Friday, December 20, 2013

Post #19 From My Daughter's Window

Six years ago, almost to the day, I slipped on black ice and broke my ankle forcing me to spend six weeks in a nursing home and an additional six weeks in my daughter and her husband’s “handicapped accessible” apartment on West End Avenue in Manhattan. They went about their busy New York lives, leaving me in the gentle care of the housekeeper, Julia. Unable to go out on my own, I found myself confined to the “guest” room with its glorious 11th floor views of the city, and nothing to do. In retrospect, it was one of the most productive, wonderful periods of my life.

A recent letter to the New York Times quoted the writer, Amy Tan, as expressing the “classic writer’s fantasy – going to jail to have enough time to read and write. “  In my case, I had six weeks of uninterrupted time to draw, finally understanding much of what I had been taught but never fully comprehended. Every morning, I pulled my chair up to the window overlooking West End Avenue, took out a pad and pencil and began to sketch the same scene over and over again for six weeks. I’ve never been much good at architectural rendering, barely passing the subject in college, but my initial efforts on a small 4”x6” scale were passable.

Hour after hour, day after day, I drew the same scene: all kinds of weather, light, and from different vantage points. The drawings grew somewhat larger, never exceeding 8”x10.”  I generally finished one in the morning, another one after lunch. In a sense, I was proceeding on the path taken by Cezanne in his sixty-plus views of Mount Ste. Victoire, or Monet in his numerous views of the Cathedral of Rouen or his waterlily pond. By repeating the same subject matter, over and over again, I could reach its essence, go beyond the purely visual and create art. As I worked, I kept hearing Manet’s words: “There are no lines in nature.” He, of course, was referring to the way shapes are formed by flat areas of color butted up against one another, I was doing drawings and my shapes were formed by the black, white and gray of the pencil.
I discovered that the scene before me was constantly changing. In bright sunshine, the edges of dark and light were clear and defined; when the weather was cloudy or near evening, grayness took over, muting the buildings and the sky. 

I had accidentally come across the perfect drawing paper, a heavy tan “butcher” stock I found lining tables at a nearby restaurant. It provided my work with a “middle tone” that allowed for deep charcoal darks and white pencil accents.  Soon, without my being conscious of it, barely-defined people began to appear on rooftops alongside Classical arcades, ornate cornices and robot-like water towers. What were they doing? Going about their daily lives or contemplating suicide? The drawings took on a surreal, DeChirico quality that I liked. I had entered, without being aware of it, a psychological state known as “breaking set,” (literally, “breaking down a mindset”) referring to freeing oneself from habitual responses and thought processes. I now saw the scene before me, not as a drawing “problem,” but one of depicting shapes, the ever-changing light, intriguing shadows, mists and clouds, mysterious people and menacing black birds.

And then, fully healed, I went home, resumed my regular life and put the drawings away… until today, when I wrote this post.  

Friday, December 13, 2013


In the early 1980s, I began a series of urban tableaux inside discarded supermarket boxes (the influence of Arte Povera, a movement out of Italy at the time that emphasized the use of “humble” materials).  I used my collection of old photos of downtown Stamford as backgrounds – especially Pacific Street, Stamford’s ‘urban renewal-ed’ version of New York City’s Lower East Side. The boxes became miniature stage sets, filled with my drawings of real people: all ages, nationalities, sizes, shapes and colors. The box project worked for me because my time to do artwork was so limited: I was teaching two classes in Art History at the University of Connecticut in Stamford, running a non-profit preservation organization and caring for a family. The boxes, fortunately, could be worked on whenever I had a few spare minutes; unlike painting, they didn’t require large swaths of unbroken time.

Everywhere I went, I picked up boxes and it didn’t take long before I had a studio full of them, stacked in towers, one on top of another, all sizes and shapes. Since I had photocopied my people in different sizes, I could place them in a variety of settings, typical of an urban street environment. I even experimented with miniature lights, creating haunting stage effects. Unlike more traditional artwork that you just “hung,” the boxes were difficult to exhibit; they required special environments where lighting could be controlled. I’ve installed walls and towers of boxes in libraries, galleries and museums, in different arrangements. I even put them up in the windows of a gallery on Prince Street in SOHO. Despite freezing weather, crowds of people stood for long periods of time, studying them. A friend of mine who worked nearby told me of a co-worker coming back late from lunch and telling her that she had just seen “the most remarkable” exhibit in a SOHO gallery window. My friend immediately knew what she meant.

My favorite box exhibit was held many years ago in the Westport Art Center, located, at the time, in an old school building. The show was called “The Boxists” and featured a prominent group of Joseph Cornell-like “assemblagists” who had worked and exhibited together for many years. I was an outsider. To install my pieces, I enlisted the help of two friends who worked at the Stamford Museum: Ken Marchione, Director of Art, and Ed Glissom who was in charge of exhibits. They had a van and brought up one hundred or so boxes. I had no idea how I was going to install them but I figured my two experienced guys would figure something out. The show was held in a large gym/gallery but by the time we arrived, the other Boxists had appropriated all the wall space and no one had any intention of giving me an inch. The curator, a sweet woman, was intimidated by them and stood there, helpless, unable to order anyone to make room for me.

Lacking wall space, Ed, Ken and I decided to commandeer the center of the gym. Using a couple of wooden skids Ken had in his truck, we proceeded to create a ten-foot pyramid of grungy boxes. They were totally out of place among the slick pieces of my co-exhibitors who refused to cast so much as a glance in my direction. The Einsels, a well-known husband and wife designer team looked particularly unhappy. No one spoke to us; my work was ruining their precious show. To be quite honest, they were correct, I didn’t fit in.

But I have to tell you, my pile of detritus was the hit of the exhibit. The sophisticated Westport crowd at the opening found the work “refreshing” (at least they hadn’t seen it a zillion times before) and gathered round in droves, full of praise. The art critics (there were art critics in the newspapers in those days) used my work to illustrate their reviews. But the best came from Vivian Raynor, who wrote for the New York Times. She ended her critique by saying “If that’s what real people look like (they do, Vivian), then it’s time for me to fall on my ball point pen.” I loved it. I was a “succès de garbage.”

