Saturday, February 25, 2017


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


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


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:, 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!