Friday, September 15, 2017

POST # 148: A CAT’S TALE



A couple of months ago I acquired a new cat. Her name is Ellie and she is a beautiful spotted Calico, white with splotches of caramel and black. I’ve owned cats for over four decades but just assumed that the cat who died about four years ago, was my final feline.  When I was in my early twenties and still living at home, I asked my mother if I could have a cat. Intuiting my underlying motivation she said: “Get yourself one on two legs.” And I eventually did, a 6’3, 230 pound cat followed by three, two-legged kittens, eager to be cuddled and stroked, like cats. When we moved to a house in the country the children begged for a cat so I answered an ad in the local Shopper offering “free kittens.” I had never owned a pet before and nervously asked if I would have a problem raising it. The cat owner, noting my litter, laughed ”If you can raise three children, you can definitely handle a kitten.”

And so began a long line of cats, mostly offspring of Puma, my best friend Dina’s coal-black Persian who produced two to three litters a year.  Dina had a foolproof method of insuring that Puma’s kittens would be adoptable. She interviewed all Puma’s suitors when they came to call, enticing the good-looking studs while chasing away the uglies. We ended up with two of them, long-furred beauties named “Cat Stevens” (after the rock star who lived up the road) and “Paws” (huge white paws.)

 The last of our family cats was a domestic shorthair, Lily, beautiful but feral. She never allowed anyone to pick her up; you could only stroke her at arm’s length. In fact, we never could get her to the vet in the 21 years we owned her.  “The Vet? Not me!” and she would disappear for days until we gave up and put the cat carrier back in the attic. However, she was there for me when I needed her after my husband died, and, in gratitude, I do not begrudge her all those years of Friskies. After Sam’s death, I would frequently wake in the middle of the night, crying. She would hear me no matter where she was, rush to my bed, climb in next to me and put her head under my hand so I could stroke her until I calmed down and went back to sleep. Then she would leave, her job done.

After Lily died, a decided I didn’t want another cat. Too much work. And besides, given my age, what would happen to it if I died or got sick, My friend Meg offered to take the cat if the time came when I couldn’t care for it and another friend told me about a non-profit cat adoption service a “saintly” woman runs out of her house in Springdale. It’s like a matchmaking service, okCupid for cats. After you contact her, she e-mails you photos of the cats she has for adoption. You pick the one or ones you might be interested in and she will bring them to your house to see if you are “compatible.” I chose Ellie from a half dozen prospects; she came to visit and ended up staying, the best, most intelligent and loving cat I have ever had, a perfect studio companion, napping inside a gilt frame on the drafting table, watching me while I paint.

She and I recently had a battle royal over whether or not she could go outside. It seems my next door neighbor was accusing her of leaving paw prints on the top of his cherished Mercedes convertible. He said that if she scratched the cloth top he was going to make me pay $6,000 for a new one. Apparently, he had already called the police about her and next time he saw her on his property, he would tell them to cart her off to the Animal Shelter He also informed me that he owned a gun for protection against “burglars” (was he referring to my cat?)


Like it or not, Ellie is now an unhappy “indoor” cat, constantly racing me to the door begging to be let out. We’re just both going to have to live with that. If I only could train her to critique my art work, things would be perfect!
Paw up (painting good). Paw down (get the turpentine.)


Renee Kahn

Friday, August 25, 2017

POST #147: MEAT ON MY BONES

I was having Sunday brunch at Curley’s Diner with two menfriends when the subject got around to optimal ratios for women’s bodies. One of them had previously sent us an e-mail with a chart. Apparently, the determining factor, both for health and attractiveness, is not a huge bosom or how much you weigh, but the ratio of waist to hips.  From a childbearing point of view, that makes a lot of sense and if you look at “ideal” women from Ancient Greece to modern times, it’s the hip to waist ratio that counts.  Anyhow, I got around to telling them the story of a lunch date I had a while back with a former (thankfully former) male friend. As we were leaving the restaurant, he whispered in my ear that he liked me much better now that I had “meat on my bones.” We won’t get into what I thought about the meat on his bones!

Growing up, I always wanted to be well endowed, have long lines of lusting adolescent boys outside my door. It was hard to be slender in an era where the reigning goddesses (Marilyn Monroe, Anita Ekberg, Jane Russell) all wore DD bras. During my late teens and until I started having babies in my mid twenties, I was 5’6” and never weighed more than 114 pounds, great for slinking around or modeling clothes, but not for being a “goddess,” my ultimate goal. And that may explain why I love to paint ample women, the kind that hang out at Curley’s Diner and struggle to get their weight down from 180 to a meager 150 pounds.

Artists have always liked models with “meat on their bones”; skinny doesn’t translate very well onto canvas. What would Titian or Rubens ever see in the hipless, belly-less “clothes hangers” (with surgically augmented breasts) in fashion today?  Would Renoir ever look twice at a woman in a Size 6 dress? In past eras, thinness meant famine, an insufficient supply of food. Today, the reverse is true; the upper classes strive to be as waiflike as possible, eat as little as possible while the Working Poor (most of the country) verges on obesity and the serious medical issues that go with it.

I like myself a little on the “ample” side; it gives me what my late husband, a Clinical Psychologist, used to call “Body Armor.” It was a term psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich used to describe people (like Donald Trump) who bulk up to appear invincible but are actually quite fragile. They acquire thick bodies as a protective layer of defense. You see it a lot in men who radically alter their physiques by lifting weights. As for myself, I don’t miss being 114 pounds with a 24”waist. Just as I enjoy painting “ample” women, I personally like the comfort I get from having some “meat on my bones.”  When my voluptuous sister-in-law who was built like one of those goddesses on an Indian temple would try to lose weight, her husband would whine: “You’re taking the joy out of my life!” I don’t plan to take the joy out of anyone’s life, especially my own.


