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

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