Sunday, November 7, 2021

POST #185: CITY OF MY DREAMS

New York was an artists’ paradise. Despite the poverty of the Great Depression, the city was alive and in the middle of a cultural Golden Age. Like most Golden Ages in history, it didn’t last very long, a decade or two at most, but during that time the arts flourished: painters and sculptors were subsidized by federal programs and art was found everywhere. I consider myself hugely fortunate to have grown up in a world that now exists only in the memory of the few who survive. I lived in the outer reaches of the city, adjacent to Woodlawn Cemetery, one of the great park cemeteries popularized during the mid 1800s. At night, I would sit at my fire escape window and look out at the lights of the city, the skyline and the necklace of bridges that surrounded it.  Each weekday morning, I walked the ten blocks or so that took me to the last stop of my subway line, the D Train that led to Manhattan and the riches it contained. I was fortunate to have been accepted to attend the High School of Music & Art, an institution for the “gifted” created by New York’s quirky mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia.


On weekends, I explored the city, walking for hours, sometimes stopping to sketch or take black and white photos on my $2 Brownie Point & Shoot camera, (the one that required no skill to operate.) I still have an envelope full of snaps and negatives of the Lower East Side (in its heyday) that continue to inspire me. Unlike today, where culture is costly, museums were free and all within walking distance of a bus or subway. I was often joined by my best friend, Joan, who got on the train to meet me. My stop was 205th Street, hers was 168th; 75 years later, I still remember. Together we roamed the city, wisely limiting ourselves to one neighborhood at a time. One Saturday afternoon, we would explore Broadway and Hell’s Kitchen, the next week was the Lower East Side, Little Italy and the Bowery. Chinatown required an afternoon of its own as did Greenwich Village with its side trips to the artisan jewelry makers on 4th Street. Heading downtown eventually got us to Canal Street, a mile-long playpen of industrial detritus. Getting there, however, required scooting through SOHO, a trek that involved evading the catcalls of the factory workers who hounded us along the way. My companion possessed an ample bosom that always evoked admiring comments.


We rarely ventured beyond Manhattan, a decision I now regret. There seemed to be enough to keep us occupied without crossing any bridges. Sometimes we rode the few remaining elevated subway lines allowing us to stare into tenement windows along the way. Other times, we just walked without a destination. We also had the option of climbing on one of the double-decker busses that crisscrossed the city. Public transportation cost little, although ‘on foot’ remained our preferred way to go. It allowed for occasional shopping “sprees” or lunches in Chinatown or the Lower East Side, neighborhoods that provided delights unequalled by any museum. The signage alone was enough to make a young art student’s head spin.

I don’t want to overwhelm you, just give you an idea of the riches we encountered. There was Harlem, but you had to stay on 125th Street, then Spanish Harlem with its “under the el” shopping stalls, Yorktown with its great German food and “Jews not welcome” vibe. Heading downtown we encountered the great (and free) museums: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of the City of New York, the New York Historical Society, the Museum of Natural History. I could go on for another page. We stared at glorious architecture everywhere we went, not the boring glass boxes one sees today. There were Gothic Revival churches, Renaissance palazzos, neoclassical townhouses, all free of charge. I shiver just remembering it.

And then there was the endless shopping: window and otherwise. Everything from the luxury of Fifth Avenue with its designer clothing and sophisticated window displays to the exciting streets of the Lower East Side with its bins of “schmattas,” cloth remnants gleaned from the dress industry that dominated the city at the time. Or Chinatown with its windows full of cheaply-made imported trinkets and toys. Canal Street with its industrial detritus; the second-hand bookstores that lined 4th Avenue below 14th Street, the bargain clothing stores that overlooked Union Square. The Bowery with its lines of blank-faced men. I get out of breath just thinking about it. You could walk for days without seeing the same place twice.