Friday, August 11, 2017

POST #146: Art On the Bowery

I’m no longer much of a museumgoer. It’s not that I have anything against museums, they’re important educational institutions, but it’s a case of too much ‘been there, done that.’ However, if I don’t linger too long or go too often, a museum visit can be enjoyable and worthwhile.

My friend Elena recently offered to drive me to New York to a “museum of my choice” and I was happy to accept. I suggested we go to the New Museum on the Bowery, having just received an enthusiastic report about the work of Carol Rava an Italian woman artist who died two years ago at the age of 95.  It’s hard to categorize her since she’s basically an “outsider” artist, but a “faux” outsider, a highly sophisticated one influenced by several important 20th century movements including Dada and Arte Povera. Her elegantly framed water colors (frankly, I found the frames more interesting than the art), are uninhibited, scatological, and obsessed with sexuality and bodily excrement, She was quite a character. During her long life she knew ‘everybody important’ in mid 20th c art and, now that she is dead, is finally being recognized.  The best part for me, I have to confess, was the way her work was framed.

I’ve reached the point in my life where I don’t want to be influenced by anybody else’s art! It’s just a distraction. What I do get from seeing other artists’ work are ideas on technique and presentation: how to frame and organize the images, what new materials I can use; basically, ‘the tricks of the trade.’ In Rava’s case, the frames were more interesting than the art they enclosed, transforming what would otherwise be slightly obscene water color sketches into museum quality art. Where did her gallery find them? They looked as if they had been hand carved back in the 1920s. Something else I saw in this show helped me figure out how I could frame some oversize linoleum blocks I carved decades ago. I’ve been struggling for years for a way to display them and found the perfect solution at Rava’s show.

The other exhibit I found interesting (for similar reasons) was the work of a West Coast artist (another woman, but much younger and still living), Kaari Upson. What interested me most was her roomful of oversized pencil drawings on sheets of 8’x5’white paper,  I could make those large charcoal drawings I’ve been doing on brown wrapping paper that size! Then maybe the New Museum would give me a show! 

On our way out, I paid my obligatory visit to the bookstore, filled as usual with overpriced and poorly reproduced tomes on artists you barely (or never) heard of.  I doubt if anyone ever read past Page 5 of anything on the shelves; I no longer even try. But again, something practical and useful came out of the visit. The store had a glass case containing a set of ceramic dinner plates designed by artists of minor repute. As my readers know, I’ve been ‘making plates’ for a couple of years now, only mine are paper and don’t go in the dishwasher. Every once in a while, someone suggests I find a place (like China) to get them produced as real ceramics, and maybe (the Holy Grail I’ll never reach) make some money off them. What shocked me about the Museum Store’s plates was their price. A set of six was priced at $600 (reduced to $520. for museum members). Could you eat off them? Not at those prices!

As Elena and I walked out of the museum into the bright summer sun and the noise and disorder of the street with its hawkers and hippies and Chinese storekeepers, I looked up at the awning on the rundown store next door. It had beautiful rust patina-ed iron gears that moved the awning up and down but looked like something Kurt Schwitters would have assembled in the 1920s.  On aesthetic quality alone, it beat anything we had seen in the museum.


Renee Kahn

Friday, July 28, 2017

POST #145: LOST IN TRANSLATION

I’ve discovered that there are very few artists who can write intelligibly about their art. Some of them don’t want to give away what they consider “trade secrets,” while most are simply unable to explain what is largely an intuitive process that takes place on an unconscious level. That, however, doesn’t stop anyone from trying, unfortunately leaving the poor reader befuddled by lots of verbiage signifying practically nothing.

It’s even worse when the writing is translated from one language to another. Recently, I have been trying to read some of the copious writings on art theory by the Russian/German artist Vasily Kandinsky. I remember my struggles with his major opus, “Point and Line to Plane;” I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to read it several times. I think I keep at it because I like the way the title sounds in German: “Punkt und Linie zu Flache.” It’s not for the faint of heart. I presume it was originally written in Russian (his native language), then translated into German and then, in 1947 with someone’s help, into English. The multiple translations, to say nothing of the inherent complexity of his ideas with their basis in Theosophy and Spiritualism, guarantees the reader a tough time. Writing about art is always difficult, but when translated multiple times, it’s like telephone tag where someone whispers something in your ear, you pass it along to the person next to you, they do the same and what comes out has no resemblance to the original message.

I am sitting here at the computer with a pile of art books next to me. I’ve got Kandinsky’s “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” (his first.) I’ve got several books on or about Paul Klee (a favorite) including his “Pedagogical Sketchbook” used for teaching art at the Bauhaus, translated into convoluted English by Sybil Moholy-Nagy. Let me give you one example, the title of a chapter picked at random:

“Chapter 1, Section 9: The natural organism of movement as kinetic will and kinetic execution (supra-material) (illustrated with a drawing of bones, muscles and tendons).”
I have no idea who is at fault, Klee or his translator; probably both. I also dug out a book from my library containing a translated copy of an essay by Klee on Modern Art, written while he was teaching at the Bauhaus.  I’d like to quote from the introduction by Herbert Read, a prominent art historian in the mid1900s. 
The Bolds are mine

Nevertheless, the reader must be prepared for difficulties. These are partly due to the cryptic, aphoristic nature of the writing; partly to the structure of the German language (aha!), which is more abstract or conceptual than is English, and therefore cannot always be exactly translated; but chiefly to the inherent difficulty of the subject. An art like painting is itself a language – a language of form and color in which complex intuitions are expressed. The necessity for the plastic* symbols of the art of painting is to some extent dictated by the inadequacy of our linguistic means of communication. To explain art, therefore, is often an effort to give words to nameless processes, to actions otherwise confined to instinctive gestures.

