Friday, December 30, 2016


I feel sorry for art students nowadays. The old days of drawing from life, both animate and inanimate, are gone, along with learning the craft of being an artist: how to mix colors, use different mediums, gesso a canvas, etc.  useless skills in today’s art world. A friend who attended the Royal Academy of Art in London a half century ago said he spent his first week there just learning how to clean a brush. Why learn technique when a computer can do it for you  - better than you ever could – or turn a photo into a painting using Photoshop? “What kind of a painting?” you ask. “Any kind. You name it.” The computer can transform your image into Impressionism, Expressionism, Photo Realism. Who needs to know how to actually do anything?

What today’s artist does need to know is how to find a gimmick and run with it, turn it into something new and newsworthy. There are no art values anymore, no underlying design quality, no expressive drawing, no message – it’s all a search for the gimmick.  Look at Damien Hirst and his embalmed shark. Look how much press Marina Abramovic got with her “shtick” at MOMA. All she did was take her clothes off and sit without moving for a week in front of an audience. In a prior event, she and a male friend stood naked in a doorway, forcing viewers to walk between them. These are clever ideas and should be appreciated as performances, but how do you teach students Cleverness? I feel sorry for the art schools.  Do you give classes in Gimmick I and Gimmick II? I recently read a great essay by Sarah Thornton in her book, “Seven Days in the Art World”. It describes a MFA Senior Class “crit” at CalArts, considered one of the best (and priciest) art schools in the country. Without editorializing, Thornton demonstrates the difficulty of teaching someone to be an artist in a commercialized art world with few rules and no shame.

In the past, even a journeyman artist studied the liberal arts; today’s art schools give only a smattering of culture, mainly a couple of semesters of art history. This puts young artists at a disadvantage in their creative life; all the really great artists were remarkably literate. Without a broad cultural background to enrich his or her work, an artist can easily get hemmed in by a “shtick.”

I’m on the e-mail list (at least once a week) of a master huckster, a mediocre artist but a gifted self promoter. He’s part of a group of graffiti-style  “Street Artists” who go around cities (not just New York) pasting their work up in public spaces. He came up with a gimmick all his own, a signature face that looks like it was drawn by a third grader. He will tell you that because he uses bio-degradeable wheat paste to attach his work, he is not (permanently) defacing public or private property. He seems to be quite well known as he is always notifying his readers of talks he will be giving at conferences on Street Art all over the world, plastering his perky smiley wherever he goes. Unfortunately, I think Street Art is passé and he may have to come up with a new shtick.

Everywhere I look in the art world, there are ideas, clever gimmicks passing for art. They take little if any skill to execute since the piece itself is usually produced by some commercial process. Jeff Koons, an incredibly successful sculptor, is a perfect case in point. I’m not saying an artist needs to have a Renaissance level of expertise, but at least he should be able to make the model he gives to the shop – or maybe that’s asking for too much.

It’s often hard to differentiate a gimmick from a true work of art, especially when it comes packaged in a load of pretentious Artspeak. If an artist’s goal is to come up with something innovative and expressive, I have no problem with that. What I object to is a mindset that says:  “How much attention can I attract with this?”  We live in a world where the ‘idea-concept’ supersedes the ‘craft-object’. But, I am probably being unfair to artists, asking them to have ideals when the rest of the world doesn’t know what the word means.

 P.S. The nymphs dancing around my lampshade are Maenads, followers of Dionysus.  Or maybe they’re Bacchanntes, worshippers of the god Bacchus).  They often appear on ancient Black and Red Figure Greek vases, frenzied dancers drunkenly performing in honor of their god. Happy New Year!

Friday, December 9, 2016


As any artist will tell you, art is a tough way to make a living. Even if you are fortunate enough to meet with a modest degree of success, it doesn’t always last and you are soon back to living on a spouse’s salary.  Unless you have family money  (and that kills creativity faster than anything), most artists I have known eventually give up and take a course in computer programming. But then, you can always teach art, and, if you really want to die as an artist, that’s the quickest way to do it. I’ve known too many artists who have destroyed their careers and their talent by accepting the security of an academic position.

Graphic designer, Bob Callahan used the magic of Photoshop to team up
with deceased artist, Ben Shahn.

I am currently reading a terrific book,  “The Shape of Content”, a collection of talks that Ben Shahn, gave at Harvard in the mid 1950s. My friend, the graphic designer Bob Callahan who adores Shahn’s work gave it to me for Xmas. Shahn speaks, not as an academic trying to intellectualize art (usually unintelligible gibberish), but as a working artist who genuinely understands what goes into the process. He says (beautifully) what I have long believed, that a teaching position at a university, a goal sought by many artists, is his kiss of death. Shahn points to many well-known artist friends of his who never produced anything of value once they achieved the sought-after safety of an academic position.

Diner Scene    Oil on Canvas    72"x48"
Why does this happen? I spent twenty-two years teaching art history at the University of Connecticut campus, managing to avoid studio art for twenty of those years. At least, when you teach art history, you spend your time looking at the work of the greatest of the great; it’s like going to a museum three days a week. When you teach studio art, your days are spent looking at student crap (to put it kindly) and you find your judgment about what is good or not good irretrievably compromised.