 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Post #184: How to Hold Your Audience



I taught art history for 22 years at the University of Connecticut’s Stamford Campus (the “Branch,” as it was dismissively known.) Despite my lack of a PhD and formal book learning, I was rated one of the best teachers and my classes were always full. I was a “performer,” thanks to my just-out-of-college teaching stint in the South Bronx (see above). Since most of my readers (so they tell me) dread public speaking, I thought I’d give you some tips. It’s a question of practice and the confidence you get from experience. I do, however, have some pointers you might find useful.

1)     Do not read your lecture. The minute I see someone take out a written lecture, I tune out. Unless it’s a technical subject with numbers and formulae, like quantum physics, wing it. If you don’t know your material well enough to just go with some notes, you shouldn’t be up there. Avoid writing on the blackboard while you are lecturing. The class can’t listen and copy at the same time. Just put your main points on a card and TALK! Look the class in the eye to see if they get you, and if they look dazed, start over. 

2)      Maintain eye contact and PERFORM. Put the technical stuff in a handout to be taken home and reviewed. Give out a vocabulary list of unfamiliar terms. Don’t expect the class to know your jargon. That’s what you’re there to teach.

3)     Draw on the blackboard. It’s very entertaining. If you can’t draw, use a slide or an overhead projector to project the image, trace it and get the students to copy it.

4)     Don’t be afraid to be a little bawdy or risqué. Not vulgar, just amusing. Tell a saucy anecdote. It will keep the class awake. They won’t forget it.

5)     Do not permit any side conversations. Stop the class and stare down the guilty parties. You owe it to your students to avoid distractions. You might even want to permanently separate repeat offenders. 

6)     Love your subject and let it show. If you don’t, get another job.

 


At the end of every semester, the students were asked to grade their teachers. I always came out quite well even though I was usually only a chapter ahead of the class in the text. The fact that I was a “working artist” gave me an edge over the academics who usually taught art history. I understood how an artist thought and functioned. What I lacked in book learning (I still can’t do footnotes properly) I made up for with hands-on experience in the art world. I managed to convey love of my subject in what otherwise could have been an awfully deadly hour and a half.


Renee Kahn,
Artist first,
Art Historian second,
Writer third

  

Friday, April 23, 2021

POST #183: Back to the Drawing Board

 


I was recently ruminating, (having nothing better to do waiting for the plague to end) on why artists stay with one style (or why they change their style.) And the more I thought about it, the more answers came to me. I’ll run some by you, but I’m sure you have explanations of your own.  

The main reason an artist is famous for work in one single style is usually the obvious one:  he or she died before they got around to exploring new ideas: Seurat, Modigliani, Kline, Basquiat, Haring, just to name a few who never lived long enough to move on (assuming they even would have wanted to.)

“Imaginary View From a New York City Window”
Oil on canvas 68”x46”
Then there are artists who stay with a style because it is their nature, their rigid personalities discourage experimentation. Mondrian, for example, once he achieved his signature rectangular grid, often worked on the same paintings for years, making minute changes, rarely achieving the perfection he sought. But he was rigid in all aspects of his life; contemporary photos show him working in a spare, immaculate studio, in suit and tie, moving pieces of colored tape millimeters to the left or the right.  Some artists find a formula early on and stay with it. They’re probably the same way about everything they do: what they eat, what they wear, how they make love.  They draw comfort in achieving “perfection” in a narrow band, not in experimenting with something new.


….and then there are artists like Chagall, a genius who was capable of invention but found a formula early on that his buyers wanted: floating lovers, rabbis, scenes of Vitebsk and farm animals (don’t forget the cows.) You knew a Chagall the minute you saw one and his admirers gobbled them up. He never changed because he was successful, financially and otherwise.

On a more mundane level: a highly successful painter I know from my Music & Art High School days (he exhibits in major Madison Avenue galleries and invests in New York real estate) has been painting the same semi-abstract Vermont landscapes for over forty years.  They’re not exactly the same: sometimes the view is from the North, sometimes South, East or West. But he has a wonderful color sense and his “faux Cezanne” daubs do look like they belong in a museum.  There’s enough variety to keep his clientele buying what they think is new work. The so-called “gurus of the art world” either ignore him (or hate him) but, as he once told me: “I cry all the way to the bank.” He’s especially popular with Texas zillionaires who love to decorate their homes with art work that looks sophisticated, but is “easy on the eyes.” They grab up everything he does. He’s a businessman first, he admits, and a businessman stays with a product that sells.

