Friday, January 4, 2019

POST #171: HILMA AND ME


A couple of years ago, I came across a May, 2013 copy of Frieze magazine, that featured the work of an early twentieth century Swedish artist I’d never heard of before, Hilma af Klint (1882-1944). I guess the “af” is the equivalent of the German “von.” To say that I was blown away is an understatement. Although I taught Art History for over two decades at the University of Connecticut, I had never heard of her. In fact, until recently, nobody seems to have heard of her. She was turning out large, brilliantly colored biomorphic abstractions several years before Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich did their innovative work. Not only did she predate the triumverate credited with the creation of Abstraction, she (in my opinion) outdid them all. The irony is, outside of a small circle of Swedish mystics, no one knew she even existed. After her death at age 81, at her request, more than 1,200 items went into storage for over 20 years. She wasn’t sure the world was ready for them.

Untitled - 72"x44"    Mixed media on canvas
I’ve often complained about the art world’s need for “tokens’ to show how liberal and inclusive it is. There’s plenty to choose from: neglected minority artists, mixed genders, women, yes, even women. Unfortunately, these tokens are often just that. Their work, while it might be good, would never warrant that degree of attention if the artist were a plain vanilla, white male. True equality in the art world can only happen when every artist is judged on the merit of his or her work, not the need for tokens. And here comes Hilma af Klint, a genius who could make it without a boost from the gender establishment – even if it took almost a century for it to happen. 

For women artists especially, it’s instructive to look at how she was able to produce the body of work she did, several thousand pieces of work carefully archived by her wealthy family, (she died in 1944).  Af Klint was academically trained and financially successful in the popular early 20th century “en plein air” painting style. To earn money, she created beautifully rendered misty landscapes, botanical studies and conventional portraits that sold well, but her serious work was influenced by Spiritualism reflected in the teachings of people like Rudolph Steiner and Madame Blavatsky, a Russian psychic. Kandinsky, along with other artists and intellectuals of the pre World War I era was also influenced by Blavatsky, but af Klint’s abstractions predate his by several years. I doubt he ever saw her work since I am unaware of any exhibits outside her own small group of five women artists who held séances and were interested in automatic writing (predating the surrealists by at least twenty years. She never married, never had children and was financially able to afford the giant spaces needed to create and store her work. (See Blog Post # 64, “The Pram in the Hall.”)  She was also part of a supportive group of women artists and fellow mystics. (I’d love to see the work of the others, if any has survived).

Untitled - 72"x44"    Mixed media on canvas
Hilma Af Klint is no token. She was a genius on her own right and an innovator.  Her work, unlike most of the abstract art we see today, was not meant to be decorative, filled with faux emotion and pretty color; it has spiritual depth, an alternate universe that came from a true intellectual and religious search, not a superficial desire to create a conversation pieces to hang in a zillionaire’s dining room.  The two hundred or so oversized water color and gouache paintings she created between 1906-1915 for an imaginary temple – with a break in between to care for an ailing mother - are only equaled in modern times by Rothko, and even he (although I love his work) doesn’t equal her.

Check out af Klint’ when you get a chance, especially the large pieces in the Guggenheim rotunda. They make you realize the emptiness of most what we’re looking at today.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

POST #170: WORDS OF WISDOM


My best friend, – for over thirty years - died about a decade ago. In addition to fond memories, she left me her words of wisdom, aphorisms from her childhood in pre-Nazi Europe. I can occasionally dredge one up but unfortunately, didn’t write them down at the time and have forgotten most of them.



Dina Pisé was born in Lithuania in the late 1920s. Her idyllic childhood came to an end when the Nazis invaded her home town, Kovna, murdering her father and brother while she watched and sending her and her mother to a German work camp where she spent the remainder of the war. Weeks before they were to be liberated, her mother died of typhus fever. Not the most auspicious way to enter adulthood but a testimonial to how human beings can live through unbelievably dire experiences. She not only survived, she lived life to the fullest, refusing to dwell on the horrors she had witnessed. She would not participate in Shoah memorials; the past was dead and as far as she was concerned, would stay that way. I remember her saying that the Nazis had robbed her of her childhood and she was not giving them any more of her life.

After coming to this country from a DP camp in Germany, she married, had a child, divorced and remarried a brilliant French entrepeneur and became an artist. She was exotically beautiful, had lots of friends and lovers, gave great parties where she cooked marvelous Eastern European food, played the guitar and sang melancholy Russian love songs. Her Friday night poker games were legendary, a “hot ticket” invite; only men, no wives allowed. (if you knew their wives, you wouldn’t have invited them either). Most of all she became a sculptor, creating a house full of life-sized figures made of paper mache or stuffed muslin. Her work was wise and loving and witty, a chance to recreate in art some of what she had lost in life.


