Friday, December 19, 2014


"Untitled" Center panel triptych, 6'x4', oil on canvas
This week’s New York Times Science Section had an article by John Tierney called : “A Meditation on the Art of Not Trying.” In it, he discussed a new book by Dr. Edward Slingerland entitled “Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity” based on the centuries old Asian philosophy of “wu wei,” the Chinese term to describe “effortless action” This is the kind of spontaneity we see in champion athletes, musicians, experienced speakers and so on. Of course, as we all know, to get to that point requires countless hours of initial effort and training. Tierney talks about the charismatic effect it creates when a public speaker goes with the flow instead of struggling; “Paralysis through analysis and overthinking” is the way he describes it.
Although the article doesn’t talk about artists and writers, I’d like to throw in a few comments. A number of years ago, I saw a documentary about Picasso at work; most of you have probably seen it. Picasso, who knew his craft as well as any painter alive, did not seem to preplan his work; he painted without any visible preconceptions, purely from the subconscious. Works literally poured out of him, painting after painting, unplanned, spontaneous.

"Gangsters" Overhead projector drawings  8'x6'
I find that after years of studying art and painting stilted student work; I am now free to paint from the subconscious. In fact, it’s the only way I can work. I didn’t know it was called “wu wei” (pronounced “ooo-way;” I called it an alpha State, reached when my surroundings dropped away leaving me with a clear, empty, meditative state of mind. When I think too much about what I am doing, try to preplan the work, it looks forced and unspontaneous and I have to erase what I have done and start over. Also, in order to reach an alpha state, I must have absolute quiet, no one around, not even music on the radio. It often takes me an hour or more of false starts, bad beginnings, erasures before the alpha state takes over and unplanned images begin to pour out. Sometimes, I have a theme, other times what shows up is often a surprise. Since I begin with a charcoal drawing on primed canvas, I can always change my mind, wipe out, add, develop a theme,  discard it. I spend many hours in this glorious state of creative suspension. When things go well, I dance around the room, charcoal in hand. I am an artist and all is well with the world.

"Lower East Side," Panel #4, 6'x4', oil on canvas
All creative artists, writers, composers wrestle with the difficulty of reaching this state of wu wei. For some people, it is easier than others; being out of control is too frightening to them. You often hear of famous writers and their “drinking problems,” (Cheever, Fitzgerald) which might have been their way of getting to the point where their subconscious took over and words flew out. The NY Times article speaks of drinking as “mental disarmament,” a way in which your inner self is revealed. As the article says “Paralysis through analysis and overthinking are very real pitfalls that the art of wu wei was designed to avoid.” Of course, this leads me to Post #63 “Getting in Your 10 thousand Hours,” the time required to get really good at something. There’s no point “accessing your unconscious” if when you reach it, the skills you need aren’t there, or worse yet, you have nothing  to say. 

Friday, December 12, 2014


Photo-manipulation by Robert Callahan, Designer
I recently invited a musician friend to go to a concert with me and was turned down. He claimed he hated to sit trapped in a seat, listening to other people perform when he wanted to play himself. After thinking about it for a while, I realized I felt the same way about going to museums or art exhibits; I want to spend time in my own studio, working, being a producer, not an observer. Besides, I’ve been looking at artwork for so many years now that everything looks familiar. If I haven’t seen that particular piece, I’ve seen a similar one by the same artist. I remember the way museums used to be before exhibit designers got hold of them: solemn halls of study, footsteps echoing, not cluttered decorator showrooms.

Click to Enlarge
Photo-manipulation by Robert Callahan, Designer

Museums are packed with people who have no idea what they are looking at, but know, in order to keep up with the cultural expectations of their social circle, they have to be able to say they saw the latest blockbuster. The same thing applies to travel; culture vultures need to say they’ve been someplace, but when you start to ask them what they really got out of the experience, they answer in meaningless clichés. They didn’t learn a goddamned thing!

On a recent visit, I observed someone using his camera phone to take a picture of a painting and another of its explanatory label. He was obviously going to go home and study the piece. At first, I questioned why he would substitute the real experience for the camera image, but then I realized, he was probably right; it was better to quietly enjoy the work when he was alone.

Click to Enlarge
Photo-manipulation by Robert Callahan, Designer

The worst part of the present day museum experience is watching the hordes of schoolchildren invade a room: pushing, shoving, flirting, having a great old time out of class for the day, but learning absolutely nothing about art. I guess there’s something to be said for the museum experience, but it’s not educational.

Back to my reluctance to see the latest, hottest, blockbuster exhibit.  How in the world can anyone give a work of art the time and attention it needs with crowds at their backs? You need peace and quiet to study art. The only way to actually get something out of a museum visit is to pick some out-of-the-way room i.e. medieval enamels or the paintings of Paul Klee, and hope that you can look at the work in peace. On my last visit to MMA, I came away high as a kite over a tiny 8 1/2"x6 1/2" 15th century Flemish Virgin and Child by Dieric Bouts that I found purely by accident; it stayed in my memory for months.