P.S. * I hate the term “plastic.” I presume it doesn’t refer to a polycarbonate. Art writers love to use it when they’re stuck for a word. A friend who taught art at a prominent university for decades says she never understood it either, but “was afraid to ask for an explanation.”

RK




To comment on this blog: under post a comment below, select from "comment as" button "name/url." You only have to fill out name section,  not the url section. Write your comment and then hit the publish button.  

Friday, July 21, 2017

POST #144: IT’S MEDICINAL!



The New York Times recently (7/10/17) ran an article about a non-profit gallery in Chelsea that caters to older artists. Several friends e-mailed me the link to make sure I didn’t miss it. “The perfect place for you,” one commented. The gallery specializes in artists over the age of 60 who have a) never been discovered or b) were discovered and then forgotten. I thanked them for thinking about me but explained that I knew about the Carter Burden Gallery, having applied to it three years ago (July, 2014.) I sent everything they asked for: a CD of my work, a resume, a statement of purpose, copies of publicity etc.  They graciously thanked me and said they had lots of applicants and would be back in touch. I’m still waiting.


The problem is not that the gallery is inefficient, although they might be for all I know, the problem is that there are too many damn artists around, young and old, all vying for a minuscule number of places to show their work. Although it’s worse for older artists, even if they’ve had some prior success, the problem exists throughout the entire art world. Everybody and his brother is an artist and, given what is considered “art” today, everybody can be. It’s the most joyful, pleasurable way imaginable to live ones life. At one time, you needed at least a decade of study to be an artist, hundreds of hours drawing from life, learning perspective, anatomy, serving an apprenticeship, accumulating knowledge that took years to acquire. Now, what we call art is so fluid, requires so little actual skill, anybody can call themselves an artist and refer to their work as “art.” Just give a kid a box of crayons and a paper plate and see what happens. Once it goes up on the refrigerator, he’s hooked!

I feel badly for the people who run the Carter Burden Gallery. They sound so well-meaning; they have such an honorable mission: giving older people some late-in-life recognition, perhaps even some much-needed income. They are apparently inundated with requests for shows. But, please, don’t feel sorry for elderly artists. We made our choice: if we wanted financial security, we could have become accountants or ‘married money.’ If we wanted recognition, we could have run for office.

I laughed when I read a quote in the Carter Burden article from an elderly woman the Times interviewed who had a near brush with success a number of years ago. She had shown her work to Ivan Karp, a famous art dealer in the 1960s, founder of the O.K.Harris Gallery in SOHO. Apparently, Karp had liked it but turned her down, saying he had difficulty selling art by women. I too had a go-around with Karp about the same time. I showed him my slides and he said he would like to pay a visit to my studio.  However, when he heard it was in Stamford, Connecticut, he changed his mind. He apparently had a maximum of ten minutes travel time for a studio visit and I lived a lot further away than that.
Strike One: I live in the suburbs, not Brooklyn
Strike Two: I’m a woman
Strike Three, I’m an OLDer woman. Three strikes and you’re out! 
But no way am I quitting.  My work keeps getting better and better. I may never get near the top of the heap, but I’m having a wonderful climb, and, who knows?  Life is full of surprises.

A couple of days ago I may have discovered the real reason I (and all the other artists I know) keep creating. It’s MEDICINAL!! The most recent issue of the AARP’s magazine, Modern Maturity (they send it free to members) had a short paragraph encouraging the elderly to do artwork. It claimed that spending 45 minutes on an art project reduced levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, a substance that destroys muscle tissue. Who knew?


P.S. The illustrations for this post are all experiments with the overhead projector. It’s an amazing, low-tech tool!

Saturday, July 1, 2017

POST #143 WOES OF WOMEN (ARTISTS)


 "Rooftops"44"x66". Oil and charcoal on canvas   $1,200.  
The problem with being a woman artist is that nobody takes you seriously. Too often you’re considered a diletante, a dabbler. It’s a little better for the present generation than it was when I first started out. The only women I knew who had any degree of success were either gay or were married to artists and got by on their coattails. The gay women were usually better off – they at least had “wives” or a circle of friends to support them.

Dream Towers #16
 2017   Oil on canvas    48"x35 1/2"     $750
What set this off was a discussion a group of us had a couple of weeks ago based on Linda Nochlin’s classic (and still much discussed) treatise “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists.” It’s the lead essay in a book from the early ‘70s entitled “Art and Sexual Politics.” I’m pretty sure you can get a copy on line. She dealt with the subject historically, pointing out all the handicaps that women faced preventing them from achieving their full potential, of course assuming that they do have similar potential to men. Forgive my lack of political correctness, but maybe you do need testosterone (i.e. Picasso) to be great. Since the Renaissance, there have been quite a few women artists of exceptional skill and talent, but none (in my humble opinion) come anywhere near Goya, Brueghel, Rembrandt, van Gogh et al. As much as you might admire Mary Cassatt, there’s no way she comes close to her mentor, Degas. In my last blog, I wrote about recently attending a major retrospective of the work of Georgia O’Keeffe and while she certainly was important as a groundbreaking woman painter, I don’t think she never equaled her male contemporaries:  Hartley, Demuth or Sheeler.

Dream Towers #3   
2017 Oil on canvas    52"x36"
Sold
It’s easy to understand why women of past generations were never able to become major artists, let along “great” (testosterone aside). You would think that since many of the restraints of childbearing, domesticity and limited education are no longer holding us back, the art world should now be well-populated with women candidates. Sad to say, while there are lots of good women painters, sculptors, filmmakers and performance artists around, no one has come close, (in my humble opinion) to greatness. Come to think of it, not many contemporary men are that hot either. If I could venture a guess based on personal observation, I think women, despite fifty years of the Women’s Movement, still have a problem with being “over socialized,” taught to decorate rooms rather than dominate them.  Good looks are still over valued in women (although it helps a male artist to be drop-dead gorgeous too) and women spend too much time and energy turning themselves into works of art. While a male artist can (and does) bellow his genius to the world, women as still expected to be laid back. Loud-mouthed, self-promotion might be acceptable in a man, but just let a woman tell you how great she is and everybody hates her. I must say, however, I think things are improving in that area; more and more women artists are allowing themselves to be as arrogant and obnoxious as men. 