Friday, December 6, 2013


Thanksgiving is not one of my favorite holidays. Like Christmas, Passover etc, it arouses all sorts of expectations of love and good will and fulfills very few. I kind of dread this time of year in general: cold, dark and depressing. I recently read that in medieval times, farm families in France  would often sleep huddled together for warmth through most of the winter, getting up only to do necessary chores. Wonder if I could get away with that?

However, one of the more interesting Thanksgivings I ever spent was in Las Vegas several years ago. Imagine having a traditional family dinner in a strip mall restaurant next to a hockey rink off a barren eight-lane highway in one of the most desolate cities in the United States. Hardly a Norman Rockwell image of Thanksgiving. One of my teen-age grandsons was starring in a hockey tournament and his family wanted to spend the holiday with him. Andrew, his father, my oldest son, sent out a plea to his siblings to join him and create some semblance of a holiday celebration. I had never been to Vegas before, was curious to see the place and accepted their invitation. The casinos and the hotels, as expected, were swollen and grotesque, caricatures of contemporary architecture, but the rest of the city, the “normal” part, was even more depressing.

My daughter Eve, an assiduous researcher, discovered that Las Vegas held two hidden treasures. One was the Pinball Machine Museum, a couple hundred or so clanking, squealing examples of American ingenuity and vulgarity that you could actually play.  The other, the Neon Museum was an “elephant’s graveyard” of old neon gambling and nightclub signs, acre after acre of abandoned neon letters - some fifty years old - advertising the best that Sin City had to offer. Remember the old United Housewrecking on Selleck Street? It kind of looked like that, On a more artistic level,  it was like being inside a Schwitters collage. (Kurt Schwitters was a German dada-ist artist who loved commercial signage and used cast-off scrap in his assemblages.) He would have gone berserk with joy at the sight of all these wonderful letters thrown on the ground and abstracted into a jumble of colors and shapes. The neon sign museum was the high point of our visit, although I have to say, the untouched desert surrounding the city, - landscape that up until then had escaped development - was spectacular in its own way.

I had a great time photographing the remains of broken signs and lights We were told that there were plans in the works to “fix everything up” (ruining it in the process?)  Let’s hope whoever is in charge understands the significance of what is there, and leaves it undisturbed, an extraordinary example of a graveyard more exciting than any art gallery. If you ever get to Vegas, never mind the slots or the tired acts or the dancing girls; head straight for the Neon Museum. Now that’s an experience worth having!

Friday, November 22, 2013


Size 48"x58", charcoal and oil on canvas c1985. Whereabouts unknown. 
I’ve got an attic full of paintings; most of them have never been shown. “Don’t you want to sell your work?” I’m frequently asked. “Not at the moment,” I reply. “Well, how are you going to become rich/famous if you don’t sell your work?” “It’s the other way around” I try to explain,  “I’m never going to become rich/famous if I do sell my work because it’s my best work that people will buy and then disappear with it.” And since I don’t “have a name,” they are not willing to pay me very much - and the work is gone (often forever). I like to exhibit my work (feedback is important), but not to sell it.

"Shore Leave", c.1985, oil on canvas. Whereabouts unknown.
I once heard a famous antiques collector complain that he “only regretted the things he didn’t buy.” Well, my line is, “I only regret the things I sold” Case in point: two of my best paintings were bought by people who have since “vanished.”.Dead? Moved to Canada? Retired to Mexico? Who knows? Another favorite piece was on long-term loan to a friend in New York City who had it taken from his apartment “by mistake”and sold at auction. Since it’s now officially stolen property, no one will admit to having bought it. I have tried to recreate these pieces from photographs, but without success. Don’t I want the money from selling my work? Sure, but since I’m Mrs. Nobody in the art world, we’re talking a pittance and so far, the wolf has not appeared at the door. There’s a story that Mark Rothko (already famous) advised his friend, Clyfford Still (not yet famous), not to sell his huge abstract-expressionist canvases. Still appears to have agreed and for much of his career, avoided selling his work. (he was a little eccentric, however)

A few years ago, my friend Ann had an uptight suitor who had just bought a condo apartment she was helping him decorate. She decided the apartment was “drab,” (like the suitor) and needed one of my paintings over the sofa to liven it up. She brought him to my house and ordered him to go up to the attic and pick out a painting. He came down with a huge “party” (to be polite) scene, the last thing in the world I would have expected him to choose. I said “no,” he couldn’t have that one (it was one of my best) but he had fallen madly in love with one of the half-naked dancing girls and wouldn’t take no for an answer.  He reached into his pocket and brought out a “wad (literally) of cash” that he had just won at blackjack in Las Vegas (he was a math teacher) and I caved in. Off he went with the painting, which did look terrific over his sofa; in fact it was the only thing in the apartment that had any life in it. Fast forward three or four years; he and my friend have long parted and he has a new woman in his life. She hates the painting and insists he get rid of it (too much competition?). She will not move in with him until the painting is gone. He calls me up and says he is (reluctantly) returning it, but doesn’t want his money back. “Consider it a rental,” he says (which is very nice of him.) I was thrilled to get the painting back; It’s a knockout, one of my best and, who knows? Someday, it might be the one that makes me rich/famous.

Renee Kahn, November 22, 2013

Friday, November 15, 2013

POST # 15 LOEHMANN’S DRESSING ROOM: women and their bodies

I don’t know a single woman who has never been to Loehmann’s. It’s a tribal rite of passage from adolescence to womanhood; the day you went with your mother to try on real grown-up clothes was a landmark event in every young girl’s life.
(note: for the benefit of my male readers, Loehmann’s is a chain of discount clothing stores dating back to the 1940s, distinguished by large communal dressing rooms with mirrored walls and benches; no men allowed.)

