Friday, July 25, 2014

Post #49: Picasso and Me

In case you're puzzled by the above image, it is a "conceptual" New York gallery show featuring my latest triptych as IMAGINED by graphic designer, Robert Callahan. If only it were really so!

Picasso and Braque had a horror of theories and rationales, but between them, they came up with a new form of reality, not the realism of previous eras, but their own. They heartily disliked the shimmering, “pretty” surfaces of Impressionism. When Cezanne simplified forms (the infamous cone, cube cylinder) he was still involved in the old Renaissance struggle to depict “real space”, although in his own way, using geometric planes and the advancing and receding properties of color. When P & B began using these volumes, they had little interest in Cezanne’s goals, capturing what the eye actually saw. It was the “inner eye” that counted to them; paintings had their own reasons to exist, a life of their own; let the camera deal with external reality. Even subject matter was unimportant, especially in Cubism’s second phase, the so-called “Synthetic” period (synthesis). “Still Lives” were merely shapes for Picasso and Braque to play with. Who cared about pieces of newspaper, bowls and chairs? They were merely objects that enabled artists to create a new reality appropriate to the modern world. 

In one of my former blogs, Post # 29, I wrote about how I had taken an art workshop forty plus years ago from an elderly Hungarian emigre painter named Victor Kandell who  managed to extricate me from “copying” life, just as Picasso and Braque had done decades earlier. He pushed me into creating my own artistic reality by playing around with size, enlarging and shrinking forms, not as the eye saw them, but as the composition required. He taught me to create new shapes using transparency and overlapping. No perspective, no shading, no story line. I learned to treat my paintings as a world of their own, with bits and pieces of reality introduced only where needed. But it wasn’t until I read Richardson’s “A Life of Picasso” that I realized who had been Kandell’s “teacher” (and indirectly, mine.)

For the past few months, I have been working on a series of large, 72”x48” oil paintings. I recently finished the fourth (and probably last) one. They are loosely derived from visits to the Lower East Side when I was in my twenties. I seem to have internalized the jumbled imagery of signs, people, the El, buildings etc. It’s like free association in psychotherapy. I treat the paintings first and foremost as compositions, not illustrations and they are lots more powerful that way. I finally understand, so many years after I began to study art, what abstraction is about. 

Friday, July 18, 2014


If there’s anything worse than academic theoreticians or art historians philosophizing about art, it’s artists trying to explain their own work. Matisse famously ordered painters to cut off their tongues because, he said, the decision to be an artist “takes away the right to express oneself with anything but a brush.” The problem is that visual images are extremely difficult to translate into words. Art is something that’s experienced, not intellectually understood.

The best an art historian can do when he writes about art is to explain how the work relates to its time, the social, technological and economic forces that influenced its creation. For example, it’s useful to know how the invention of the camera led to the ultra realistic painting of the mid-19th century; how the artists of the period attempted to compete with and surpass this new technology that threatened their livelihood. Or, it helps to know that scientific studies into the physics of color and light encouraged Impressionism. But none of the above technical information really affects the main goal of the artist: to create something of INEXPLICABLE beauty. Art theory is only words.

When I taught art history, I used to warn my students to beware of writing about art that was “over their heads.” It should be simple and easily understood. To demonstrate, I would take a paragraph out of their text and ask the class what it meant. Silence. Nobody understood it. “Don’t worry, class”, I would comfort them, “I didn’t understand it either. And what’s more, the author doesn’t know what he’s talking about; he’s just filling space (that’s what he’s paid to do) and assuming you would think you were too stupid to know what he was talking about.

My favorite example of this kind of meaningless ARTSPEAK happened at a lecture I attended at the Whitney Museum, when they had a branch in the former Champion Building in Stamford. The speaker (I won’t mention his name; although it is unlikely he will ever read this blog) was a noted art theoretician, the author of several totally unreadable books on Aesthetics. I was curious to see whether he was more intelligible in person than on the page (he wasn’t.) At one point, he used a term I had never heard before in all my years of studying and teaching art: “anarchic formalism” – an apparent oxymoron. Rather than embarrass him at the worshipful Q&A that followed, I went up to him on his way out to ask what the term meant. He had the decency to blush, “I made it up," he confessed, "it sounded good."

So, the moral of this post is two-fold:
  1. Never listen to artists talk about their art, or, if you do listen, don’t believe a word they say; they are either making it up as they go along, or quoting what someone else once said about their work. 
  2. Avoid aesthetic theory and philosophy like the plague. It has nothing to do with art.