Click to Enlarge
Photo-manipulation by Robert Callahan, Designer

And last but not least, money! Entry fees! All museums should be like the Met, a suggested donation. They might have to lower the million dollar salary for the Director and the pricey exhibit designer, but that’s ok with me! If the admission is too high, it drives away the people who need the experience the most.

The truth it is, I’m getting older and the time I have left to do my own work is running out. I’d rather spend the day in my studio than see the umpteenth version of something I’ve seen a zillion times before. I applaud museums for reaching out to expand their audience; but in the gain, something has been lost.

Friday, December 5, 2014

POST #67: MY LOVE OF CARDBOARD (and other impermanent materials in a throw-away world)

"Factory Dreaming"
black gesso on wrapping paper  48"x34"
I’ve talked about the advantages of using cardboard for art work in previous blogs; cardboard and brown wrapping paper are great surfaces for artwork. There’s nothing like a cheap, easily disposed of material to encourage experimentation. An expensive piece of primed canvas is intimidating and costly; (you don’t want to waste it). My artist friends turn up their noses; “it’s not archivally stable,” they warn me. At the risk of repeating myself, neither am I.

I am acquainted with someone who owns a cardboard warehouse, or, I should say, “ a warehouse filled with cardboard.” It’s called Commerce Packaging and it’s located in a huge shed in an industrial section of South Norwalk. The building is filled from floor to ceiling with cardboard; all sizes, thicknesses, varieties. I am the proverbial kid in the candy store when I go there. I try to get someone with a pick-up truck to take me since the sheets are around 4’x7’ and won’t fit in the standard station wagon. Most recently, I discovered something called “triple ply;” an amazing material: cheap, sturdy, doesn’t collapse, yet is light enough for someone like me to manage. It’s not good for cutting-out figures since I would need a saw, not an Exact-o knife, but I have come up with a perfect use that I’d like to share with you.

Canvases mounted on cardboard panels, 6'x4' each
As anyone who works on canvas knows, you need to stretch it, a fairly expensive process that requires brute strength and neatness, neither of which I possess. My alternative is to roll the canvases up after I have finished painting on them. I have a couple dozen rolled up canvases in my attic; they don’t take up much room but I have no idea what’s on them. Out of sight-out of mind. Now, with my triple ply cardboard, I can tack finished work up (plain push pins, no hammer needed) and tuck the panel in a corner, easy to pull out and show visitors. Cheap, convenient and stackable and only 1/3rd inch thick.

If I want to do cut-outs, there’s no material like cardboard. Foam core works but it doesn’t have that tan “middle ground” color that I like. Another good surface is brown wrapping paper; again, sturdy, inexpensive and subtly colored. It invites experimentation as failures can get crumpled up and without regrets, tossed into the garbage. About a year ago, I did a pretty successful series of charcoal drawings with white chalk highlights on wrapping paper. The problem is that when the paper creases, unlike canvas, it cannot be ironed out. Both cardboard and wrapping paper work especially well with children; inexpensive, disposable and much less inhibiting than a clean sheet of white paper. Do you really care if it’s “archivally stable”?

"Thrift Shop Half-Price Sale"
 Installation: gesso on wrapping paper with metal hangars
A year or so ago, in a rash moment, I ordered a huge, four-foot high, fifty-pound roll of brown wrapping paper from a commercial packaging catalog. There’s no way I will ever live long enough to use it up, so if you’d like to try some, come on over and I’ll cut you a few yards. You’ll be amazed at what you can do with it. Also, I’ll show you my movable, cardboard storage panels and how they work. I love them

Friday, November 21, 2014


Until recently, the world was governed by aphorisms, shared words of wisdom accepted by everyone as truth. The ones I remember most came from my best friend, Dina, who died about ten years ago. She was a little older than I, a Lithuanian Jewish refugee who had spent her teens in a German work camp in Poland. She emerged with a zest for life I have not seen in anyone else, ever. The Nazi’s had taken away her parents, her brother, her chance for an education and her youth. She was not giving up any more. The past was past and whatever time she had left was to be enjoyed.

A talented sculptor and art teacher, a voluptuous beauty, a great cook and an unbeatable poker player, she had a wide circle of friends, mostly men. Some, I assumed, were lovers as she intended to make up for lost time. She was always encouraging me to have affairs, recommending one man or another. When I protested that I had a husband I loved and no need to look elsewhere, she would scoff : “Have fun! Enjoy life!” Men find you attractive! (Who? No man ever came near me. I had an omnipresent husband the size of a Michigan State linebacker) “Don’t waste life,” she would warn me. I guess if I had grown up in a Nazi prison camp, I might also want to keep my dance card full.

One of he things I loved most about her was her stock of wise sayings, aphorisms she had learned at home or concocted from her own experiences. Fortunately, several have stuck with me. “Three heads can’t sleep on one pillow” was one of my favorites, meaning it’s impossible for an outsider to know what goes on in someone else’s marriage. She and I had a friend who slept with every important man in Stamford, from the ex-mayor on down. We all felt sorry for her sweet, long-suffering husband only to discover that he encouraged her flings and they were what kept the marriage going.

