Friday, March 28, 2014


Virtual Exhibit of the Seven Deadly Sins by Renee Kahn
(as imagined by Robert Callahan)

Not having been educated in Christian theology, I knew nothing about the Seven Deadly Sins until I began to teach Art History at the University of Connecticut in the 1970s. Along with the Sins, I learned the meaning of all sorts of esoteric (to me) terms: Depositions, Annunciations etc., but I have to say, it was the Seven Deadly Sins that intrigued me most. Even though the concept dates to the 14th century, the Sins seem so modern, so up-to-date. An evening spent watching television will give you enough Sin to last a lifetime. Of course, historically, sins were punished, often in gruesome ways: i.e. gluttons were forced to eat rats, toads and snakes and the greedy were boiled in oil. In today’s real world, sinners are rewarded with mansions in Greenwich and fleets of Mercedes Benz’s.

"Vanity" (after Goya) Oil on canvas  2 panels, 54"x40" each
I soon realized that the artwork I was doing was all related to one Sin or another; in fact, several Sins might well appear in a single canvas.  Everything I did poked fun at sin and sinners in one form or another. My Loehmann’s Dressing Room series clearly stood for Vanity or Pride. Men who lasciviously eyed buxom babes were obviously guilty of Lust. Gluttony, Envy, Anger and Greed also turned up frequently, (although rarely titled as such.) I never did much with Sloth (Laziness). Lying around is not that visually interesting. 

"Anger/Greed"- Oil on canvas  36"x48
The Seven Deadly Sins have been a favorite topic for artists since the end of the 14th century. Brueghel and Bosch did some great work on the subject. Goya loved to poke fun at sinners. But our culture seems to glorify, even exhalt Sinning; it’s a formula for success. Just watch a couple of hours of current prime time television where excess leads to success: police procedurals that glorify gore, music videos where half-naked performers mime sexual acts. Bernie Maidoff is  a household word who should have stuck to hedge funds instead of Ponzi schemes; he’d now be living happily on Ibiza.

"Male Stripper Performing in Darien" (Lust)
Oil on canvas   60"x72
But why are there are no satirists in the art world? The few cartoonists we once relied on for social criticism are disappearing as fast as are the newspapers they worked for. Most of the artwork done today is decorative, meaningless, or, if there is content, it’s deliberately unintelligible, pseudo profound. Today’s newspaper had an article on the growing wealth disparity in the western world between rich and poor. It’s nothing new, but now it’s hidden from sight in gated communities where greed can grow unchecked and unseen. There was a pop tune in the thirties that went: “and the rich get richer and the poor have babies (ain’t we got fun?”) That guy should see what’s going on today! 

Bring back SATIRE, not only in art, but in literature and theater. Humor is a great way to get back at “Sinners.” Where are the Vonnegut’s, the Brecht’s, the Grosz’s when we need them? Meanwhile, the public watches idiots “shake their booty” and considers it “art”.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Post 31: A Love Affair with Ruins

Photocollage Box  16"x13"x3"
Almost forty years ago, someone brought me to see the abandoned Yale & Towne factory in the South End of Stamford, thirty buildings dating from the 1860s to the 1930s. My first sight of the complex was its east elevation along Pacific Street, a brick wall, sixty feet high, punctured by rows of huge, industrial windows. Another row, not quite as old or as high stood at right angles along Henry Street. It reminded me of the ancient walled cities of Mesopotamia, designed to repel invading hordes. Since uninvited visitors were discouraged, I had to find a way to penetrate the interior courtyards, see what wonders lay inside. I was smitten, irrationally in love. All I could imagine was hundreds of artists’ studios, inexpensive, spacious, full of light, a thriving creative community that would bring a dead part of town back to life.

Photocollage Box  16"x13"x3"
The opportunity to see the interior of the complex presented itself in the form of an invitation from one of my art history students at the University of Connecticut. It turned out that her boyfriend managed a small company that manufactured foam-rubber brassiere pads. I saw table after table of foam bosoms, 32AA to 44DD, heat-formed on presses and then cut into individual breasts. It was an unforgettable sight.

