Friday, January 31, 2014

POST #24: EXCITEMENT IN SUBURBIA: The Journal of American Suburban Art

One of the (many) problems facing artists who live in Suburbia is that we are grossly discriminated against. Never mind color, gender or religion, you can’t be successful in the art world as long as you come from the suburbs. Artists I know often give borrowed New York City addresses, knowing that a home in the suburbs is the kiss of death in the art world. My work was once recommended to Ivan Karp, the legendary gallery owner, and he seemed interested until he asked me where my studio was located. When I told him Stamford, he closed my portfolio and grandly announced that he “had a twenty minute radius” for artists. My daughter used to tease me that to be successful I needed to hire a beautiful twenty-five-year old “doppleganger” from a trendy neighborhood to pretend to be me.

A number of years ago, a group of local “artistes” (note the “e”,) Carolee Ross the writer/poet, Steven Auslender, a sculptor from Wilton and Carolyn Ginsburg and I, both artists and teachers at the University of Connecticut decided to give living in the suburbs some cachet. We (anonymously) put together a spoof of all those totally unintelligible manifestos that accompanied the avant-garde art movements of the 1920s and ‘30s. The Futurists, Dadaists, Suprematists, Surrealists, Vorticists, Rayonists etc. all had manifestos; you couldn’t have a movement without one. The last one of any note probably belonged to Fluxus in the 1960s. The four of us intended to produce
an “uber” manifesto” for Lower Fairfield County and call it The Journal of American Suburban Art, a title we deemed sufficiently pretentious. Carolee contributed her epic poem, “Suburbiad,” (several people recognized themselves in it and never spoke to her again), Carolyn did a riff on an Archie comic, replete with backyard swimming pool, I did an acerbic guide to how to become successful in the art world and Steve created a sealed packet of “French” postcards which we never dared show anyone. We mailed about fifty manifestos (in plain wrappers) to people we knew and offered subscriptions for a dollar. The responses poured in and we soon had at least fifteen subscribers, including one who paid in pennies. I don’t remember if we ever got to mailing out the second issue, but we do have enough material for several more. We even have a bunch of submissions to a Merritt Parkway Surrealist Bridge design competition that are pretty interesting .

Last month, I donated a dozen copies of “JASA, Vol.I, Issue 1” to a fundraiser for the Franklin Street Works gallery at 41 Franklin Street in downtown Stamford. If you think the latest art in Brooklyn is far out, FSW is every bit as challenging. We’ll make you a copy of the Manifesto (very limited edition) but you need to pay for it with a tax deductible contribution (any amount) to FSW. We’ll show those pseudo intellectual poseurs from Brooklyn we’re not all boobs out here!
And if you encourage us, we might even put out a second issue.

Chorus from the Suburbiad by Hieronymous the Anonymous  (to be sung like a rap tune)
          Oh it’s not very Good, but it’s not very bad
          And lately they tell me that I should now add
          That it’s now being called by folk Far and folk Near,
The Suburbiad, an Epithet, they’ve now come to Fear.

Friday, January 24, 2014

POST #23: More on Satire: A Love/Hate Relationship?

Before I wrote my post on satire a few weeks ago, I went back to my art history texts to see if I could find its roots in the past. First of all, satire is a largely modern construct; it requires that an individual be important enough to be made fun of, an idea that didn’t exist until Greco-Roman times and then disappeared for the next thousand years

 Satirist seem to fall into two categories: the ones who are fond of their subjects – they’re more in the “Genre” tradition - and those who hate their fellow beings. The “people lovers:” Daumier, maybe some of the American “Ashcan School” artists” (like Sloan and Marsh,) are few and far between. Most satirists are venomous critics of society – usually with good reason.  Grosz had no milk of human kindness in him, neither did Goya or Bosch (you can tell they wanted their subjects to burn in hell!) But then, the times they lived in were pretty grim and a satirist is able to tell the truth in the guise of laughter, The greatest satirists of all times, Pieter Brueghel, had a love-hate relationship with his subjects. Paintings like the “Wedding Dance” and “Hunters in the Snow” are expressions of his feelings for humankind and nature - while others, his “Blind Leading the Blind,” for example, are hidden critiques of his times.

My favorite “mean” satirist is George Grosz. He manages to take on all of Weimar Germany: the bourgeoisie, the aristocracy, the military, the priesthood; whores and housewives; they all fall under his brilliant brush. The irony is that when he came to the United States in the 1930s to escape the Nazi’s, he lost his capacity for satire. America was too comfortable; he was a celebrity – everyone loved him; he loved them. In the end he went back to Germany, probably to recover his “edge,” but it was too late.

I’m in the “humanist” satirical tradition. I like my people: the denizens of Curley’s Diner, the women checking their rumps in a department store mirror, oversized mamas in bikinis at the beach. I may poke fun at them, but it’s fond, not vicious fun. I like to sketch when I’m in public, especially if no one notices me with my pad.

