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 na├»vely 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.”