Another one I liked was: “She exchanged a pair of good shoes for dancing slippers.” It was her way of describing a mutual acquaintance who had left her reliable spouse for a notorious womanizer, a man who taught watercolor painting (among other things) to rich, neglected wives. Still another favorite described an insatiably greedy friend as having a “hollow toe,” meaning that her need for “things” was bottomless – could never be filled.

The aphorism of hers that I found most disturbing was “Every artist has only ten good years.” I covered that subject in Post #37 and will deal with it again in a talk I’m giving at UConn in April about Marc Chagall.

Will let you know when and where as we get closer to the date.

Friday, November 14, 2014


"Diner Goddess,"  oil on canvas, 68"x44" 2012
One of the most famous moments in movie history comes when Bogie chucks Bergman under the chin, looks at her lovingly and says: “Here’s lookin’ at ya, kid.” I think about that scene every once in a while when I’m working on a painting. When the figures on the canvas communicate with me (or each other) I know things are going right. I’m a great believer in “eye contact” in general. That’s why I never read notes when I lecture; I need to look my listeners in the eye to see if they understand me.

I’m intrigued with an artist’s ability to create life out of inanimate materials; it’s almost a God-given power, like Michelangelo’s depiction of God touching Adam’s hand on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. You see the beginnings of this kind of contact thousands of years ago in Prehistoric cave paintings, where the realistic depiction of animals was meant to bring them to life for the hunt. In one of my earliest blogs, I related the (apocryphal) story about the Renaissance sculptor, Donatello, who was known to scream at his statues “Talk! Damn you! Talk! It was as if he were performing an act of magic, infusing life into a piece of stone. I often do not regard a painting finished until the moment the figures come alive. They don’t have to talk only to me; I’m not possessive. I’m perfectly happy if, like Bogey and Bergman, they talk to each other.

Detail from Lower East Side
polyptych, oil on canvas, 2014 
What always surprises me however, is how few artists are interested in making contact between the figure on the canvas and the viewer (or creator.) They are denying a gift from the gods. During the late Middle Ages, depictions of Christ show him staring straight ahead or looking down sadly from the Cross. I must say I get a kick out of those modern-day interpretations of Jesus now found in gift shops and dollar stores where the eyes follow you. Talk of communication! Jesus is watching you! For the last 200 years, however, subjects tend to look directly at the viewer, maybe because of competition from photography. “Look at the camera! Smile!”

I love when I am successful at bringing someone to life on canvas: I dance around the room; I sing and talk to my paintings. Many years ago, I did some huge cardboard puppets drawn from local political figures – “Gangsters” I called them. I knew my drawings were complete when the figures spoke to me; unpleasant as they were, I had given them life.

"Restauranteur" from "Gangster Series." acrylic on box cardboard, 6'x3'

Sunday, November 9, 2014


I thought I remembered Picasso remarking that “Children are the enemy of creativity.” It turns out he never said anything of the kind. Why would he? He never allowed anyone (especially his children) to interfere with his creative life. He actually said “good taste” was the enemy of creativity; I don’t think he thought of his children as impediments at all.

Hang-Ups   34"x46 Acrylic on canvas
So if not Picasso, who then? I turned to Google and came up with several hundred thousand “hits.” Apparently, it was British author, Cyril Connolly, who famously said “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”  Anyone who has gone through the sleep-deprived months (or years) following the birth of a child might be tempted to agree with him, although I don’t know a single person, who, in retrospect, would have done things differently. Like childbirth, the pain of sleepless nights quickly dissipates once a normal schedule is established.

Child's Play   38"x48"   Acrylic on canvas
It turns out that, according to Google, (what would we do without Google?) lots of things can be blamed for lack of creativity: some internal, some external. Ray Bradbury was quoted saying  “Don’t think! Thinking is the enemy of creativity; just DO!” Saul Steinberg suggested “boredom;” Sylvia Plath said “self doubt.” David Lynch offered “negativity.”  A writer I never heard, Lucas Parry, blamed procrastination, fear of failure and any form of self doubt. My own candidate is “perfectionism”. The need to be correct all the time discourages experimentation.

My Life & Art   36"x48"  Acrylic on canvas
As for children, it’s obvious that if you haven’t slept in months you’re not going to do very well on the creativity scale. On the good side, when you finally do get a night’s sleep, you tend to work demonically to make up for lost time. And children do grow up eventually and/or you can hand over dealing with them to “experts,” leaving you free to pursue your creative life. In the long run, I agree with most people who study creativity: rigidity of thinking kills it, not children. I admit that three children in five years took a toll on my creative life but, in the long run, I’ve had plenty of child-free time to create and if I haven’t accomplished all that I set out to do, the Pram in the Hall wasn’t to blame.

