Friday, June 27, 2014


My husband was a Clinical Psychologist and every so often weighty professional journals would arrive in the mail, most of them of no interest, even to him. They were mainly useful as sleep inducers, five minutes reading one and you were out cold.  But, every so often, something interesting, even to a layperson like me, would turn up. I remember one particular study of creativity, not just in art, but music, literature and science. The authors examined what conditions were conducive to creative breakthroughs and why most innovative discoveries (in all fields) were made by people at the beginning of their careers. I don’t remember the details of the study, but I remember the researchers’ conclusion: creative thinking of all kinds needs UNBROKEN periods of TIME. Once someone becomes famous or successful, the demands on his or her time prevent him or her from concentrating; they no longer have the long, uninterrupted periods they had when they were just starting out. Artists became celebrities and scientists end up running bureaucratic institutes.  In addition, as people age, they acquire spouses and offspring as well as property and possessions that draw their attention away from work. I recently read an interview with Albert Einstein in which he stated that he wasn’t so much smarter than anybody else, but he was able to single-mindedly concentrate on a problem until he solved it, no matter how long it took.

Decades ago, I had the luxury of unbroken time when my children were little and I had a working spouse who walked out the door at 8 a.m. every morning. As soon as the school bus left, I ran into my studio and painted until my family came home six or seven hours later. Five glorious days a week!  I think I did my best work then. Now, my life has come full circle and I have unbroken time again. Whether I can get my old skills back is questionable, plus, I find it tiring to concentrate for more than a couple of hours at a time. While I now have the time, I may no longer have the energy for artistic breakthroughs.

We “Creatives” need to fight for the opportunity to work without interruption; Virginia Woolf wrote of a writer’s need in “A Room of Her Own.” If an artist is successful, then everybody wants a piece of him or her; if unsuccessful, work must be interrupted in order to earn a living. Filling the need for unbroken time seems to be behind the proliferation of artists’ colonies, places specifically designed to provide undisturbed time, although all the artists I know are like cats, we prefer familiar surroundings. I can sketch when I’m away from home but I’ve never been able to be truly creative, no matter how attractive the new setting. 

Friday, June 20, 2014


Or… The Curse of Coming from the Suburbs

My advice to anyone who wants to make it in the big-time art world is to remove the Scarlet Letter “S” (for “Suburban”) from your forehead. Scrub it off! Don’t leave a trace!

"Expulsion from the Suburban Garden of Eden"- oil on canvas, 48"x72"
Any hint that you are from the suburbs, born there, used to live there, currently live here, will immediately put you out of the running. A couple of years ago, just for the hell of it, I checked the hundred or so exhibitors at a Whitney Biennial and guess what, only one or two listed suburban addresses, not just New York, but anywhere else in the country. I’ve had friends who have tried to pass as city dwellers by giving phony addresses, but it just doesn’t work. It’s the Scarlet Letter “S.” You can’t get rid of it. An artist from the Suburbs? No chance! Dealers, curators, trendy arts writers can spot you right away.

"Loehmann's Dressing Room" -  oil and charcoal on canvas , 68"x104"
Is Suburban Art all that bad? Well, yes, most of it is. But so is what comes out of Brooklyn or Queens; 90% of that is dreadful as well, just a little more pretentiously avant garde and with better-written “explanatory” verbiage. The main problem I see with local art is that it suffers from two things: small working spaces (to do important work today you need space) and something an architectural historian friend of mine used to call the “Retardataire,” describing the lag between the main cultural centers and those of the outskirts. He was referring primarily to architectural styles but it also applies to the arts.  In Stamford, for example, most of the art I see was “hot” more than fifty years ago in New York. The train from New York City is slow; what can I tell you? And the Scarlet Letter “S” follows you everywhere.

"More Suburbia " - oil on canvas, 72"x46"
Many years ago (twenty maybe?) I trotted into the city with a box of slides and a viewer. I was reluctant to go but a friend persuaded me to tag along with her to see if we could find a New York City (SOHO) Gallery to show our work.  When we got to Ivan Karp’s prominent “O.K. Harris Gallery”, he was sitting there, looking at slides. He liked what I showed him and asked where my studio was - he wanted to drop by. When I replied that I lived in Stamford, he pushed my work away and said, “I only have a 20 minute radius.” When a prominent artist friend later talked to him about me, he said haughtily, “I never go to the suburbs to see art.” Mr. Karp, at least, was being honest about the Scarlet “S.”

Which leaves you/me with two alternatives: one is to move into the city, forget that you ever lived here, deny that your parents live here, that you went to school here; make up a story that you were found in a trash can on West Fourth Street and were brought up by friends of Allen Ginsburg in Greenwich Village. Or, you can do what I am doing: accept the reality that the Scarlet “S” is going to be on your forehead forever and just keep on creating. There’s much to be said for that!

