Friday, January 30, 2015


A little over two years ago, while visiting my son Ned in California, I had my Tarot cards read. The reader, a friend of his – appropriately named Magick - conducted her business at the local teahouse in Sebastopol, the rich, hippie town where he lives. Now, I’m not much of a believer in things like Tarot or astrology or fortune telling or spiritualism of any sort. When the reader gets things right, it is usually because he or she is good at picking up clues from her subject. Besides, people all have the same kinds of problems; you can’t go wrong concentrating on  love, health and money.

When I laid out the Tarot cards it was obvious, even to a novice like me, that they were good: no morbid images, lots of cheerful princesses, knights and queens. This was my year, she declared; Uranus (my birth sign) was apparently concluding an orbit of the sun that coincided with my age, a good omen. She also announced that I needed to write about art. Now, I’m a pretty good writer; I’ve been doing a preservation newsletter for years now and writing comes easily to me. I don’t consider myself a professional writer so I don’t have much angst about it. However, I never considered writing about art. Most of it is gibberish anyway and besides, who would read it?

When I came back to Stamford, I showed my friend Cici what Magick had written and Cici suggested I write a blog. “You’d be perfect,” was her advice. “But I’m not good enough at the computer,” I wailed. “It’s beyond me technically. “Hire someone,” she replied, which I did - Rosie, my next-door neighbor. The rest you know. I’ve been blogging for almost a year and a half now and can’t tell you how much fun it has been – and all the interesting people who have come into my life because of it. I get a little repetitious sometimes, but all old friends tend to tell each other the same stories over and over again, so please forgive me.

Magick also advised me to do two other things: 1) drink a glass of warm water with lemon every morning (“to quench the fire within me”) and 2) “get rid of the boyfriend,” (easier said than done.) But she probably gave that advice to every woman who came to see her, and, 90% of the time, she was right.

Friday, January 23, 2015

POST #73: LOW TECH/HIGH ART: a tribute to my overhead projector

I think I covered a lot of this ground earlier in Post #11, but my readers and I are getting to be like old married couples: we repeat the same stories to one another all the time.

Many years ago, I taught art history at the University of Connecticut campus in Stamford. I clearly remember the moment when I walked down a hall and glanced into a classroom where the instructor was using an overhead projector (pre-PowerPoint) to put notes up on the blackboard. “Why does it have to be boring notes,” I thought, “why not artwork?” Now, more than two decades later, I am still exploring the potential of the overhead projector, a dinosaur from the pre-computer age.

I borrowed a machine from the University’s A.V. department along with some sheets of acetate, quickly discovering that I could photocopy my sketches, no need to even trace the image. Having done that, I was able to enlarge work to any size I wanted. Sketches could be projected onto canvas without having to create a laborious and time-consuming grid. I invited my artist friends over to see what happened when small drawings were made to cover walls and ceilings and six- inch figures grew to monumental size. I soon found myself behaving like a prehistoric cave painter or Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, working by torchlight to create magic on a superhuman scale. Photographer friends even took photos with words projected onto me

Since then, I’ve done a number of “performance pieces” with the overhead projector, including a dance number with “true to life” people, (the kind you see cha-cha-cha-ing together at bar mitzvahs and weddings) to tacky music. I used projected imagery to create scenery for Jean Cocteau’s “Wedding on the Eiffel Tower”, a production I gave at the old lofts on Henry Street. I also illustrated Carolee Ross’ brilliant poem about her “demon lover;” it was to appear along with my illustrations in a darkened gallery space in SOHO, but, unfortunately, the project never happened. At the moment, I use my projector mainly to enlarge sketches into paintings. It stands in a prominent spot in the middle of my studio, to be used whenever the need arises.

About two years ago, I put out a call to all the teachers I knew for projectors (everything is PowerPoint today) and was overwhelmed by the response. Nobody was using them anymore and they just took up space in the AV room. I took everything offered and now have a lifetime supply (fifteen or so) stashed in my attic. I’m thinking about having a “projector party” one of these days and invite all my artist friends to create something. I even have blank transparencies (donated) they can use.

By the way, the illustrations for this Post come from some small, “torn-paper “ figures I did many years ago. I recently found them in a folder and put them on the projector glass to see what would happen. Giant, Matisse-like images jumped out at me. Plus, I even created some interesting shadow play on the projector glass itself.  They don’t photograph too well, but you’re welcome to come by after dark and see for yourself.