Oh, and by the way, a friend of mine reminded me not to forget “having to earn a living.” He’s right. That can kill creativity faster than anything else,. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014


I just came across Malcolm Gladwell’s essay “The Ten Thousand Hour Rule.” It appears in his book “Outliers- The Story of Success.” He quotes neurologist Daniel Levitan as saying that “ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert in anything.” Gladwell goes on to state that this holds true even for people we think of as prodigies, like Mozart. It seems 10k hours is “the magic number of greatness,” no matter what your field.

I wonder now, despite my having been “an artist” for so many decades that I’ve probably gone way beyond ten thousand hours, in fact, I’m probably on my second or third ten. Genius, however, appears to have eluded me. Maybe Gladwell’s theory has a built-in timer that resets after a certain number of years.

What pleases me no end, however, is knowing that my work is getting better, although very slowly. It requires that I paint or draw every day (like practicing an instrument) otherwise my hand gets “stale,” refuses to perform the way I want it to, does not respond to my subconscious commands or read my mind.

I once taught a for-credit painting class at the University of Connecticut in Stamford, mostly highly motivated older students. As I always do when I teach, I try to break down complex ideas into easy-to-understand chunks of information. Painting (in oils) it turns out, is extremely easy to summarize. You go from dark to light, from thin to thick. That’s it! The rest is practice. Sure, I can explain how to glaze: you thin down a darker shade of paint with varnish and apply when the original is dry. Or how to “scumble:” brush a lighter color on with a dry brush and rub it in. There! You know the tricks of the trade! Now, all you have to do is practice it over and over, every day, for ten thousand hours and you too can be great.

As most of you know, I am very involved in community activities and because of that have spent endless evenings at endless meetings. I survive by sketching, usually on the ubiquitous paper plates that are always on hand. My models are generally unaware they are posing and tend to sit still for long periods of time, listening intently. When I first start to draw in this circular format (a tondo is its official name) the work is stiff and unacceptable. By the time I get to the fourth or fifth plate, I’m on a roll! (and, since paper plates are cheap, I can afford to throw the previous efforts in the garbage.) The lines I use become fewer, simpler and more direct. Less becomes More. Definitely.

Over the years, I have amassed a 6” stack of a couple of hundred paper plate drawings that are reasonably successful. If I want to exhibit them, there are all sorts of possibilities. I visualize entire walls of faces in twelve-inch box frames or maybe lined up behind a large sheet of glass.

I think I’m getting better and better; just another few thousand hours of practice and I’ll really be good! (Whether I’ll survive a few more thousand hours of local politics is another matter.)

Friday, October 24, 2014

POST #62: CURLEY’S DINER: a Great, Good Place

One of my favorite books on how towns and cities work is called The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day.  It was written in 1989 by Ray Oldenburg, a retired professor of planning and has been re-printed several times (adding “Beauty Parlors” to the already weighty title.) His thesis is that modern life suffers from the lack of informal neighborhood gathering places (such as Curley’s Diner,) He calls them socially necessary “third places,” (in addition to home and work) and goes so far as to blame our current high divorce rate on their absence (too much “togetherness.”) He also claims that democratic societies need gathering places where people can share information and discuss politics. The book’s a great read, one where you find yourself shaking your head in agreement every other sentence. It’s all so obvious when Oldenburg points it out. He blames the exclusionary zoning of the past sixty years for preventing these natural “homes away from home” from developing - modern tract housing subdivisions that forbid any commercial uses – even ones that meet community needs.

Curley’s is the quintessential home away from home, at least for me. If I’m down in the dumps, for whatever reason, I go to Curley’s. I am immediately fed, nurtured, entertained and informed as to what dirty deals are going on in City Hall. You can’t get that at Dunkin’ Donuts (and Curley’s coffee is better too.) The current owners, Maria and Eleni, Greek-born sisters, bought the Diner more than thirty-five years ago from a bald Swede named (what else?) “Curley”(maybe he had lots of hair when he started out) and have run it almost single-handedly ever since. There’s not much turnover in staff; the only way the cooks and waitresses seem to leave is when they die. After your second or third visit you become “family” and are known by name and by food preferences (i.e. coffee with meal, not before). I go there at least once a week, coming home from the $8.95 three-course lunch with a full stomach and enough extra food for two additional meals. It’s not gourmet, but it’s good home cooking, and, in fact, it’s a lot better than my home cooking.

Curley’s has its regulars: the lawyers and businessmen who have been breakfasting there for at least a dozen years originally came after exercising at the nearby “Y.” They are now along in years and I don’t think they do much exercising any more, but they do thrash out local goings-on, as do the other regulars. I often meet my artist friends there in the morning before we go to our studios (alone) and every few weeks I have Sunday brunch with three “menfriends”  - two lawyers and a retired college professor. We go after the morning church crowd has left and usually sit around for several hours (undisturbed) discussing philosophy, literature and politics.  I see the same people there week after week – it’s Ray Oldenburg’s “home away from home” for me, a Great, Good Place.

