Saturday, August 5, 2023

Post #194: The Artist’s Wife

Growing up at the edges of the New York art world in the 1940s, the one thing I swore I’d never become was an “Artist’s Wife.” Fortunately, it’s a position that while commonplace when I first came of marriageable age, now rarely exists. No self-respecting woman artist today would accept the role, but when I came into the scene, almost every male artist I knew had one. He couldn’t function without her. And the better the Artist’s Wife, the greater the chances for the husband’s success. Just read the biographies of deKooning or Jackson Pollack!

Many years ago, one of my closest friends, a beautiful Viennese refugee, became a highly desirable “artist’s wife”. She proudly accepted the role, even reveled in it. Her days were filled with service to the Great One, an arrogant but talented SOB. She ran his errands, dealt with his gallery and entertained wealthy and important clients. He repayed her by seducing, or attempting to seduce all her friends, as well as every other woman who crossed his path. Needless to say, it did not end well, and his
career tanked along with his marriage.

I ran into him many years later after he had remarried a sexy but incompetent blonde thirty years his junior. She couldn’t tie her shoelaces without his help and needless to say, his once booming New York career as a “great artist” was over.
PS. This is a Sad but True Story!

Friday, June 30, 2023

Post #193: Little Ralphie

Despite having lived for over 90 years in (or near) what is (or was) the greatest city in the world, I confess to never having met a real celebrity. I did pass Andy Warhol one day on Madison Avenue wearing his signature white wig and I shared an elevator ride with Peter Ustinov at Saks Fifth Avenue. He even flirted with me. But other than those encounters, I’ve never met anyone whose name you’d recognize. The only exception was someone I knew as “Little Ralphie,” He was my friend Thelma’s baby brother. She was frequently required to baby (stroller) sit him and considered him a royal pain in the you know where. Who knew that in 25 years or so he would become one of the most famous men in the world? Certainly not Thelma (or me). Had we known, we would have been nicer to him.

Little Ralphie (and Thelma’s) father was a down and out, Depression poor house painter. Like everyone else I knew, he was struggling to keep the family afloat. In later years, when interviewed, Little Ralphie, now the world-renown Ralph Lauren, would refer to him as an artist, and, since he spent his days painting apartments, that description could be considered at least partially true. One afternoon, my mother and I encountered him outside a hardware store on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. We were in search of something to polish our new (second hand) baby grand piano. Of course, Mr. L. was the perfect person to ask. “Quid Oil” was his response and so we went off in search of Quid Oil. “Quid Oil? Never heard of it.” No one knew what we were talking about. After a few unsuccessful attempts, it finally dawned on us that what he was suggesting (in his heavy Yiddish accent) was Crude Oil. Kvid Oil was what we heard. Many years later, I heard the rich and famous Ralph Lauren interviewed about his background and he referred to his father as an “artist,” a “painter,” which I guess was true (as far as it went.)

I don’t remember if we ever found Quid (Kvid) Oil, or just; ended up using Johnson’s Wax.

Thursday, May 4, 2023

Post #192: Magic Scissors


Many years ago, at a local tag sale, I picked up a pair of pre-World War II German scissors. Now I really didn’t need any more scissors, but these were German scissors! The best of the best! No way I could pass them up. They have magical powers, know exactly what you want them to do without you having to consciously tell them. I think I paid around $2, a substantial sum at the time. It turned out that what I didn’t need were all the other scissors in the drawer. These were magical scissors; they read your mind! You never needed to tell them what to do; your unconscious led the way.

My first project with the magic scissors was a lampshade decorated with six inch high cut outs dancing, strolling, wrestling. Alone, in pairs, or in a crowd. When you turned on the light the lampshade came alive with a dozen or so nymphs, wrestlers and dancing Maenads, the drunken followers of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine. A party in my bedroom every night! And if I rotated the silk shade that held them even a few degrees, a new, backlit cast of characters appeared, held in place by an easily removable dab of rubber cement.

My next scissor success was an illustrated window, come alive with more nymphs and drunken maenads. Somewhat larger this time, around 18’ high, I cut them out of a roll of heavy duty wrapping paper. Again, my magic scissors did the trick, giving silent instructions that told them what to do. I have to confess I take no personal credit for them. It was the scissors, Tiny, half inch hands with expressive fingers appeared. Now, like many artist, i normally have trouble drawing hands. How come I could cut out these exquisite shapes with no underlying sketch? It’s my magic scissors. I give them all the credit.

