Friday, August 29, 2014

POST #54: WE AIM TO PLEASE: (why can’t a woman paint more like a man?)

Last weekend’s NYT had a six page article in Style magazine about Marlene Dumas, a highly successful (her paintings sell for multiple millions) South African artist who now lives in Amsterdam. Although I don’t particularly like her work, I have to say, she paints “like a man,” meaning she doesn’t try to please. Her work has a “Falstaffian vitalism” (Times quote from Samuel Johnson) rarely seen in women artists. She almost goes out of her way to be unpleasant.

I started thinking about this topic a few weeks ago when I attended an art exhibit in Westchester County, mostly work by highly capable women artists. It struck me how afraid they were to be tough, how much they wanted “to please.” Whether the work was abstract, realistic or in-between, there was a deliberate effort not to offend anyone, to use nice colors, inoffensive themes. I assure you, Marlene Dumas doesn’t worry about being likeable. As far as I was concerned, the exhibitors were a bunch of competent “Lady Painters,” the kiss of death for an artist. As ‘enry ‘iggins would say: “Why can’t a woman paint more like a man? “As long as she tries to be inoffensive, she never will. (of course, you could argue that she should “be herself,” feminine sweetness and all),

Obviously, it goes back to gender differences in the way we bring up children, although these expectations are changing so rapidly that in a few years, if not already, what I have to say will no longer hold true.  We still expect girls to be nice, pretty and popular; we expect our boys to be tough, aggressive, achievers. Women wear lipstick, get their breasts enhanced; men (mostly) don’t. Why not? And of course it reflects in the kind of art women produce and why they are not as successful as men in what is still a mans’ art world. We no longer have Gorilla Girls protesting for equality for women artists, but we still have gender differences that no amount of protesting will erase. Women can’t get rid of a life-long habit of pleasing others that does not go away when they decide to become artists.

The New York art world I grew up in was almost completely devoid of women, except as helpers to their male artist companions, (See Post # 5  “Why I Would Never Marry Another Artist.”) I had no female role models, at least none that I could accept. Unlike someone like Alice Neel (whom I admired as an artist), I wasn’t willing to live my life in a slum with a line of alcoholic lovers outside the door). However, in the sixties and seventies, with the advent of the Woman’s Movement, this all began to change and a whole host of remarkable women, especially sculptors like Nevelson, Benglis, Bontecue  appeared. They were tough, mostly thoroughly unlikable (aka “unfeminine”) as human beings , but they fought for equal recognition in the art world and, for the most part, did surprisingly well.

I recently heard a couple of people (two to be exact) comment about Judy Chicago in a derisive manner,  (she’s still around after all these years) about how aggressive she was, how unpleasant and such a “relentless self promoter.” All I could think of was Jeff Koons; he has Judy Chicago beat by light years, But then, he’s a man, he’s supposed to be that way; in a man, it’s admirable and leads to success. While one is not supposed to “blame the victim,” (all you women out there) you can’t be sweet and nice and be an artist. You have to be willing to kick butt, not be “liked.” Unfortunately, that’s not the way most of us were raised. That’s why we wear lipstick and “they” don’t. You can blame childhood over-socialization for that but what the hell, you lady painters out there, it’s time to throw off your chains; no more decorator art. Scare the hell out of the guys around you. Work BIG, be TOUGH!

Friday, August 22, 2014

POST #53: Renee Kahn’s Rules for Effective Public Speaking

A couple of posts ago, I talked about teaching art to “minors” in the Junior High Schools of the South Bronx. But, sometimes it’s just as tough to reach an audience of sophisticated adults, even though they’re well behaved, seemingly eager to learn and capable of sitting still for more than five minutes.

I like to think that my years in the public schools of New York City made me a good speaker. It was a question of survival. I am now fearless in front of an audience, no matter how large or small, socially important or academically advanced, I know I can hold them, keep their interest, teach them something and entertain them at the same time. My twenty-two years of lecturing at the University of Connecticut in Stamford certainly helped. One student wrote in his teacher evaluation that I “made a boring subject interesting.” (I never thought art history was boring). However, I know plenty of people who taught for as long as I did and are twice as knowledgeable as I am who are dreadful teachers and public speakers. They are ‘tone deaf,” blissfully unaware that they are putting their audience to sleep.