Curley’s not only provides me with company, I get subject matter for my artwork. I rarely take photographs (although no one seems to notice when I do) but I feast my eyes on all the characters in the place, mostly over-abundant women and tired men who’ve obviously had hard lives.  I did try to photograph a new waitress last week - she looked like she should have been on a chorus line - but just as I lined up the perfect shot, the battery quit on me – a message from the gods. Fortunately, she registered on my retina and will turn up one day (unbidden) in a painting.

Friday, October 17, 2014


I went to a Planning Board hearing Tuesday night to discuss the proposed new Master Plan. Despite superficial attempts at public input, it was obvious that the plan was written with developers and large property owners in mind. “Highest and best uses” is the phrase most often used. When I first got involved as a “preserver” of historic buildings (not the most rewarding occupation in a place like Stamford), I  naively thought the term meant the most socially beneficial uses. Instead, I quickly learned it meant the most profitable use for the investor. The meeting I attended was filled with homeowners, ordinary taxpayers aware that what was being proposed would severely compromise the equity they had in their homes and their quality of life. None of the big property owners who stood to profit from the new regulations attended. They were represented by a handful of land-use lawyers and consultants who were there not to speak but only to size up the opposition.

While it might seem like a frustrating evening, it was an insight into local politics that turns up frequently in my artwork. I am first and foremost a social satirist and if I sit in my studio, away from the real world, what do I have to work with? I once created twenty life-sized puppets that were inspired by a hearing I attended a couple of decades ago, a time when developers themselves actually showed up to present their case. Now, all you get are “goons and ginks and company finks” (in expensive suits.)

You’ve often heard me complain about the meaninglessness of contemporary art. 
Even when it is used as a protest, it comes off as hollow. The work being done today is empty because the artists themselves are empty and their attempts at political engagement are safe and superficial. Why bite the hand that feeds you cocktails and caviar? A recent trip to Chelsea turned up gallery after gallery of faux photo-realist paintings and dreary, oversized photographs. The best show we saw that day was the work of a now deceased photographer who did street scenes in the 1940s. Unfortunately, artists tend to live in insular enclaves and even when they try to become involved in protest movements like “Occupy Wall Street,” it’s essentially superficial because they rarely have anything to protest about. It’s hard to be sincere when your belly is full and you have a roof that doesn’t leak over your head. I’m not saying you have to suffer to be an artist…. God knows that canard has long been disproven, but you need to be engaged in the real world beyond your studio and artists often find it easier to tuck their heads down and paint away. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014


A young woman who wants to be my art agent was disappointed when I told her that I didn’t want to sell my best paintings – at any price. Unfortunately (for both of us) those were the pieces her clients wanted to buy. I tried to explain that if I ever achieved any recognition as an artist, it would be through those paintings and therefore I was reluctant to part with them. The money, I have learned, quickly disappears towards the oil bill or the groceries and I would have nothing first rate to show should (by some miracle) somebody “important” turn up to look at my work.

The solution she came up with for the both of us to make some easy cash was to have me knock out paintings of saleable kitsch, artwork she could market through a large, high-end catalog company she represented (OTC: Over The Couch stuff). I tried to explain to her that while I could certainly do what she wanted, if I changed my style, even for a short while, I would have a devil of a time getting back into my own groove. I’ve been there; done that. Once you try to paint with a market in mind – even if you like what you’re doing – you can never get your own style back. Your work gets corrupted; once a hack, always a hack.

Many, many years ago, I decided to give children’s book illustration a try. Nothing shabby about that! I did a series of lovely (if I have to say so myself) drypoint etchings to illustrate a children’s folk tale, Clever Manka. It took me several months to do the etchings and put a mock book together. I then made an appointment with an editor at Harper & Row, a major publisher of children’s books and went to see her, pre-school child (no baby sitter available) in tow. The reception I received was very favorable and the editor asked me to send her more samples. Unfortunately, before I got around to it, a family crisis occurred (one of many) and it took a good year or two before I could get back to doing what she asked. By that time, I was no longer interested in children’s book illustration (my mood was too dark and serious) and I never followed up.

I soon discovered that all the months I spent doing children’s book illustrations had given me an acute case of “the cutes.” All the serious art I attempted to do afterward now looked “cute” - like children’s book illustration. It literally took me over a year to undo the damage, to get back to my own style and message. And so I learned a bitter lesson: it looks easy to move from commercial work to fine art and back, but it isn’t. In commercial art, everything you do is focused on client approval; in fine art, you only have to please yourself. It’s a totally different mindset.

Another case in point: I have a good friend who is a brilliant surrealist painter, fantastic technique, original imagery, but there’s not much of a market for such strong stuff.  Lately, he has been churning out acres of large, abstract paintings with nice colors and heavy varnish for corporate offices. They sell like hotcakes as the saying goes. The irony is, he doesn’t need the money, but he was originally an advertising executive and his mind set is to give the public what it wants (to pay for.) I feel badly because his surrealist stuff was great and what he’s doing now is nice, but nothing special. There are a million “suburban painters” out there who can do what he is doing, as well or better. He’s thinking of going back to surrealism, but I’m not sure he can any more. It’s easy to lose your way.