Dream Towers #2    2016     Oil on canvas       25 1/2"x34 1/2"    $650

This is an enormously complex subject that goes way beyond the usual explanation of lack of opportunity and training. First of all, the entire premise of what causes “genius” needs to be examined. Is it genetic? an accident of birth? exceptional early training?  Women have theoretically achieved equality for at least half a century and still, no geniuses have turned up. I have my own theory: we’re just too nice, too caring, too decent. This might sound a little simplistic but it’s as valid an explanation as anything more complex I’ve read: To be a genius – in any area, not just art - you have to be a monster (they ALL were), care about nobody but yourself, be willing to destroy everyone around you on behalf of your greatness. It’s no fun being the offspring or spouse of a “Great One.” They might be exceptional artists, scientists, writers, but you wouldn’t want to live with any one of them.

Friday, June 9, 2017

POST # 142: HIGH AND LOW ART

My friend Phyllis recently asked me if I wanted to go to the Brooklyn Museum with her to see the Georgia O’Keeffe show. She was going to reserve tickets for us and said she would drive in. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I haven’t been to the Brooklyn Museum in decades, literally, and besides, I hoped to be able to squeeze in a studio visit to my son Ned’s friend, Chico MacMurtrie, at his Amorphic Robot Works in nearby “up and coming” Red Hook.


Luise Kaunert (Mrs. MacMurtrie) and Renee Kahn inside Chico's Robot workshop
I have fond memories of the Brooklyn Museum with its grand entry stair and neo Classical facade. They have some really great collections including a sculpture garden composed of relics salvaged from demolished Manhattan buildings. The O’Keeffe exhibit was beautifully designed but not terribly exciting and didn’t add much to my knowledge of her. However, we unexpectedly came across an installation of Judy Chicago’s famous “Dinner Party” from the 60s that blew me away. I’m no fan of Judy Chicago, but I have to confess I’ve never seen her iconic feminist piece in person and this was a stunning installation, alone well worth the trip to the museum. I was also surprised and overwhelmed by the row of monumental, 7’ high alabaster wall reliefs from the Assyrian palace at Nimrud, c 880 B.C. - the granddaddy of site- specific installation art. I knew the museum was famous for its Egyptian art collection, but this was an exhibit I never expected to see.

Chico MacMurtrie - Amorphic Robot Works
After a couple of hours at the museum, we’d had enough “high culture” and were ready to head home, but I figured it was early enough to call Ned’s sculptor friend Chico, and see if it was convenient to pay him a visit. Ned had shared a studio with him about thirty years ago in San Francisco. At the time, Chico was creating small robotic figures who fought mock battles on the city’s streets. According to Ned, a crowd would gather to watch and eventually the police would arrive to break it up. Chico would then quickly scoop up the combatants and disappear



MacMurtrie's studio in converted
Norwegian Seamen's Church in
Red Hook, Brooklyn
The voice from the dashboard said we were only twenty minutes away from Chico’s place so I called the number he had given me a while ago (saying “stop by any time”) - but only got a fax.  His studio was in an abandoned Norwegian Seaman’s Church in Red Hook, a seedy waterfront neighborhood once populated by immigrants who worked in nearby factories and on the docks. Like much of the rest of Brooklyn, I had heard that the area was being “gentrified.’ We took a chance and found ourselves at the door of a dilapidated, Romanesque-style brick basilica, home to Chico MacMurtrie’s “Church of Robotic Saints”. Chico, it turned out, was out of the country installing a piece in Austria somewhere, but his wife, Luise, upon hearing that I was “Ned Kahn’s mother,” invited us in and gave us a tour. (Ned’s “mother” apparently carried quite a bit of weight.) The church, abandoned by the seamen several decades ago, had been converted to a factory and from there to the home of fifty or so computer-controlled musicians made out of discarded machinery and other industrial detritus: They were Chico’s “saints. According to his web site “these machines mesmerize with their percussive sounds and gestures.” It goes on to say: “They express themselves through rhythm and body language, ranging from introspective solos to powerful ensembles erupting from different corners of the space.” The robotic band performs every few months so I signed up for the mailing list. I’m pretty sure I can talk someone into going with me.

Anyhow, the point of this blog – yes, there IS a point – is that the best part of the trip we agreed afterwards, wasn’t the grand museum with its carefully curated exhibits, but Chico’s ramshackle pile in the middle of nowhere – populated by a band of disreputable mechanical saints creating holy music for a new world.

Monday, May 29, 2017

POST #141: ON THE BLESSINGS OF SOLITUDE

68" tall oil on canvas with projected figures 

Someone recently asked me what music I listen to when I paint and I truthfully answered “None.” In order to get into that space in my head where creative ideas come from, I require total silence: no distractions, no e-mail, phone, ambient noise, people moving around the house etc. Only then can I access that part of my subconscious that creates art. I’m not saying this is true for everyone, some artists I know like to work in tumult, with other artists around them, studio assistants, children, spouses, dogs etc. They thrive on distraction, distraction that allows their subconscious to take over. I’m just the opposite, distraction prevents me from allowing my right brain to go to work and come up with something I’ve never done before.