About twenty years ago, I started to draw dancing couples at “gala” events like weddings. My subjects were real in the sense that they were not the glamorous Ken and Barbie dolls you see at ballroom competitions on TV; they were mostly incongruously matched, inappropriately dressed klutzes, but still, having the time of their lives. I even liked the way they counted to the music (must have taken lessons.) I turned my sketches into a performance piece for the overhead projector, replete with tasteless music. If you like, someday, I’ll perform it for you.

Friday, January 17, 2014


"Shore Leave" -  Version I

About thirty years ago, I did a series of paintings that were some of the best I have ever done. It was like the sun the moon and the stars were all in alignment and each piece was better than the last. For once, I had lots of uninterrupted time (more important than you realize), rolls of good, rough-textured canvas (no longer available) and a supply of thick sticks of hard charcoal (also not around any more). I had learned how to fall into a semi-conscious “alpha” state where ideas just poured out of me. Soft brown washes, a sensitive charcoal line accented by darker browns, grays and whites; nothing was preplanned. I tried not to sell any of them, knowing that here was work that would ultimately make my reputation as an artist.

"Shore Leave" -  Version II
I did part with two pieces. One I sold willingly to a close friend. The other, I gave away on a long-term loan. I’ve never seen either painting again and no longer even know where they are. The one I got real money for was purchased by a friend who lived in Westchester County; she promised me “perpetual visiting rights.” Unfortunately, she and her husband moved to upstate New York and then to Canada and when I offered to buy the piece back, she said no, it was her favorite and under no circumstances was she giving it up. I never received a forwarding address from her. The good news was that I had a decent photograph of it.

"Shore Leave" -  Version III
The other painting was borrowed by a man I knew who was moving from Norwalk to New York City to become one of TV’s earliest “celebrity chefs”; he could be seen on CBS every Sunday morning. He wanted it to decorate his new Riverside Drive apartment, convincing me that he would entertain the rich and famous and they would all rush to Stamford to buy my work. Years went by and I lost touch with him as well. My daughter discovered that he had moved to London and had opened a highly successful Southern barbecue restaurant in Notting Hill. I contacted him about my painting and was told that he had left it in storage when he moved to London and it had been inadvertently sold at auction, seller and buyer unknown. He had a lawsuit going against the storage company but had no idea when the case would be settled. I had a not-very-clear snapshot of it, but good enough to prove that it was mine.

"Street Scene" - Version I
About two years ago, I received a call from a friend who was familiar with my work. She said, “I think there’s a painting of yours at one of the antique centers in the South End” and she sent me a photo from her I-phone. It was the painting that had disappeared from storage. I rushed down to claim it but unfortunately, by the time I got there, it had been sold. The dealer, sensing trouble (stolen goods), developed a severe case of amnesia; he had no idea who bought it, “a picker from the Midwest; never saw him before in my life; paid cash.” I filed a report with the police and went on with my life.

"Street Scene" - Version II
About a year ago, I decided to see if I could recreate the lost pieces; after all, I had photos to work from. But even with images to copy, I couldn’t do it. My first attempts were a disaster but I kept trying and each time got a little bit better. The most recent versions, even though they don’t look like the originals, are good in their own way. I felt a little less guilty about recreating past work when I recently learned that Chagall spent the last few years of his life trying to borrow back some of his great early paintings in order to copy them Their present owners, as you can imagine, were not happy to see their originals duplicated.

Here are some early paintings along with more recent versions.

Friday, January 10, 2014


Venus Undressing
24"x9"  Black gesso on box cardboard
I’ve been around the art world an awfully long time and I can’t decide which is worse, artists speaking about their work or scholars trying to interpret it. The artists I know tend to be extremely intelligent, but not very good at explaining what they are doing in a reasonably articulate manner. Academics, on the other hand, are articulate, but completely unintelligible. They can take the simplest concept and turn it into total bullshit. I used to try to explain to my poor art history students that when they didn’t understand something in the textbook, it was usually the author’s fault, not theirs. I once went to a lecture by a famous art critic (nameless), who, when I challenged him as to the meaning of “Anarchic Formalism,”a term he had used, he confessed sheepishly that he had “made it up.” He figured he had an audience of suburban boobs and nobody would know the difference. What set this off is some research I did on Arte Povera before undertaking this post.

Waiting for the Bus
36"x20"  Charcoal on brown wrapping paper
In my first post, I wrote about the relationship of much of my work to the ‘Arte Povera’ movement that came out of Italy in the late 1960s. Since I was up to my eyeballs in diapers during its heyday, I had no idea it existed until well after it went out of style. The term translates as “Poor Art;” it is neither low quality nor designed for the poor, but art that is theoretically non-commercial and uses  “humble,” often impermanent materials. In a sense, it is the artistic version of the ‘60s counter culture, an attempt to opt-out of a “bourgeois capitalist buy/sell mentality in the art world.”