So, the moral of the story is that if you want to be an artist, you have to let the chips fall where they may. If you’re lucky, the work you want to do coincides with the marketplace and you can make a living with your art, If not, take the consequences and wait on tables before you try to do something “that will sell.” 

Friday, October 3, 2014


A friend of mine who had once been an English Lit major stopped to visit recently and pronounced my artwork “Bawdy and Chaucerian.” I personally think “Bawdy, Busty and Brueghelesque” is more accurate.  Unlike pornography, my characters are meant to parody, make fun of lust rather than to titillate. I’m trying to mirror a society of make-believe lewdness and very little real feeling. If you want a rather sad peep show, take a look at the students who come out of a local high school nowadays. My stuff’s tame compared to real life. Ordinary, hard-working people can routinely be found wearing outfits we used to associate with streetwalkers and burlesque queens. And given the fact that half the American population is seriously overweight, this makes for some significant overexposure (and unintended humor).

So what does that have to do with ART and why is the current art world so devoid of images of real life, let alone satirical ones? A friend recently described the latest “hot” painter on the New York art scene, (work goes for 100s of thousands of dollars). He does giant panels of shimmering silver leaf. Gorgeous stuff and a technical tour de force, but no challenge to social mores. What does it tell us about ourselves? Satire, the stuff I do, is especially unacceptable. It’s like no one dares look at the real world any more, let alone pay money for art that does. Maybe we really do need artists who tell the bitter truth: modern day Bruegels, Hogarths, Daumiers and Goyas, as well as a clutch of really nasty 1920s German Expressionists. Unfortunately, there’s no place for them in Hedge Fund zillionaire dwellings or their collections. Why would they encourage parodies of themselves? Why should they pay their hard-earned money for someone to cast a critical eye on the society they created and support?

And so we get legions of artists today who see only blips and bumps and produce gimmicky “installations” and clever wordplay. No emotion please! no social criticism, lots of sexuality, none of it true to real life. When I bring someone new to my studio, he or she is often taken aback by all the lusty, busty characters around them. But they talk to you;  (at least they talk to me) they’re real! Once I make you aware of them, you’ll see them everywhere.

By the way, I Googled  Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath” (having slogged through it once in college, there was no way I was going to read the original text again.)  Since my work is allegedly “Chaucerian,” I think I’m going to have to deal with her and her five husbands (not all at once) in a future blog.

Friday, September 26, 2014


Many years ago, Connecticut cities began offering substantial grants for Public Art projects in an attempt to enliven the desolate, inner-city wastelands created by Urban Renewal. I decided to apply for one in New Haven and came up with the idea of creating activity on the street in the form of metal cutouts of people waiting on the corner for a bus. I have a friend, Steve Rosenberg, a well- known  “metalsmith” who lives near me and owns a giant laser that easily cuts through half-inch sheets of steel. I planned to paint a series of life-sized people on the metal plates, have Steve cut them out, mount them on giant industrial springs and install them on downtown New Haven street corners. I thought it would make for a rather interesting amalgam of life and art. 

In order to prepare a maquette to submit to the jury, I made sketches of a dozen or so “real” people in my usual satirical style; people of all races, ages and classes. I then glued them onto cardboard, cut them out and placed them in shoebox-sized dioramas with photocopies of urban street scenes. (This was before the days when one could PhotoShop drawings into actual places). In any event, I never submitted my proposal, having gotten engrossed in creating miniature worlds inside supermarket boxes. I used my large collection of photos of pre-urban renewal Stamford as background and created a cast of urban characters to occupy the scenes.

Before I knew it, I had completed close to one hundred boxes, all sizes and shapes. The settings recreating the lost Stamford downtown in which over 500 buildings were demolished. You can see a dozen of them installed as a unit on the second floor of the Tully Center on Strawberry Hill Avenue in Stamford where they occupy a wall in the main waiting room. The consultant who chose them wanted “something distracting to take people’s minds off their upcoming tests.” She loves coming into the room and seeing the chairs turned around to face the  settings with their whimsical cast of characters. The figures may not have made it to a real bus stop, but you never know; they still might.

Friday, September 19, 2014


60x40 oil on canvas
The appetite for novelty in the art world is insatiable. Everybody thought it was all over when Malevich put a white square on a white canvas and then, along came Marcel Duchamp with his urinal and bottle washing rack and where else was there to go? Apparently, there was lots of room for innovation and artists were quick to get into the search for the new. You didn’t need to be a great, or even a good painter or sculptor, you just needed a novel idea and the more unintelligible your idea, the better it was as “art.” You had to be able to quote from French intellectuals if you wanted to be “in.” A profound statement and a couple of dots on a canvas and you were considered a meaningful artist with “something new to say.”

