Friday, March 27, 2015

Post #82: Picking up Dropped Threads

Rooftop Scene
Oil on Canvas, 2015,  23 1/2" by 34 1/2" (unstretched)

Eons ago, in Post #19, I wrote about the six weeks I spent in my daughter’s spare bedroom recovering from a broken ankle. With nothing to distract me, I made “lemonade” out of the down time by drawing the view from her large window on the 11th floor overlooking West End Avenue. For the first time in my life, I was able to fully concentrate, go “into the zone” (Post #71: Flow and More Flow). I spent at least six hours a day drawing and redrawing the same buildings, getting “better” all the time. I felt like Monet or the Italian artist, Giorgio Morandi, who did endless, exquisite images of rows of bottles. 

Rooftop Scene
Charcoal on Toned Canvas, 2015   24"x36"
But then I recovered, came home and went back to my usual large, satirical paintings, “Weimar in Stamford.” The West End Avenue rooftop drawings lay untouched in a portfolio for several years. A couple of months ago, however, after completing a series of eight canvases (6’x4’) that cover the walls of an entire room, I found myself depleted. Since I needed some downtime, I decided to go back to a ‘dropped thread,’ the scenes from my daughter’s window, to turn the sketches into actual paintings.

Oil on Canvas, 2015 - 40"x36" (unstretched)
Architectural renderings are not my thing - I barely passed Drafting in college. I needed to concentrate on the expressive quality of the views, rather than how they actually looked. I found some pieces of canvas in the closet, much smaller than what I usually use, toned them with a sepia wash and proceeded to place charcoal versions of my drawings on them. The first few were pretty realistic, like the originals, but then, the paintings began to take on a life of their own. Size relationships no longer mattered; perspective came out of my head, not a formula. Color? Not much. By the time I got to the fifth and sixth paintings, the work became even more surreal; in fact, when I started them, I had no idea what I was going to do. These were dream states, not photographs.

Rooftop Scene, Oil on Canvas 2015
Anyhow, I think I’m finished with rooftops; at least for a while. I’m not even sure I like what I have done. Some of the paintings are more nightmares than dreams. Is that man planning to jump off the roof, or is he just looking down? Time to go back to over endowed ladies and lecherous men.

Friday, March 20, 2015


I had a friend (long deceased) who used to go to Lord & Taylor every day (and I literally mean “every day.”) It’s not that she needed anything; her house and her closets were full but she found that shopping provided a “fix,” a way of getting away from everything that was going wrong in her life: her marriage, her crazy children, erratic lovers and so forth. It lowered her anxiety level, calmed her down.

About a year ago,  I wrote a blog entitled “Thrift Shop Therapy,” citing psychologist Erich Fromm’s theory that shopping (consumption) reduced anxiety and averted a societal nervous breakdown. I wonder what he would think about current forms of on-line shopping, even more pervasive and insidious ways to consume. “Instant Gratification”: Amazon can now deliver to your door within 24 hours. We used to call it “recreational shopping,” although “therapeutic shopping” was probably closer to the truth. We consume therefore we exist; if we stop consuming, we die. The package on the doorstep is life-affirming. Fortunately, when I tried to sign up for an Amazon account a couple of years ago, I was told that my credit card was “not valid.” Trust me, my credit card was valid…too valid. I took it as a sign from on high not to become an on-line shopper.

I have a friend who is addicted to on-line shopping, buying “bargains” whether she needs them or not. She recently informed me (gleefully) that she found her favorite sneakers “on line” for “half price” and ordered three pairs (she already has several.) It took a lot of restraint for me not to point out that she was never going to live long enough to wear out the sneakers she already owns.

In Post #33, I wrote about my love of thrift shops and tag sales, which I believe comes from a totally different place than recreational or therapeutic shopping. It appears to be a common condition among artists; I’m always running into one I know. We seem to need more visual stimulation than the average human being and, living in the suburbs, comfortable as it is, provides very little. It’s not like a city, with its ever-changing kaleidoscope of shapes, faces, signs and colors. The suburbs are visually boring: pleasant enough, peaceful, but boring. I love tag sales and thrift shops, not because I need anything – my closets, like everyone else I know – are packed with clothes and my house is filled to the brim with “objects d’art.” But I go out looking, at least once a week because I need the visual and social stimulation. It’s a chance to meet friends, old and new and, when the tag sale season rolls in, find myself in places I would ordinarily never visit.

Department stores and malls don’t satisfy the need for visual stimulation. They are too predictable, too formulaic. As soon as you walk in, you know exactly where everything is, what it’s going to look like and how much it will cost. On the other hand, thrift shops and tag sales are always filled with surprises. There’s a surge of adrenaline, a frisson of excitement when you walk through the door. There’s also an element of intellectual challenge. What is this vase you are holding? Is it a Tang dynasty treasure worth thousands or a $2 tourist souvenir? My favorite thrift shop (only open on Thursdays) is in the basement of the local Congregational Church. It’s a feast for the eyes – and for the pocketbook. $10 will get you a shopping bag full of treasures – whether you need them or not.

Friday, March 13, 2015

POST #80: THE WIFE OF BATH – or, Look Who’s In My Attic!