 I love to use brown cardboard and wrapping paper. They provide me with a “middle ground,” the tone I was taught to put on a canvas before beginning to draw or paint. The soft, umber color and rough texture makes them perfect surfaces on which to draw.  A friend of mine taught me to use black gesso for a thick, pasty black line. The tooth of wrapping paper is also great for charcoal and I have completed dozens of drawings on that surface, often adding color with chalks or tempera. Recently, I’ve been working on a stack of 18” tall, cardboard “Venuses,” voluptuous ladies caught in the act of taking off their shirts.

Pencil on 9" paper plate
Lately, my Arte Povera medium of choice has been paper lunch plates and pill cups. I began using the pill cups when I was hospitalized for six weeks with a broken ankle. Every night, the nurses would bring me sleeping pills; I would swallow them and then draw faces inside the one inch cups, entertaining both the staff and myself. I ended up with hundreds of faces staring at me. After I left the nursing home, I had trouble buying real paper cups; all I could find were ones with a plastic finish. Fortunately, Trader Joe’s uses the real thing for food samples and I squirrel away as many as I can whenever I go there.

My latest Arte Povera effort is a stack of paper plates embellished with pencil drawings of imaginary faces; I’m up to 150 now. I envision them someday installed as a cornice around a room or covering an entire wall. In the meantime, they talk to me, my criteria for success.

Friday, January 3, 2014


Thugs in Suits
That’s a famous line by the playwright George S. Kaufman. He was talking about theatergoers’ notorious dislike of satire. But he could just as well have been talking about the art world; the only difference is that ‘satire’ (the kind of work I do) never gets a shot at closing on Saturday night; it never opens at all.  On a recent trip to the art galleries in New York City, I didn’t see a single piece that could be considered “satirical.” One of the reasons for this is that satire is not decorative wallpaper like most abstract art and it’s not safe, pseudo radical protest stuff with slogans all over it, and, worst of all - it doesn’t sell. It requires the artist to be a perpetual “outsider,” not a marketable commodity.

Local Politics
So, having properly “vented,” what’s the point of this blog? I’m just saying that satire pokes fun at the establishment and the “establishment” is what pays the bills. The last great satirists were “angry young men” in post World War I Germany where the pillars of society: the church, the government and the financial system had collapsed and pretty pictures were pointless. When Hitler took power, he declared war on modern art in general, and satire in particular. It’s interesting to note that there’s a nascent satire movement in Russia. Last August, officials closed down the “provocative” Museum of Authority in St. Petersburg after confiscating four satirical paintings, including a portrait of Putin in a woman’s nightgown.

When I started to paint full time, I had no idea of what I wanted to do. I knew I wasn’t an abstractionist (I like content too much), and I hate pretty landscapes, so I fell into social commentary. As a newcomer to Stamford - a small, conservative New England city, I found a lot to work with: corrupt politicians, narrow-minded clubwomen, self-satisfied business leaders. An outsider always sees things from a different, more critical perspective. Satire, to my way of thinking, is one of the best weapons a social critic has. Politicians, for example, hate being laughed at more than anything (except maybe being indicted for fraud). Rather than call someone corrupt, venal or stupid  (even if they are), I can always poke fun at them to make my point and, hopefully, there won’t be any reprisals. “Just kidding,” I can always say.

A "virtual" exhibit of Kahn's satirical paintings created by Robert Callahan

Over the years, I have completed several series of satirical paintings and drawings, including one I never show in public. The first was “Local Clubwomen,” based on those silly, staged group photos you see in the newspaper “Society Pages.” Then there was a series of imaginary Mayors, “Thirty Years of Good Government: a Portfolio Suitable for Framing” that poked fun at local politics.  After that came a larger-than-life cast of cardboard “Thugs in Suits” (developers?) and my “Real-Live Women” paper dolls. My “Seven Deadly Sins ” are ongoing, (as in real life) but I also have an x-rated (never to be shown outside my studio) series: “Men’s’ Locker Room,” 24” high cut-outs of “true-to-life” men with removable towels over their middles. Not a pretty sight.

There are practically no satirists around today, at least not in the art world. First of all, everyone is terrified of being politically incorrect; I recently got one of my paper dolls pulled from an exhibit because someone thought she looked “Hispanic.” This means you can only satirize rich white men and women and since they are the likely buyers of art, don't expect to sell a lot.

 I’d like to revisit this topic in the near future, so let me know your thoughts. Perhaps by analyzing the great satirists from the past, from Hieronymus Bosch to George Grosz, I can get more insight into the nature of satire, including who they made fun of and why. Anyhow, it’s a pretty meaty subject and I have barely touched the surface.