In its early days (when I went on a regular basis) you could not return anything and therefore you needed to bring someone with you to prevent impulse buys that you would later regret. In a heedless (and unaccompanied) moment I purchased a slinky black crepe dress, a designer sample with what were then called “floating panels” on the back. I thought I looked divine, but since I was 5’6” tall and weighed 108 pounds, the effect was more Olive Oyl than Marilyn Monroe. Anyhow, I had an important date and wanted to be as devastating as possible. When I walked out of my bedroom in my new purchase, my father took one look at me, cleared his throat and said, “Remember, Renee; you’re the intellectual type.” (not quite what I wanted to hear). When my date arrived, a few minutes later, he burst into uncontrollable laughter. That did it. I went back into my room and changed into something more appropriate for an underweight intellectual. Since Loehmann’s had a “no return’ policy at the time, my error in judgment (or self image) hung in my closet, haunting me for many years.

I had better luck on another occasion when I actually brought a suitor to the Loehmann’s store on Fordham Road in the Bronx. At that time, it had a balcony where men could wait until “show time” when their lady friend emerged for a thumbs up or thumbs down sign. The store had acquired some samples of form-fitting chiffon dresses made up of tiny pleats, Fortuny style. They clung to your body like a wet Grecian toga. Unlike my previous debacle, (maybe I had gained a few pounds) the sight of me didn’t elicit a laugh but an instant proposal of marriage. It was very flattering, but since I couldn’t walk around in a sheer toga the rest of my life, I didn’t see much future in the relationship.

My last visit to Loehmann’s was a few years ago. Fortunately for me, evil satirist that I am, they were having a half price sale on bustiers that day. For the benefit of my male readers, a bustier is like a fancy corset that laces up the front or the back, pushing your breasts up to your collarbone, while exposing your ass. The sight of all those women, all sizes, shapes, ages and colors in that vast mirrored dressing room, trying to get a look at their rumps, has stayed with me lo these many years and given me an endless supply of artistic inspiration.

Friday, November 8, 2013


152 Delancy Street  c1955
(Kodak Brownie Camera snapshot)
Anybody can be a decent photographer today. Buy a hi-res digital camera, read the manual, find an attractive subject, improve it on Photoshop it, mat it, and voila! you’ve got a decent photograph! But, how do you transcend mere competence and create a work of art? For that you need a soul and that can’t be bought in the camera store.

Let’s start by discussing “cropping”, always controversial. Photographers love to argue about cropping. Is it acceptable or not? moral or immoral? Is it true that the “great” photographers, i.e. Cartier Bresson, never cropped but could create masterpieces in the viewfinder?  My feeling is, what difference does it make whether one composes in the camera, or in the darkroom or on a computer screen? I say whatever looks good, is good. There are no “nevers” in art; we learned that long ago.

I am occasionally asked to judge one of the many camera club competitions in the area. I carefully forewarn them that I am not a photographer, that I don’t know an F Stop from a G String. But what I do know is how to compose an image, how to transform something mundane into a work of art. I am usually one of three judges, the other two, professional photographers. Yet it always ends up that I, surprisingly, am called on the most often. Why?

Cropped version 152 Delancy Street
When the image to be critiqued goes up on the screen, the other judges invariably comment about focus or technique: i.e. there’s a speck of dust on the image, aaagh! I, not knowing or caring about technique, concentrate on two things: originality of image and the quality of the design. Unfortunately, you can’t teach originality; it requires an authentic “self” and there aren’t too many authentic selves running around today. But, composition can be taught or at least demonstrated.  I do that mainly by showing the group how to crop. I hold my hands up at the projected photo on the screen, squint at the image and take a little off the top, something off the bottom, and before their eyes, the photograph is transformed. The audience gasps. Instead of an uninteresting cliche, they are now looking at something approaching real quality.

Detail, 152 Delancy Street
Many years ago I came across an envelope of undistinguished Brownie snapshots I had taken of the Lower East Side when I was just out of art school. They were supposed to be reference material, images of buildings and stores I wanted to use as background in some paintings I was doing. I had the 2”x2” negatives developed and the results were truly awful. But then I blew them up and began to crop them, transforming the mundane into something magical. Some I thought (egotistically) were even better than similar work being done by Berenice Abbott at the time. Not technically of course (she used a giant still camera on a tripod), but as works of art. I may be a piss-poor photographer (I haven’t gotten much better over the years) but I’m a great cropper….and apparently, that’s what makes the difference.

Friday, November 1, 2013


I was recently asked to participate in an Art Walk by putting my work in a storefront window on a well-trafficked downtown street. Normally, given the kind of art I do (no pretty pictures, lots of raunch), I avoid events like this like the plague. It’s one thing for someone to come to a gallery to see my work – they get what they deserve; it’s another to have it shoved in their face. I always believed that public art needed to consider the public. If it meant tamer work, so be it. Artists can create whatever they want in their studios, but passer-bys shouldn’t be forced to look at it. 

Anyhow, someone from the local business council  recently contacted me about putting my work in the window of the Bridal Shop on Bedford Street, a primo spot with lots of foot traffic.   Given my sentiments about controversial public art, I was hesitant as to whether my satirical work was appropriate. The owner of the store and the representative from the council in charge of the walk came to my studio and enthusiastically selected a group of life-size paper dolls that poked (gentle) fun at racial, ethnic and other stereotypes. We decided that the dolls (all seven of them) would look great in the store’s window. One of my characters, a pregnant, “possibly” Hispanic teen-ager could wear a wedding veil from the shop’s collection. She would stand in front and the others, all in fancy underwear, would form the wedding party. When we installed the figures, the response from passer-bys was heart warming. Everyone saw the humor and loved the work. Crowds gathered, laughing and praising the installation.
And then the trouble began. The director of the sponsor, the downtown business council, said my work would cause a problem (racial stereotyping). My pregnant teen-ager with her wedding veil would have to go. “But, that’s the whole point.” I protested. “I’m making fun of stereotyping!” She replied that she didn’t want to deal with all the angry phone calls. I told her to tell them to call me and I would deal with them. We ended up compromising (that’s what Public Art is about) and my curly-haired “Latina” could stay in the window, but without the veil and not up front.