The courtyards, I discovered, was filled with one or two story factory buildings Everywhere you looked, there were remnants of brick walkways, varied rooflines with distinctive skylights, arched brick passageways that led nowhere and a 100’ tall chimney that had lost its top ten feet and now said “ALE” (instead of “YALE”). I had died and gone to ruin-lovers’ heaven!

Within the next few years, my dreams began to come true: a forward-thinking rental agent decided that artists studios would be a good way to fill otherwise un-rentable spaces in the taller buildings along the perimeter. Light manufacturing and assembling could continue in the interior. Jamie Burt, a sculptor, was the first to move in; he was told that he could have a month’s free rent for every new artist tenant he brought in. Within three years, several floors of the buildings along Henry Street filled up with sculptors, painters, dancers, antique restorers; antique centers moved into the manufacturing sheds (like the one that had housed the falsie factory.)

But a thriving, mixed-use art center was not what the owner of the property, a big-time. real-estate mogul named Sam Heyman, had in mind. He made sure to inform everyone that artists were just  “temporary”; he also hired a lawyer to prevent the buildings from being placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Worse yet, he had the older (more interesting) buildings along Pacific Street torn down to lessen the historic significance of the complex.

And so here we are, thirty plus years and several owners later. Only about 10% of the original complex remains, tarted-up almost beyond recognition. Instead of food trucks with ethnic specialties, we have the faux French “Pain Quotidienne” and a Fairway Market. Instead of rough lofts and manufacturing spaces, we have high-rent apartments for Yuppies who work in “financial services.” Instead of grungy hallways and paint-stained floors, dirty windows and a “take your life in your hands” self-service freight elevator, we have sterile passageways and sleek new “lifts”; if you got off on the wrong floor, you would never know the difference.

Photocollage Box  16"x13"x3"
Over the years, I took hundreds of photos of the neglected buildings – the ruins. In a fit of creative exuberance, I bought a hundred or so wooden “shadow” boxes, 16” x 13”x3”, and placed surrealist photo collages of Yale & Towne inside them. Just recently, I started a series of large oil paintings based on the boxes.

Nothing like making art out of ruins!

Friday, March 14, 2014


The Heiress in front of her Greenwich Chalet
I am probably one of the least likely people you know to become an heiress, but having said that, I need to explain how I came to inherit a portion of the Ruppert Brewery fortune. Before you start envying me, you need to hear the whole story.

Over thirty years ago, I befriended a fellow “preservationist” from Greenwich. He died almost two years ago, in 2012. He was like me, another Don Quixote who wanted to save beautiful old buildings that had outlived their economic usefulness. He and I fought the good fight together. We attended each other’s parties and from time to time went off to the Harvard Club in New York to attend a lecture on architecture. Richard, a dashing bachelor, worked sporadically for the State Department escorting German diplomats around the country; he spoke impeccable “HochDeutsch,” having studied to be a braumeister in Berlin after World War II. His family had owned the Ruppert Brewery in New York City, one of the largest breweries in America and Richard had inherited a sizeable amount of money from the family fortune. At one time – in the heyday of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, the Rupperts owned the New York Yankees, plus a large chunk of Yorkville in the East ‘90s.

Remnants of the hardware collection
For most of the time I knew him, Richard was immersed in the restoration of a turn-of-the century Swiss Chalet on Milbank Avenue in Greenwich. Since money trickled in in dribs and drabs from his trust fund, the work on his house proceeded in a similar sporadic fashion. While the peak ornaments and the porch railing were glorious, the rest of the exterior remained a “work in progress.” The interior, although structurally sound, was a total disaster. Rooms were filled with boxes of God knows what, everything from valuable papers to Playboy subscription forms. There were cartons of unworn clothes and shoes to say nothing of empty beer bottles (after all, he was a former beer baron.) In addition, in a rash moment, he had bought the contents of an upstate hardware store that was going out of business and boxes of hinges, knobs and what-not littered an entire floor of his house. (They are now stored in my garage, a donation from his family.)