City Scene
18”x12”. Oil on Panel
But why are Monet or Cezanne, who remained with the same subject matter for decades considered great artists and my Vermont scene painter always a hack? My theory is that it has to do with intent. A true artist, like Monet, who painted the same subject over and over, sought some intrinsic truth that only repetition could bring. It’s like a meditation mantra. To get to the essence of an object or a place one had to do what psychologists call “break set,” break down a formulaic way of seeing something by staring at it intently for a long period of time. The goal was to see better not sell better. Cezanne’s multiple views of Mont Sainte-Victoire were a perfect example of an artist using repetition as a way of penetrating deeper into a subject’s essential identity, its solidity, its changes with weather, time of day. He didn’t do it because he thought there was a market for mountain scenes.


During my decades as a working artist, I’ve learned how hard it is to generalize about art and artists. There are geniuses like Mark Rothko (an all-time favorite) who committed suicide - possibly because he found himself “stuck in a style.”  Like Jackson Pollock, success didn’t allow him to move on. The public wanted to buy paintings by Rothko and Pollock that looked like they were done by Rothko and Pollock. They were among the many artists who got rich and famous only to discover their creativity hemmed in by dealers, debts, houses in the Hamptons, ex- wives and wayward children. Forced to keep producing the signature work associated with their names, they killed themselves.

And on the other hand, another of my gods, Philip Guston, walked away from the fashionable art world, locked himself up in a farmhouse in Woodstock, New York and created powerful, disturbing and original work that was only appreciated decades after his death. Like Alice Neel who is only now getting her due, his time has come and his greatness recognized.

 

Lovingly submitted

Renee Kahn

 

Friday, April 9, 2021

POST # 182: DREAMS THAT MONEY CAN’T BUY


In a recent (and rare) clean-up mode, I came across a Dream Book I had kept several years ago. In it I wrote down a half dozen vivid dreams I somehow managed to remember. As my readers probably know, it is extremely difficult to remember dreams, probably because we’re not really supposed to remember them. Acquiring the skill (and keeping it) requires a great deal of effort and practice, but if you succeed, it’s well worth the trouble. Oddly enough, my Dream Book recently disappeared; I have searched everywhere, but it is gone. Perhaps having served its original psychological purpose, it has now become a dream. 

I’ve always been attracted to Surrealism. It’s one of the more interesting movements in 20th century art, a subject I taught at the University of Connecticut for many years. The decades between World War I and II were veritable dream factories in Europe, and later, during the war, the movement was brought to the United States by an amazing group of expat artists, most notably Max Ernst and Dorotea Tanning.  My favorite artist of the period was Kurt Schwitters who left behind his masterpiece, the “Merzhaus,” an imaginative reconfiguration of a townhouse in Hamburg, Germany (although I don’t think he ever considered himself a Surrealist.) Spurred by psychoanalytic theory, Freud and Jung created a scientific basis for the interpretation of dreams. However, Hitler’s Third Reich did not prove to be hospitable to dreamers and most of the artists and psychoanalysts of the period ended up as refugees here or in England during World War II. Our gain; Europe’s loss.

My Dream Book provided me with lots of interesting images, only a few of which I was able to convert into art. The closest I ever got to succeeding were a series of quasi-surrealist paintings and drawings I did while recovering from a broken ankle in my daughter’s eleventh floor New York apartment with windows overlooking West End Avenue and the Hudson River. The magical views have shown up in dozens of paintings. Real, yet unreal? Surreal?