To the best of my knowledge, nobody protested, although literally hundreds of people attended the Art Walk. I was told that everyone loved the dolls…thought they were hilarious, even the “stereotypes” themselves liked them.  I heard of only one complaint. Someone walked by at the end and threw a paper cupful of coffee at the window, protesting that I was making fun of “fat people.”  True, but I was also making fun of skinny people, old people, various ethnic types, etc. I’m an “equal opportunity” satirist. That’s what art is supposed to do, elicit a reaction, even if it’s only a cup of coffee tossed at a piece of glass!

So, all in all, I consider the event a success. I probably won’t be invited back next year, (too controversial) but, what the hell! This year was fun.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

POST #12: Keeping Secrets

Renee Kahn Channels Picasso's Cubist Period,
oil on canvas 40"x32"
I have a vivid memory of a trip to a glass and mirror store in New York City when I was a teenager. The owner, ancient by my standards, had been a glazier for over fifty years. He told me that when he first entered the business, “silvering” glass to create a mirror was a well-kept secret. Silverers worked behind a curtain so that no one could steal their formulae. Now, of course, silvering comes (like everything else) in a spray can.

This is sort of a roundabout way of getting to my subject, how some artists freely share their techniques, while others hide “behind curtains,” refusing to give away the tricks of their trade. The truth is, no one, unless he is a professional forger, can imitate another artist; I can’t even copy my own work. A work of art has a soul, and while you can use someone else’s materials and methods, the soul isn’t there and any reasonably expert student of art can spot the difference. Just because you know how to etch doesn’t mean you can be a Rembrandt. Since I started my professional life as an art teacher, I am prone to telling all I know. I have no technical secrets to hide, and, in fact, I don’t even think they’re worth imitating. But other artists feel differently; I’ve met some who are extremely open about sharing, giving you a blow by blow description of their working methods, while others guard their secrets possessively, even to the point of giving out false information.

Renee Kahn Channels DeChirico.
Cardboard box collage 22"x14"x3"
A number of years ago, I attended a lecture series in which several well -known artists showed slides of their work and answered questions about “process” to an audience that included a goodly number or working artists.  One of the presenters was Richard Haas, a noted photorealist who did trompe l’oeil murals on huge urban walls. His “shtick” was to create architectural detail to replace what was demolished. What an irony; painted architecture instead of the real thing. In 1976, for the City’s bi-centennial celebration, I created a pair of photorealist murals using slides of old Stamford projected onto two downtown walls. These murals were painted at night by volunteers standing on rickety, “you’re taking your life in your hands” scaffolding. I was curious to know how Haas created his infinitely more worthy masterpieces and so I asked him. I was taken aback when he fum-fuhed and gave vague, deliberately un-useful or misleading answers. “Ahem, well, …sometimes I project and sometimes I grid it up” (the historic way of enlarging work.) Duh! Did he really think that anyone could do his exquisitely detailed 60’high paintings based on information like that?

The next speaker at the art symposium, Jane Freilicher, was totally the opposite. An abstract expressionist landscape painter (an oxymoron, I know), who lived and worked among the Pollock/De Kooning crowd on the eastern end of Long Island, she freely shared the tricks of her trade. When asked, she told the audience that she used Windsor Newton’s medium, Liquin, a mix of varnish and linseed oil, to make her paint luminous and flowing. She couldn’t have been more eager to give out her work methods. Trust me, even knowing how she did it, I was never going to paint landscapes like hers, however, I now use Liquin all the time. It’s great stuff.

"Picasso's Mona Lisa" by Renee Kahn.
by way of a contemporary Minoan Goddess
 (note MP3 player).
Oil on canvas,  42"x34"
Art history is full of stories of artists stealing from other artists. While one artist can pick up ideas from another, the great artists are just not copy-able,  Most artists rarely talk about technique; their secrets go to the grave with them. I remember reading a 500 page biography of Mark Rothko, one of my favorite 20th century painters. In all that verbiage, there wasn’t a single line about his work methods. Did he tone the canvas first? Use oil or acrylic or a mix of both? Stretch the canvas before or after painting on it? I was dying to know. The author listed the name of practically everyone he ever slept with, but not a hint as to how he worked.

Several years before he died, Picasso allowed a movie to be made of him working on transparent panels that could be photographed from behind. Although I now know a lot more about how he created the masterpieces of his later years, I’m never going to be another Picasso, He knew he had nothing to fear.

Friday, October 18, 2013


I was all set to propose a new art movement I decided to call “Immersion Art,” the creation of an environment in which the viewer could “immerse” himself, when I realized that it wasn’t new at all, in fact, you could say that’s it’s as old as humanity itself; it’s what the cave painters were doing when they performed multi-media rituals in torch- lit caves with hordes of painted pre-historic animals as a backdrop.

My form of Immersion Art is singularly low tech. I don’t use lighting or slides or computerized images, just an old-fashioned overhead projector, the obsolete kind we used to use in schools to put lessons on a blackboard. Many years ago, when I was teaching art history at the University of Connecticut, I remember walking by a classroom and seeing chemistry notes put up for students to copy. I remember thinking, why did it have to be boring formulae; why couldn’t it be art? I started photocopying my sketches onto transparent sheets of plastic and using these enlargements as the basis for paintings. In recent years however, I decided to carry it a step further and make the projected images themselves into an art form, and lately, going even further, I began to include the viewer in the image as well.

What exactly is “Immersion Art?” My son, Ned, an environmental sculptor (and don’t ask me what that is) explains it beautifully. He claims “it’s the difference between being inside a forest versus standing next to a plant. “ Anyhow, I soon discovered I could use the overhead projector to create the forest.

I recently sent out an e-mail to a group of local artists, asking for unwanted overhead projectors (they were obsolete; everyone was now using PowerPoint and a computer) and ended up with eighteen perfectly good machines that were taking up storage space in local schools. I could have acquired dozens more if only I had a bigger attic! A lifetime supply I hoped!