I recently attended a lecture by a prominent political scientist with top academic credentials: a Ph.D., years of teaching at a famous university, numerous books and articles and lots of personal charisma. His topic was unfamiliar to me and I was looking forward to learning something. But the minute Dr. X took out a stack of notes and began to read them, I knew it was going to be an ordeal. Escape was impossible; I was sitting in the front row and would have had to cross in front of him to get out. An hour and a half later, I was finally able to reach the door. The problem with listening to a talk that is being read is that you can’t go back over anything you missed, the way you can if you are reading a book. When you deliver something verbally, off the cuff, you automatically simplify it as you would in conversation.

So here are Renee Kahn’s rules for keeping your listeners awake (and learning)

Rule #1: NEVER read your speech - unless of course it is some kind of scientific paper that has lots of formulae and requires total accuracy. If you don’t know your subject well enough to speak with just a brief (VERY brief) outline, you shouldn’t be giving the talk at all. Besides, you are much better off missing a couple of points than you are boring your audience to death. If you must, make as few notes to yourself as possible and print them in large letters you can read without your glasses. If you have a lot of technical information to impart, prepare a handout.

Rule #2: Like (or act like you like) your audience.  Come in smiling, crack a joke, don’t show fear. Interact with the audience constantly. Look at them; gauge how things are going and be prepared to improvise. That’s one of the reasons not to read your speech (Rule #1); if you aren’t looking at the faces in front of you, you can’t tell if you are getting through. Start with something funny; it puts everyone at ease. You can almost hear the sigh of relief when your audience realizes they’re in for an enjoyable experience.

Rule #3: Keep your visuals to a minimum. It’s not that your material isn’t worthwhile, it’s that people’s capacity to absorb it tends to run out after about 20 or 25 images. It all becomes a blur after that. I remember attending a talk on Rhode Island pottery at a local historical society where the speaker marched in with two full trays of slides and promptly proceeded to show all 240 of them. I thought I would die and to this day, have trouble looking at images of Early American pots. Visual overload sets in pretty fast.

Rule #4: Watch your audience constantly for signs of boredom and then react accordingly. Speed up, condense, eliminate, crack a joke, walk around the room. That takes us back to Rule #1, why you should never read your speech.

Just remember, lecturing in public is the intellectual’s form of stand-up comedy.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


In an earlier blog, I referred to a remark my late husband (a Clinical Psychologist) had made about my work. He claimed I suffered from “only child syndrome” and the need to create “company” on my canvasses was the result of some existential loneliness. Well, guess what? In my latest effort, I’ve come up with a man to protect me and keep me company. He’s a bit of a slob and not my type, but hey, when I need him, he’s there. That’s more than you can say for most men.

I have to thank the ace graphic designer Bob Callahan for finding Herman for me. Callahan likes to occasionally amuse himself by putting (“virtually,” not actually) my artwork in all sorts of high-class places like the Louvre, or the Neue Gallery. Of course, my work looks great in big, fancy galleries and who knows, maybe someday, if I live long enough (like another 100 years) it might get there. One day, Bob e-mailed me a photo of Herman (that’s the name I gave him) admiring one of my well-endowed maidens (nothing like virtual reality). I decided I needed him in my life so I took the photo Bob sent, copied it onto a sheet of acetate and used my overhead projector to create a life-sized figure with his back to the viewer. I then copied the image onto a large piece of canvas and painted it in oil. Herman came out great; he was Everyman, the universal Zhlub*: thirty pounds overweight, sloppily dressed; even the creases in his saggy pants looked real.

My next step was to glue the painted Herman onto a piece of foam core and cut him out. I have to say, the result was so realistic that you could swear he was actually in the room. My immediate reaction when I came into the studio at night was to jump back, thinking there was someone there, looking at my work. When I realized it was only Herman, I relaxed, knowing I now had someone to protect me; like a dog; he would scare away intruders.

All my friends love Herman and insist that I photograph them next to him. He’s like one of the painted figures at a carnival with a hole for your face or maybe he’s actually a Golem, arisen to protect the Jews of Prague (in this case Renee Kahn in North Stamford). I’m not quite sure I need protection, but it’s nice to know he’s there and he that he admires my work.

Herman is happy to pose on request. Just let me know and I will make an appointment.


A crude person lacking in social skills along with insensitivity and a lack of manners, oaf, nebbish 

Friday, August 8, 2014


The recent death of Bel Kaufman, author of the best seller, “Up the Down Staircase,” brought back lots of memories of my days in the New York City public schools. After graduation from college, (an art major) I got a job teaching art to 7th, 8th and 9th graders in the Junior High Schools of the South Bronx, not the easiest way to earn a living. If nothing else, the experience made me an exceptionally good public speaker; if you can hold the attention of 30 twelve to fourteen year olds, there is no audience you can’t handle – although I have to say the worst group I ever addressed was a DAR luncheon in New Canaan. My inner city delinquents were nothing compared to that bunch of spoiled, elderly brats. I ended up doing “stand-up” comedy to get their attention, a skill I acquired during my years at Herman Ridder Junior High School in the Bronx.