In my early twenties, I was friendly with a painter who had attained considerable (and well deserved) success in the 1970s New York gallery scene. His work was an interesting combination of OP and POP Art. He showed in top Madison Avenue galleries and was on his way to a major career when he “chickened out” and accepted a position teaching studio art, first at Yale and then at University of California, Berkeley. Not bad huh? But that was the end of him as a significant artist . He lost the opportunity to become a major player in the art world; his work became repetitive. During the years he was teaching, there was little growth or development. I got to know him again after he retired and came back to this area (with a substantial pension) hoping to pick up his art career where it left off.  But it never happened, he became ill and died not too long after. While his work is currently experiencing a minor revival, he never achieved the major artist status that should have been his. The students, he confessed, sucked him dry, “bit into his leg and held on” was the way he put it. In his 30 years of teaching studio art at some of the most prestigious institutions in the country, he told me he had only encountered two or three who were worthy of his time.

I recently spoke to another artist friend who at one time was in the processing of developing a major career as a printmaker. It all stopped when she was hired to teach at SUNY Purchase. She never produced anything worthwhile of her own during decades of teaching. Other colleagues of hers, who also had significant success as artists until they started teaching, met the same fate. Death at the hands of Tenure.

An artist cannot look at student work day after day without losing his or her “eye” for quality.  One’s judgment as to what is “good” becomes distorted by always having to look at beginners’ feeble efforts. Plus, the politics of the University, the administrative responsibilities, power struggles, problem students etc. suck out even more  energy. What looked like a secure way to make a living has drained the creative person dry.

 So, the moral of my story is: If you want to be an artist, wait on tables dig ditches,  do anything, but don’t teach studio art in academia.

Friday, October 21, 2016


When Donald Trump took his recent jab at ‘winners and losers,’ the line sounded very familiar. Of course, we’ve all heard it before, but I had a vague memory of it being used in a local political forum. When I stopped trying so hard to remember, it came back to me: a Planning Board hearing over ten years ago.

It seemed that one of the least loved local developers had announced plans to build a giant corporate headquarters adjacent to a housing subdivision, mostly split-level houses on quarter acre lots that he had put up a few years earlier. The proposal required a fairly substantial zone change and, as expected, the neighbors, mostly hard working, first time homeowners, objected, They were quick to recognize that the new proposal with its lights and traffic, would be detrimental to their interests and they packed the meeting room to make sure it didn’t happen.

The incident I remembered was when a rather unprepossessing and nervous neighbor got up to voice his objections. He had had problems with the developer who, it seemed, had a reputation for not following through on promises. The homeowner haltingly related how he had invited him (the man now proposing the corporate “park”) into his house to see the problems he was having with the property he had just purchased. He recalled that when he outlined his complaints, the builder (the same one seeking the zone change) turned on him, yelling: (shades of Donald Trump) “There are winners in life and there are losers and I am a winner and you are a loser!” When he quoted this to the Planning Board, the audience, (obviously, also “losers”) began to hiss, filling the whole room with their resentment. In a rare show of public concern, the Planning Board denied the application, one of the few times in Stamford zoning history that justice actually triumphed. The developer’s remark: “There are winners in life and there are losers, and I’m a winner” may have killed the deal. My Trump-like character came back a year or so later with a proposal for luxury condos and, while he didn’t make out as well as he would have with corporate headquarters, he cried, as they say, all the way to the bank. And of course, the “losers” loved having million dollar homes adjacent to their humble abodes.

There’s an ironic coda to this story. I recently ran into the s.o.b. at the local health center. He was being pushed in a wheel chair, dried up and angry looking.  I guess it doesn’t matter how many people you screw, there are no winners or losers in the end.

Friday, September 30, 2016


I envy people like mathematicians or engineers who know when they’ve solved their problem; there’s a sense of accomplishment that artists rarely feel. We often ruin our work simply because there is no way to determine when we have reached our goal, when the piece is finished.

Watercolorists have it easier. They must get it right the first time or throw it away; there is no such thing as reworking a watercolor. Spontaneity is the name of the game. The rules for watercolor are pretty simple. When someone asks me if I can teach him or her how to use the medium, I say, I’ll teach you the basics in fifteen minutes and then you have to practice for the next twenty years. You can’t rework a watercolor the way you can oil paint or gouache. You go from light colors to dark, not the other way around. The trick in watercolor is to not overwork it; keep it loose and transparent and get it right the first time or throw it out. Any piece that takes more than fifteen minutes to complete usually lacks the spontaneity and spark the medium requires.
Oil paintings, on the other hand, lend themselves to NEVER being finished. You can easily wipe off anything you don’t like and if you are the least bit patient and wait til the paint dries, you can keep applying layers forever. You can “scumble” light paint into dark areas and “glaze” over the lighter ones.  The joke among artists is that there are two people involved in creating a work of art: the artist who makes the work and the person who takes it away from him. Some artists are notorious for never being able to call it quits. For example, there are legendary stories about Albert Pinkham Ryder who often ruined his work by never being able to finish, always needing “a little something more” to be done He would put on so many layers of paint, that the surface became cracked and unstable and a restorer’s nightmare.

Seriously, how did Mondrian know when the last stripe he applied was exactly right and should be his last? Or how did Cezanne decide that the wedge of green he just painted perfectly resolved the form?  A few years ago, Renoir’s son did a movie of Picasso painting on a sheet of Lucite so you could watch the process from behind. He kept painting and repainting over and over again. When he finally decided the piece was “finished,” I thought it looked no better than it had in several previous versions. In fact, it was often worse.

