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.

Friday, April 14, 2017

POST # 139: TOO STRONG FOR SATIRE

I’ve written before about my former life as a suburban satirist. Why “former”? Surely there are plenty of things to poke fun at today.  And isn’t satire one of the best ways to fight tyranny and injustice? Well, yes and no. Villains usually don’t mind if you hate them; they thrive on being hated. But what they really can’t tolerate is being made fun of. I’m sure our present leader puts the Saturday Night Live cast at the top of his list for the Gulag if he gets enough power.

However, when evil goes too far, becomes the norm, there’s no way you can see humor in it. Goya was a marvelous satirist of court life in Spain but after the horrors of the French occupation, satire became irrelevant and his art turned into rage. The Weimar period in Germany prior to the rise of Hitler was a Golden Age of satire: overweight Bourgeoisie, corrupt businessmen, hypocritical clergy and worn-out whores, all the excesses of a failing Capitalist system made for some of the best satire ever seen in the history of art. But when Hitler came to power, suddenly, none of it was funny any more. The artists who could flee, fled, and those who remained carefully stayed away from anything controversial.

 American art has never been big on satire. After all you can’t expect the kind of people who buy art to pay money to be laughed at. About the only time there were some reasonably good satirists in this country was during the 1930s, the Great Depression. Since no one was buying artwork anyhow, artists were freer to speak their mind. Publicly subsidized art like WPA murals, tended to concentrate on the positive aspects of American life, but there were also quite a few unaffiliated artists who “made a living” (and not much more) - Jack Levine or Ben Shahn - out of ‘social satire.’ What little political humor there was quickly vanished when Senator Joseph McCarthy and his Committee on Un-American Activities showed up in the 1950s. Abstraction Expressionism soon took over in the art world. There was no social criticism in drips and dabs.

When I started to paint again in the 1970s, after my children went off to school, I poked gentle fun at what I though were the foibles of suburbia. I have an attic full of paintings of clubwomen, American Legionaires and DAR ladies pouring tea. They seem dated given what is going on today. However, the “portraits” I did of local real estate developers and their cronies still seem pretty relevant, especially when you consider our present Head of State. As director of a local preservation organization, I found myself constantly outgunned by the bastards who were easily able to buy off everyone - politicians, government officials - who stood in their way.

Over the years, I’ve done a number of series that would be funny if they weren’t intrinsically tragic. My favorite is one I’ve never dared exhibit (too “x” rated.) It is based on the gross ugliness underneath the expensively coiffed and outfitted Trumps of this world – he’s far from unique. I call it my “Men’s Bathhouse Series,” paper cutouts of local developers and their cronies, men who wear expensive suits but you wouldn’t want to see what lies underneath. Our current President is a perfect example. Unfortunately, the sponsors of this blog censor nakedness of any sort (even when it’s meant to be funny, not prurient) and I don’t know of a single gallery that would be willing to run the risk of showing them, dressed or undressed. So, here are some “safe” examples from my “Bathhouse Series,” men of power fully clothed or in their skivvies. For a peek at what lies beneath their high-priced outer garments, you will have to use your imagination (or come to my studio.)


 P.S. I can’t bring myself to be a satirist any more. There’s nothing remotely funny about what’s going on.

Friday, April 7, 2017

POST #138: BREAKING SET

New York Water Towers I, II, III  - Oil on panel, 12"x16" 2016-17

I know you’ve heard this a million times before, about how distractible we all are nowadays. No one seems able to concentrate on anything for very long. However, given the plethora of media in our lives, it’s a miracle that we can concentrate as long as we do. I don’t know anyone who isn’t addicted to his or her media connections. I’ve had friends check iPhones while hiking in the park with me. When I walk on the track at the health club, half the people there are talking into their phones. All the ‘breaking news’ and attention-getting media have captured even the most aware and resistant of us. The net result is that we have difficulty focusing on anything for very long. When was the last time you actually sat still and concentrated for more than a few minutes? “Multi-tasking” (or, more accurately, “Multi-switching”) is the norm in our lives, not the exception. How many times have you caught the person you’re conversing with slip what he or she thought was an unobtrusive glance down at his media device? This is especially problematic for those of us who consider ourselves “artists”. Creativity of any kind requires total concentration. When was the last time you were not distracted?

