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.