Well, maybe my subconscious (and fifteen years of drawing classes) helped.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Post #191: The Art of Cutting Cardboard

There’s something very rewarding about working with an inexpensive, disposable material like cardboard. I’ve been a fan (short for “fanatic”) of this cheap, endlessly versatile material for decades now  

First of all, it encourages experimentation; you won’t hesitate to toss failures into the recycling bin. It’s not $5 Arches watercolor paper you’re wasting; it’s just refuse you were going to dispose of anyway. Cardboard is easy to cut and, while hard to repair, cheap enough to throw out and start over. I buy it in  4’x8’ triple ply sheets from a warehouse in Norwalk. They take 2’ off the top so the boards fit into the back of a standard pickup truck. You can cut it with a single-edge razor blade or an x-acto knife and if I’m strong enough to cut through, so are you.

The use of “humble” material like cement,  cardboard or scrap wood and metal was encouraged by an avant-garde art movement known as  “Arte Povera” that  arose in Turin in Italy in the 1960s after World War II. It extolled cast-off, “found” materials in lieu in of expensive, often unavailable traditional art supplies. It’s a great way to encourage taking risks.

I’ve done several interesting projects with sheets of cheap cardboard as well as with discarded cardboard boxes. They’re unlike anything you’ve seen before. My first magnum opus was at an exhibit at the Westport Art Center of a group that called themselves “The Boxists.” Traditionally slick, mostly former well-known illustrators, they got stuck with me against their better judgment. However, my higgledy piggledy 8’ pyramid of discarded Supermarket boxes stole the show. I lit them from within and filled them with ‘real life’ figures.

My next experiment with cast off cardboard was a dozen, larger than life cut-outs based on the gangster- developers who were making fortunes trashing my beloved city. I included their equally disreputable  accomplices and their friends and family.

They were my artists’ way of getting even.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Post # 190 Ninety-Nine Faces on the Wall

You all remember the old camp bus song, “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall”, well, several months ago, for some totally inexplicable reason, I began to obsessively draw faces. all kinds. old, young, pretty, not-so-pretty, men, women, etc. I think I stopped around the 99th. Although I always started out with a real person whose photo I cut out of a magazine or newspaper, the finished portrait never had the slightest resemblance to it. It was as if my hand was no longer in charge and the face in front of me had acquired a life of its own. This went on for several weeks at which point I exhausted both myself and my paper supply, ending up in bed with some kind of puzzling flu that required over a week to get over.

The process by which I produced this Rogue’s Gallery of faces was pretty weird in itself. I would cut interesting subjects from the local newspaper, or the New York Times and begin to sketch them on soft newsprint paper with a pencil or piece of charcoal. That was when the magic took place; the image on the paper would take over and I was no longer in control of what I was drawing. The face in front of me bore no resemblance to the photo I was looking at. Someone or something else was now in charge.

Day after day new faces appeared. My studio walls became obsessively covered with them. When I ran out of wall space, I brought down huge sheets of triple ply cardboard from the attic and covered them, front and back with faces. I finally exhausted both my paper supply and my well-being, ending up in bed for over a week with a strange flu. I’m lucky it was only my health and not my sanity.

I wish I could explain what happened, but I can’t. It was as if I had been consumed by pandemic loneliness and a need for “company” and my subconscious mind responded by creating its own crowd.

Thursday, September 8, 2022



I’ve never believed in miracles or magic or a God who cares whether I live or die. I wasn’t taught to believe at an early enough age to accept things that don’t make sense. There’s a rational explanation for everything and if I don’t know what it is, it’s only because I haven’t learned it yet. There is no one to answer my prayers, no matter how nicely I ask, and If things go wrong, I have only myself (or society) (or just plain bad luck) to blame. God had nothing to do with it. He/She/It couldn’t care less. I am not even a mote of dust in the eye of an unfathomable universe. The truth is, I matter to myself alone and to an ever-diminishing circle of family and friends. I’ve never depended on luck, played the lottery, bet on horses, or tried to convince myself that a serial philanderer would make a good husband (as one of my friends just recently did). I’ve always been realistic about my chances for success. I may not like “reality”, but unfortunately, it is what it is. I’m rarely disappointed because I was taught at an early age to only expect what was possible.