Madame X,   38"x24", oil crayon on paper
I have a friend who used to be an English Lit major at Oxford. He’s fond of checking out my latest paintings and pronouncing them “Chaucerian;” (sometimes, he calls them “Rabelaisian.”)  My first (and last) contact with Chaucer (until recently) was Freshman Literature in college. The instructor put the entire class to sleep reciting unintelligible excerpts from the Canterbury Tales in 14th century English. Who knew that Chaucer’s most memorable character, the Wife of Bath, would turn up decades later in my attic?

Madame Y, 38"x24", oil crayon on paper
Truthfully, I don’t have Chaucer (or Rabelais) in mind when I create formidable sex goddesses – they come out of my subconscious - although now that I have reread the Wife of Bath, I see where they originated.  I always thought I was satirizing popular culture: TV and video stars; they make the Wife of Bath (married/widowed five times) look like Saint Theresa. Chaucer’s character pretended to be pious, very cleverly using Christian dogma to justify her manipulation of men. Since a married woman could not own property in the thirteenth century – the husband took whatever wealth she had – the Wife of Bath learned how to use sexuality to control the men in her life, bragging about her impressive “equipment” and her ability to deploy it. Chaucer describes her as having a noticeable gap between her upper front teeth, a sign of sensuality in those days. A friend of mine, not knowing about the Wife of Bath, got her dentist to fill hers in. She now complains to me that men don’t come on to her as much as before, attributing it to advanced age; I don’t have the heart to tell her it’s the dental work.

"Lust" (from the "Seven Deadly Sins" series),
 68"x44", oil on canvas
Chaucer didn’t invent lusty, manipulative women, although he was probably the first “modern” writer to describe one. When women are powerless politically and economically, they use the weapons at hand.  Who can blame them? The Wife of Bath is, on rereading, rather despicable. Despite women’s recently-acquired “equality,” they still lack the political and social power of men and quickly learn to rely on looks and sexuality to get them what they want.

The first Wife of Bath I knew (although I never made the connection with Chaucer until recently) was my mother’s older sister, Tanta Natasha, a well-endowed Russian Jewish beauty. Like the much-married Wife of Bath, she had been married and widowed several times -and had God-only-knows how many lovers in between. She smoked, drank schnapps, flirted with men, told risque stories (which I didn’t understand) and quickly remarried after any of her husbands passed away. She taught all my cousins to smoke and encouraged them to have affairs. Although my mother detested her, I thought she was great and I’m sure she (not Chaucer) is the unconscious source of all the femme fatales who appear in my work.

Friday, March 6, 2015


When I met my husband many, many years ago, he gave me his precious copy of the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. It was his way of “testing me,” checking to see if I was “wife material.” Anyhow, I was less than impressed with Rilke (although I wouldn’t dare tell him!) until I decided to try to read his work in the original German. Not that I could read German, but I knew enough to be able to sound the poems out. That’s when I realized how good Rilke was; like many poets (and writers), he probably got “lost in translation.”

Connected Mona Lisas (Picasso style)
Oil on Canvas       30"x40"
The Rilke incident came back to me yesterday when I started to write this post. I had finally gotten around to reading a book I have owned for many years called Picasso on Art: A Selection of Views, put together by noted art historian, Dore Ashton. She begins, apologetically, by saying that Picasso refused to write about art (thank God!) but often held serious verbal discourses with his friends. Since all these quotes are based on their notes (memory is notoriously uncertain) plus translation from two, possibly three languages (Spanish to French to English), we have to take them with the proverbial grain of salt. Many, I must say, sound like something Picasso WOULD have said, so we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Here are some quotes I thought might interest you, ostensibly from the mouth of the master.

Have you ever seen a finished picture? To finish a work? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul.

No, one doesn’t stop by oneself. You work and behind you stands somebody who is not a professional and it is he who makes the decisions.

Cubist Self Portrait
Oil on Canvas      38"x24"
Everyone wants to understand art. Why does one love the night, flowers, everything around one, without trying to understand them? But in the case of a painting people have to understand it. Gertrude Stein joyfully announced to me the other day that she had at last understood what my picture of the three musicians was meant to be. It was a still life.

Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself. And to try to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. To make oneself hated is more difficult than to make oneself loved.

Photography has arrived at a point where it is capable of liberating painting from all literature, from the anecdote and even from the subject. So shouldn’t painters profit from their newly acquired liberty, and make use of it to do other things? 

In art intentions are not sufficient and, as we say in Spanish: love must be proved by facts not by reasons. What one does is what counts and not what one had the intention of doing.

Museums are just a lot of lies, and the people who make art their business are mostly imposters.
Orgy Scene
Oil Sketch on Canvas    40"x48"

And my favorite (an explanation of a sketch on wrapping paper for a cut-metal sculpture):
It’s a chair, and you see that it is an explanation of cubism! Imagine a chair passed under the rollers of a compressor; it would turn out just about like that. 

Anyhow, the best part of my little book on Picasso aren’t his quotes but his drawings. Since they’re probably copyrighted, I didn’t want to use them so I rummaged through a couple of my old portfolios for some suitable drawings and damned if everything I ever did didn’t have a touch of Picasso in it!

As a friend of mine used to say (unoriginally): "If you're going to steal, steal from the best."