Lately, the art intelligentsia seems to have run out of juice, but there is still a giant establishment that needs to be fed on novelty. Something new is getting harder and harder to find.  Even if you can’t paint worth a damn, you can always walk the walk and talk the talk and that seems to be the order of the day. On a recent trip to Chelsea, my friends (an artist and an art historian) and I were appalled at how little there was worthy of a second glance. The latest emphasis appeared to be on wall-sized photo enlargements made from digitally altered images. Apparently, new technology has made huge-ness affordable and therefore perfect for filling bare, characterless walls.

Ironically, the best work we saw that day was a retrospective from the seventies: Warhol, Rivers, Rauschenberg, Kienholz and Jasper Johns, some Minimalists and a few leftover Action Painters. I wasn’t crazy about these guys when they were at their peak, forty years ago, but compared to what we saw elsewhere that day, they were innovative giants.

 I always seem to be a couple of decades behind the curve in my art tastes. I still admire people like Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, Alex Katz and Romare Beardon and have found few today that I like any better. A lot of current work just seems “clever” for the sake of cleverness, with no soul to it. We have an “avant garde” art gallery in town that features the work of smart young things from Brooklyn (or wherever the current trendy art takes place). Their purpose seems to be to educate the “Booboisie” (you and me) by producing reams of printed material, all of it meaningless, sometimes only consisting of one deeply important word per page. It aspires to be profound (but even “profundity” has to have content) and there’s very little I (a suburb dwelling naïf) could remotely consider “art.” It’s just a waste of paper as far as I’m concerned.

Meanwhile, I’m holed up in my studio in NoWhere (as opposed to NoHo or NoBro), creating happily away and turning out work that is completely out of synch with the current art scene. I work in artistic isolation but complete contentment. I’m doing the best work of my life and I don’t give a damn about the current trend. 

Friday, September 12, 2014


6'x8' Diptych, oil, charcoal on canvas, 2014

I’ve always been terrible at lettering. I’m not neat and careful to begin with plus I have a short interest span (I’d probably be medicated today.) I barely got a “C” in Drafting in college, largely because my lettering was so bad (pre- CADD).  My biggest problem, aside from a lack of “sitz-fleisch” (literally: meat on which to sit) is that I’m left handed and all the “thicks and thins” of normal lettering are reversed. This is not to say I don’t love letters and calligraphy; I’m just not good at it.

But this has never stopped me from incorporating lettering in my paintings. I’m enamored with the jazzy, jagged shapes of letters, the fragments you see as if you were just glancing at a sign. I like ambiguous meanings: “fire sale” “stop here,” the way glass store windows are both transparent and reflective. Buildings are interesting and the people in the street great to look at, but it’s the signs that give everything pizzazz.

6'x8' Diptych, oil, charcoal on canvas, 2014

When did artists first start to use lettering in their work? Signage has been with us for centuries: posters, broadsides, shop and tavern signs. Braque and Picasso seem to be the first artists to see the potential in letters both as shapes and symbols of modern life. Around 1911 they, and other early Cubists, took to incorporating words, especially newspaper print into their work. Right on their heels came the Italian Futurists who used lettering to express the whirling motion that characterized 20th century life. Chagall also liked to toss in bits of Hebrew letters into his Cubist images of Paris and Vitebsk, jumbling past and present. 

6'x4' oil and charcoal on canvas, 2014
But lettering as a subject by itself didn’t really get going until the end of World War I when the German dadaists, primarily Kurt Schwitters, used printed words as the basis for their innovative collages. Schwitters called his work “merz,” reportedly from a scrap of paper he found in the street advertising the local “Commerz” bank.”

I like to use words and letters in my work. Everything I’ve done lately seems to contain signage, whether it makes sense or not. My lettering (as lettering) is still dreadful, but as long as the shapes work in the composition, it doesn’t matter;
I’m never going to be known for my calligraphy.

Friday, September 5, 2014


A couple of friends and I drove up to a museum last week to catch the latest art breeze from New York. The museum, which I shall not name, is notoriously designed to educate boobs from the boonies (you and me), give them a taste of the current (Brooklyn) art scene and show them what real art (not the pretty pictures they paint or have on their walls) is about. Each exhibit contains a free-to-take home illustrated booklet explaining the artists’ work along with a wall panel of explanatory notes.

The three of us stood for some time in front of one large panel, trying to figure out its meaning. My companions, no intellectual lightweights, one, a noted university scholar, the other a prominent lawyer were totally baffled. I explained my theory about this kind of writing about art. I believe it is deliberately designed to be unintelligible because if you REALLY knew what they were saying you would never waste your $10 admission fee (to say nothing of your time.) “It’s a required course,” I explained.  In order to get an MFA at Yale, you must be able to write an inherently meaningless, but seemingly profound essay like this before they’ll give you a degree”.