Many years ago, just out of art school, I went down to the Lower East Side and took a roll of snapshots with my new Kodak Brownie camera to use as reference material for some paintings of street life I was doing. However, I never got around to using the images and the envelope with the prints and negatives remained untouched for years. About a dozen years ago, I found the envelope, unopened, had the images printed and began to use them as backgrounds for a series of cardboard box dioramas I was working on. Recently, I copied the scenes onto sheets of acetate to use with the overhead projector. In my darkened studio, I was able to re-create a lost world one could actually enter, his or her shadows mingling with the people I had photographed on Delancey Street or under the Third Avenue El decades ago. I then borrowed a half- dozen projectors and put together an exhibit that filled a huge, windowless art gallery. By projecting and overlapping the images twenty feet high, I created a world people could actually walk into, blurry, dream-like and surreal. 

The closest thing to this experience nowadays is what happens when you go to a natural history museum or zoo where they recreate a rain forest, replete with steamy temperatures and exotic birdcalls. If I ever get a chance to do this installation again, I will try to tape street sounds and music, making it even more “Immersive.” Smells of food and garbage would provide a nice touch as well. The overhead projector, low-tech as it is, can pull you into an environment that evokes memories of the past.

I like to think I invented “Immersion Art,” but the truth is, it has been around (under other names) for millenia, “multi-media” rituals that combined art and theater. The Medieval cathedral, another multi-media experience also “immerses” the viewer as does going to the theater. More recently, the “Happening” movement of the 1960s involved the audience in a multi-dimensional manner that evades the standard “art-on-a wall-to-be-sold gallery experience. Best of all, having no product to market frees both the creator and the viewer, allowing them to inter-act rather than trans-act. “Immersive/Immersion Art” is still going strong

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Having taught art history at the University of Connecticut for over twenty years, I spent a great deal of time explaining “great art.” But what constitutes great art? What makes one painting “great” and another just “good”? I would often show my students two slides of paintings, side by side, and ask which one was better. Both works had been expertly painted by well-known artists, the subjects and compositions were almost identical. However, the class – artistically illiterate as they were - was always almost unanimous in preferring one over the other. There were obviously forces at work here, even if no one could articulate them.

What makes a painting a masterpiece often boils down to its underlying abstract design, not the drawing or the subject matter. Art students are invariably taught something called “ The Principles of Design,” Balance, Unity, Focal Point and Rhythm among them. One favorite art school project is to take a famous painting, let’s say Brueghel’s “Wedding Dance” and break it down to its basic design elements.  When I taught art history I would often project a slide of the painting onto the blackboard and proceed to outline its major shapes in chalk, describing how they worked together using the Principles of Design. When I turned the lights on, the abstract basis of a non-abstract painting would be clearly revealed. The class would sit there mesmerized.

Let’s start by talking about “Balance,” since that is a relatively easy Principle to explain. Think of a seesaw with a child at either end. The seesaw must be “balanced” if it is to work. This usually requires the children to be of equal weight but you can also achieve balance with two light and one heavy child, or by placing one child closer or further towards the middle than the other. Paintings operate the same way, although in a much subtler fashion. If successful, the work simply “feels” balanced, even if you can’t say why. For example, if you took something away or added something on one side of the painting, you might have to do something on the other in order to maintain that sense of balance.  And in the end, it’s the old “You’ll know it when you see it.” It’s purely intuitive; it can’t be plotted or explained mathematically, but it’s there.

I decided to illustrate this post with some small, scrap metal collages I put together a while ago based on the work of the German “Dada-ist” artist, Kurt Schwitters. Around 1920, Schwitters began to experiment with the aesthetic value of “junk:” scraps of paper, wood, metal, whatever  cast-offs he could find. I personally collect most of my detritus at Vulcan Scrap Metal located on Sunnyside Avenue in Stamford, a place that buys and sells scrap metal by the pound. Lots of sculptors go there, including my son from California who makes sure to visit whenever he is on the east coast. To me, Vulcan is a treasure trove of all kinds of scrap metal, often rusted and covered with dirt, but interesting nonetheless. I compose and collage the pieces together, Schwitters style, and glue them on to 5”x7” pieces of black Velcro. The finishing touch, a gaudy black and gold Baroque frame, provides the contrast of garbage framed in gold. The pieces themselves, their origins, are irrelevant; it’s the composition that counts, primarily the way everything “balances.” Lately, I have been picking up crushed cans from the side of the road. Properly “weathered,” they take on a visual life of their own; I call them “Road Kill.”

Friday, October 4, 2013

POST #9 :BOSOMS: A Tribute to….

Seven Deadly Sins: Envy  48"x34"
A recent visitor to my studio commented that there appeared to be an awful lot of bosoms in my paintings. I thought about it for a while and decided he was right. I’m not particularly sex obsessed or even overly concerned with body parts, so why so much pulchritude in my work? Maybe it’s because I’m a social satirist and if you live in a society like ours, isn’t bigger always better?

I can’t tell you how many times I have observed a hefty female on the street proudly packed into a stretch outfit at least four sizes too small. They walk (jiggle) with enormous pride, seeming to say: “I sure am something! ” This is especially obvious during summer months when more gets exposed. The period in art history when pendulous body parts were most in vogue was the prehistoric era when female fertility statuettes were composed entirely of exaggerated sexual organs. Just breasts and pudenda. 

The current fashion in the female body appears to be surgically enhanced breasts tacked on to anorexic bodies. Nature doesn’t work that way; slim women are usually slim all over, but in an effort to be more attractive or fashionable they distort the natural beauty of their real bodies. I recently watched someone at the local health club proudly display her newly acquired, perfectly round breasts (think cut-in-half –cantaloupes attached to a chest wall), crowned by her tiny, original nipples. Did the man in her life really think this was an improvement? Shame on him!

Seven Deadly Sins: Pride  68"x44"
The role of a satirist is to point out the foibles of society. There’s a difference between being lewd and making fun of lewdness. If you think my stuff is raunchy, take a look at George Grosz’s drawings of women on the street in 1920s Weimar Germany. Lecherous bastard that he was, Grosz showed them fully dressed but also fully naked under their clothes, the way he assumed men imagine them, In no way do they resemble the serene, nude goddesses of Classical periods. There’s a big difference between nudity and nakedness.

My women are fertility symbols, goddesses of plenty and proud of it. They wouldn’t dream of being surgically altered; they don’t diet, wear padded, push-up bras or elasticized underwear. They let it all hang out!