Some artists have it easier than others; they treat their work as if it were a page in a coloring book. When all the spaces are colored in, it’s finished. Today’s New York Times art section has an interview with an artist I never heard of where they ask her how she knows when a work is finished. She chatters on for an entire meaningless (it seemed to me) paragraph about a “sense of arrival,” finally comparing it to focusing a photo on your phone. If it’s “in focus” it’s done.  But what if you have astigmatism?

Basically, there is no way of knowing when you’re done. It should be when anything more you do to the piece will only spoil it. In my case, it was when my husband would walk into the studio, look at what I was doing, shake his head and say, “Leave it alone. You’re ruining it.” Now that’s what I call real criticism.

Renee Kahn

Friday, September 16, 2016


One of the great things about being an artist is that you never grow old. This is true of everybody in a creative field: writers, composers, musicians, inventors. Maybe your age numbers get higher but your soul remains forever young. If there are disabilities, you learn to work with them; they may even lead you to explore new terrain.

The New York Times recently featured the latest hot ticket item in the art world: a 101-year old Cuban born woman painter, Carmen Herrera. A member of the Hard-edge, geometry-based movement popular in the 1950s and ‘60s, she has had moments of recognition since then but like many of the others in the field, faded from view. I’ve always admired Hard-edge painting, impressed by anyone who could achieve a flawless layer of paint or remove a piece of masking tape without making a mess. Perfect edges were never my forte; I got a C in drafting in college and only because I burst into tears when I heard I was getting a D.

Anyhow, Ms. Herrera is finally making the “big time” at the age of 101 with a retrospective of her work from the 1960s and 70s at the Whitney Museum. It doesn’t get much better than that. It turns out that while she never achieved the upper echelon of the Hard edge/Minimalist movement like Albers, or Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly or Frank Stella, she consistent kept working and exhibiting and even today, at 101, manages to paint several hours every day. She’s “in” on several fronts: her age (older artists are now being recognized), she’s a woman, and she’s Hispanic, a triple whammy of political correctness for the Whitney. Frankly, I’m most impressed that despite being crippled by arthritis, she’s going strong.

I once knew a pretty famous abstract expressionist sculptor (yes, there were a few) called Reuben Nakian….a colorful old rascal. When asked how to achieve fame and fortune in the art world, he would reply: “You have to live long enough.” And that’s exactly what I am trying to do.

But here’s where I get into trouble with the political correctness police. I really resent someone who achieves success for any reason other than the quality of his or her work. There’s enough competition without adding extraneous factors. I don’t approve of an artist being neglected or rejected because of their sexual orientation, their ethnicity, their age or their race. On the other hand, I resent it when they get a break because of these factors. I know the rationale is that this is ‘catch-up time,’ but I still think it’s wrong.  In the case of the Hard-edge movement, I can name a half dozen other artists from that era, i.e. Nicholas Krushenick or Chuck Hinman, relatively unknown today, who I think are as good as or superior to (and much more original than) Ms Herrera. This is not to say her show won’t be excellent (it will be) and she’s not worthy of belated recognition (she is,) but in the best of all possible worlds, this should come to an artist because of their body of work, not because they happen to be “the flavor of the month.”


The illustrations for this post don’t really relate to Hard Edge. They’re photos I took several years ago of a dead neon sign graveyard in Las Vegas. It was the most interesting part of the trip. 

Friday, August 26, 2016


Well, maybe more than 99. Maybe more like 200 or even 300; I’ve lost count. For decades, I’ve been creating “serious” art on paper plates. I only use clean plates, no pizza stains, no ketchup or remains of chocolate cake. I like the sound of “99 paper plates on the wall.” Reminds me of a camp bus group-sing “99 bottles of beer on the wall,” but it’s pretty hard to draw on beer bottles.

I have a notoriously short interest span; my husband of fifty years used to shake his head in mock wonder “How did I last so long with you?” he would wail. It’s not pathology; it’s just my creative intolerance for repetition. Some people can spend their entire life at the same job and find comfort in its predictability. I’m just the opposite; once something is routine; I will climb sheer walls to get away.

Hence paper plates. Cheap, available, with a slightly rough texture that takes pencil or crayon well. If it’s no good, toss it. Meant to be thrown out anyhow. I began by drawing at meetings, endless boring meetings - at the University when I taught art history, at government agencies when I was a preservation consultant, and as a member of a half dozen community organizations. Hundreds and hundreds of meetings over the past 40 years have produced lots of art on paper plates. I drew to entertain myself, keep from screaming out loud. After a while, I got pretty good at sketching my fellow sufferers, able to catch a likeness with a few strokes. There was always a “learning curve;” the first few plates were usually clumsy, ready to be tossed out, but by the third or fourth, I would loosen up and there would always be a few worth keeping. Then boredom would set in, the quality would deteriorate and I’d stop. I was always amazed at how unaware my colleagues were that someone was even looking at them, let alone using them as a free model. 