I have an experiment for you: Make sure you are alone. Turn off any “media” and just stare out the window Focus on something, a tree for example, for at least five minutes. I’m willing to bet anything you can’t do it.  After sixty seconds, your mind will begin to wander, seek distractions. But if you force yourself to continue, something interesting will begin to happen. You will begin to see as opposed to just look. You will be amazed at how much there is that you never noticed: the texture of the bark, the subtle branching, the slight curve of the trunk.

There’s a concept in psychology called “Breaking Set.” It describes perceiving things around you in new and original ways. Creative artists (notice I differentiate them from “Non-Creative Artists) are good at this kind of mind-altering visualization. A “Set” is defined as the predisposition to perceive things in a certain way, either by habit or desire. One way you can “break set” is by staring at something long enough to override your camera eye and see differently. Ten years ago, when I broke my ankle and had to spend several weeks in an 11th floor New York apartment, I drew the same view over and over again. Eventually I “broke set” and was able to come up with some of the best, most original work I have ever done.

For the past few weeks I have been preparing a slide talk about the early 20th century French artist, Chaim Soutine. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea; the emotional intensity of his work is often difficult to take. He anticipated the Abstract Expressionists by about forty years and Pollock and deKooning were supposedly influenced by him. It seems that before Soutine started a painting he just stared at the subject (he always worked from life): landscape, figure, whatever, for maybe half an hour. Then, he would begin to paint furiously, finishing the entire work in one sitting, not even stopping to clean his brushes, just throwing them down on the ground and grabbing a new one. By staring so intensely before he began, he was able to “break set,” allow himself to depict his subject in a new, hyper-emotional way.

Try it and let me know what happens.

Friday, March 17, 2017

POST#137: DID I REALLY DREAM THAT?

I’ve heard people say that they never dream. Nonsense. Everybody dreams. Even my cat dreams - just watch her twitch in her sleep. She probably dreams of chasing mice, just as I dream of people and places. I started keeping a Dream Book a few years ago, putting a pencil and pad next to my pillow. Even so, I rarely manage to get something down on paper before it vanishes. When I do succeed and can go back and look at some of the dreams I was able to recall, I am amazed at their complexity and originality. I can see why surrealists and psychoanalysts were so intrigued by them. Some of my dreams make sense, have some tangible connection to what is going on in my life, while others are totally unexplainable.

 6'x4'  oil on canvas, 2015-16
I’ve seen a couple of articles lately on how to remember your dreams. It’s not easy and from what I’ve read takes considerable effort and practice. You need to have pencil and pad by your bed and you have to tell yourself, (just as you are about to fall asleep), that you must remember your dreams. This apparently works like an internal alarm clock – the kind that wakes you up when you have an earlier than usual appointment.  One researcher I read suggested looking through your Dream Book, if you have one, before you go to sleep to activate your dream center. The best, the longest, most complex dreams appear to come from deep, early morning sleep, however, we humans seem to have built in ‘dream erasers’  that start to work the second we wake up. If you don’t put the dream down immediately, it will disappear. Stay in bed. Don’t move. Review the dream in your mind first and then start writing….(and, let me know what happens.)

