Thursday, May 29, 2014


Oil on canvas, 68"x44", 2014
I was going to call this post “The Aging Artist,” but I decided “The Ageless Artist” was more accurate. Picasso was once quoted as saying that an artist remains thirty his entire life. Unfortunately, I can’t find the source of the quote, but it sounds like something he would say. He certainly remained “thirty” his entire life, churning out hundreds of brilliant, powerful paintings well into his nineties…

 Picasso wasn’t alone; Mattisse worked to the bitter end, doing some of his best and freest work while bedridden, crippled by arthritis. He compensated for not being able to hold a brush by having chalk on a stick tied to his hand. Most aging artists manage to work well into old age, compensating for physical limitations and fading eyesight with freer technique. Yes, their work changed, depending on the nature of their infirmities, but the quality of the art they produced did not diminish. Klee, for example, his work became larger, freer, more “primitivistic” to compensate for his loss of motor function. The work was different, because he was no longer the same physically, but brilliant nonetheless.

Cut-out oil on canvas, 66"x28", 2014
Now, as I approach old age (it’s only a number), I find myself tiring more quickly. I stained a large 4’x6’ canvas today, rubbing a thin coat of umber paint over the entire surface; it went well but I had to take a long nap afterward. Eyesight is another problem for “us” aging artists, although recent improvements in eye treatment have made this less troubling than in the past. One has only to compare the tight, detailed work done by the Old Masters when they were young with the looser work of their later years to realize the importance of loss of vision at a time when glasses and surgeries were unavailable. To briefly name a few of the great ones whose work became so loose it was almost abstract toward the end of their lives, you come up with quite a roster (and this is only off the top of my head) Rembrandt,  Turner, Titian, Goya, Hals, Degas, Cezanne.. I used to think that this fluidity in later life was the result of greater proficiency; as an artist got older, he was able to do more with less effort. That’s only partly true; what if it was mainly a matter of not being able to see so well?

Now that I no longer have children at home, a husband to care for, a job at the University that requires my presence, I am free to rush into the studio every morning, eager to see what  a day of painting will bring. Sometimes, nothing worthwhile appears, other times I dance around paintbrush in hand. I feel young and elated - maybe not quite thirty the way Picasso predicted, but close. I’m always looking around for new ideas, new subject matter.

Oil on canvas, 68"x44", 2014
One night, over a year ago, I tuned in on Charlie Rose on Channel 13 at 11 p.m., just as the image of his ‘guest of honor’ flashed onto the tv screen. There, I saw an ancient crone, a woman with artificially dyed red hair in an unbecoming flapper bob, heavy makeup; thick, painted eyebrows; she looked like she had been dug up from the grave. “Who the hell is that ghoul?” I thought. Then Charlie introduced her: Francoise Gilot, a 92 year old French painter who had been Picasso’s mistress for many years.  When she began to speak, everything changed; she became young and beautiful. She flirted with Rose, told wonderful anecdotes in a charming French accent about life with Picasso, described her artwork and her upcoming exhibit at a major gallery in New York City. Within minutes, she had become a thirty-year-old enchantress,  “The only woman,” she stated with a twinkle, “to ever leave Picasso.” (He never forgave her.) I could image her to this day with a trail of adoring men behind her. What a lesson in how a creative spirit never grows old!

Friday, May 23, 2014


The Lecherous Smile   Oil crayon on vellum   25"x19"
When I look back on some of my early work, the stuff I did decades ago when I first started to paint, I’m shocked to see how happy everybody looks. They all have smiles on their faces. Why? It didn’t take me long to realize that most of my subject matter in those days came from those stiff, posed photos I saw in the local Society Pages. Coming from New York City, I quickly became aware of how important it was in a small community to have your picture in the local newspaper: the Officers of the Glenbrook Garden Club, the Rotary, the Kiwanis, the Woman’s Club, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Hadassah, Retired Airline Hostesses and so on and so forth, all staring uncomfortably at the camera. “Smile,” the photographer must have ordered and they all obeyed. Their smiles are stiff and anxious, more a rictus than an expression of joy. Somehow, I had captured their discomfort and their fear of being photographed. Do I look O.K.? Is my hair in place?

The Sly Smile   Oil on canvas   32"x24"
After my early “newspaper” phase, most of the subject matter in my paintings came out of my subconscious, my imagination. So why was everyone smiling now? I certainly wasn’t saying that their life was good; most of my characters look anxious and distressed. However, I think I’ve come up with a reasonable explanation: the smiles were my subjects’ way of making contact. They say: “I’m not dangerous; I want to be your friend.” Smile and the world smiles with you; it’s really true. However, in looking at my work to find illustrations for this blog, I realize that not all smiles are alike: there are nervous, insecure smiles designed to placate; there are leering, seductive smiles, cold, calculating smiles, psychotic smiles, patronizing smiles. No end to what their smile can tell you about someone.