Friday, September 27, 2013


As a painter of people, one of my main concerns is how to create life without copying it. How do I make my characters come alive? What do I need to do? Sometimes it’s only a dab of white in the dark of the eye, or a turned-up corner of the mouth. Suddenly, the figure starts a conversation, engages you. That’s when I know I have been successful, when the artwork talks to me.

Many years ago, in my other life as a professional preserver of historic houses, I found myself sitting at a Zoning Board hearing. Suddenly, a large group of well-dressed men and women entered, obviously awaiting the next item on the agenda. Cashmere-coated and be-furred, they appeared like Birds of Paradise among the usually shabby supplicants for undeserved zoning changes and variances. My husband (the clinical psychologist, who rarely attended these meetings) looked them over with his professional eye and announced: “They look like a bunch of thugs!”  And at that moment the proverbial light bulb went off in my head; although expensively coiffed and dressed, they were nothing but a bunch of thugs. I had dealt with them often enough to know that the mask of culture and gentility came off pretty quickly when they couldn’t get what they wanted.

I went home and began my “Man of Importance” series: more than a dozen figures based on the characters I had seen that evening. The wealthy businessman/developer, his wife, his girlfriend/secretary, his lawyers, accountants, bankers, gangster protectors, the politicians he owned, and so on and so forth. I did a series of powerful drawings, then transferred them onto acetate and, using my ever-present overhead projector, turned them into six-foot-tall figures made out of huge sheets of box cardboard. As lightweight cut-outs, they could be held so that the bearers’ legs became the puppets’ legs. I was amazed at how life-like they were: menacing, lewd, conniving, a Brechtian cast of characters, corrupt to the core. The main figure (the Man of Importance) bears a remarkable resemblance to Bernie Maidoff, even though I created him more than a decade before Bernie actually appeared on the scene. 

In order to create my characters, I take a piece of charcoal and draw and redraw the giant figures until they “come alive.” Like the Donatello “Zuccone” I referred to last week, they have to talk to me!  Once that contact takes place, the work is finished.

I’m currently working with a poet who has created a series of poems in the form of liturgies using a church-style preacher call and congregation response. I’ve enlisted friends to hold the figures up (they become almost eight feet tall) and speak the poet’s lines. Another friend is lending me the use of an old movie theater he owns and the performance should take place some time this Spring.

By the way, since they are a “Repertory Company” (the Renee Kahn Players) please feel free to come up with other ideas for them. They hate standing around in the attic waiting for a gig (see how lifelike they’ve become to me?) 

Friday, September 20, 2013


Curley's Diner Triptych 5'6x10'
As I mentioned previously, I love to work BIG, not wall-sized, but six feet by eight feet feels right to me. I enjoy the physicality of large, sweeping gestures with the brush or charcoal; it’s almost like dancing in front of the canvas. No wonder orchestra conductors and sculptors live so long. There’s something incredibly healthy about what they do; their whole bodies are caught up in musical movement. As for me, after an hour or so of painting, I am exhausted but exhilarated, at one with the canvas and the brush in my hand.

My second reason (it may even be my first) for working on a life-sized scale is my need for companionship. Don’t laugh. I’m an “only child” and I always wanted siblings. My late husband, a Clinical Psychologist, used to walk into my studio, note the cast of characters on the wall, shake his head and say: “Only an only child would do this!” When people ask me where I get my ideas, I say “Curley’s Diner” or “Loehmann’s Dressing Room” (a communal space for trying on clothes). I fall madly in love with my creations; They become my friends. There’s an apocryphal story about the Italian Renaissance sculptor, Donatello, screaming at one of his more realistic creations: “Speak! Damn you! Speak!” 

One of the best paintings I ever did is a giant triptych on canvas called “Curley’s Diner.” It wasn’t pre-planned, no sketches, not an idea in my head when I began. The center panel depicts a lecherous-looking man trying to seduce Maria, the naïvely trusting owner of the diner. She is looking up towards heaven, seemingly unaware of his predatory intentions. You can imagine my shock one day when he actually showed up in the restaurant, flirting with Maria and all the waitresses. His name – get this – was Valentino (the truth!) and he was an Albanian house painter who, according to Maria, loved women and spent all his money on whores. The real-life Valentino (not the one in my painting) was dark and handsome in a sleazy way, and had a large pair of women’s lips tattooed on his neck. Was he a lusty Golem I created to satisfy the love-hungry females of the world? What had I done?

I refer in the title of this post to Pygmalion, the legendary Greek sculptor who created his perfect woman, Galatea, and then proceeded to give her life.  If I could do that, I’d create a crowd.

Thursday, September 12, 2013


"Child's Play"  acrylic on canvas    36"x48"
One of the most useful pieces of advice I can give an artist is to buy good brushes, the best you can find. Cost is irrelevant. In fact, if you find a brush that ‘obeys’ you, does what you tell it to do, goes where you tell it to go, please buy it by the boxful, regardless of price. Most brushes manufactured today may look o.k., but they are junk, cheaply made of inferior materials and wear out quickly. Artists used to have brushes that lasted a lifetime, not three or four paintings.

I judge a brush by whether or not it reads my mind, takes orders without being forced. A brush I have to force to go to the right or to the left, thick or thin, is not a good brush. It must be capable of subtle gradations and allow you to control it without pushing the paint into place.  Like any craftsman, you can’t do good work without good tools.

The brushes I buy today do not do the quality work I did thirty or forty years ago. I used to think that I was losing my skill, but now I know, it’s the equipment. I usually buy the same brand of brushes: Windsor Newton’s Lexington Brights. They look the same, but they are not the same. They wear out quickly, and, worst of all, they are not able to read my mind.

"Hang-ups" acrylic on canvas  34"x46"
I learned a lesson about brushes many years ago when I taught painting at the University of Connecticut here in Stamford. One of the older women in the class had been married to a famous “Society” portrait painter who had died a few years earlier (he was best known for his portrait of Dwight Eisenhower).  She came in one day with a gift for me: a couple of his unused bristle brushes (she couldn’t bear to part with anything he had touched.) He bought them by the case from a source in Belgium. I had never experienced anything like them, before or since. They anticipated my every wish, executed every line to perfection. Unfortunately, I lent them to one of my children who promptly dipped them in acrylic and allowed the paint to dry. Goodbye dream brushes!