Friday, January 16, 2015


Shore Leave # 3 Oil on Canvas - whereabouts unknown
My daughter calls them ‘Dining-Out Stories,’ entertaining anecdotes to tell at dinner parties. Having lived a long and somewhat interesting life, I have no shortage of dining-out stories.

Several posts ago (#30), I described how a wealthy friend from Greenwich had died and unexpectedly left me 1% of his estate. He was heir to a brewery fortune and owned houses here and in Southampton. I figured he had to be worth at least a couple mill, easily, an unexpected windfall to say the least. But as time passed, my expectations dwindled; every conversation with his executor resulted in a lower number in my head. The check arrived a few weeks ago (minus legal and accounting fees, Federal and local property taxes in arrears and money borrowed from the family trust with interest, etc, etc.) leaving me the tidy sum of just under $2k. However, since I never expected to inherit anything, $2,000 will do just fine, especially when you consider I didn’t have to lift a finger to earn it.  Never look a gift horse in the mouth they say, especially when you can get a good dining-out story out of I, a girl from humble origins, became (an) heir to a Greenwich fortune. A purely American fairy tale: rags to (almost) riches

Shore Leave # 2 Oil on Canvas - whereabouts unknown
A couple of days ago, I came up with another great Dining-Out Story, although, as yet, it has no conclusion. In Post #22, I wrote about a painting of mine that I thought was forever lost. I had lent it to a friend, a chef I knew who was moving from Norwalk to New York City to appear on TV. He assured me that by hanging my work in his apartment, the rich and famous who came to his parties would clamor to buy it.

When I tried to contact him several years later to find out what happened to the painting he borrowed, I learned that he had gone to London to open a barbecue restaurant in Notting Hill (reportedly a smashing success) and had put the contents of his apartment into storage. According to his story when I finally reached him, he was a few days late with a payment and the storage company “mistakenly” turned everything over to an auction house. He was, he said, filing a lawsuit to get reimbursed, but I never heard from him again. No money, No recourse. No painting.

Shore Leave # 1 Oil on Canvas - 47 3/4" x 66 1/8"

About two and a half years ago, a friend sent me a photo of a painting she had just seen for sale at one of the South End antiques centers for $800. Although it was unsigned, she said it looked like one of mine. Yes. It was my missing painting. I rushed down to claim it, but by the time I got there, it had been sold. The shop’s owner who handled the transaction, sensing trouble, claimed not to know who bought it, said it was an “unknown picker from the Midwest who paid cash,” although I heard a rumor that it was a dealer from a nearby center who wanted to “stage” her booth. I filed a police report and forgot about it until last week when someone else reported seeing it for sale at still another antiques shop where the label described it as “mid-century fun and fabulous.” No signature. The price had more than tripled, so I guess it’s a good sign that my work is increasing in value. I’ll check in with the police in the next few days, but I’ll probably never see a penny or get the painting back, If nothing else, it makes a perfect ‘dining out’ story and that’s probably as good as it’s gonna get.

Shore Leave # 4 Oil on Canvas - whereabouts unknown
P.S. The irony is that after the painting disappeared from the gallery, I used the photo I had to create another version. While I didn’t like it as much as the original, it wasn’t bad. A friend set a high price on it and put it into a fancy Estate Sale in Purchase, N.Y. where it was sold “by mistake” for a pittance to another unknown buyer. She is now suing the woman who ran the sale for “giving it away” without her permission.

I think it’s time to move on.

Friday, January 9, 2015


A couple of weeks ago in Post #69, I talked about tapping into the subconscious when you do any kind of creative activity: painting, composing, writing.  I called it my Alpha state. Little did I know that there’s a whole field of mind research on the subject that has been going on for at least 40 years. Over the holidays, I ran into a scientist friend who reads my blog. “You’re talking about ‘Flow ” he said. “There’s lots of interest in Flow.’ ” It turns out that someone called Mihaly Csikszentmihaly has been researching the concept (which he named “Flow”) since the mid 1970s. He called it that because many of the people he interviewed described their flow experience as a metaphor for a water current that carried them along. While I had never heard of Csikszentmihaly (who would forget that name?) other scientists I knew were aware of his work.

 Of course, in one form or another, knowledge of Flow has existed for thousands of years, primarily in eastern religions (remember Wu Wei?) It also turns up in the teachings of Buddhism and Taoism and Hindu texts such as the Bhagavad-Gita. Wikipedia reports that Michelangelo may have been in a flow state when he painted the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, working uninterrupted for days at a time.