“There’s no pie in the sky when you die. It’s a lie!!” (Depression era song)

While I’m probably never going to be in a Whitney Biennial (my goal was to be the oldest artist they’ve ever shown), there are some things I might realistically expect: I can hope to keep getting better, producing artwork that doesn’t go straight into the dumpster after I’m gone. I’ve had a long, interesting life, a loving marriage, contributed to my community and raised three outstanding children and six dynamic grandchildren with my first great grandchild coming in a few weeks. I try to get to my studio every day; I’m not always happy with the results, but at least I try to produce something worth keeping after I’m gone - and not just to re-use the canvas.

The last few years of the pandemic have been difficult for everybody. We choke behind masks, avoid our usual haunts. I haven’t been to Curley’s Diner (my favorite hangout) for years! My main form of socializing is an infrequent trip to the city dump (aka the Katrina Mygatt Recycling Center). Don’t laugh! it’s the most interesting place in town!) I come home triumphant, with books to read, old records to listen to, and beautiful dishes to give my granddaughter for her new apartment in Brooklyn.) A free treasure hunt; the best kind.

Speaking of God (see first paragraph), I had an interesting encounter with Him a few nights ago, just as I was about to fall asleep. It turns out that He does look like the image of God in the Sistine Chapel Ceiling (who knew?) with a long white beard.  I was in a good mood; I’d had a very productive day, and despite my lack of any religious beliefs, I found myself saying “Thank you God” while I was falling asleep.  And, much to my surprise, God actually responded from up     above me somewhere - in the deep, sonorous voice one would expect Him to have. “You’re welcome,” he replied politely. Oh my God, God has good manners? I started to laugh, and God, catching on to the absurdity of our interchange, started to laugh along with me, a hearty belly-laugh that spun its way through the Universe.

I fell asleep, happy to know that God (whoever or whatever) and I had a similar sense of humor.

Monday, August 8, 2022

Post #188: Matisse and Me


Oil, Charcoal and Collage 60” x38”

I just finished a book by Picasso’s most accomplished and literate mistress, Francoise Gilot. Of course, Picasso sued her after it was finished. She writes, knowingly, about the “friendship” between Picasso and Matisse. I use quotes because both of them were vying for the title of “greatest artist of our time” and truthfully, couldn’t stand one another. I’ve never been much of a fan of Matisse, although this book has persuaded me to upgrade my opinion. Picasso, whether you like his work or not. was undoubtedly the greatest artist of the twentieth century Despite Gilot’s treatment of the two artists as equals, it’s pretty obvious that while Matisse was the graceful matador, Picasso was the thundering bull.

It was interesting to me to note that both men died at 92, the age I am now approaching. They were still producing great work. Matisse and I have grown closer as we age, both having tired of easel painting and looking for more inventive forms, mainly cut-paper figures on a monumental scale. Matisse, bedridden, had a staff of assistants who were able to do the bulk of the physical labor for him. He would take sheets of paper his helpers painted in colors of his choice, using a giant pair of scissors to create cavorting figures, often floating in space, while I, without studio help, have turned to using the overhead project to create monumental forms that I photograph for “posterity.” I add color from my stock of colored cellophane (another story) rescued from the all-purpose dumpster outside my former studio at Yale & Towne. By moving the projector back and forth, my cut-outs – mostly 4”- 6”, create images   as exciting as those by Matisse. (if I have to say so myself.)

Mural design by Renee Kahn 1976
Lower Summer Street, Stamford CT
Photo by J. Edward Greene 1989

Those of you who have known me a long time remember my first foray into public art, a project in 1976 for Stamford’s Bi-Centennial celebration, a giant, two-sided mural on a derelict wall on Lower Summer Street. I put a slide projector on the roof of a car in the parking lot, got scaffolding erected, volunteer painters with cans of brown paint, and projected images of historic Stamford on the wall. It lasted almost twenty years much to everyone’s amazement. And it was certainly more interesting than the multiplex movie house that currently occupies the site.