 6'x4'  oil on canvas, 2015-16
I rarely succeed in recording my dreams but when I do, it is always interesting to go back and read what I have written. If I hadn’t put them down the second I woke up, I would never have remembered them. Some are ‘place’ dreams where I find myself in an unfamiliar location. Others are anxiety dreams, related to actual problems in my life, i.e. the house falling down. And some are total puzzles that only a Jungian analyst could figure out. Those that intrigue me the most are like surrealist paintings such as the one I dreamt about eight years ago that took place in a decrepit old house, so cluttered that I could barely walk from one room to the other. In the dream, I went into the back bedroom and found a monster sized bare mattress on the floor. Under the coverlet lay an ancient hag dressed in rags. I pulled back the blanket and saw her lying there, asleep, knees up in a fetal position. She woke up and looked at me without lifting her head.  I pulled the cover back further and found a second old woman, identical to the first, lying at her feet, also unmoving, also bent into the same fetal position. Beneath her feet lay a third clone. To this day, I have no idea what it meant, if anything, but that puzzling trio might haunt me forever.


Saturday, February 25, 2017

POST #136: NEXT STOP 125TH STREET



When I was in my 20s, I took a dozen or so snapshots with my point and shoot Brownie camera of the Lower East Side. I was doing some street scenes (my social realist period) and needed reference material. I admired the work of Ben Shahn but never thought I could come anywhere near his level of technical skill. Little did I know that he worked from photos all the time, perhaps even mechanically transferring them with an opaque projector to his canvas. I don’t think we’ll ever know the truth; he was pretty secretive. But, if Vermeer could do it, why not Ben Shahn (or me)?

Anyhow, about two years ago, I abstracted my Lower East Side photos into a series of eight large paintings designed to fit together to make two 16’ long murals. I was pleased with the results, some of the best work I have ever done (See Post #68 Dear Reader page). I think now that sufficient time has passed, I’m ready to revisit the theme, only now I want to re-create Harlem, both as it looks today and as I remember it. My ‘alma maters’ (the High School of Music and Art and City College uptown) were located in Harlem and I lived in Morningside Heights when I first got married. Over the years I have watched the area fall and rise. In my early twenties, I remember going to ‘rent parties’ where folk and jazz musicians played and you donated (into a passed hat) to pay the rent. One evening I found myself on a mattress next to a curly haired, stoned banjo player who “looked familiar,” Woody Guthrie.

Now that Harlem is “safe” again, I have enjoyed revisiting it, taking photos for a new series of street scenes. Fortunately, I have a friend who walks across 125th St. once a week to teach at Columbia. I have persuaded him to snap whatever catches his attention with his I-Phone (pretending to be talking into it) while on his weekly trek across town. He doesn’t have time to be selective or compose anything but it doesn’t matter; I get his images developed at Walgreen’s and take what I want out of them. I never draw directly from photos; I absorb them. The results are kaleidoscopic, real but unreal. So far, I have finished several sketches of people on the street that I will ignore once I start to paint. In the finished work, you’ll see fragments of Harlem: the signage, the Apollo Theater, elevated train stations, vendors, and street life. I can’t wait to get to work!




Friday, February 10, 2017

POST #135: I’M JUST ISADORABLE


I have no idea where most of my art comes from. Images just seem to burst unbidden from my subconscious. If anything, when I set out to portray “something” it’s usually forced looking and a failure. At the moment, my studio walls are covered with four-foot high figures cut from brown wrapping paper. They are dancing with such abandon that I call them Maenads, drunken followers of the ancient Greek god, Dionysus. The closest thing I’ve seen to anything like them are Matisse’s giant cutouts on the frieze of the Barnes Museum in Philadelphia, but, if you’ll forgive my hubris, I think mine are more interesting.

The images are derived from small paper cutouts of figures I paste on cheap paper plates - my 21st century “Arte Povera” version of Greek kylixes or drinking cups. At night, before I go to sleep, I usually listen to (not watch) some fairly uninteresting talk shows and while my conscious mind is distracted, I cut 5” figures freehand out of black or tan paper. Then I stick them on a lampshade to get a better look. (Post #132) and the next day, I glue them down onto cheap paper plates, the 300 for $3.99 variety. I think of them as Ancient Greek in origin because of their fluted rims, a common border motif known as a ‘tongue’ pattern. I’ve always assumed that they came from my twenty years of teaching art history at the University of Connecticut – influenced by the incomparable Greek ceramics that survived millennia when much else was lost.

