Friday, April 25, 2014


I live in a big old house, the kind realtors call a “handyman’s special” but it has everything an artist could want: a north light studio and an enormous finished attic that runs the entire length of the house. I’ve lived there for almost half a century, so you can imagine all the artwork that’s stored up there. Last year, I decided to “get organized” (my paintings were all poking into one another, getting ruined) so I splurged and bought four metal painting storage racks on wheels on sale at Jerry’s Artarama, figuring they would cost a lot less than a carpenter and were more versatile. Now, the attic is nice and neat and you can actually walk around and see most of what’s up there. The racks are so well designed they move at the touch of a finger, perfect for showing my work to the hordes of buyers and galleristas I one day expect to be banging on my door!

Yesterday, my artist friend Rachel came over and I took her up to the attic. While suitably impressed with how orderly it was, all “racked” up, she spotted a stash of older work I hadn’t looked at in decades. It was like meeting old friends after a long absence. The problem was that they were too good, a bummer, better than most of what I am doing today.  Some of the work was done 40 years ago, when I was still a “newcomer” to Stamford and able to see the social scene with a detached, satirical eye. Now that I am more involved in local politics, it’s harder to poke fun at suburban foibles and my work no longer has the same bite. Insiders can’t be outsiders. Going back even further, there are boxes of “art school work,” (dreadful, amateurish stuff) that I keep for sentimental reasons, or if one day, by some miracle, I get to be famous.

The whole purpose of organizing the attic was to set up a place to photograph my work. I have no idea what I have done over the years and, as I grow older, I feel it important to create an archive, even if no one ever looks at it. Throughout my life as an artist, my purpose was to create something of artistic or social value, not to make money; I never set out to sell my work and those of you who have ever tried to buy something from me know how difficult it is. I can never come up with a price; I usually ask people to tell me how much they are willing to spend (often considerably more than I had in mind.)

Meanwhile, one half of the attic is filled with art; the other half is storage and a photo studio. In addition to the stretched paintings in the racks, there are a couple of dozen large, rolled-up canvases I need to look at. Truthfully, I have no idea what’s on them, not having seen them in at least a decade. They might be good, or they might be dreadful; if the latter I can always cover them with a coat of gesso and start over. There are dozens of supermarket boxes filled with my dioramas of urban life stuffed under the eaves, the part of attic where you can’t stand up. I  recently discovered two, eight-foot tall, free-standing cutouts, the remains of an exhibit I guest-curated at the Stamford Museum fifteen years ago called “Vulcan’s Forge;” I had forgotten about them.

If you’d like to explore the attic with me, I’d be delighted. I can show you how the rolling racks work; they are terrific. And if you’d like to have one of the eighteen overhead projectors that are stuffed in the corners (another story,) be my guest; I’m giving them away.

Friday, April 18, 2014


I haven’t been to the Lower East Side in at least six years. Everyone tells me the place is transformed: “You won’t recognize it.” However, the last time I was there, it was already un- recognizeable. The great elevated train tracks that ran along the Bowery were gone and the street looked somewhat naked without its looming presence: too wide to be a street, too undistinguished to be a boulevard. The recently-completed New Museum of Contemporary Art had just moved from its previous location in SOHO to a sleek new building designed by a pair of trendy architects I had never heard of (and whose names I immediately forgot.) The El-less street had no resemblance to the Bowery I knew which was dark and menacing, peopled by drunks and derelicts, with its ever present sense of danger (especially for a woman). I think the loss of the El marked the end of the Lower East Side that I had known growing up. The derelicts and their flophouse gradually disappeared, unable to survive in the new, harsh light.

Many years ago, when I was in my mid twenties, I went down to the Lower East Side with a Brownie camera and took a roll of film of architectural details I wanted to incorporate in my paintings. I put the dozen muddy little snaps away in an envelope and stored them with a bunch of other old photographs. Thirty years later, I re-discovered them, had them printed and enlarged and, much to my surprise discovered they weren’t so bad after all; with a little cropping I had a pretty arty bunch of ‘50s New York street photography. I came up with some great material to incorporate into my artwork. I also wrote down some of my memories of the area and by inquiring, managed to get several friends to tell sweet stories of their own. With the help of graphic designer Bob Callahan, I made a small book out of them, and, not eager to spend time trying to find a publisher, I printed up a hundred copies at the local copy shop and they came out pretty good.

So, here I am, with a boxful of unsold books in my studio.  The Lower East Side Tenement Museum got rid of a bunch and I sold some when I did a performance piece using projections of the photos, but that still leaves me with a lot more to get rid of. This is a cautionary tale; if you want to self-publish, do it “on demand.” It may cost more, but you don’t find yourself with boxes of books lying around. I went into an artists’ bookstore in Chelsea recently to see if they would be interested in them. “Oh no”(sight unseen) was the reply. “We’re inundated; every artist publishes their own book and then tries to unload it on us.” 

My daughter recently suggested I go down to the places I photographed so many years ago and take my photo at the sites. Now that would make an interesting “before and after” book! I wonder if I should publish it myself?

Anyhow, if you would like your own personal, signed copy of A Vanished Era: The Lower East Side, a photo essay by Renee Kahn, you can get one for the bargain price of $15, shipping included, Just send me a check or pay me when you see me. I don’t take PayPal.  

Friday, April 11, 2014


According to Wikipedia (how did I live before Wikipedia?) one of the definitions of “Mindfulness” (a current buzzword among Seekers of Enlightenment) is “an attentive awareness of the reality of things, especially of the present moment.” It’s generally used to describe the practice of watching one’s breath, returning back to refocus on it whenever the mind wanders away. I’ve read entire books on mindfulness and still don’t know what they’re talking about.