The problem with reconciling art and words is that art is a visual experience, not a literary or an auditory one and aside from a few helpful cues, the experiences are so different by their very nature that to use one to explain the other is confusing and usually futile. However, that doesn’t seem to keep an entire industry of art historians, writers and curators from trying. Yes, you can enhance a visual experience somewhat by knowing something theoretical or historical about it, but often, you just end up confusing the poor viewer. I know many people will disagree with me, but I often discover that they are self serving; they make their living pretending (to themselves and others) that they can actually teach you how to “see”. The artwork at the museum that day was pretty mediocre as art; but, if you read the handout or the complex “explanatory” material placed on the gallery walls, you would have thought you were in the Sistine Chapel.

Here’s a quote from one of the pamphlets I picked up:

The early works in this exhibition point to the grounding of XXXX’s art in the formal, abstract aspects of Modernism, while the later works are categorized by the use of the highly flexible and articulate language of Modernism for deliberate and meditative social ends. Usually, art that is based on either the social or the political is ineffectual as the finger pointing is directed towards the morally obvious.  XXXX, through his recent work, has held a mirror up to himself and the community he inhabits and the results are complex, nuanced, and often uncomfortably self-conscious – just like the truth.

There has to be an easier way to describe this poor guy’s art, or, maybe his work really is “indescribable.” Too bad its quality doesn’t live up to its press. I taught art history for over twenty years at a university and the lesson I learned was, the greater the art, the easier it is to explain. It’s the bad stuff that requires babble.

Today’s post is a cautionary tale: don’t believe what you read about art. Most of it is curatorial nonsense, designed to impress rather than explain. I hope the message you get is to stay dubious and keep your s---- detector on at all times.

Re last week’s Post #54: I meant to have stronger images to go with my text but my all-knowing techie, Rosie, said they would be considered “pornographic” and pulled out.  Moi?

Friday, August 29, 2014

POST #54: WE AIM TO PLEASE: (why can’t a woman paint more like a man?)

Last weekend’s NYT had a six page article in Style magazine about Marlene Dumas, a highly successful (her paintings sell for multiple millions) South African artist who now lives in Amsterdam. Although I don’t particularly like her work, I have to say, she paints “like a man,” meaning she doesn’t try to please. Her work has a “Falstaffian vitalism” (Times quote from Samuel Johnson) rarely seen in women artists. She almost goes out of her way to be unpleasant.

I started thinking about this topic a few weeks ago when I attended an art exhibit in Westchester County, mostly work by highly capable women artists. It struck me how afraid they were to be tough, how much they wanted “to please.” Whether the work was abstract, realistic or in-between, there was a deliberate effort not to offend anyone, to use nice colors, inoffensive themes. I assure you, Marlene Dumas doesn’t worry about being likeable. As far as I was concerned, the exhibitors were a bunch of competent “Lady Painters,” the kiss of death for an artist. As ‘enry ‘iggins would say: “Why can’t a woman paint more like a man? “As long as she tries to be inoffensive, she never will. (of course, you could argue that she should “be herself,” feminine sweetness and all),

Obviously, it goes back to gender differences in the way we bring up children, although these expectations are changing so rapidly that in a few years, if not already, what I have to say will no longer hold true.  We still expect girls to be nice, pretty and popular; we expect our boys to be tough, aggressive, achievers. Women wear lipstick, get their breasts enhanced; men (mostly) don’t. Why not? And of course it reflects in the kind of art women produce and why they are not as successful as men in what is still a mans’ art world. We no longer have Gorilla Girls protesting for equality for women artists, but we still have gender differences that no amount of protesting will erase. Women can’t get rid of a life-long habit of pleasing others that does not go away when they decide to become artists.

The New York art world I grew up in was almost completely devoid of women, except as helpers to their male artist companions, (See Post # 5  “Why I Would Never Marry Another Artist.”) I had no female role models, at least none that I could accept. Unlike someone like Alice Neel (whom I admired as an artist), I wasn’t willing to live my life in a slum with a line of alcoholic lovers outside the door). However, in the sixties and seventies, with the advent of the Woman’s Movement, this all began to change and a whole host of remarkable women, especially sculptors like Nevelson, Benglis, Bontecue  appeared. They were tough, mostly thoroughly unlikable (aka “unfeminine”) as human beings , but they fought for equal recognition in the art world and, for the most part, did surprisingly well.

I recently heard a couple of people (two to be exact) comment about Judy Chicago in a derisive manner,  (she’s still around after all these years) about how aggressive she was, how unpleasant and such a “relentless self promoter.” All I could think of was Jeff Koons; he has Judy Chicago beat by light years, But then, he’s a man, he’s supposed to be that way; in a man, it’s admirable and leads to success. While one is not supposed to “blame the victim,” (all you women out there) you can’t be sweet and nice and be an artist. You have to be willing to kick butt, not be “liked.” Unfortunately, that’s not the way most of us were raised. That’s why we wear lipstick and “they” don’t. You can blame childhood over-socialization for that but what the hell, you lady painters out there, it’s time to throw off your chains; no more decorator art. Scare the hell out of the guys around you. Work BIG, be TOUGH!