 A number of years ago, I decided to try to remember my dreams. For some reason, I was having incredibly imaginative ones at the time – ones I felt worth saving. I was previously never able to remember them but someone told me that if I go to bed telling myself that I must remember - and then write the dream down immediately after waking – usually first thing in the morning - I might be able to retain them. The technique apparently worked and, after a few weeks, I had a notebook filled with extremely vivid dreams. I tried turning them into paintings but they were too complex – with the exception of one that showed my late husband floating in the Bardo, a Buddhist term for the time between life and the afterlife. He had returned to tell me how happy he was, free from earthly cares and how his magnificent, athlete’s body, much to his delight, was now a spiritual one floating untethered and undamaged in space.



I recently went back to that dream painting and added a pair of 6’x4’ stretched canvas panels similar in color and technique. These recent works are not of the Bardo, but a curious mish-mash of pre-historic cave painting combined with Picasso, Chagall, Calder, cut-out dolls and Cubism. Now, how’s that for an artistic stew? Twenty-two years of teaching art history has come back to haunt me!

 


Monday, February 24, 2020

POST #181: CREATING LIFE



Whenever I create “life”, my goal is to get my subject to talk to me. Like Donatello’s Renaissance statue of Il Zuccone, I want it to speak. My late husband, a clinical psychologist, used to call it my “only child syndrome.”  I’m not painting a person; I’m creating a person, a playmate, a companion. My studio and my attic are currently filled with cut-out characters. I occasionally work from photographs that I or someone else has taken, but only as a starting point; most of the time I am totally surprised at who turns up. I never idealize people; I want them raw and rugged, the way they are in real life: lumps, bumps and all. I draw upon decades of sketching at Government Center meetings, or Breakfast at Curley’s; it’s like I have a giant photo album in my head that keeps spilling out images. Recently, I’ve learned how to use my iPhone to take photos without my victim realizing his image was being captured. I pretend I’m talking on the phone or looking at something behind them, lest they think I’m invading their privacy.

Most of my figurative work, because it is so true to life, is controversial. Am I making fun of people of different races, ages, ethnicities? Satire, nowadays, is a touchy subject. At what point does gentle humor transcend into racist insult? I have to be very careful where I show my work and hope that no misreads my intent. A few years ago, the local Downtown Council asked me to put my life size “real women” paper dolls in a storefront window but then they panicked at my pregnant teenage bride. Was she Latina? Would someone be insulted? I thought she was adorable and apparently so did the hundreds of people who walked by that weekend. The only objection came from a tormented soul who threw a cup of coffee at the window claiming I was making fun of fat people. When the dolls were exhibited in a gallery in New Britain recently, I was asked to give a talk about the work. Would someone accuse me of political incorrectness? Fortunately, the audience, a dozen women of mixed ages, races, sizes got my point. They understood the affection behind my satire.

Over the years, I have created a half dozen series of paper dolls on different topics, some exhibitable, some not. The one I’ve never shown publicly is my Mens Bathhouse series. You need a strong stomach for that one. It’s based on the observation that nudity is not what it’s cracked up to be and most people avoid it for a good reason. The dolls are 24” high cut outs of the kind of men you see at zoning board meetings: well-dressed thugs. It’s my way of getting back at them for all the damage they have done to my beloved city. They are ugly inside and out and only a George Grosz could really do justice to them. I do my best.

The most powerful series I ever did was of local gangsters – 8’ high cardboard figures meant to be held up so the carrier’s legs were the legs of the puppet. They are crying out for a script by Brecht, but he’s not available and I don’t know anyone else who can do it. They can also be displayed on tripod wood stands, lit so they cast giant terrifying shadows. I wish I knew of a gallery big enough accommodate them; it would need 20’ ceilings.


Goddess of the New Popular Restaurant.  Oil on canvas. 62”x 48”


Meanwhile, my characters live mainly in my attic. God only knows what goes on there at night when I’m not around!