I still remember some of her sayings, and, like most folk wisdom, they were remarkably accurate.  I think most of them were Russian or Yiddish in origin, but universal in meaning. At one time, I thought about collecting them and turning them into a book, but unfortunately, I never got around to it, and then she was gone.  I have forgotten most of them, but every once in a while one will pop into my head. Although it’s a little late, I’ve started writing them down and thought I’d share a few that I remember:

1)    Three heads can’t sleep on one pillow.
 Meaning, we never really know the truth of what goes on in someone else’s life. And, as far as marriages are concerned, you can never believe what the couple tells you. Even the two heads involved have trouble figuring it out.

2)    She exchanged good shoes for slippers.
This was her comment about a friend of ours who was noted for having frivolous lovers, none of whom were equal in quality to her rather dull but devoted husband. (see #1)

3)    If he were mine I would drown him.
This referred to my late husband who got on her nerves.

The images in this post were taken of the two of us about forty years ago for a joint exhibit held at the Art Barn in Greenwich. We even looked like sisters.



Saturday, December 1, 2018

POST #169: A CASE OF “THE CUTES”



Decades ago, when my third and last child hopped on the school bus, I got around to what I hoped would be my life’s work: I was going to be a full-time artist. It soon became obvious that while I might be having a great time painting in my studio, I was never going to make a living at it – my 1920s Weimar Germany satirical style wasn’t exactly what people wanted over their fireplace. Since I was determined never to go back to teaching in the public schools  (I would go on Welfare first,) I needed to find an alternative source of income – “just in case.” Maybe I could be a children’s book illustrator?  At least that would not be a life sentence to the gulag of the Junior Highs.


But if I planned to be an illustrator, I needed a portfolio to show potential publishers; “commercial, but with artistic merit.” I found an old Eastern European folk tale, “Clever Manka” (in the public domain) and proceeded to create a series of drypoint etchings to illustrate it. Fortunately, I had come up with a way of making drypoints that did not require a press, something I could do on the kitchen table without special equipment. The results seemed passable so I “dummied” up a book and set up an appointment with a Children’s Book Editor at Harper & Row” – the big time.  Off I went to the city with my six year old (no baby sitter available) in tow.  The editor I saw LOVED my work, loved it! loved it!  Said it was ‘unique’ – (it was). She planned to show it to her boss, the famous Ursula von something – a legend in the children’s book world. And then, nothing happened. When I called to enquire, I was told that the editor I had seen was no longer at Harper & Row and since persistence has never been one of my outstanding qualities, my career as a children’s book illustrator ended before it had begun.


There was one problem however, my short foray into the commercial world had without my realizing it, done considerable damage. I had acquired a serious case of what I call “the Cutes.” Everything I did looked adorable, like children’s book illustration; I had lost my satirical bite. It took almost two years to get back to my old sardonic self. Every once in a while since then, I try my hand at commercial illustration but I am very careful not to take it too seriously lest “the Cutes” take me over again.

I have several friends who were once very successful commercial illustrators and designers; in fact some of them were at the top of the New York advertising heap, award winning and all that. They all retired to be “fine artists” but could never rid themselves of the slickness that came from years of having to please clients. Even when there was no buyer or gallery in view,  their work always looked “saleable” i.e. “commercial.” Most of the time, they were unaware of the problem, convinced that they could make it in the fine arts the way they had in advertising or publishing. And while their work was always of high quality, the desire to sell, the scarlet letter “S” on their foreheads, never went away. In effect, I was fortunate that my career as a children’s book illustrator had ended before real damage was done.

I dug out some of my stabs at being an illustrator to use for this blog and after not having seen them for years, decided they’re NOT BAD. Maybe I could have been a good children’s book illustrator. The irony is that the extra income I wanted ended up coming from teaching art history on the University level - and that, I think, made me a better artist, although definitely not a very cute one.

Friday, November 16, 2018

POST #168: ON BECOMING INVISIBLE




While shopping at Trader Joe’s today, I passed an interesting looking man, late 50s, 60 maybe. I glanced at him but received a blank stare in return. It took a moment for me to realize that he hadn’t noticed me at all – I was an invisible old(er) woman.
I think it has more to do with age than gender since I’ve heard similar complaints from older men; they too become invisible with age. But it is worse for women, especially good-looking ones who have become accustomed to being admired, flirted with, able to manipulate both men and women with their looks. They have a tough time adjusting to being invisible, but hey, that’s the price we pay for growing old. What was the line in some ‘50s novel I once read? “Die young and have a good looking corpse.”