The problem wasn’t so much the students; they looked forward to their one hour of art a week, although it had about as much relevance to their lives as Ivanhoe or Algebra. It was the system that drove me crazy. I taught thirty classes a week, each with over 30 students, close to 1,000 pupils in a subject that required individual attention. To say that I was a basket case at the end of a day would be an understatement.

The days flew by in what seemed like seconds. I felt like that character in the old German classic movie, “Metropolis”, who struggles to keep a giant, clock-like mechanism from exploding. If I let my guard down, chaos ensued. Scissors flew, art supplies disappeared, never to be recovered, fights broke out. Charges of m------f------------- rang out. My best friend who taught in an All Girls Junior High (worse than boys at that age) used to break up battles with an upturned chair, lion-tamer style. All it took was one emotionally disturbed child in the classroom, and all learning stopped.

Strange as it may sound, the really hard part of the job wasn’t the students. They were tough, street-hardened but basically lovable. The problem was the workload and the administration (isn’t it always?) with their bureaucratic requests, none of which I ever completed to their satisfaction. My lessons plans were always late and incomplete, my attendance sheets never totaled up correctly, and so on and so forth. Despite my neglect of proper paperwork and procedure, my children turned out gorgeous artwork and the halls of the school were filled with their efforts. Just hand them a crayon and a piece of paper, and, within minutes, something wonderful appeared. I learned to be a performer, a magician, to excite them about their ability to create beauty out of their own heads.

I lasted at the job for six long years. During that time, I did practically no artwork of my own. My only hope for escape (and to be an artist) was to marry and get pregnant (things usually happened in that order in those days.) The minute the pregnancy test came back positive, I handed in my resignation. As I walked out the door of J.H.S 98 the Bronx for the last time, I made two solemn promises to myself:
1)    No one was ever going to say “go f---- yourself” to me again, and…

2) I would go on Welfare before I would go back to teach in a New York City public school .

Friday, August 1, 2014


A friend of mine, a theater Lighting Man (as opposed to a Sound Man or a Prop Man) slept on my living room couch last week after lighting a local performance – it was easier than driving back to New York City at 1 a.m. and looking for a parking space. In the morning, I dragged him up to the attic to look at the 50 or so wooden boxes I have stored there. These are not the cardboard ones I talked about in Post #18, but plain, black, wood shadow boxes, 18”x14”x3”. I bought them from a supplier in China and filled the interiors with black and white images of buildings I had photographed in my walks around Downtown Stamford and the South End. Once I established a make-believe streetscape, (not a real one) I could put my cast of true-to-life street characters inside, creating a De Chirico-like dreamscape. I was able to create depth in the shallow space by using false photo perspective; no color, all shades of gray. Unlike my cheery, original set of supermarket boxes populated by a hand-drawn, satirical cast of characters, these were somber and expressive. I don’t remember what was going on in my life at the time, but it couldn’t have been good.

I’ve exhibited the boxes several times in the past – at the old Loft Artist’s building on Canal Street and at the University of Connecticut gallery in Stamford, lighting them with whatever was at hand - overhead spots or floor lamps. They looked good, but were never quite “right.” Recently, I decided that what they really needed was true stage lighting. With all the tiny LED lights now available, I was sure there was some way to do that, create real “theater” out of my miniature streetscapes. My overnight visitor (the  “lighting man”) and I took a bunch of small, intense, LED flashlights I recently acquired and shone them on the boxes from all directions; like stage lighting, we created dramatic shadows from above, below and behind Some of the effects were so vivid that we both gasped when the makeshift LED’s went on.

A few weeks ago, I saw something interesting that I’d like to try with the boxes. It was at the Museum of Art and Design at Columbus Circle - a relatively new, small museum in New York City that I highly recommend.  The designer had built a false wall from floor to ceiling and placed boxes inside, flush with the wall, but providing space for unseen lighting. I thought that might be something interesting to try, or, I could mount the boxes inside larger boxes, again allowing room for dramatic stage lighting. All I need now is a sugar daddy (or momma) to pay for it and a darkened, theater-like room in which to exhibit. Maybe I can sell tickets.

I’ll try to take some decent photos so you can get the idea. That too needs a “professional.”