Since then, I have been on a fruitless search to find something of similar quality. Price is immaterial. Sometimes, I think I have succeeded, only to discover that after one or two uses, the bristles start falling out, or the hairs spread unequally and I have to use brute force to get them to do the job. A while ago, I won a large, pointed sable brush reportedly worth $100 at a raffle. When I got it home, I tried it out, hoping to get a perfect line. Unfortunately, I got two perfect lines. If I had actually spent $100 on it, I would have immediately gotten my money back.

Artists aren’t the only ones who struggle with their equipment. I had a bassoonist friend who spent half his life searching for the perfect reed, a fiddler who struggled to find the right bow, athletes, carpenters, anyone dependent on quality tools knows what I am talking about.

At any rate, if you find a great brush that does what you want it to, buy it by the gross and make sure to let me know. I don’t care how much it costs.

Friday, September 6, 2013


"Poet and his Wife"   oil stain, charcoal on canvas 34x46
 When I was a young painter of marriageable age, I would occasionally find myself pursued by a fellow artist. I ran into the usual “bad boys,” the famous ones who hung out at the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village. I knew enough about them to stay far, far away. For the most part, they were egotistical drunks and any woman who got entangled with one of them, lost not only her “honor,” but her sanity. They literally ate well-meaning young women like me alive. Their intentions were not only dishonorable from the get-go, you never even registered as a person to them, only a potential bedmate for the night, The sad part is that while they were trying to seduce you, you knew they had wives or full-time girlfriends waiting alone in bed for them to come home. Unfortunately, there were lots of takers around, eager to brag that they had spent a night with Larry Rivers or Jackson Pollock (even if he didn’t know who they were the next morning). Not only did these guys seduce “groupies,” they used their sex appeal to get ahead in the art world, bedding dealers and bored wives of rich businessmen looking to “build a collection”  (of what? penises?).

But, sexy as they were, the deKooning/Pollock set never presented a real danger; I had their number from the get-go. It was the “sincere” ones that were the threat, the ones who genuinely cared about me, who wanted to marry me. Those were the ones I had to look out for. Had I succumbed, I would have fallen into the category of woman I called “Artist’s Wife.”  I had met too many like them in the art world, trapped into living their lives around the welfare of a genius spouse. They often took mundane, uninteresting jobs that paid the bills so their husbands could be free to work, unhindered by monetary constraints.

I was particularly sought after because I had a good job with the New York City Board of Education as a high school art teacher, which not only ensured a steady salary, but left me free for summers in Provincetown or Woodstock. I could also be useful as a built-in art critic, knowledgeable and able to critique work and offer valuable advice.

This is not to say that artist husband did not help pay the bills; he could always give painting classes to eager cadres of bored, sexually frustrated women looking to literally sit at the knee of a “great one” (paid for by a husband hard at work elsewhere.) As part of the job description, the Artist Wife was expected to ignore these seductive creatures, entertain in a suitably louche, bohemian manner and be available at a moments notice to drive into town to pick up the needed tube of Alizarin Crimson. As far as I was concerned, the deal sucked.

Ironically, many of these women were also talented artists, but the marriage had room for only one big ego, and it wasn’t going to be theirs. I thought “No thank you. I want to be the one in the studio; I want to be “the great one.”  Give me a good, solid, loving non-artist for a spouse any day. If I want to discuss art, I‘ve got friends.

However, times have changed and artist’s wives are now in short supply. Women learned the hard way in the divorcing 1960s and 70s that to tie themselves to a man’s career was a formula for disaster. All the young women I know want their own life, not to hang on to someone elses. I have a male artist friend in his late thirties who has been looking for a partner for quite a few years now. He needs one desperately as he spends far too much of his creative time on chores and occupations that could easily be delegated to a spouse. He is talented and good to look at; in my day, someone would have hitched herself to him before he even got out of art school. Not so today; he is having a terrible time finding a mate; even those unmarried women you would think would jump at the chance seem to have second thoughts. Who wants to be an “artist’s wife” nowadays?  Not a whole lot of takers out there, I’m happy to say.   

 I had a friend who was fond of quoting a Russian proverb that went: “Three heads can’t sleep on one pillow.” I’d like to change it to say: "Two artists can’t sleep on one pillow. Their heads are too big.”

Friday, August 30, 2013


Bob Callahan’s “virtual” (computer generated) exhibit of paintings from Renee Kahn’s “Seven Deadly Sins” series at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City
The brilliant graphic designer Bob Callahan, loves to take my work and play around with the scale. You can’t imagine how important size is to a work of art until you start making it bigger or smaller. Think of Guernica reduced to “over the sofa” proportions. Not the same, is it?

Bob likes to take photos of my paintings and then, using the magic of PhotoShop, put them on the walls of museums throughout the world. He gets photos from their websites: i.e. the Louvre, the Jewish Museum, the Neue Gallery, removes the existing art and puts my work up instead. He even drops in a couple of visitors to show scale. Voila, I’m an international success! In the process, Bob will enlarge my work from room-size to gallery size to museum size, often covering entire walls with average-sized paintings blown up to gargantuan proportions. (see Blog #3)

My favorite Bob creation is a “virtual reality” installation he conceived for the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City. He “photo-shopped” my “Seven Deadly Sins” series - replete with SINS listed in neon lights – into the main exhibit space at the museum. By doubling their size. Bob created huge contemporary versions of Lust, Gluttony, Anger, Greed and Envy.
Now, all I need is to convince the museum to let me do it; a bit too raunchy for them.

Last Sunday’s New York Times had a photo of a painting by Red Grooms soon to be exhibited at the Yale Museum of Art. It’s a 27’ look inside the Cedar Tavern, center of the New York art scene in the 1960s showing all the major Abstract Expressionist painters of the time. I couldn’t help but think that if this painting were only five feet wide, you might not give it a second glance. 