The illustrations for this blog come from my large Curley's Diner triptych, except I didn't know it was going to be about  Curley's until I was well into it. I created the story 'after the fact' based on what had come out of my imagination. The woman in the center is Maria, part owner of the diner. The man lusting after her is a notorious Albanian house painter, well known for his romantic escapades. But I had no idea who was going to appear until they showed up. I told you; never listen to artists explain their work.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

POST #47: THE NAKED TRUTH or Beauty is in the Eyes of the Beholder

Men are always being accused of mentally undressing women. Do women do the same to men? I wonder. George Grosz, one of my all-time favorite artists, a German satirist from the 1920s and 30s, used to “undress” women all the time and his water colors of women in the street wearing transparent clothing, pubic hair and all, the way men (like himself) look at them are truly hilarious.  Throughout history, male artists have always preferred to paint female nudes. But what if women turned the tables on men and drew them nude with everything hanging out (literally)? Not a pretty sight, I’m afraid. In the 1960s, the artist, Alice Neele painted some great male nudes totally exposed, but her work was always considered somewhat prurient or “shocking.”

Many years ago, I did a series of large cardboard cutouts based on the real estate developers I dealt with on a regular basis. I thought of them as “thugs in expensive suits” but when I would get really angry, I would wonder how they would look without their clothes. It was my hostile way of getting even with them for being so arrogant and winning so often.  Out of that random thought, I created a Mens’ Bathhouse series: cut-out paper dolls of real men (not Ken dolls), about 14” high, wearing removable towels or swim trunks….very funny but unfortunately, too x-rated for me to ever show in public. (I lack Alice Neele’s guts, or should I say “balls”?)
I think there’s a reason, other than plain sexism, why we often show women in varying states of undress, but rarely give men a similar honor: naked men are just not that pretty to look at. When I began my Bathhouse series, I discovered that my limited life experience  (married to one man for fifty years) had left me without a great deal of information to draw upon so I went to the local bookstore and found the perfect swipe file, a book of a hundred or so photographs of frontally nude New Yorkers, men and women, all ages, all walks of life. The photographer had simply asked everyone he met to pose for him with clothes and without, and a surprisingly large percentage accepted. The book became a great resource file; everything I ever wanted to know about naked men, without having to become involved with them.

The truth is, most people look better with their clothes on. Unless someone spends endless hours exercising to say nothing of expensive surgery and exhausting diets, most exposed bodies are not very attractive. Often, parts that should be big are too small; parts that should be small, are too big. That’s why Mother Nature invented romance; nothing like the euphoria of a love affair to keep you oblivious to what’s actually in front of you.  Aside from wanting to even the score between myself and the thugs who always seemed to win the zoning battles, I wanted to say something about the “objectification” of women through most of art history. Why do artists paint naked women and not naked men? Maybe because women prefer to surprise you... By the way, I glued the fig leaves on just now to spare my readers unnecessary distress.

click image to enlarge

Friday, July 4, 2014


The longer I live, the more convinced I become that conventional beauty in a woman, despite what studies show and what most people believe, is not an advantage. In fact it might even be a disadvantage because it attracts people for what my husband used to describe as “the wrong reasons.” Over the years, I've known many truly beautiful women: knockouts, traffic stoppers, former actresses, models, and not one of them had what I would consider a happy marriage (despite numerous tries). Men came after them in droves but they were sought after as trophies and not for their other qualities. If they tried to be something more than just a pretty face, the men in their lives were not supportive. Age becomes a real problem for these beautiful women, a never-ending search for a magic potion to keep their looks intact. Without exception, all the really good-looking women I have known were unhappily married to men who didn't want them to be anything more than well-dressed arm candy.

On the other hand, my not-so-attractive friends, those who didn't hit the lottery in the looks department, all have had men in their lives who adored them, thought they were beautiful and found them endlessly interesting. They were also successful in business, hard working and creative. Not being able to fall back on a pretty face or a show-stopping body, they had to develop other qualities, ones that last long after conventional beauty is gone: loyalty, intelligence, humor. They’re fun to be with and after a while, you think they’re the best-looking women in the room….and, if you’re an employer, you should grab them. Studies have shown that being pretty is an advantage in being hired, but what happens after that? Our Plain Jane, who doesn’t rely on her looks, may win out in the long run.

 If you've ever painted a portrait, you know that the hardest people to capture are those with regular features, the pretty faces. There’s nothing to work with, nothing that distinguishes Ms A from Ms B. They all have large, wide-set eyes, short, straight noses and bland, oval faces. Nowadays, with such easy access to plastic surgery, I see more and more women who look like a TV hostess’ version of a Barbie Doll.  Just check out daytime television: everybody looks the same. The women I like to paint have character; they've had hardscrabble lives and their sagging faces and bodies show it. They won’t win beauty contests but they’re not narcissists; they make great artists’ models and, best of all, they’re real, not dolls!

 I once had the most adorable neighbor, Phoebe. She was the quintessential All-American cheerleader type. She had come to New York to be an actress and had some modest success before marrying and moving to the suburbs. One day, I confessed to her that I had always wanted to be cute like her. “And I always wanted to be interesting looking, like you.” She replied.