The early 19th century French painter, Eugene Delacroix famously said that you should “think of the blessings that await you, not of the emptiness that drives you to seek constant distraction.” He went on to discuss the joys of a life of uninterrupted art “and plenty of it.”  Picasso was once quoted as saying that “without great solitude, no serious work is possible.” Of course, he did some of his greatest artwork in collaboration with the painter Braque, but I suspect that after their collaborating was done, each went back to his studio to work on his own .


68" tall oil on canvas with projected figures

 The brain scientists who study the phenomenon they call “Flow” talk about a euphoric experience that takes place when ideas begin to pour out of the subconscious. To achieve a state of flow takes time, often a long period in which nothing appears to be happening. It’s like pregnancy; it’s hard to see that anything is in the works until it’s pretty far along.

It’s not just artists who suffer from interrupted thoughts, I recently heard a well-known writer say that her idea of heaven would be six months in solitary confinement with a pencil and paper (or word processor). Scientists often do their most creative work before they become well known and are deluged with the distractions of success. And, given the current state of constant interaction with I-phones, e-mails, etc., it’s almost impossible to get time alone to decompress and think creatively.


68" tall oil on canvas with projected figures
I recently read a biography written by his daughter, of one of my favorite mid 20th century artists, Philip Guston. In the 1930s, he was a pretty good Social Realist painter and in the 50s, one of the better Abstract Expressionists, but, after dropping out of the New York art scene, in the 60s, distraught by the politics of the time, (McCarthy era) he became, for want of a better term, a “cartoon expressionist” and ended up doing his best and most original work. His daughter described his need for total and absolute silence while he worked in a studio in his home. His children could not invite anyone over; no one was allowed to call (the phone disrupted his train of thought). There were to be no distractions whatever while “the great one” was painting. While I sympathize with his tyrannized family, I understand completely what he was going through.  And look at what he produced!


As much as I crave solitude and require it to achieve a high level of creativity, I also need companionship – at least part of the time. It’s too bad we don’t have artists’ cafes any more, places like the CafĂ© Voltaire in Paris, or the Cedar Bar in downtown New York. After a glass of wine and a good chat about current politics, or the gallery scene or who was sleeping with whom, I’d be pretty content to go back alone into my studio and paint. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Post #140: It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

You all know the famous Yogi Berra quote: ” It ain’t over til it’s over.” Of course he was referring to baseball, a game that has very well defined rules as to when it’s over. If only we artists could have such an easy time! At what point is a painting finished, or, is it never finished? Or is it only finished when all the spaces are colored in? There’s an oft-heard saying in the art world that there are two people involved in the creation of a work of art: the artist who creates it, and the person who takes it away from him.

I briefly alluded to that issue in my last “Dear Reader,” explaining how I was struggling to decide whether my latest paintings were finished or whether I could go to the next level without destroying what I had. It’s not just artists, all creative people face this problem: writers, composers, etc. We all struggle with the decision of when to leave well enough alone. In art, there are no rules the way there are in baseball that tell you when the game is over and you can go home.


A couple of readers responded to my plea for direction by firmly telling me they liked the pair of paintings I showed in my blog and thought I should leave them alone. But how could I be sure? We artists have all had both good and bad experiences, ones when “just a few strokes more” ruined everything. On the other hand, we’ve also experienced the alternative when, by being persistent, we’ve come up with something new and wonderful. Most of the time, however, I hear artists complain about not knowing when to stop..

Here’s some hard-learned points:

1)    Keep your work reversible. I always start with an umber toned canvas, the color of wrapping paper. When the water-based ground is dry, I create a charcoal drawing from my imagination, without a sketch, often working on it for days until it’s “perfect.” When I’m satisfied with the drawing, I spray it with matte charcoal fixative. That way I can always get back to my original image no matter how many layers of paint I apply afterward.
2)    I prefer to work in oil, rather than acrylic even though acrylic is less toxic and easier to clean. I decided that oil was worth the extra trouble because it’s removable and allows you to change your mind. With acrylic, once it’s dry, you can’t paint over it without losing the layers.
3)    This is awfully obvious, but put the piece away and work on something else. Even a few hours of separation can let you know if you are going in the right direction.
4)     I offer this suggestion cautiously because it can easily backfire: Get a friend you trust to look at it. Over my painting lifetime, I have only known two people who could really be of help. Most just try to push me in the direction they are going in themselves and their opinion ended up doing more harm than good. It once took six months to undo damage caused by someone’s well-meaning suggestion. My late husband (a retired child psychologist) became an “Outsider Artist” in his old age (and a remarkably good one). Whenever I would try to give him advice, he would put his hands on my shoulders and give me a gentle shove out the door.
5)     And last but not least: Less IS More. It’s terribly easy to overwork something. You don’t need to spend a long time on a piece for it to be finished.

Friday, April 14, 2017

POST # 139: TOO STRONG FOR SATIRE

I’ve written before about my former life as a suburban satirist. Why “former”? Surely there are plenty of things to poke fun at today.  And isn’t satire one of the best ways to fight tyranny and injustice? Well, yes and no. Villains usually don’t mind if you hate them; they thrive on being hated. But what they really can’t tolerate is being made fun of. I’m sure our present leader puts the Saturday Night Live cast at the top of his list for the Gulag if he gets enough power.

However, when evil goes too far, becomes the norm, there’s no way you can see humor in it. Goya was a marvelous satirist of court life in Spain but after the horrors of the French occupation, satire became irrelevant and his art turned into rage. The Weimar period in Germany prior to the rise of Hitler was a Golden Age of satire: overweight Bourgeoisie, corrupt businessmen, hypocritical clergy and worn-out whores, all the excesses of a failing Capitalist system made for some of the best satire ever seen in the history of art. But when Hitler came to power, suddenly, none of it was funny any more. The artists who could flee, fled, and those who remained carefully stayed away from anything controversial.