Friday, June 13, 2014


The year I graduated college, I had an admirer who wanted desperately to marry me (maybe because no one else in their right mind would marry him). When I turned him down, he came up with Plan B, I should marry his best friend, Anson Saltonstall Howe, III. I admit that while Anson was not the most attractive suitor, tall and gawky, he was a scion of at least two of America’s leading aristocratic dynasties and could be considered a “catch.” He was an artist, a painter, which ostensibly gave us much in common, but marriage to him meant my becoming an “artist’s wife,” a situation I was determined to avoid. His parents owned a dilapidated brownstone on West 14th St. in New York City and Anson used the front parlor as his studio. Most of the family money had disappeared by then (drink and lack of financial acumen) and all that was left was the name, but what a name! I have to admit I would have loved to shop at Saks 5th Avenue and see the look on the salesgirl’s face when I asked that my purchases be sent to Mrs. Anson Saltonstall Howe, the Third. (me!)

Soon after I met Anson, he proposed marriage. He didn’t believe in “beating around the bush” (those were his very words). Did I want to be his wife or didn’t I? Aside from my not finding him physically attractive (a BIG drawback) I would have ended up being an “enabler. He was a pretty good painter “in the style of Rubens,” he said. He ground his own pigments and prepared his canvases the way Rubens did, but that’s where the resemblance ended. He was a social realist who painted meticulous street scenes extolling working class life.  Unfortunately, Social Realism and Working Class Life was no longer in style, having been passed over for giant canvases of slop known as Action Painting or Abstract Expressionism. Anson didn’t care; he had found his niche. What he needed now was a “wife” who would pay the bills so he could go on working without any worldly cares; the trust funds having run out. I had a steady job as an art teacher, summers off; I was reasonably attractive and able to hold my own in artistic discourse. Perfect! (at least from his point of view) Not so perfect from mine.

I never saw Anson after our first (and only) date, although he did call me a couple of times to inquire whether I planned to marry him. When I declined, he didn’t seem too surprised. While he thought he wanted a wife, he would, as the old joke goes, “he wouldn’t know what to do with one if he caught it.” Maybe I should have married him, gotten a quickie divorce and kept the name. In retrospect, however, I think I did O.K. with Kahn. 

Friday, June 6, 2014


I’ve met a lot of very capable artists over the years, but what most of them seem to lack is a voice of their own. Either their work is a very expert copy of someone else’s (sometimes they don’t even know whose style they’re copying) or, it looks like a “Group Show,” a potpourri of various subjects and media derived from every work of art they’d ever liked. I don’t care how good their work is, how beautiful their use of color, design, their technical skill; if it’s not original, if you can’t look at it and say “I know who did that!” then they will always be a hack – nothing more than that. The good news is they might do quite well as a hack in the art market, since their work is much less expensive that the originals they are copying. If it’s not as good, who will know? I once encountered a woman putting up a show of her work at Silvermine:  exquisite little collages using scraps of detritus and commercial lettering. “Ah, Schwitters,” I said to her, referring to the great German artist who had “invented” the scrap collage she was imitating, and she replied “Who’s Schwitters?” She was a fifth generation copyist who didn’t even know where her stolen ideas came from; she probably thought she was copying Joseph Cornell, another font of ideas for the un-original.

The problem with an original style is that it requires developing a personal language and not everyone is capable of doing that. Most people are conformists, carefully raised to do the right thing, be “liked” and not make mistakes. But to be an artist is to take risks, to do something that might be unacceptable: shocking, ugly or distorted. You know if you paint pictures of sailboats in pretty sunsets, your viewers will probably love what you do and praise you effusively, but try something more risky, experimental, and the reaction might not be so positive; You should hear some of the responses I get (and the looks that go with them)! “Ladies with ample bodies! Oh no! Sick! Sick! Sick” It takes guts to be a real artist. For the past 150 years, every artist we now respect was shocking and unacceptable.

However, once you develop a style of your own, one that is unique, identifiable, you may find yourself trapped, especially if you have created an audience, a reputation and a market for what you are doing. Are you ready to risk all this to explore a different path? Of course, if no one knows who you are and no one is buying your work anyhow, there’s less of a problem. But if you have “made a name.,” have a dealer and (gasp!) buyers, then you really are stuck. I wonder about poor Josef Albers. He must have gone nuts repeating that “verdammt” square of his, even with “variations.” I know I would, but then, I’m not Albers. As a child, I probably would have been diagnosed as ADD and medicated; I can’t do anything more than two or three times without getting bored. My late husband used to sigh and wonder how (given my short interest span) he lasted fifty years with me.