After his death, his carpenter, now in charge of fixing up the house for sale, called to tell me that he had found Richard’s will and I was listed as a beneficiary; he had left me 1% of his estate. I was stunned. It was the last thing in the world I had expected. And what was 1%? Knowing Richard and his inability to manage money, it could be anything from tens of thousands of dollars, or, more likely, a few hundred. And now, almost two years later, I still have no idea. I occasionally communicate with his executor, a cousin in the Midwest, who assures me, any month now, the estate will be settled. “Tax issues” he claims are holding things up. Richard apparently forgot to pay capital gains, and so on and so forth. “Not a good money manager” his executor tells me. (I could have told him that before he began)

But in the meantime, it makes a great “dining out” story, how I, a girl of humble origins and limited means, came to inherit a portion of the Ruppert Brewery fortune (not a very big portion, however).  I was thinking of collecting old photos of the “family business,” the block-square castle on Second Avenue that once housed the brewery. I recently received a list of Richard’s heirs from Greenwich Probate Court and I’m in pretty heavy company: Count von Huynegen-Heune and Baron von Huynegen-Heune are among my fellow beneficiaries.

 I’m glad my parents aren’t around. They never approved of unearned wealth and I may end up giving it all to charity. 

Friday, March 7, 2014


"City Life" diptych, 68"x 88", oil on canvas

I was an exceedingly well-trained artist: four years at the High School of Music and Art plus five years as an art major in college and graduate school. Yet, I have to confess, I didn’t know what I was doing until well into my thirties when I lucked into a “critique” class given at the Greenwich Art Society by an elderly Hungarian expat named Victor Kandell. Kandell, whom I had never heard of as an artist, had been recommended by a friend who claimed he had “changed her life.” Well, if not her life, he had certainly improved her art. She had been what I call a “suburban lady painter” (pretty pictures with nice color.) Now her work had punch and imagination and she was worthy of being considered an artist. How had he performed this miracle?

The class was given every two weeks. Attendees were supposed to bring their current work to Mr. Kandell to “critique.” Kandell, a white-haired gnome with a sense of humor had an enormous knowledge of “art,” all kinds. The class, however, was another matter: mostly well-to-do suburban housewives struggling to give “meaning” to their lives by claiming they were artists. Kandell was not only able to help them with their work, he had an instinctive understanding of them as people. The woman sitting next to me muttered, “He’s better than my analyst.” I’m sure he was -and a lot cheaper.

I never forgot one of the sessions. One of the women, conventionally dressed in a pleated wool skirt and a blouse with a Peter Pan collar, had brought in a stiffly-painted, amateurish still life for Victor to “critique.” She wanted to “loosen up,” do something more exciting. Instead, he looked at her: “Look at you! The way you’re dressed, your hair (stiff) .You want your art to be something you’re not.” He pointed out (in a kindly manner) something she needed to hear:  that if she wanted her art to be more exciting, she would have to change her life.

I was the most “advanced” painter in the class, but I was also struggling. I was in the middle of a series of satirical paintings based on photos from the local newspaper’s “Society Page.” I was having a great time depicting local clubwomen and social events. As a newcomer to the suburbs, I had an “outsiders” ability to see the pretense and the absurdity of the cultural mores of my new home. But I was stuck; without the photo in front of me, I couldn’t work. Victor pried me loose, pushed me over the hump, off the cliff, allowed me to use my imagination and “fly.” It was like a child learning to walk or to read; there’s a maturation factor. Until, the child is “ready,” nothing will happen. Before Victor, I was a clever photocopiest, mired in pictorial reality, (but eager to move on.)

So what did I learn (that I can pass along)? For example:
1) The hand I was struggling to get “right” was not bones and flesh but a shape and it was shape that mattered in the painting. It wasn’t an issue of anatomy but of abstract design.

2) Sizes can be varied, not tied to reality or perspective, but to the design needs of the painting. Let your imagination determine how big or small something should be.

3)    Shapes can be transparent, overlap one another, create new shapes.
4)    Color can be “subjective” not “objective”, what you feel, rather than what the eye sees. Why shouldn’t the figure in your painting be blue? Look at Chagall!

Good luck. Remember Malcolm Gladwell’s observation that greatness takes 10,000 hours of hard work.

Renee Kahn