better not take anything for granted and explain who "Jane Who?" is and why she’s so important.


Terra Cotta frieze, former U. S. Post Office, Atlantic Street
In the early 1960s, Jane Jacobs wrote a surprise best-selling book entitled “Death and Life of Great American Cities;” it revolutionized the way people thought about city planning and what made for a “livable” city. Every planner I ever met got hooked on the field through this book; one even told me he read it by accident (because there was nothing else available) in a tent on a Peace Corps assignment in the Andes Mountains. He was so taken by her innovative ideas that upon returning home, he signed up for graduate school and became a planner. Little did he know that the field was not filled with idealists and profound social observers like Jacobs but with technocrats whose primarily skill was planning driveways for corporate garages.

Algonquin Building,
corner Lower Summer and Main Streets
Jacobs was not a trained architect or planner. Although she worked on the editorial staff of an architectural magazine she did not even have a college degree. In a way, this was fortunate because she did not have to unlearn all the LeCorbusier-based, modernist bullshit being taught in academia during that time, laying the groundwork for the urban renewal projects that needlessly destroyed many of our older inner cities (including Stamford.). Her knowledge came from observation of people and places, what worked in an urban setting, and what didn’t. She began observing her own neighborhood: the West Village in New York City, mostly low and mid rise dwellings with a diversified mix of social classes and activities. It was a neighborhood where you would leave your keys with the local grocer to give to out-of-town guests who were arriving while you were gone. From there, she went on to analyze other cities that “worked,” coming up with a set of observations that she put down in her book. “Short blocks,” she observed, were preferable to long ones. Slow traffic rather than speedways. Mixed uses, small, mom and pop stores, bars that were open late at night provided eyes on the street. She knew that the high rise housing projects proliferating all over cities at the time were not going to work; that parents could not adequately supervise their children from twenty stories up the way they could when they were playing in the yard beneath their window. If you haven’t read “Death and Life” there’s still time. Everything in it is as true today as it was then.

Inverted Ionic porch column, 48 Pleasant Street
Although Jacobs managed to save her own neighborhood and what is now SOHO from the mega highway builder, Robert Moses, in places like Stamford, it is as if she never existed. Here, whatever feeble attempts are made to plan for people not profit soon gets overpowered by the megabucks.  In my youthful innocence, I once thought that “highest and best uses” meant planning that most benefited the residents of a community. Stupid little me! It has nothing to do with that: The field of planning is now dominated by the so-called “Market Realists” who believe that whatever the market wants is what cities should let happen. And it’s going on now as if Jane Jacobs never existed and nobody had ever read her book and thought: “Now there’s somebody who understands what makes a city a great place to live.”

Now, why am I writing about Jane Jacobs in what is supposed to be an “art blog?” Well, to me, a livable city with its mix of architectural styles and street life IS a work of art. There’s an aesthetic to urban living: watching the characters at Curley’s Diner or checking out the latest bistro on Bedford Street or admiring the terra cotta façade of the Palace Theater or the glorious Classical colonnade on the front of the Ferguson Library. There isn’t a new building in town that has any soul or aesthetic appeal to it; nothing that would encourage you to think that this is a place where you would actually want to live.


Friday, May 27, 2016

POST #121: MAKING LEMONADE

Overhead Projector Transparency Image

As many of you know, the past few weeks have not been particularly happy ones. First, I had an unfortunate event that left me with damage to my left (primary) hand. The doctors assure me it will clear up in a few months, but in the meantime I have trouble with any work requiring fine motor skills. Shortly after this happened, Patsy Whitman, my dear friend and supporter of the arts went and died on May 16th with practically no warning. A show of my recent paintings of imaginary NYC rooftops, scheduled to open last Sunday at her PMW Gallery, had to be cancelled. However, since the work is already installed, her partner, Betsy, may open it to the public later this summer. I’ll keep you informed.