There’s something to be said for being invisible. You don’t have to put on makeup when you go to the supermarket, or a bra when you go walking at the gym. You don’t have to have some guy leering at you wondering if you’re wearing underpants.  Nobody sees you; invisibility is a protective cloak. It allows you to be the observer, not the observed.

I don’t mind becoming sexually invisible as I age but I do resent being treated as intellectually disabled, as is often the case. There’s a perverse side of me that takes great pleasure in the look on the faces of the younger generation when they discover I know more about the subject under discussion than they do. Yes. I do know who Sartre is and I can also quote Baudelaire (badly).  In other periods of history, older meant wiser, someone to be looked up to, listened to. Obviously, that no longer the case.


I was chatting with some friends recently about this subject and we were reminded of a wonderful c1970 movie starring Ruth Gordon: “Harold & Maude.” Maude is a full of life seductress approaching her 80th birthday - with a lot to teach her adolescent lover. In the words of the immortal baseball coach, Leo Durocher: “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

Friday, November 9, 2018

POST #167: Art in a Time of Terror




As the Trumpian night descends upon us, it will be interesting to see how the art world responds, if it responds at all. So far, our esteemed President has accurately appraised the insignificance of the arts in his Pantheon of Power. They aren’t even important enough for him to attack. At one time, artists were formidable critics of power, a respected elite to be reckoned with. Now they are lap dogs, in thrall to rich patrons  (investors, really, not even collectors) backed up by a museum structure struggling to come up with a new flavor of the month, preferably a previously undiscovered minority that needs to be brought under the tent. At least, in the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy thought artists, writers and filmmakers important enough to frighten into silence.

Every morning, I open my New York Times Art Section in the vain hope that there will be something new that’s worth a damn but I find only meaningless abstraction or cliché “rights” movements or assemblages of detritus (lots of assembled detritus) Humanism? Satire? All passe, died in the 1950s, killed off by the esteemed Senator  under the tutelage of his mentor (and Donald Trump’s), Roy Cohn. If there is some “protest” art around, it is so cliché-ridden as to be worthless. Satire? Forget it. It can be dangerous to your financial health. The so-called elite didn’t get rich by encouraging people to make fun of them. It costs so much today to even be an impoverished artist that no one in their right mind is going to be stupid enough to make fun of the hand that’s paying the bills. Certainly not the artists who are around today; they are all gratefully circling the money trough.

And, oddly enough, none of this retreat from life is deliberate. The social realists of the ‘40s such as Philip Guston and Mark Rothko who turned to abstraction in the 50s during the Age of McCarthy didn’t consciously say to themselves: “I’m scared so I’ll only paint colored brush strokes.” It’s not like Nazi Germany where the terror, the repression was overt. Times change; fashions in art change. Be safe and avoid depicting the real world; no one can blame you for what you didn’t say.

So where am I going with this screed? I’m trying to explain (to myself mostly) why I’m now painting imaginary cities occupied by mysterious fragmented men and beasts instead of my usual gangsters and plutocrats. None of this is conscious or deliberate since I paint without premeditation. It’s like reality has now passed the point where satire is even a possibility. How do you satirize a Donald Trump with his orange hair and dangling penis tie? Barbie Doll wives? the goons that surround him? It’s forcing me into a make-believe universe that I’ll probably hang around in  until the next election;  it’s more tolerable than reality any day.

Respectfully (and sadly) submitted,
Renee Kahn

Friday, September 14, 2018

POST #166: SOLITUDE AND THE NEED FOR UNINTERRUPTED TIME





If you want to become a really good artist, musician, writer, scientist – If you want to do creative work in any field, you need a distraction free environment and an unlimited period of unbroken time. There are people who claim they can create in chaos but I don’t believe them. Some can work with distraction around them, but not create. If you want to be innovative in any field, you must arrange your life so that when ideas finally begin to flow, you can stay with them as long as necessary. EVERY creative person I know,or have read about, insists on solitude without interruptions. If you have to stop to put wash in the dryer or answer the phone, the FLOW is lost, often never to be retrieved. You will be amazed at the difference unbroken time makes in the quality of your work. If you’re writing poetry for example, you can’t get up every ten minutes to check your e-mail, or answer the phone; it disrupts the rhythm of what you are doing and you have to start all over again. Not everybody has a life they can control that way, but if you can’t fully immerse yourself in your work for a distraction free period of time, nothing terribly new and interesting is going to happen and you are going to do the same old, same old again. That’s why so many creative people stop being creative once they achieve success. The phone keeps ringing; they have to give talks, go to parties, be celebrities, etc.,etc. They probably did their most significant work before becoming famous. The smart ones know how to protect their “flow” and, like Philip Roth with his writing cabin in the woods can keep coming up with new ideas into old age.