Over the past year or so, I have stopped going to meetings, dropped out of civic life, so my “Paper Plate Portraits period” is over. That doesn’t mean I have abandoned the medium! I’ve just taken it to a higher level.  I now refer to using paper plates as my version of Arte Povera, a post World War II art movement that glorified the use of “humble” materials. And what could be more humble than a paper plate? But instead of sketching someone sitting across the table, I cut semi abstract figures out of black or grey paper and carefully compose them on the plate. I also cut letters out of newspapers and glue them down without meaning, just because I like the way their shapes fit into the composition. At first, I used only plain white supermarket plates, 200 for $3.99, treating the fluted rims like the borders of ancient Greek kylixes, their shallow-bowled drinking cups. Now, I’ve graduated to the Party Store where I buy more elaborate versions in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes.

Several people have told me that I should find a dinnerware manufacturer who will turn them into a commercial product, although for the life of me, I can’t imagine anyone bizarre enough to want to eat off them. But who knows? There’s a market for everything and no accounting for public taste (bad pun). 

Friday, August 19, 2016


An artists’ life is filled with pitfalls and challenges. If his work doesn’t sell, he can’t pay rent or buy art supplies or feed his children. And if his work does sell, he’s got another problem: he will probably get stuck in a style. Think of poor Jackson Pollock, forced by his dealers to keep producing “drip” paintings because that’s what his buyers wanted and that’s what they were willing to pay millions to get. So what if he wanted to explore new territory? or go back to the Jungian dream abstractions he had been experimenting with before the drips? Forget it. His public wanted drips not dreams. There are many artists who did their best work when they were no longer in the public eye, freed by failure to move on and experiment. Philip Guston is a case in point.

In some small (very small) way, I’m facing a similar problem. Do I want to continue painting dreamy NYC rooftop scenes? I sold almost ten of them at a recent exhibit of my work. It’s a record for me! My typical satirical paintings while much admired, rarely sell. Not many people want to live with corseted babes and their leering lovers. But give them dreamy water towers and Roman rooftop arcades, that’s another story. What to do? Keep producing what buyers can live with, or, go back to Lust and Avarice and borrow the house tax money from my kids? If I were George Grosz or Max Beckmann I might get away with Sin, but there’s no market for it in the suburbs. 

In the past, I was able to resolve this dilemma easily, earning the money I needed by teaching art history or writing articles on historic preservation for government agencies. Not a bad compromise and one I could happily live with. But now, in my “advanced” years, I don’t have the energy to do three different things at once. I need to concentrate on the artwork before it’s too late. I actually loved painting the rooftop scenes; they were based on drawings I did several years ago during an enforced stay (broken ankle) in an eleventh floor New York City apartment. Although the view from the window was the same, the paintings are all very different from one another, depending on time of day and weather. I also took a lot of ‘artistic license,’ re-arranging the scene without regard to what was actually there. Even the style of painting evolved during the two years I worked on the series, moving from a dreamy sort of romantic realism into surrealism. These rooftop paintings are some of the best, most original work I have ever done. They’re easy to live with and I’m not surprised they sold so well. And if I stay with the subject matter, who knows where it will take me? Maybe further into abstraction? Or into Magic Realism? 

Street Scene (diptych)   oil on canvas      72"x 96"

On the other hand, my wild and lusty characters are calling me back. I’m eager to start on a series of paintings of Harlem, 125th St., similar to ones I did that were inspired by photos I took of the Lower East Side right after I graduated college. Both neighborhoods are part of my history and I’ve watched them evolve over the past few decades, losing character while becoming chic and safe.

I’m taking the summer off, allowing the “well” to fill up again. In September, I plan to tack a couple of large, brown-toned canvases up onto my painting wall, pick up a piece of charcoal and see where it goes. 

Friday, August 5, 2016


Art historians often note that artists who live long and productive lives become much “looser” in their later work: fewer brushstrokes, less detail. I can name at least a dozen artists from Titian to Matisse, El Greco, Rembrandt, Degas, Monet, Cezanne, Velasquez, just a few off the top of my head. Just compare the refined and detailed Pieta Michelangelo created as a young man to the powerful, more  expressive version he did at the end of his life.

The explanation we usually hear is the “less is more” theory, that the more skilled an artist becomes, the less effort it takes, the fewer brushstrokes he needs to evoke a scene, a face, a hand. It is assumed that years of experience have given him the ability to reduce images, Turner-like, to their bare essentials. This may very well be true, but, having taught art history for over twenty years and being a working artist of advanced years myself, I’ve come up with another theory. Maybe an older artist just can’t see well enough to do the detailed work he or she did when they were younger. Cataracts? Myopia?

To test my theory, I looked up the history of eyeglasses and although they were first invented in the 13th century, until relatively recently they were mostly crude magnifiers. Today you can go into any CVS and, for a few dollars come up with a fairly good corrective lens for aging eyes. Even better, you can go to an eye doctor and get your eyes ‘redone.’

The problem with scholars who write art history is that they are not artists themselves, although many will brag of having been a ‘painting major’ at one time or another. They know a lot about art theory, but they never walked in an artists’ shoes, so to speak. Unfortunately, that leads to a lot of well-intentioned misinformation getting transmitted to students.

I ran my “weak eyesight” theory by a friend who taught printmaking for many years. She’s an authority on Goya and Rembrandt, two artists whose work definitely became freer as they got older. She believes it might have been arthritis, (she has arthritis) as well as failing eyesight that changed their work. Whatever the explanation, it’s reassuring to know that as an older artist, despite my infirmities, I could actually be doing my best work. Towards the end of his life, Matisse was only able to work a couple of hours a day; he had severe arthritis and heart disease and was largely bedridden. But this was when he created some of his best work, the giant cutouts he drew with a long pool cue with a piece of chalk attached.