Overhead Projector Transparency Image
What’s an artist to do? I can’t use my primary hand very well. I can’t draw the way I used to, so I do what artists always do: figure out a way around it. Matisse did some of his best work, those glorious giant cutouts of his later years and his Chapel at Vence, when illness made normal drawing and painting almost impossible. The good news is, I can still type on the computer (slowly) and, best of all, for some inexplicable reason, I can use scissors, so I can still cut out silhouettes.

Overhead Projector Transparency Image
But lately, something interesting has begun to happen; I have no idea where it will take me, but I can’t wait to follow the thread. As some of you know, I have had the pleasure of having a wonderful country music band rehearse in a small shed on my property. When it gets dark, I go up to my studio, put on the overhead projector and do a ‘light show’ performance for them. They play, my “people” dance and everyone has a good time. But it turns out that’s only the beginning. When I overlap transparencies, unexpected moiré * patterns appear and when I put fire-colored transparencies over my cutouts, they turn into scenes from Dante’s Inferno. Lately, I take transparencies of the old Yale & Towne factory complex in the South End of Stamford, a glorious ruin, and overlay some of my cut-out figures. A whole surrealist world appears. Who knows where it will all lead? Performance pieces?  Played to Wagner’s Gotterdammerung? Ferlinghetti’s poetry?

Overhead Projector Transparency Images
The moral of the story is: if you’re an artist, you can always figure out a way to be creative; I’m making lemonade.
I’ll let you know what happens next. Can’t wait to see where this is going.

Fondly,

Renee Kahn

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

POST #120: MAKING THE SCENE

"New York Rooftop Series" oil on canvas
48"x36"
A couple of Thursday nights ago, an artist friend and I decided to check out the Chelsea opening scene. Apparently Thursday night is a big draw and the streets were filled with packs (they travel in “packs”) of joyous thirty somethings, enticed no doubt by free wine and the opportunity to hone in on the latest wave in the art scene. Unfortunately, based on what we saw, there is no latest wave, only same old – same old.” Of course, I hear that Chelsea is passe, as is the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, although no one seems to quite know where to find the latest “Happening” place. I hear Queens or the South Bronx, but by the time I find out, it will all be over.

"New York Rooftop Series" oil on canvas
72"x48"
Anyhow, I got talked into the trip because I was curious to see if my artwork had a place there. The gallery spaces are enormous and beautifully lit, but I cannot image my rag-tag “oeuvre” fitting in such a slick environment. What struck me most was that the artwork I saw all seemed to have been created for “the show.” There was no evidence of experimentation, growth; everything was tasteful, competent but without any challenges. Different color schemes perfect for the decorator to match with the drapes, but otherwise all the same sizes, same frames. I couldn’t imagine doing twenty or thirty versions of ANYTHING! I would go mad! It would feel like a JOB!

One of the problems I always have preparing for a one-person show is that my work evolves all the time, especially if I’m producing steadily, working every day. I have absolutely no capacity for repetition; in fact, if I even try to repeat myself because something works well, I find all the life is sucked out of it. Everything even looks like I was bored, like painting with numbers. I console myself that Picasso had the same problem. In fact, there are at least twenty different periods in Picasso’s artwork, ranging from Romantic Realism to Cubist experimentation to series of murderous –looking females with teeth bared (his version of vagina dentata), My late husband, noting my difficulty with repetition, used to mutter that he had no idea how he lasted so long with me. Of course, what he didn’t realize was that he too changed all the time, providing new “problems” for me to resolve.

"New York Rooftop Series" oil on canvas
72"x48" 
My companion informed me that a “gallerista” (those Size 4 clothes horses who sit at the desks in the galleries) told her that the gallery she worked for paid $30k a month for rent (not the highest amount by any means.) They are not in business to advance “art”; they need to make the monthly nut, and hopefully even, a profit. Unfortunately, I don’t see myself fitting in to their business model and I must say, given their lack of interest in my work, neither do they.

BTW, since it’s obvious that Chelsea is “dead,” does anyone know where to find the latest art scene?  It’s quite possible that art really is dead and this is not the time to be an artist anywhere. I just hope I live long enough for the next Renaissance to occur. Maybe if Donald Trump gets elected president (just kidding) although bad times often create the best art i.e. Weimar Germany.