 American art has never been big on satire. After all you can’t expect the kind of people who buy art to pay money to be laughed at. About the only time there were some reasonably good satirists in this country was during the 1930s, the Great Depression. Since no one was buying artwork anyhow, artists were freer to speak their mind. Publicly subsidized art like WPA murals, tended to concentrate on the positive aspects of American life, but there were also quite a few unaffiliated artists who “made a living” (and not much more) - Jack Levine or Ben Shahn - out of ‘social satire.’ What little political humor there was quickly vanished when Senator Joseph McCarthy and his Committee on Un-American Activities showed up in the 1950s. Abstraction Expressionism soon took over in the art world. There was no social criticism in drips and dabs.

When I started to paint again in the 1970s, after my children went off to school, I poked gentle fun at what I though were the foibles of suburbia. I have an attic full of paintings of clubwomen, American Legionaires and DAR ladies pouring tea. They seem dated given what is going on today. However, the “portraits” I did of local real estate developers and their cronies still seem pretty relevant, especially when you consider our present Head of State. As director of a local preservation organization, I found myself constantly outgunned by the bastards who were easily able to buy off everyone - politicians, government officials - who stood in their way.

Over the years, I’ve done a number of series that would be funny if they weren’t intrinsically tragic. My favorite is one I’ve never dared exhibit (too “x” rated.) It is based on the gross ugliness underneath the expensively coiffed and outfitted Trumps of this world – he’s far from unique. I call it my “Men’s Bathhouse Series,” paper cutouts of local developers and their cronies, men who wear expensive suits but you wouldn’t want to see what lies underneath. Our current President is a perfect example. Unfortunately, the sponsors of this blog censor nakedness of any sort (even when it’s meant to be funny, not prurient) and I don’t know of a single gallery that would be willing to run the risk of showing them, dressed or undressed. So, here are some “safe” examples from my “Bathhouse Series,” men of power fully clothed or in their skivvies. For a peek at what lies beneath their high-priced outer garments, you will have to use your imagination (or come to my studio.)


 P.S. I can’t bring myself to be a satirist any more. There’s nothing remotely funny about what’s going on.

Friday, April 7, 2017

POST #138: BREAKING SET

New York Water Towers I, II, III  - Oil on panel, 12"x16" 2016-17

I know you’ve heard this a million times before, about how distractible we all are nowadays. No one seems able to concentrate on anything for very long. However, given the plethora of media in our lives, it’s a miracle that we can concentrate as long as we do. I don’t know anyone who isn’t addicted to his or her media connections. I’ve had friends check iPhones while hiking in the park with me. When I walk on the track at the health club, half the people there are talking into their phones. All the ‘breaking news’ and attention-getting media have captured even the most aware and resistant of us. The net result is that we have difficulty focusing on anything for very long. When was the last time you actually sat still and concentrated for more than a few minutes? “Multi-tasking” (or, more accurately, “Multi-switching”) is the norm in our lives, not the exception. How many times have you caught the person you’re conversing with slip what he or she thought was an unobtrusive glance down at his media device? This is especially problematic for those of us who consider ourselves “artists”. Creativity of any kind requires total concentration. When was the last time you were not distracted?

I have an experiment for you: Make sure you are alone. Turn off any “media” and just stare out the window Focus on something, a tree for example, for at least five minutes. I’m willing to bet anything you can’t do it.  After sixty seconds, your mind will begin to wander, seek distractions. But if you force yourself to continue, something interesting will begin to happen. You will begin to see as opposed to just look. You will be amazed at how much there is that you never noticed: the texture of the bark, the subtle branching, the slight curve of the trunk.

There’s a concept in psychology called “Breaking Set.” It describes perceiving things around you in new and original ways. Creative artists (notice I differentiate them from “Non-Creative Artists) are good at this kind of mind-altering visualization. A “Set” is defined as the predisposition to perceive things in a certain way, either by habit or desire. One way you can “break set” is by staring at something long enough to override your camera eye and see differently. Ten years ago, when I broke my ankle and had to spend several weeks in an 11th floor New York apartment, I drew the same view over and over again. Eventually I “broke set” and was able to come up with some of the best, most original work I have ever done.

For the past few weeks I have been preparing a slide talk about the early 20th century French artist, Chaim Soutine. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea; the emotional intensity of his work is often difficult to take. He anticipated the Abstract Expressionists by about forty years and Pollock and deKooning were supposedly influenced by him. It seems that before Soutine started a painting he just stared at the subject (he always worked from life): landscape, figure, whatever, for maybe half an hour. Then, he would begin to paint furiously, finishing the entire work in one sitting, not even stopping to clean his brushes, just throwing them down on the ground and grabbing a new one. By staring so intensely before he began, he was able to “break set,” allow himself to depict his subject in a new, hyper-emotional way.

Try it and let me know what happens.

Friday, March 17, 2017

POST#137: DID I REALLY DREAM THAT?

I’ve heard people say that they never dream. Nonsense. Everybody dreams. Even my cat dreams - just watch her twitch in her sleep. She probably dreams of chasing mice, just as I dream of people and places. I started keeping a Dream Book a few years ago, putting a pencil and pad next to my pillow. Even so, I rarely manage to get something down on paper before it vanishes. When I do succeed and can go back and look at some of the dreams I was able to recall, I am amazed at their complexity and originality. I can see why surrealists and psychoanalysts were so intrigued by them. Some of my dreams make sense, have some tangible connection to what is going on in my life, while others are totally unexplainable.

