Friday, August 11, 2017

POST #146: Art On the Bowery

I’m no longer much of a museumgoer. It’s not that I have anything against museums, they’re important educational institutions, but it’s a case of too much ‘been there, done that.’ However, if I don’t linger too long or go too often, a museum visit can be enjoyable and worthwhile.

My friend Elena recently offered to drive me to New York to a “museum of my choice” and I was happy to accept. I suggested we go to the New Museum on the Bowery, having just received an enthusiastic report about the work of Carol Rava an Italian woman artist who died two years ago at the age of 95.  It’s hard to categorize her since she’s basically an “outsider” artist, but a “faux” outsider, a highly sophisticated one influenced by several important 20th century movements including Dada and Arte Povera. Her elegantly framed water colors (frankly, I found the frames more interesting than the art), are uninhibited, scatological, and obsessed with sexuality and bodily excrement, She was quite a character. During her long life she knew ‘everybody important’ in mid 20th c art and, now that she is dead, is finally being recognized.  The best part for me, I have to confess, was the way her work was framed.

I’ve reached the point in my life where I don’t want to be influenced by anybody else’s art! It’s just a distraction. What I do get from seeing other artists’ work are ideas on technique and presentation: how to frame and organize the images, what new materials I can use; basically, ‘the tricks of the trade.’ In Rava’s case, the frames were more interesting than the art they enclosed, transforming what would otherwise be slightly obscene water color sketches into museum quality art. Where did her gallery find them? They looked as if they had been hand carved back in the 1920s. Something else I saw in this show helped me figure out how I could frame some oversize linoleum blocks I carved decades ago. I’ve been struggling for years for a way to display them and found the perfect solution at Rava’s show.

The other exhibit I found interesting (for similar reasons) was the work of a West Coast artist (another woman, but much younger and still living), Kaari Upson. What interested me most was her roomful of oversized pencil drawings on sheets of 8’x5’white paper,  I could make those large charcoal drawings I’ve been doing on brown wrapping paper that size! Then maybe the New Museum would give me a show! 

On our way out, I paid my obligatory visit to the bookstore, filled as usual with overpriced and poorly reproduced tomes on artists you barely (or never) heard of.  I doubt if anyone ever read past Page 5 of anything on the shelves; I no longer even try. But again, something practical and useful came out of the visit. The store had a glass case containing a set of ceramic dinner plates designed by artists of minor repute. As my readers know, I’ve been ‘making plates’ for a couple of years now, only mine are paper and don’t go in the dishwasher. Every once in a while, someone suggests I find a place (like China) to get them produced as real ceramics, and maybe (the Holy Grail I’ll never reach) make some money off them. What shocked me about the Museum Store’s plates was their price. A set of six was priced at $600 (reduced to $520. for museum members). Could you eat off them? Not at those prices!

As Elena and I walked out of the museum into the bright summer sun and the noise and disorder of the street with its hawkers and hippies and Chinese storekeepers, I looked up at the awning on the rundown store next door. It had beautiful rust patina-ed iron gears that moved the awning up and down but looked like something Kurt Schwitters would have assembled in the 1920s.  On aesthetic quality alone, it beat anything we had seen in the museum.

Renee Kahn

Friday, July 28, 2017


I’ve discovered that there are very few artists who can write intelligibly about their art. Some of them don’t want to give away what they consider “trade secrets,” while most are simply unable to explain what is largely an intuitive process that takes place on an unconscious level. That, however, doesn’t stop anyone from trying, unfortunately leaving the poor reader befuddled by lots of verbiage signifying practically nothing.

It’s even worse when the writing is translated from one language to another. Recently, I have been trying to read some of the copious writings on art theory by the Russian/German artist Vasily Kandinsky. I remember my struggles with his major opus, “Point and Line to Plane;” I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to read it several times. I think I keep at it because I like the way the title sounds in German: “Punkt und Linie zu Flache.” It’s not for the faint of heart. I presume it was originally written in Russian (his native language), then translated into German and then, in 1947 with someone’s help, into English. The multiple translations, to say nothing of the inherent complexity of his ideas with their basis in Theosophy and Spiritualism, guarantees the reader a tough time. Writing about art is always difficult, but when translated multiple times, it’s like telephone tag where someone whispers something in your ear, you pass it along to the person next to you, they do the same and what comes out has no resemblance to the original message.