 Three months ago, I had a small stroke, not noticeable to an outsider, but bad enough to keep my left hand (the one I draw and paint with) from functioning properly. After I came back from the hospital, I decided to assess the damage by tracing a large projected image in charcoal onto a blank canvas. Much to my dismay, I found I had lost control of the hand; nothing came out the way it was supposed to. I would tell my hand to ‘draw a straight line’ but the line would come out crooked. ‘Go left’, and it would go right. Could I ever paint again? But when I stepped back and looked at my six-foot “failure,” I decided it was one of the best drawings I had ever done. Pure  German Expressionism; it could have been by Kokoschka. I sprayed it with fixative and decided to wait and see what was going to happen. Lately, my left hand has begun to follow orders again, but my artwork is no longer as wildly wonderful as it was when it was out of control.

p.s. While I’m still not fully able to control a paintbrush, for some odd reason, I can still draw on a small scale and create fine cut-outs with scissors. The illustrations for this blog were taken from a recent series of drawings in white crayon on 7” black paper plates. Looks like my hand does pretty well on its own.

Friday, July 15, 2016


In the good old days before “modern” art reared its convention-breaking head, every artist knew how to draw. The worst academic hack could turn out a visually accurate rendition of the human body.  I was discussing this with a friend, a product of the leading art academy in Russia and I commented that American art schools were churning out tens of thousands of expensively educated artists who can’t even draw a hand. She stuck her nose in the air and snootily replied that in Russia, you couldn’t even get into art school if you couldn’t draw a hand. In the United States today, I’m not sure that any major art institute is teaching these kinds of skills. The current state of ART does not require the ability to draw. You can always find something “on line,’ in the unlikely event you need it.

It’s time for a personal confession: I can’t draw a credible hand for the life of me, I’m great at faces and pretty good at figures and given my “cubo-expressionist” style, that’s all I need. I can create a shape that functions within the overall design, but it’s rarely anatomically correct. You would think that after ten plus years of intensive art training, somewhere along the line, someone would have insisted I learn how to draw a hand, but here I am, at the end of my career and still faking it. The best advice I got about drawing hands came from Victor Candell, the wonderful Hungarian teacher I told you about in Post # 29. I was struggling to get the prominent hand in one of my paintings to “look right” but quite frankly, I didn’t know enough about hand anatomy to pull it off. Candell, in his infinite wisdom, pointed out that all I needed to concern myself with was the abstract shape of the hand. Did it fit into the overall composition or didn’t it? Once I accepted that, I was able to draw a perfect hand; maybe not anatomically correct, but then, it didn’t need to be.

Let’s go back to my conversation with my Russian artist friend. She commented that she had colleagues in art school with incredible skill in reproducing what they saw, but they weren’t artists, at least not in any contemporary sense. They had a camera eye but not an ounce of creativity. The need for academic drawing skill probably died with Ingres and the invention of the camera, and certainly today’s artists with their concentration on creative ideas (novelty) don’t need to draw. My son Ned, an environmental artist, draws mostly on the computer. And Photoshop is pure magic; you can change a painting from Impressionist to Expressionist with the click of the mouse. No drawing or painting skill required.

However, I hope art schools don’t abandon their life drawing classes. They may be totally useless in the current art world, but everyone I know remembers them fondly, one of the highlights of their years in art school. The models alone were memorable. Who but an eccentric character would want to earn his or her living getting naked in front of strangers, mostly blushing adolescents? And as for our learning how to draw a hand, who looked at their hands?

Friday, July 1, 2016


Projector Art,  2016
8'x10' (does not need to be sold or stored)
Everyone is familiar with art created from detritus, cast-off, unwanted industrial material, the waste of a throwaway society. Artists have been creating work out of “garbage” for over a century beginning with the Dadaists and Kurt Schwitters’ scrap paper collages in the 1920s to Rauschenberg’s Combines and John Chamberlain’s crushed automobiles in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Many years ago, I guest curated an exhibit at the Stamford Museum and Nature Center that consisted of nothing but art work culled from a local scrap yard called Vulcan Scrap Metal,where all sorts of wonderful things can be “found by the pound.” The show was a huge success, the biggest draw the Museum ever had.

Projector Art,  2016
8'x10' (does not need to be sold or stored)
But what about all the new art being created today by hundreds of thousands of so-called artists all over the country, piling up in attics and storage spaces If you multiply a half million would-be artists in America, each creating at least twenty works a year (most of it unsold), that means there’s at least 10 million excess pieces produced every year. You would think that without a market, people would stop turning the stuff out (the way any manufacturer in his right mind with unsold inventory does), but artists aren’t business people and they irrationally love what they do. They wait on tables, work at any job they can get, allow themselves to be unhappily supported by others, just for the joy of being able to create. Some need audience approval, but mostly, they do it for themselves.