 6'x4'  oil on canvas, 2015-16
I’ve seen a couple of articles lately on how to remember your dreams. It’s not easy and from what I’ve read takes considerable effort and practice. You need to have pencil and pad by your bed and you have to tell yourself, (just as you are about to fall asleep), that you must remember your dreams. This apparently works like an internal alarm clock – the kind that wakes you up when you have an earlier than usual appointment.  One researcher I read suggested looking through your Dream Book, if you have one, before you go to sleep to activate your dream center. The best, the longest, most complex dreams appear to come from deep, early morning sleep, however, we humans seem to have built in ‘dream erasers’  that start to work the second we wake up. If you don’t put the dream down immediately, it will disappear. Stay in bed. Don’t move. Review the dream in your mind first and then start writing….(and, let me know what happens.)

 6'x4'  oil on canvas, 2015-16
I rarely succeed in recording my dreams but when I do, it is always interesting to go back and read what I have written. If I hadn’t put them down the second I woke up, I would never have remembered them. Some are ‘place’ dreams where I find myself in an unfamiliar location. Others are anxiety dreams, related to actual problems in my life, i.e. the house falling down. And some are total puzzles that only a Jungian analyst could figure out. Those that intrigue me the most are like surrealist paintings such as the one I dreamt about eight years ago that took place in a decrepit old house, so cluttered that I could barely walk from one room to the other. In the dream, I went into the back bedroom and found a monster sized bare mattress on the floor. Under the coverlet lay an ancient hag dressed in rags. I pulled back the blanket and saw her lying there, asleep, knees up in a fetal position. She woke up and looked at me without lifting her head.  I pulled the cover back further and found a second old woman, identical to the first, lying at her feet, also unmoving, also bent into the same fetal position. Beneath her feet lay a third clone. To this day, I have no idea what it meant, if anything, but that puzzling trio might haunt me forever.


Saturday, February 25, 2017

POST #136: NEXT STOP 125TH STREET



When I was in my 20s, I took a dozen or so snapshots with my point and shoot Brownie camera of the Lower East Side. I was doing some street scenes (my social realist period) and needed reference material. I admired the work of Ben Shahn but never thought I could come anywhere near his level of technical skill. Little did I know that he worked from photos all the time, perhaps even mechanically transferring them with an opaque projector to his canvas. I don’t think we’ll ever know the truth; he was pretty secretive. But, if Vermeer could do it, why not Ben Shahn (or me)?

Anyhow, about two years ago, I abstracted my Lower East Side photos into a series of eight large paintings designed to fit together to make two 16’ long murals. I was pleased with the results, some of the best work I have ever done (See Post #68 Dear Reader page). I think now that sufficient time has passed, I’m ready to revisit the theme, only now I want to re-create Harlem, both as it looks today and as I remember it. My ‘alma maters’ (the High School of Music and Art and City College uptown) were located in Harlem and I lived in Morningside Heights when I first got married. Over the years I have watched the area fall and rise. In my early twenties, I remember going to ‘rent parties’ where folk and jazz musicians played and you donated (into a passed hat) to pay the rent. One evening I found myself on a mattress next to a curly haired, stoned banjo player who “looked familiar,” Woody Guthrie.

Now that Harlem is “safe” again, I have enjoyed revisiting it, taking photos for a new series of street scenes. Fortunately, I have a friend who walks across 125th St. once a week to teach at Columbia. I have persuaded him to snap whatever catches his attention with his I-Phone (pretending to be talking into it) while on his weekly trek across town. He doesn’t have time to be selective or compose anything but it doesn’t matter; I get his images developed at Walgreen’s and take what I want out of them. I never draw directly from photos; I absorb them. The results are kaleidoscopic, real but unreal. So far, I have finished several sketches of people on the street that I will ignore once I start to paint. In the finished work, you’ll see fragments of Harlem: the signage, the Apollo Theater, elevated train stations, vendors, and street life. I can’t wait to get to work!




Friday, February 10, 2017

POST #135: I’M JUST ISADORABLE


I have no idea where most of my art comes from. Images just seem to burst unbidden from my subconscious. If anything, when I set out to portray “something” it’s usually forced looking and a failure. At the moment, my studio walls are covered with four-foot high figures cut from brown wrapping paper. They are dancing with such abandon that I call them Maenads, drunken followers of the ancient Greek god, Dionysus. The closest thing I’ve seen to anything like them are Matisse’s giant cutouts on the frieze of the Barnes Museum in Philadelphia, but, if you’ll forgive my hubris, I think mine are more interesting.

The images are derived from small paper cutouts of figures I paste on cheap paper plates - my 21st century “Arte Povera” version of Greek kylixes or drinking cups. At night, before I go to sleep, I usually listen to (not watch) some fairly uninteresting talk shows and while my conscious mind is distracted, I cut 5” figures freehand out of black or tan paper. Then I stick them on a lampshade to get a better look. (Post #132) and the next day, I glue them down onto cheap paper plates, the 300 for $3.99 variety. I think of them as Ancient Greek in origin because of their fluted rims, a common border motif known as a ‘tongue’ pattern. I’ve always assumed that they came from my twenty years of teaching art history at the University of Connecticut – influenced by the incomparable Greek ceramics that survived millennia when much else was lost.

It recently dawned on me that my interest in the dancing figures goes much further back than my art history days – it goes back to my childhood, when my mother took me into downtown Manhattan once a week to study Interpretive Dance – the innovative techniques of Isadora Duncan. From the time I was five until about the age of 11, I took lessons from two disciples of Duncan’s style: Irma Duncan, one of Isadora’s adopted daughters (they were called the “Isadorables”), and Julia Levien, who also studied with Duncan. Barefoot, dressed in a chiffon toga my mother had made for me and with a wreath of flowers in my hair, I attempted to hop, skip and jump with the prescribed abandon of a true follower of Dionysus, the supposed basis for Duncan dance. My career ended when it became evident that while I had my heart in it, my body was just not up to the demands. I was relatively tall for my age and noticeably delicate (skinny), while the really good Duncan dancers were stocky and muscular. Nature, it seemed had other plans for me.