There is a danger in the current art world, to mistake size for quality. Having just come from an exhibit of Rembrandt’s etchings at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, it’s definitely not size that matters. Three or four inches were all Rembrandt needed to create a masterpiece. On the other hand, I recently visited a trendy private museum in Greenwich where there wasn’t a single contemporary painting less than 20’ wide. If they had they been any smaller, you wouldn’t have given them a glance. In fact, their hugeness was the only thing that made them interesting. The focal point of the gallery was an 8’x20’ painted line drawing of DaVinci’s “Last Supper.” It looked as if it had been projected onto the canvas from a photo. I wonder if the owner was aware that he could have saved a lot of money by buying an overhead projector ($200), a role of large canvas ($150), a big brush ($20) and a can of black gesso ($10) - and doing it himself.

Friday, August 23, 2013


Party - oil on canvas -  45”x60”  

After my three children went off to school, I went back to being an artist. At the time, we had a small house and the only place I could do artwork was the kitchen table. Because of that, my creations rarely exceeded 30x40 inches in size. When we moved into our present home, some 45 years ago, I got my first real studio, an enormous one: 25’x20’, two stories high with a giant north light window. It had been built for a mural painter known for his work at the 1937 World’s Fair. At first, I was overwhelmed by its size; everything I did looked out of scale, much too small for the new space. I retreated back to the kitchen table and my customary 30”x40” format, Soon my work began to grow in size, comfortable in its new, expanded quarters. Just recently, I have begun to crave an industrial loft, (the kind that is now impossible to find in Stamford,) the sort of space used by really “important” artists who do really “important” work.

And here is the crux of my blog: It has been my observation that artists (not all) usually work to the constraints of their studio space. A small space means smaller artwork; a big space, bigger artwork. It doesn’t mean the work is better, it just means it’s bigger and in today’s art world, bigger IS considered better, more “serious.” But, speaking as an art historian, I know that great work comes in all sizes. Vermeer, who worked in his Dutch parlor was no less an artist than Tintoretto or Rubens who had giant studios and turned out monumental works for palaces and public spaces. Bigger is bigger, that’s all.

Most of the artwork produced locally is what I call “decorator art,” designed for suburban houses or apartments. When I inquire of my fellow artists why their work isn’t larger, they invariably reply: “Where would someone put it?”

I had an interesting experience recently with “scale.” I attended a small dinner party in Stamford where one of the guests, a theatrical-looking older man with a mane of white hair (and a much-younger, “trophy” wife) was studiously ignoring the rest of us. Too boring. When the party broke up, he and I found ourselves standing alone near the door and he was forced to talk to me (an elderly, totally uninteresting suburban matron). Someone mentioned to him that I was an artist “too” and he proceeded to sound off about his importance, all the while never looking directly at me (not worth his time). It turned out he had been a famous cameraman in the heyday of Italian cinema and had gone on to a big career as a photographer in New York City in the 1970s.  When he said he had worked for Fellini, I reached into my purse and took out a photo of a painting of mine, a really powerful, debauched nightclub scene, very Fellini-ish. “This is my work.” I said, quietly. He did a perfect double take, the kind you see in the movies, actually seeing me for the first time. ”You did that?” he exclaimed. “It’s incredible! How big is it?” “About 40”x60,” I replied.  “Not big enough! It has to be the size of a wall. Call me when you’re finished and I will come see it.”

He was right of course; at heart I was still a suburban housewife/painter. I lacked the balls to be “ a real artist.”  Recently, however, I bought a giant roll of canvas and am working up the nerve to go really bigger, colossal, Fellini-esque …and I will be sure to ask him to come see it when I am finished.   

Monday, July 22, 2013


Blue Triptych  5'6" x 11' oil and charcoal on canvas
I love standing in front of a blank, six-foot tall canvas, a stick of hard charcoal in my hand and not an idea in my head. In order for the process to work, I must be alone and the room absolutely quiet, no sounds, not even the radio. My hand begins to move, almost unbidden, like a Ouija Board: a face appears, a body, another body, everything overlaps much in the way of cave paintings. If I don’t like what I have done, too forced, not free enough, I take a rag and wipe the charcoal lines off the canvas and start over.  My surroundings begin to drop away and I find myself in what I call an Alpha state, the way you get when you meditate or are about to fall asleep. The subconscious has taken over and the creative process (at least for me) can now begin.

I take a rest and go back to work. Another figure appears. It looks familiar, but no one in particular. Where am I? In a diner? On the street? Supermarket? Buildings begin to appear on the canvas, other images come out of nowhere, maybe a sign that says EATS on it. I am in a dream state, following instructions from deep inside my visual cortex. I get into a rhythm; my hand moves on its own as if to music in my brain. I erase and redraw over and over again, a palimpsest of people and places, one overlapping the other. I start to dance, elated by what is happening on the canvas. An hour or two later, the canvas is filled with images, lines and shapes. I am too exhausted to continue. I walk out of the studio and take a rest. Later in the day, or maybe the next morning, I look at the work again. This is the critical ‘make or break’ point. If the composition and the drawing are not perfect, there’s no point going any further. I need to  start over, maybe leaving behind an image I can’t bear to erase. All of this is completely intuitive, you understand; there are no rules, no right or wrong. If, later, I still like what I have drawn, I will take a can of spray fixative and spray the entire canvas, up and down, side to side. The charcoal is now fixed in place. To change anything means removing the fixative with lacquer thinner, often damaging the primer of terra verte or umber. I sit and stare at the canvas. What next? It must be perfect at this point; one mistake, one superfluous line and all is lost.

Once I am satisfied with the composition and the drawing, I need to decide what to do next: do I stay with monochromatic stains of umber, gray and white, or go for full color – much riskier? Once a decision is made, it’s hard to turn back.  That’s the advantage of sealing of the charcoal drawing with fixative; at least you can wipe the later paint down to that layer. It’s a challenging period, not much room for error, but when it comes together, I am filled with joy. 

I was just thumbing through a book about Chagall who also used “dream” states in his work. “I am an unconscious-conscious painter,” he said. I guess I am too. It’s not easy for an artist to shut down the visual-rational world and allow the subconscious to take over. But when it happens, it’s magic.