Mindfulness, to me, means constantly being aware of ones surroundings. Everything you see is a work or art if you know how to look at it, even the most mundane, unlikely objects and places. As an artist, I use the term to mean a hyper-awareness of the world around me. I can find something of visual interest in trash on the side of the road, in bland, featureless new buildings, in a metal recycling plant. Everywhere. Mindfulness means seeing shapes, colors and abstract compositions everywhere, even in the most unlikely places.

De Chirico in Stamford, Franklin Street
Most of us go through life without actually “seeing” our surroundings. We’re engrossed in getting from Place A to Place B. The great thing about being an artist is that we see more and better than normal people. Our lives are enriched by mindfulness; even the loss of vision in old age can become an asset. Monet painted some of his greatest works when he was almost blind; his inability to see detail aided his Impressionism. Frances Bacon’s phantasmagoric distortions look a lot like what I see out of my left eye, the one that has a “wrinkle on the retina” that causes all sorts of unreal twists and turns in my vision. Maybe Bacon was not an abstractionist after all. Maybe he had wrinkles in both retinas and was only painting what he saw. Fortunately, I can use my “good eye” to compensate when I’m painting, but the bad eye is much more interesting from an artistic point of view. El Greco supposedly had astigmatism that led to his elongated figures. Perhaps he distorted deliberately for emotional impact, or maybe, that was what he actually saw. An artist can always turn a lemon into lemonade.

The Claw at work on Canal Street

Mindfulness keeps us aware of our surroundings. We see more; we see better but you don’t have to be an artist to be mindful. Just to give you an example: several years ago, I took a (writer) friend to see my studio on Canal Street. On our way to Curley’s Diner afterward for a cup of coffee, my friend suddenly pulled his car into Rubino’s Metal Recycling Yard and got out. I followed, curious to see what had attracted him. He stood there, all excited, pointing up in the air: “Look at that claw! Look at that claw!” and sure enough, there was that 50’ crane with those giant metal jaws holding entire cars and refrigerators in its mouth. Literally, tens of thousands of people have driven past it over the years, barely noticing it. But, if you were “mindful” you would see one of the most spectacular sights in Stamford, right out of a horror movie: Godzilla or King Kong.
Found on the Ground

I’ve been recently stooping (literally) to picking up squashed beer cans from the side of the road. I don’t pick up every can I find, only the “beautiful” ones. What makes a beat- up tin can beautiful? I can’t tell you in words, but I know it when I see it.

Friday, April 4, 2014


Many years ago, I heard the noted psychoanalyst Erich Fromm interviewed on the radio. One of the things he said that struck home was that “consumption reduced anxiety” and he predicted that if the department stores ever shut down, there would be mass nervous breakdowns. I thought the remark facetious at first, but then, as I began to think about it, I realized it was true. Shut down Lord & Taylor’s or the Mall, and the thousands of shopping addicts in our society, mostly women, would fall apart.

I have to confess: I am a thrift shop addict, getting my needed “fix” for under $5, sometimes less. But I’ve got it under control (I swear). Once a week, I go to the Congregational Church Thrift Shop in Stamford, (fortunately open only on Thursdays from 10 to 3.) I don’t know that I have a particular need to buy new things as much as to see new things (the artist in me.) I require lots of visual stimulation and a visit to the thrift shop is, if nothing else, is a cheap thrill for the eyes.

Decades ago, when my office was located in an old shingle-style house on Main Street (we did historic preservation research), I used to call nearby Columbus Park “Thrift Shop Square.” Within a two block radius was the Hadassah Thrift Shop, St. Joseph’s Thrift Shop, Aid for the Retarded, Stamford Hospital Thrift Shop, along with a place whose name I don’t remember in the old Hotel Davenport. Whenever things got tense in the office, I would announce: “time for some Thrift Shop Therapy” and we would all head out to explore the treasures that surrounded us. Within an hour, everyone was back at work, purring like kittens over their $3 find: a pair of almost new chinos, a cup and saucer for the shelf and so on and so forth. No therapist could have accomplished so much for so little. Unfortunately, none of these places exist any more; the women who once manned them have died off or have careers and no time to sift through bags of “schmattas.”

I remember one occasion many years ago, when I went to the Greenwich Hospital Thrift Shop (still around but in a less convenient location) and was browsing through the racks of men’s clothing looking for an impossible to find size 46 L men’s jacket. The young and dapper man standing next to me had scored; he had found a rack full of stylish and expensive suits, mostly brand new, his size. “She must have taken them here the minute he walked out the door,” he muttered, sympathetically.

A while ago, I decided to create Renee Kahn’s Thriftee Shoppe with 3/4 life-size clothes cut out of brown wrapping paper. From a lifetime of thrift shop meandering came dozens of outfits, everything slightly out of style. I put shoulder tabs on the clothes (like paper dolls), cut them out and hung them on wire hangars. Some, I nailed up on a large wall outside my studio, others, (half-price) were hung on a metal clothes rack. I had an absolute blast re-creating the kind of dated clothing you see in thrift shops: jackets with peplums, mink stoles, harem pants, hippie vests, boleros (remember them?) My creations were a cross between high-art and low fashion. Although nobody bought anything (despite my bag for a dollar sale,) I thought they were a hoot (and a real bargain.) They’re still hanging in my studio; price on request.