Projector Art,  2016
8'x10' (does not need to be sold or stored)
The problem is that the art “market” is saturated; I don’t know a single person whose walls aren’t cluttered with art.  I recently insulted a friend by turning down a print (framed even) she wanted to give to me. She’s a well-known photographer and her work is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. It used to sell for thousands of dollars. But I walked her around my (large) house and showed her that there wasn’t a single inch of available wall space. No one I know has available wall space, even my non-artist friends. What’s going to happen to the ten million (rough estimate) works of art (most of it ranging from mediocre to truly dreadful) produced each year by all those would-be artists? Nobody can even give the stuff away!

Who/What’s to blame? Well, first, as I mentioned, being an artist is more fun than having a real job, but I also point the finger at the proliferation of art schools who turn out huge numbers of poorly trained young people, burdened by debt and deluded into thinking they can somehow break into the art world and become rich and famous.  Galleries, even the "pay-to-play" variety, are deluged by submissions they routinely return unopened. Living in the hottest new art ghetto like Red Hook sometimes helps, but not a hell of a lot. The truth is, there’s too much art being produced, and, given all the growing numbers of artists-in-training, no end in sight. And now that the computer can churn out “masterpieces” in seconds, the problem of oversupply is going to get even worse.

Projector Art,  2016
8'x10' (does not need to be sold or stored)
I recently picked up a book of essays by Robert Hughes from 1993 called “Culture of Complaint.” I like him because he avoids Artspeak; he’s erudite but intelligible. In one essay he described an experiment in the sixties I believe, in Holland where the government set up a fund to buy art by living Dutch artists. About 8,000 artists were represented; none of the work was shown and according to Hughes, everyone involved thinks it’s all junk (except the artist’s own work).  Storage expenses are huge (climate control, etc.) and efforts to get rid of it to local institutions, have been unsuccessful. No one wants it. Even for free. They can’t give it away!

So that brings me to my own attic full of artwork. What’s to become of it after I’m gone? If  I’m fortunate, I’ll have a “posthumous retrospective” (although I’d really prefer one while I’m still around.)  I might even get a dealer to agree to take it on as a collection. Otherwise, my offspring and friends can pick out what they want and take the rest to the local recycling center.  New canvas is awfully expensive and a coat of gesso primer should give someone else a chance to experience the joy I had when I created the original work. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.

Friday, June 3, 2016


City of Stamford manhole cover, Franklin St.

I figure all my readers know who Jane Jacobs is, but a couple of days ago I told a friend that I was going to write about Jacobs and my well- educated and literate companion said “Jane who?” So I guess I better not take anything for granted and explain who "Jane Who?" is and why she’s so important.

Terra Cotta frieze, former U. S. Post Office, Atlantic Street
In the early 1960s, Jane Jacobs wrote a surprise best-selling book entitled “Death and Life of Great American Cities;” it revolutionized the way people thought about city planning and what made for a “livable” city. Every planner I ever met got hooked on the field through this book; one even told me he read it by accident (because there was nothing else available) in a tent on a Peace Corps assignment in the Andes Mountains. He was so taken by her innovative ideas that upon returning home, he signed up for graduate school and became a planner. Little did he know that the field was not filled with idealists and profound social observers like Jacobs but with technocrats whose primarily skill was planning driveways for corporate garages.

Algonquin Building,
corner Lower Summer and Main Streets
Jacobs was not a trained architect or planner. Although she worked on the editorial staff of an architectural magazine she did not even have a college degree. In a way, this was fortunate because she did not have to unlearn all the LeCorbusier-based, modernist bullshit being taught in academia during that time, laying the groundwork for the urban renewal projects that needlessly destroyed many of our older inner cities (including Stamford.). Her knowledge came from observation of people and places, what worked in an urban setting, and what didn’t. She began observing her own neighborhood: the West Village in New York City, mostly low and mid rise dwellings with a diversified mix of social classes and activities. It was a neighborhood where you would leave your keys with the local grocer to give to out-of-town guests who were arriving while you were gone. From there, she went on to analyze other cities that “worked,” coming up with a set of observations that she put down in her book. “Short blocks,” she observed, were preferable to long ones. Slow traffic rather than speedways. Mixed uses, small, mom and pop stores, bars that were open late at night provided eyes on the street. She knew that the high rise housing projects proliferating all over cities at the time were not going to work; that parents could not adequately supervise their children from twenty stories up the way they could when they were playing in the yard beneath their window. If you haven’t read “Death and Life” there’s still time. Everything in it is as true today as it was then.

Inverted Ionic porch column, 48 Pleasant Street
Although Jacobs managed to save her own neighborhood and what is now SOHO from the mega highway builder, Robert Moses, in places like Stamford, it is as if she never existed. Here, whatever feeble attempts are made to plan for people not profit soon gets overpowered by the megabucks.  In my youthful innocence, I once thought that “highest and best uses” meant planning that most benefited the residents of a community. Stupid little me! It has nothing to do with that: The field of planning is now dominated by the so-called “Market Realists” who believe that whatever the market wants is what cities should let happen. And it’s going on now as if Jane Jacobs never existed and nobody had ever read her book and thought: “Now there’s somebody who understands what makes a city a great place to live.”

Now, why am I writing about Jane Jacobs in what is supposed to be an “art blog?” Well, to me, a livable city with its mix of architectural styles and street life IS a work of art. There’s an aesthetic to urban living: watching the characters at Curley’s Diner or checking out the latest bistro on Bedford Street or admiring the terra cotta façade of the Palace Theater or the glorious Classical colonnade on the front of the Ferguson Library. There isn’t a new building in town that has any soul or aesthetic appeal to it; nothing that would encourage you to think that this is a place where you would actually want to live.