When you start looking at the lives of “geniuses,” most seem to have done their best creative work when young. I don’t believe it’s age that stops the flow of ideas, it’s the obligations of a mature life (marriage, children) coupled with the distractions of worldly success. Einstein did his most innovative work before he became a celebrity. I’ve read that most math geniuses made their discoveries when they were young (and had lots of undisturbed time). Artists like Picasso might live in social turmoil during the day but do their creative work at night when no one is around. I remember reading a biography of the artist Philip Guston, one of my favorites. He would lock himself in his home studio and (despotically) insist on total silence in the house. His long suffering wife and children were ordered never to make as sound; no phone calls or visitors were allowed, anything that would disrupt the flow of the “great man at work” was forbidden. And it paid off with the best, most creative art of his life.

And here I am, in later years, turning out work that is far beyond my – or anyone else’s - expectations. Why? I think it’s because I live alone. I can be in the studio for as long as I want, whenever I want. I don’t have to make conversation or dinner. I can allow the flow of my painting to be uninterrupted leading me into paths I never imagined. I can think clearly, sequentially, without distraction. For some unexplained reason, the Universe has given me the gift of uninterrupted  time and I am determined to make the most of it.
Renee Kahn







Friday, August 31, 2018

POST #165: TRAVELING IN MY HEAD


I’m a notorious armchair traveler. This is an expression I haven’t heard used much nowadays. At one time it was used to describe someone who did his or her traveling through books – there were lots of travel books when I was young - in the comfort of their own home. Today, everyone I know is flying off to somewhere grand and exotic. “Morocco?” “Bosnia?” “You haven’t been to the Carpathians? “ No, and neither do I intend to go. I am perfectly happy traveling in my head, or if I need to get out, within a twenty mile ratio of home. If I’m going to get an upset stomach, I’d prefer to be close to familiar facilities.

In The Bardo

Diptych   66”x86”. Oil, charcoal and collage on canvas



I come by my stay-at-home genes honestly. My parents came to New York as teenagers in the early 1900s and never budged. Why should they? New York had everything they could ever want in terms of culture and ethnic diversity. There were Greek neighborhoods, Italian neighborhoods, Chinese neighborhoods. Food shops, restaurants, clothing stores. Maybe the Metropolitan Opera wasn’t equal to La Scala (although it probably was), or the art museums the size of the Louvre, but they were more than enough to amply fill their cultural requirements. My sweet father had an extensive library of travel books, most written in the early 1900s when the world wasn’t McDonalized. I’ve kept a few. At night, he would sit in his comfortable armchair, next to out cabinet radio, listen to WQXR (the classical music station), get a book (with photos) and travel (safely) in his head.

After college, most of my friends set off on travels. Because I was needed at home to take care of my parents (I was an “only” child with elderly, unwell parents), I had a one-hour travel radius and could only go where I could be reached quickly in an emergency. Somehow, I don’t remember being envious of my wandering friends. I was studying Art History in graduate school and it seemed to me that a version (maybe not as grand) of everything I would have seen in Europe, was within my one hour time frame. So the Catskills weren’t the Alps and Coney Island not the Riviera; I didn’t feel deprived.

Heaven on Earth

Charcoal and oil on canvas
Center panel. 72” 44”
I remember listening to a woman at a party brag about her recent trip to the Carribean. I asked her if she (a native New Yorker) had ever visited the Spanish market under the elevated tracks in east Harlem? It was a typical tropical street marqueta, except that the stallkeepers all spoke Spanish with a Yiddish accent. I would go there with a Cuban artist friend and we would sketch the natives from a hiding place behind the stone pillars. But then, you couldn’t brag about going to Spanish Harlem could you?

After marrying, I had three children in five years, and since going to the supermarket with them was a herculaean effort, travel to foreign places was definitely out of the question.  When we moved to Stamford 55 years ago (only temporarily, we thought) we discovered there was no end to interesting local places to take them to and they did not grow up culturally deprived. My husband, also a non-traveler, preferred his garden to any place in the world.  He had served in the South Pacific during World Was II and when he discovered that the women of the island he was stationed on bore no resemblance to those painted by Gauguin, he lost interest in exotic places. When two of our children moved to California, we did get out and about on the West Coast, visiting the Redwoods, the Pacific Northwest, San Franscisco, but the New York Botanical Gardens are 30 minutes from our house and, except for the joy of seeing our children, we would have been just as happy going there.

Nowadays, given my “advanced” years, I definitely prefer to travel in my head. There’s enough stored there to keep me visually occupied, in fact, I’m never going to get around to using the imagery that’s already on file. I know that many, if not most, of my readers love to travel, and I’m not being critical of them. À chacun son goût (See, I even speak French.)
Renee Kahn