Glad to be back,
Renee Kahn

Friday, February 7, 2020

POST #180: Apollonian vs Dionysian

The philosopher Nietzsche was the first to write about the presence in our lives of powerful forces that he referred to as Apollonian or Dionysian, referring to the Greek god Apollo who represents order, reason and beauty, as opposed to the Dionysian, our wilder selves represented by Dionysus, the god of wine. Dionysus creates chaos, madness, sexual depravity and drunkenness and is usually expressed by wild, licentious music and dance. It’s like a carefully organized Bach fugue versus an orgiastic Woodstock performance to a spaced-out audience. Nietzsche saw the need for both elements in a life well lived: the rule of law and rational thinking balanced by the need to let loose and have a damned good time.  In the healthy, well-adjusted person, both stay in balance; it’s when one element predominates and drives out the other that trouble ensues.  Artists tend – at least in the current art scene - to be more Dionysian than Apollonian. But given the unpredictable world we live in and our often irrational “supreme leader” it’s no surprise that most contemporary art has an air of hysteria about it: over-sized, over-pigmented and over-dramatic. How can an artist possibly be Apollonian in this crazy, irrational world?


In the next week or two I’m planning to conduct a design workshop for a few artist/photographer friends. Our topic is something we used to refer to in art school as the “Principles of Design.” I intend to talk about timeless verities such as balance, harmony, focal point, rhythm, and relationship of forms, all the qualities required to create a harmonious (Apollonian?) work of art. But what if there is no such thing any more? Why should there be harmony in art when it doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world?  Maybe the chaos of contemporary life requires a whole new set of Unprincipled Principles of Design and I’m just wasting everyone’s time teaching order and rules. Maybe I should just pass the mescaline and let everyone be his or her inner Dionysian selves?




P.S. in my pre adolescence, I used to be a Duncan dancer, a disciple of Isadora Duncan, a passionate Dionysian if there ever was one. We danced in flowing scarves and Grecian togas with wreaths of flowers I’m out hair. A sight to behold!
R.K.


Friday, November 29, 2019

POST#179: TO DRAW OR NOT TO DRAW, THAT IS THE QUESTION


Harlem Figures: Charcoal and Oil on Canvas 24"x 54"


My friend George recently recommended a book from the 1920s by Harold Speed called “The Practice and Science of Drawing.”  Staying in print that long, I’m sure it’s an excellent primer on the art of drawing but it begs the question of whether anyone needs or wants to draw any more. Given easy access to computer and photographic images, is it even a necessary skill? When I began to study art as a teenager, drawing from life was the basis of all our training. The entrance exam I took at the age of 14 for the High School of Music & Art in New York City was largely designed to see whether or not I could draw. My best friend and I still remember the contour drawing we were required to do for the exam; neither of us had ever done one before.  It was widely accepted among artists that before you could study painting or sculpture, you had to know how to draw. I remember telling my friend Elena, a graduate of the prestigious Moscow Art Institute, that I had met graduates from the top art schools in America who couldn’t draw a hand. She sniffed and haughtily replied that in Russia, you couldn’t get into art school if you couldn’t draw a hand.

Cut-Outs Projected onto Canvas Drawings

 
But drawing, while it might be “technically obsolete,” has certain advantages over photo derived images. It forces you to actually LOOK (stare) at something, study it. Get to know it. It is one thing to photograph a tree and its branches, but a totally different part of the brain is required to draw it, to understand how everything connects, how light and shadow create roundness and depth, the texture of the bark. In drawing from life we learn about a subject in a way no photo can ever teach us. Just think about what we get from one of Leonardo’s anatomical drawings. Better than a photo any day!

"Dream" - Charcoal Drawing on Stained Canvas 60"x48"

There is also another kind of drawing that’s almost impossible to teach: pulling images from the subconscious, the so-called ‘inner eye.’ It’s something that can only be accessed after long experience in training the ‘outer eye.’ Many artists never learn how to access the millions of images they have stored in their brain, the so-called ‘imagination.’ Frankly, that’s where the really interesting stuff is found. But, before you get to the inner eye, you need to spend an awful lot of time learning how to draw what’s in front of you.