Since I had no “ear” for music, the only remaining option was to become an artist. So, here I am, decades (many, many) later, turning my failure as a Duncan dancer into another art form, filling my studio with cut-out figures who enjoy dancing to a gypsy fiddler – the best I can come up with since no one really knows what 5th century B.C. music actually sounded like.


At any rate, I never made the connection between my short-lived career as a Duncan dancer and the wrapping paper cutouts chasing each other around my studio wall until a few weeks ago when one of my beautiful granddaughters came for a visit. We spent the afternoon looking at old family photos and came across a couple that were taken of me at a performance when I was about ten or eleven years old. There are even shadows on the wall that look like my recent silhouettes - I’m the skinny one with the long hair on the right and in the group photo, I’m the second from the left in the middle row.


Thursday, February 2, 2017

POST #134: WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH IT ALL?



My son Ned, who creates major Public Art projects throughout the world, claims that I am a “higher order” artist than he is since I only do what I want to do, not what I’m hired to do. Aside from the fact that throughout history artists were almost always on someone’s payroll, I’m not so sure being at the mercy of a buyers’ market is a badge of honor. And since no one has commissioned my art, there’s a possibility no one is ever going to want it and that leaves me (and my heirs) with one hell of a problem. What’s going to happen to it (an attic full) after I’m gone? Every artist I know, facing inevitable mortality, has to deal with this problem. Since I personally won’t be around to care, my heirs can give away as much as they can and since new canvas is expensive, they can just put a coat of gesso on everything that’s left over and recycle it. The good news though is that my recent, smaller pieces sold quite well, so, maybe the answer to the backlog in the attic is to cut everything into 2’x3’ paintings; they might go like hotcakes in pretty frames. I’m told that’s what art dealers used to do in the 1920s with those big Baroque paintings nobody wanted to buy.

My daughter Eve decided to tackle the problem while I’m still around and hired a photographer to archive everything.  That way, when I go to that great studio in the sky and my children move everything to a storage locker or have a giant tag sale, there will be a record somewhere “in the cloud.” At least they won’t have the problem I’m told that the famous sculptor George Rickey’s son has of spending half his life going around fixing his father’s work.

Starting (hopefully) in February, my friend Hilly Dunn, an expert art photographer, will set up a photo studio in my attic. One by one, we’ll record everything: title, size, date, etc. This is assuming I will be able to recall it. Hilly and Eve even found a new site specifically designed to document artists like me: POBA.org., a “cultural arts center” designed to celebrate artists who have “died without recognition of the full measure of their talents or creative legacies.” POBA takes its name from a Tibetan phrase describing the “transformation of consciousness at death to begin a new life.” At least it gives me something to look forward to…! I’m not being morbid; just realistic. When someone prepares a will, we understand that he wants to be prepared for the inevitable.

But even better…what if I actually achieve fame and fortune while I’m still around? ….and the work sells and provides me with a rich and exciting old(er) age? Underappreciated “mature” women artists seem to be in vogue now and while there’s life there’s hope!


Friday, January 13, 2017

POST #133: TALK TO ME, BABY!

Oil and charcoal on canvas
6'x4' 2016
For more than twenty years, I taught Art History at the Stamford Campus of the University of Connecticut. (We locals called it “the Branch,” a concept frowned upon by the hierarchy in Storrs.) I remember putting on “performances” in front of my class, designed to entrance the sweet, young people who sat in front of me for more than two hours at a time. The least I could do was make the subject interesting for them.  I always looked for stories about art that would “humanize” what could have been dreadfully dull. One of the anecdotes I loved to tell was one about Donatello, an early Renaissance sculptor famous for making his statues lifelike. The story goes that Donatello was working on a life–size figure of a prophet for the Cathedral of Florence. Because of the subject’s bald head, the piece was nicknamed Zuccone, or “pumpkin-head” and according to the story, the sculptor would scream at it, commanding “Speak! Damn You. Speak!”T Ironically enough, the piece, one of the greatest works of all time, does “speak” to you, although not in a very pleasant tone of voice.   

Oil and charcoal on canvas
6'x4' 2016
I’m a painter of people. I like to think of myself as a Humanist rather than an Abstractionist, or a Social Realist, or a cubist, although I recently digressed (temporarily) into a series of dream-like paintings of New York City rooftops. I’m back on track now, creating a cast of characters I consider successful only if, like “pumpkin-head,” they “talk to me.”  Unfortunately however, this makes me an outlier in the current art world. Humanism went out of fashion in the late 1950s when anything that smacked of liberal thinking (like Humanism) was declared un-American - and it never came back.  Humanism is the thread that runs through all my work. Sometimes my art is clearly satirical, but even then, it’s affectionate such as my “Developer series,” or “Men’s Bathhouse” series, or my Local Mayors, or the maquette for “George Washington, Father of his Country” (surrounded by pregnant women,) My humor isn’t angry, unlike the work of the German satirist, George Grosz; my characters may be despicable creeps, but they sorta grow on you.

Oil and charcoal on canvas
6'x4' 2016
Lately, I’ve gone back to painting people. I never use models or preparatory sketches; there are enough characters rattling around in my head not to need them. I tone a large canvas (usually 6’x4’) in shades of umber and then begin to draw in charcoal, pulling figures from my subconscious. Each one is treated as a shape and each shape coordinates with shapes around it. It’s a juggling act: the first shape is easy to manage; the next one a little harder. After that, everything must “work” with what has gone before and, as the drawing gets more and more complicated, more difficult to hold together. The problem now is when to stop; when is enough “enough.” One superfluous line can ruin everything. That’s why I use soft charcoal; it’s easily removed until I decide to apply fixative and then there’s no going back.

But when am I actually done?
It’s when the image “feels right,” tells me it’s time to walk away. It also has to “speak to me!” Like Donatello, I want my creations to come to life.