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.