If you want to understand the importance of smiles in making something lifelike, you have to go back to the Ancient Greeks. In the 6th century B.C., when artists were beginning to study human anatomy and learn how to make their sculptures lifelike, they used the smile as a way of communicating with the viewer. The sweet, upturned lips that appear on the Greek Kouros and Kore of the period was called the “Archaic Smile” and art historians assume that it was meant to make the figure seem alive. In the periods that followed, once the technical problems of creating a realistic human form were solved, the smile disappeared; it was no longer needed.  But before that, sculptors needed to create life with a smile..

After all, what’s the most famous work of art in the history of the world? The Mona Lisa. And what is she doing? She’s smiling….a sweet, mysterious smile.

The Mona Lisa Smile  Oil on canvas   44"x34"

Friday, May 16, 2014

Post #39: Goddess or Glutton: a matter of taste

I grew up in New York City at a time when all the female role models such as Marilyn Monroe or Jane Russell were “zaftig” (Yiddish for plump or juicy). Every young woman I knew aspired to a 36”26” 36” figure and made sure to stuff handkerchiefs in places where Mother Nature had failed to meet that goal. In my urban neighborhood, only a few decades away from immigrant poverty, a well-built woman signified good health and an ample food supply. Catcalls of approval followed her wherever she went, annoying but preferable to my situation. I was an unfashionable 112 pounds through most of my teens and twenties and a source of worry to relatives who doubted I would ever find a husband let alone produce children. 

But what does this have to do with ART? Actually, quite a lot. Artists love hefty models. You can almost hear the disappointment when a slender model walks into a life drawing class and drops her clothes. “There’s nothing to paint here!” is the unspoken wail. However, let a 200-pounder come through the door and the joy in the room is almost palpable. “Now this is going to be fun!”  It was okay for Medieval Madonnas in clothes-hangar robes to be skinny but once you got to real naked ladies during the Renaissance, they had to be well-endowed. “Venuses” from a migratory period that pre-dated writing or civilization of any kind celebrated amplitude. Anthropologists claim they were “fertility figures,” but I suspect they really celebrated a reliable food supply. Fat meant fed. Among the greatest painters of pulchritude were the 17th Century Dutch who were celebrating an era of plenty after a prior period of famine and extreme cold. A nude by Rembrandt or Rubens is as much a tribute to Dutch prosperity as anything else.

Today’s sex symbols would be considered grotesque in any era but our own. Women are encouraged to distort their bodies surgically. I once spotted one poor naked thing in a locker room who looked as if someone had pasted two half cantaloupes onto her anorexic body. Whose idea of feminine beauty is this? On the other hand, coming out of Curley’s Diner the other day, I encountered an absolutely magnificent woman, children in tow, wearing an ankle-length red silk dress with tropical flowers on it. Maximum body; minimum underwear. I made sure to file her in my mental “to show up in a painting someday” file.

Since most of my artwork  comes from my subconscious, you’ll find an awful lot of pleasingly plump women there. There are probably two reasons for this, 1) most of my subject matter comes from the people I encounter in everyday life. They don’t mind being well endowed; they’re just happy to be well fed.  The other reason is probably “wish fulfillment.” These babes have what I wanted all those years ago.  I’m apparently still acting out my desire to attract approval from the guys at the candy store.

Friday, May 9, 2014


Click on Images to Enlarge
During the many years I have lived in Stamford, I’ve met a lot of mayors: good, bad and indifferent. Some were brilliant, others stupid; some venal, others models of morality. Some I actually got to like and others I hated (and they hated me.) Eventually I became a professional historic preservation consultant and got to travel to other cities throughout the state. In every town hall I visited, I found a Rogues Gallery of photographs of former mayors, just like the one in Stamford. Whether it was Waterbury, Bridgeport or Hartford, there were common threads among them. First of all, most of them looked untrustworthy, shifty, you wouldn’t give them a nickel, let alone your tax dollars. Maybe the camera made them nervous; I don’t know. Some looked pompous, self important, others positively corrupt; several looked like actors playing the part of a mayor in an old black and white movie.