It recently dawned on me that my interest in the dancing figures goes much further back than my art history days – it goes back to my childhood, when my mother took me into downtown Manhattan once a week to study Interpretive Dance – the innovative techniques of Isadora Duncan. From the time I was five until about the age of 11, I took lessons from two disciples of Duncan’s style: Irma Duncan, one of Isadora’s adopted daughters (they were called the “Isadorables”), and Julia Levien, who also studied with Duncan. Barefoot, dressed in a chiffon toga my mother had made for me and with a wreath of flowers in my hair, I attempted to hop, skip and jump with the prescribed abandon of a true follower of Dionysus, the supposed basis for Duncan dance. My career ended when it became evident that while I had my heart in it, my body was just not up to the demands. I was relatively tall for my age and noticeably delicate (skinny), while the really good Duncan dancers were stocky and muscular. Nature, it seemed had other plans for me.

Since I had no “ear” for music, the only remaining option was to become an artist. So, here I am, decades (many, many) later, turning my failure as a Duncan dancer into another art form, filling my studio with cut-out figures who enjoy dancing to a gypsy fiddler – the best I can come up with since no one really knows what 5th century B.C. music actually sounded like.


At any rate, I never made the connection between my short-lived career as a Duncan dancer and the wrapping paper cutouts chasing each other around my studio wall until a few weeks ago when one of my beautiful granddaughters came for a visit. We spent the afternoon looking at old family photos and came across a couple that were taken of me at a performance when I was about ten or eleven years old. There are even shadows on the wall that look like my recent silhouettes - I’m the skinny one with the long hair on the right and in the group photo, I’m the second from the left in the middle row.


Thursday, February 2, 2017

POST #134: WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH IT ALL?



My son Ned, who creates major Public Art projects throughout the world, claims that I am a “higher order” artist than he is since I only do what I want to do, not what I’m hired to do. Aside from the fact that throughout history artists were almost always on someone’s payroll, I’m not so sure being at the mercy of a buyers’ market is a badge of honor. And since no one has commissioned my art, there’s a possibility no one is ever going to want it and that leaves me (and my heirs) with one hell of a problem. What’s going to happen to it (an attic full) after I’m gone? Every artist I know, facing inevitable mortality, has to deal with this problem. Since I personally won’t be around to care, my heirs can give away as much as they can and since new canvas is expensive, they can just put a coat of gesso on everything that’s left over and recycle it. The good news though is that my recent, smaller pieces sold quite well, so, maybe the answer to the backlog in the attic is to cut everything into 2’x3’ paintings; they might go like hotcakes in pretty frames. I’m told that’s what art dealers used to do in the 1920s with those big Baroque paintings nobody wanted to buy.

My daughter Eve decided to tackle the problem while I’m still around and hired a photographer to archive everything.  That way, when I go to that great studio in the sky and my children move everything to a storage locker or have a giant tag sale, there will be a record somewhere “in the cloud.” At least they won’t have the problem I’m told that the famous sculptor George Rickey’s son has of spending half his life going around fixing his father’s work.

Starting (hopefully) in February, my friend Hilly Dunn, an expert art photographer, will set up a photo studio in my attic. One by one, we’ll record everything: title, size, date, etc. This is assuming I will be able to recall it. Hilly and Eve even found a new site specifically designed to document artists like me: POBA.org., a “cultural arts center” designed to celebrate artists who have “died without recognition of the full measure of their talents or creative legacies.” POBA takes its name from a Tibetan phrase describing the “transformation of consciousness at death to begin a new life.” At least it gives me something to look forward to…! I’m not being morbid; just realistic. When someone prepares a will, we understand that he wants to be prepared for the inevitable.

But even better…what if I actually achieve fame and fortune while I’m still around? ….and the work sells and provides me with a rich and exciting old(er) age? Underappreciated “mature” women artists seem to be in vogue now and while there’s life there’s hope!