Friday, May 27, 2016


Overhead Projector Transparency Image

As many of you know, the past few weeks have not been particularly happy ones. First, I had an unfortunate event that left me with damage to my left (primary) hand. The doctors assure me it will clear up in a few months, but in the meantime I have trouble with any work requiring fine motor skills. Shortly after this happened, Patsy Whitman, my dear friend and supporter of the arts went and died on May 16th with practically no warning. A show of my recent paintings of imaginary NYC rooftops, scheduled to open last Sunday at her PMW Gallery, had to be cancelled. However, since the work is already installed, her partner, Betsy, may open it to the public later this summer. I’ll keep you informed.

Overhead Projector Transparency Image
What’s an artist to do? I can’t use my primary hand very well. I can’t draw the way I used to, so I do what artists always do: figure out a way around it. Matisse did some of his best work, those glorious giant cutouts of his later years and his Chapel at Vence, when illness made normal drawing and painting almost impossible. The good news is, I can still type on the computer (slowly) and, best of all, for some inexplicable reason, I can use scissors, so I can still cut out silhouettes.

Overhead Projector Transparency Image
But lately, something interesting has begun to happen; I have no idea where it will take me, but I can’t wait to follow the thread. As some of you know, I have had the pleasure of having a wonderful country music band rehearse in a small shed on my property. When it gets dark, I go up to my studio, put on the overhead projector and do a ‘light show’ performance for them. They play, my “people” dance and everyone has a good time. But it turns out that’s only the beginning. When I overlap transparencies, unexpected moiré * patterns appear and when I put fire-colored transparencies over my cutouts, they turn into scenes from Dante’s Inferno. Lately, I take transparencies of the old Yale & Towne factory complex in the South End of Stamford, a glorious ruin, and overlay some of my cut-out figures. A whole surrealist world appears. Who knows where it will all lead? Performance pieces?  Played to Wagner’s Gotterdammerung? Ferlinghetti’s poetry?

Overhead Projector Transparency Images
The moral of the story is: if you’re an artist, you can always figure out a way to be creative; I’m making lemonade.
I’ll let you know what happens next. Can’t wait to see where this is going.


Renee Kahn

Tuesday, April 5, 2016


"New York Rooftop Series" oil on canvas
A couple of Thursday nights ago, an artist friend and I decided to check out the Chelsea opening scene. Apparently Thursday night is a big draw and the streets were filled with packs (they travel in “packs”) of joyous thirty somethings, enticed no doubt by free wine and the opportunity to hone in on the latest wave in the art scene. Unfortunately, based on what we saw, there is no latest wave, only same old – same old.” Of course, I hear that Chelsea is passe, as is the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, although no one seems to quite know where to find the latest “Happening” place. I hear Queens or the South Bronx, but by the time I find out, it will all be over.

"New York Rooftop Series" oil on canvas
Anyhow, I got talked into the trip because I was curious to see if my artwork had a place there. The gallery spaces are enormous and beautifully lit, but I cannot image my rag-tag “oeuvre” fitting in such a slick environment. What struck me most was that the artwork I saw all seemed to have been created for “the show.” There was no evidence of experimentation, growth; everything was tasteful, competent but without any challenges. Different color schemes perfect for the decorator to match with the drapes, but otherwise all the same sizes, same frames. I couldn’t imagine doing twenty or thirty versions of ANYTHING! I would go mad! It would feel like a JOB!

One of the problems I always have preparing for a one-person show is that my work evolves all the time, especially if I’m producing steadily, working every day. I have absolutely no capacity for repetition; in fact, if I even try to repeat myself because something works well, I find all the life is sucked out of it. Everything even looks like I was bored, like painting with numbers. I console myself that Picasso had the same problem. In fact, there are at least twenty different periods in Picasso’s artwork, ranging from Romantic Realism to Cubist experimentation to series of murderous –looking females with teeth bared (his version of vagina dentata), My late husband, noting my difficulty with repetition, used to mutter that he had no idea how he lasted so long with me. Of course, what he didn’t realize was that he too changed all the time, providing new “problems” for me to resolve.

"New York Rooftop Series" oil on canvas
My companion informed me that a “gallerista” (those Size 4 clothes horses who sit at the desks in the galleries) told her that the gallery she worked for paid $30k a month for rent (not the highest amount by any means.) They are not in business to advance “art”; they need to make the monthly nut, and hopefully even, a profit. Unfortunately, I don’t see myself fitting in to their business model and I must say, given their lack of interest in my work, neither do they.

BTW, since it’s obvious that Chelsea is “dead,” does anyone know where to find the latest art scene?  It’s quite possible that art really is dead and this is not the time to be an artist anywhere. I just hope I live long enough for the next Renaissance to occur. Maybe if Donald Trump gets elected president (just kidding) although bad times often create the best art i.e. Weimar Germany.

Friday, April 1, 2016


Definition: gim-mick (noun).

A trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity,
or business.