Click on Images to Enlarge
The other pattern I noticed was their ethnicity. In the early 20th century, mayors were Anglo-Saxons, “Yankees”, often scions of prominent local families. They all seemed to have rimless glasses and authoritarian stares. After the Yankees came the Germans, the Irish, with their good looks and charm, the Italians, the Poles and other ethnics, depending on local immigration patterns. More recently, I notice a smattering of minorities: Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, maybe even an occasional woman.

Around ten years ago, drawing on my experiences in local politics, I decided to spoof the lineup of Town Hall mayor photos and create my own cast of characters. I began with small paintings on canvas that I photocopied: first the mayors, then their wives (or husband in one case).  They were all composites of the officials I had been working with (or against) for the past 30 years. Each mayor came with a tongue-in-cheek, made-up bio (and a spouse). I then put them into a home-made portfolio I called: Thirty Years of Good Government: a Portfolio of Civic Leaders Suitable for Framing.”

Click on Images to Enlarge
Since I am an “equal-opportunity” satirist, my characters come from all ethnic backgrounds and walks of life. I begin with the (imaginary) Honorable T. Phelps Glemson III, who was mayor from 1974 t0 1976. He was so incompetent, he only lasted a single term. Rather than have him back in the family banking business, creating havoc, his relatives exiled him to Florida where his wife still refers to him as “The Mayor.” I end with the (semi-imaginary) Honorable Humphrey Siggle, mayor from 2002 to 2004. Unlike the others, he was based on an actual person I knew in local government (not a mayor.) He was a notorious drunk, You could reach him only between 11a.m. to noon. Prior to 11 he was too hung over from the night before to function and after his usual liquid lunch, he was either asleep on the office couch or busy molesting the women who worked for him.
If you’ve ever been involved in local politics, you will recognize them all. Of course, since these pieces were done so many years ago, they couldn’t possibly be anyone you know. Or could they?

I have a fantasy that one April Fool’s Day I will put my mayors’ portraits in narrow, black frames and hang them in the hallway next to the lobby of the Stamford Government Center. I wonder if anyone will even notice?

Friday, May 2, 2014


My wise old friend Dina used to say: “Every artist has ten good years.” I used to disagree with her, but, unfortunately, as I live and learn, her observation is probably valid. Of course, there are the Picasso’s and the Matisse’s, geniuses who constantly re-invent themselves, but if you carefully examine their work, it would probably boil down to ten great years with a few extra good ones tossed in here and there.

The interesting question is not “whether” the phenomenon exists (and it’s true for writers, composer, all creative types) but “why?” What causes an artist to have a creative outburst that he or she can never duplicate? Sometimes, it’s the times that create innovations in all areas of life, a period of growth (or despair) that is conducive to great work in science, literature and art. The High Renaissance of course comes to mind. You could not conceive of a Michelangelo or a Da Vinci doing what they did one hundred years earlier or one hundred years later. The period in which Modern Art developed, 1905-1915 was another such golden age, giving birth to innovations in physics, mathematics and music as well as art. Most of these high points are usually brought to an end by large-scale, catastrophic events such as wars or economic collapse. The interesting “exception” was Weimar Germany, a ten-year period of economic and social disaster after World War I that brought about a burst of creativity in music, film and art that has never again been equaled.

In my lifetime, I have had dozens of artist friends, and the ten- year rule seems to hold true for them as well. None of them ever became famous; quite a few should have, but life, damn it! kept interfering. They did however, often have ten good years before everything fell apart: family illness, the need to earn money, lack of recognition all took their toll. One friend, the most gifted of us all and on her way to major recognition, quit when her child was injured in an accident and needed constant care; another stopped when his wife (and enabler) divorced him (he deserved it for fooling around with all her friends.) Without her taking care of his life, he could no longer concentrate on his art work and went back to being a commercial illustrator. Another stopped because her sculpture wasn’t selling and it was becoming a storage problem. But, they all had ten good years before LIFE interfered.

Even so-called successful artists seem to run up against the ten-year window. Is it because fame is ultimately destructive, eating into the time they should be in their studio, filling their days with stupid, self-aggrandizing activities? They are constantly being invited like show dogs to dinner parties and openings, celebrity events that eat into their creative time. I once attended a dinner party at the Whitney Museum (only once, not bragging) and found myself sitting next to Jasper Johns, all dressed up in a monkey suit and drinking himself “under the table.” All I could think of was how could he work the next day? I would be out of commission for a week.

So, in looking back, what can I say about my own “ten good years”? Judging by last week’s trip to the attic, the good years might already be over. Dina was right; I had ten good years, but because of circumstances beyond my control, they weren’t contiguous. A year here, a year there, made evident by a variety of styles. With luck, however, I might have a few more good years left. If not, it won’t be because I didn’t try.