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.

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