Synonyms: contrivance, scheme, stratagem, ploy,
shtick (my favorite)

I’m on the e-mail list of a relatively new art center known as the Bronx Museum. It’s located on the Grand Concourse and 165th St. and I have to confess, despite my interest in the borough, I’ve never been there. A press release arrived today announcing an upcoming “performance event” (their words, not mine) in which an artist (who shall remain nameless) will present an “interactive community based project” (again, their words, not mine) in which participants will share cups of brewed (donated) tea and make a room-sized quilt out of the tea stained paper filters. I let out a giant AAAARGH! when I saw this ….the triumph of the gimmick, I fired off an e-mail to the sender of the press release saying: “Re-purposed tea-stained paper filters woven into a quilt? Give me a break. This isn’t art, it’s a gimmick!” But why should I have been so surprised, most of today’s art is gimmickry masked as high-sounding “Conceptual Art.” I even believe that Gimmick I and Gimmick II are currently taught in all the major art schools in America. Everybody is searching for the cleverest gimmick, the one that will lift him or her above the rest. Tea-stained filter quilts? Not bad as gimmicks go, but not terribly original. A friend of mine did coffee-filter curtains a few years ago.

Anyhow, my e-mail to the Bronx Museum asked why contemporary art always needed a gimmick? Couldn’t it stand on its own? I’d be perfectly happy to see a lovely quilt made by an artist out of stained paper tea filters, but to make a media event out of it? To my surprise, a real person answered (chalk one up for the Bronx Museum), the Social Media Coordinator.) He actually wrote back asking what I meant, and, given an opening, I fired off a diatribe against this kind of busywork, a gimmick that to me was only one step away from a clever advertising campaign. Apparently, the Social Media Coordinator decided he had given me enough of his valuable time and did not respond. I’m sure he thought there was no point arguing with someone who didn’t understand “art.”

That leaves me with the point of my little tirade: so much fashionable art today isn’t art but an attempt to become successful through notoriety. Novelty sells, especially to art buyers that largely don’t know what they are buying. I appreciate and understand an artists desire to do something new and challenging, but that’s not as easy as it was a hundred years ago, in the days of the Dada  - true rebels and intellectuals who saw their unconventional art as a way of challenging a corrupt society. Today, it’s pretty hard to do something that hasn’t been done before - and who says novelty should be an artist’s goal?

But it’s an interesting issue and needs to be taken seriously. At what point does true creativity morph into gimmickry? I think the answer lies in the aesthetic value of what is being produced and the artist’s intention in producing the work. For example, Marcel Duchamp’s famous “readymade,” the urinal he entered into an art exhibit one hundred years ago, really is a work of art. Its harmonious curves make it a beautiful abstract sculpture in white porcelain. Plus, Duchamp was also saying that there could be aesthetic value in the mundane, the mass produced and the ordinary. But without beauty (debatable as it might be) as a goal, all you have left is a gimmick.

Friday, March 18, 2016


This post is dedicated to the older woman artist, the one who keep plugging away without recognition, but with dedication and joy. It looks like we’re finally in fashion, although I had better work fast. Trends come and go with increasing rapidity in the art world. At one time, you could count on being hot for several years, now it seems like only months and you’re a ‘has-been.’ A few years ago, if you were Black (preferably with street creds) you had it made; next was transgender, (the more convoluted the better), and now it looks like older women are in…..finally! However, by the time fame and fortune gets to me, it will be too late. I’ll be doddering in a nursing home or dead.

What started me thinking about the subject was an article I read in the NYTimes a couple of months ago about the sculptor, Louise Bourgeois, She was one of the few role models I had in the art world: a woman who had a fairly conventional life style, like mine, with a house, a husband and children. Maybe it could be done. Most of the successful women artists I knew of only had non-traditional relationships with men (or women) who supported them financially or physically The article didn’t mention, however, that Bourgeois’ husband, was a prominent art historian and critic with a wide range of connections in the art world. In addition, she didn’t live in the suburbs (the kiss of death in the art world for a man or a woman) They owned a town house on West 20th St. in NYC where they entertained frequently. After his death she acquired a huge loft space in a factory in Brooklyn along with an assistant! (what I would give for an assistant!), doing her best work and reaching her greatest prominence in later years when she was alone, - without having to make dinner for anyone. I “googled” a great quote from her: “I have been to hell and back and let me tell you, it was wonderful.” My kind of woman!

There’s another Louise whose work I admired: Louise Nevelson.  She died in 1988, almost 90 years old. She too didn’t become prominent until later in life, but led a completely different life than Bourgeois, much more bohemian, leaving behind any semblance of domesticity for an artist’s life. She notoriously left her husband and parked her child with her parents so as to be free to create. Like Bourgeois, she didn’t achieve her major success until later in life with her marvelous giant installations, assemblages of “found” wood painted black.
While I admired her work – and the way she put herself together with three pairs of false eyelashes and floor length sable coats – she wasn’t much of a role model. I never had the kind of ego – or self centeredness - that would permit me - no matter how much I wanted to have a career as an artist - to abandon my family.

And still another Louise showed up in today’s NYTimes, one I had never heard of before, an Abstract Expressionist painter, Louise Fishman. She’s having her first major museum show at age 77, a retrospective at the Neuberger Museum in Purchase, N.Y. “I’m 77 and I’m at the height of my powers” Ms. Fishman was quoted as saying. “How did this happen? As my grandmother would say, “Who knew?” 

When my friend, the sculptor Reuben Nakian was asked how you become a famous artist, he replied, “You have to live long enough.” The question is “How long is long enough?”