Csikzentmihaly has turned the subject into a scientific study and in the process (in my way of looking at it) has overanalyzed it, taken all the juice out of it. Even the Wikopedia summary is deadly and almost “anti-creative.” But, what the hell, that’s what academics do for a living. His work is currently of interest as a means of improving performance in many diverse areas including sports, computer programming, business, even stand-up comedy. (I’m with him on that one!) Musicians call it being “in the groove.”

From my point of view as a painter, I now realize that my best work was done in a flow state, when my conscious, critical mind was suspended and my drawing or painting hand acted spontaneously. I need peace of mind to access flow, which is why I find it hard to paint when I’m preoccupied with a life problem. I also need quiet, no distractions and have never been able to work in a studio situation with other artists around me. I tend to be gregarious and can’t talk and paint at the same time. I can look at a painting I did decades ago and know if I was in the proper state of mind or not. The good stuff just rolled out.

Many years ago, I read a biography of Philip Guston, a fairly well-known abstract expressionist painter in the 1950s. Because he never achieved great success in his early years, he never had to battle the negative effects of notoriety and was able to continue to grow as an artist until well into old age. In fact, he did his best work- powerful expressionist paintings- towards the end of his life. His daughter, who wrote the bio, described how he tyrannically abused his wife and children, forcing them to be absolutely silent while he was working in his studio. No phone calls, no visitors, no slammed doors, nothing that would disturb him in the slightest way. I always thought of him as a monster, an abusive spouse and father. Now I realize he was just an artist, protecting his Flow. 

Friday, January 2, 2015


(click on picture to enlarge)
Photo-manipulation by Bob Callahan

A friend of mine always brings me the Life & Arts section of the London Financial Times, which I have to admit is even better than the NY Times. I got a big kick out of their art reviewer Jackie Wullschlager’s coverage of Jeff Koons’ new exhibit at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, a version of the “blockbuster” at the Whitney last summer, (which I deliberately avoided.) I’ve seen quite a lot of Koons’s work over the years, and a little goes a long way. Wullschlager pulled no punches about hating it, calling it “crisp, clear, absurd, spectacular, dull, numbing and repulsive” (and this was just the first paragraph!) I happen to agree with all of the above, but would like to add, …”and just plain, bad art.” I have nothing against playing with scale, the way he does; it’s a legitimate way or making an artistic statement. 

But Koons does know his customers and serves them well. His work has curb appeal, a version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for billionaires. It appeals to the businessman/investor who wouldn’t know a really good work of art if he fell over it, although he does know good investments and  ways to raise  his social status, I have to admit, that the work and the buyer are perfectly suited: to one another: puffed up, vulgar and phony, Critic Wulhschlager goes on to say that Koons’s work paints a powerful picture of the world we live in. “We could ask more from art,” she writes, “but I doubt that we will find it.” Meanwhile, Koons cries, as they say, all the way to the bank.
(click on picture to enlarge)
Photo-manipulation by Bob Callahan

So what constitutes quality in art? And how do you know it and where DO you find it? Who am I to pass judgment on Jeff Koons, one of the most financially successful artists in the history of man? Wullschlager writes about going down the elevator at the Pompidou after the Koons show and stopping in to see the work of Marcel Duchamp  Koons is a descendant of Duchamp and his “ready-mades,” but Duchamp’s are more than clever manipulations of popular culture. Duchamp shows the unintentional beauty in everyday items; his urinal, (titled “Fountain”,) for example, is first and foremost a sculpture, a carefully-chosen composition of abstract, related, circular shapes; the seemingly random object was carefully chosen for its aesthetic qualities, not just it’s shock value, Duchamp was demonstrating the beauty in the ordinary and the artists’ role in discerning it. Koons’s subjects, while also drawn from mass- produced objects, never transcend the kitsch from which they are derived. In essence, the work is perfectly suited to our times and the vulgar, pretentious people who now constitute what we so aptly term “the art market.”

Many years ago, I had the good fortune to attend a huge retrospective at MOMA of the work of the German Dada-ist (an all-time favorite of mine), Kurt Schwitters.  For some inexplicable reason, the museum chose to hang a large construction by one of the best-known (and most successful) artists of the eighties, the aptly named, Frank Stella. They did him no favor. His assemblage, while ten times larger than anything by Schwitters, was a striking example of the difference between real art and attention-getting schlock. You could easily imagine the Stella in a hedge fund manager’s dining room, whereas Schwitters would never fit in – nor would he care.