I am sitting here at the computer with a pile of art books next to me. I’ve got Kandinsky’s “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” (his first.) I’ve got several books on or about Paul Klee (a favorite) including his “Pedagogical Sketchbook” used for teaching art at the Bauhaus, translated into convoluted English by Sybil Moholy-Nagy. Let me give you one example, the title of a chapter picked at random:

“Chapter 1, Section 9: The natural organism of movement as kinetic will and kinetic execution (supra-material) (illustrated with a drawing of bones, muscles and tendons).”
I have no idea who is at fault, Klee or his translator; probably both. I also dug out a book from my library containing a translated copy of an essay by Klee on Modern Art, written while he was teaching at the Bauhaus.  I’d like to quote from the introduction by Herbert Read, a prominent art historian in the mid1900s. 
The Bolds are mine

Nevertheless, the reader must be prepared for difficulties. These are partly due to the cryptic, aphoristic nature of the writing; partly to the structure of the German language (aha!), which is more abstract or conceptual than is English, and therefore cannot always be exactly translated; but chiefly to the inherent difficulty of the subject. An art like painting is itself a language – a language of form and color in which complex intuitions are expressed. The necessity for the plastic* symbols of the art of painting is to some extent dictated by the inadequacy of our linguistic means of communication. To explain art, therefore, is often an effort to give words to nameless processes, to actions otherwise confined to instinctive gestures.

P.S. * I hate the term “plastic.” I presume it doesn’t refer to a polycarbonate. Art writers love to use it when they’re stuck for a word. A friend who taught art at a prominent university for decades says she never understood it either, but “was afraid to ask for an explanation.”


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Friday, July 21, 2017


The New York Times recently (7/10/17) ran an article about a non-profit gallery in Chelsea that caters to older artists. Several friends e-mailed me the link to make sure I didn’t miss it. “The perfect place for you,” one commented. The gallery specializes in artists over the age of 60 who have a) never been discovered or b) were discovered and then forgotten. I thanked them for thinking about me but explained that I knew about the Carter Burden Gallery, having applied to it three years ago (July, 2014.) I sent everything they asked for: a CD of my work, a resume, a statement of purpose, copies of publicity etc.  They graciously thanked me and said they had lots of applicants and would be back in touch. I’m still waiting.

The problem is not that the gallery is inefficient, although they might be for all I know, the problem is that there are too many damn artists around, young and old, all vying for a minuscule number of places to show their work. Although it’s worse for older artists, even if they’ve had some prior success, the problem exists throughout the entire art world. Everybody and his brother is an artist and, given what is considered “art” today, everybody can be. It’s the most joyful, pleasurable way imaginable to live ones life. At one time, you needed at least a decade of study to be an artist, hundreds of hours drawing from life, learning perspective, anatomy, serving an apprenticeship, accumulating knowledge that took years to acquire. Now, what we call art is so fluid, requires so little actual skill, anybody can call themselves an artist and refer to their work as “art.” Just give a kid a box of crayons and a paper plate and see what happens. Once it goes up on the refrigerator, he’s hooked!

I feel badly for the people who run the Carter Burden Gallery. They sound so well-meaning; they have such an honorable mission: giving older people some late-in-life recognition, perhaps even some much-needed income. They are apparently inundated with requests for shows. But, please, don’t feel sorry for elderly artists. We made our choice: if we wanted financial security, we could have become accountants or ‘married money.’ If we wanted recognition, we could have run for office.

I laughed when I read a quote in the Carter Burden article from an elderly woman the Times interviewed who had a near brush with success a number of years ago. She had shown her work to Ivan Karp, a famous art dealer in the 1960s, founder of the O.K.Harris Gallery in SOHO. Apparently, Karp had liked it but turned her down, saying he had difficulty selling art by women. I too had a go-around with Karp about the same time. I showed him my slides and he said he would like to pay a visit to my studio.  However, when he heard it was in Stamford, Connecticut, he changed his mind. He apparently had a maximum of ten minutes travel time for a studio visit and I lived a lot further away than that.
Strike One: I live in the suburbs, not Brooklyn
Strike Two: I’m a woman
Strike Three, I’m an OLDer woman. Three strikes and you’re out! 
But no way am I quitting.  My work keeps getting better and better. I may never get near the top of the heap, but I’m having a wonderful climb, and, who knows?  Life is full of surprises.

A couple of days ago I may have discovered the real reason I (and all the other artists I know) keep creating. It’s MEDICINAL!! The most recent issue of the AARP’s magazine, Modern Maturity (they send it free to members) had a short paragraph encouraging the elderly to do artwork. It claimed that spending 45 minutes on an art project reduced levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, a substance that destroys muscle tissue. Who knew?

P.S. The illustrations for this post are all experiments with the overhead projector. It’s an amazing, low-tech tool!

Saturday, July 1, 2017


 "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"
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


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


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.