Monday, August 8, 2022

Post #188: Matisse and Me

 

 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.)

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.

Monday, July 4, 2022

Post # 187: Creating Company…

My late husband, a Clinical Child Psychologist, rarely “analyzed” my art. He felt it was an unwarranted invasion of my privacy, only occasionally coming into the studio while I was at work. Most of my early work was figurative, as if I were trying to create company for myself. In fact, he would often mumble “Only an only child would do this!” I secretly envied friends who came from large families, had lots of siblings, not realizing that being one of many had its own drawbacks. However, after birthing and raising three lively children, I had enough “company” for a while and was ready to move on, creating art that was mostly a mix of architecture and surrealist dream states.

This past year, probably because of the loneliness caused by the pandemic, I began to create “company” for myself again, a crowd. The walls of my studio are currently filled with faces: young, old, black, white. Beautiful and not so beautiful. You could fill a subway car with my characters. Sometimes they are inspired by a photo in the newspaper; most of the time they come unbidden from the giant file cabinet in my head. Being alone so much of the time has set off my urge to be with people, people to talk to, to hang out with, keep me company. I’ve got a wall full of faces staring at me now, and I know them all.

 

One of the great joys in my life is my “house band,” country music players who rehearse in a rustic (Appalachia style) shed on my property, replete with wood-burning stove. This week, however, they asked if they could use my big painting studio; it has a two-story ceiling and the acoustics are amazing. They said they wanted to record some demo discs and this was the perfect place. It just so happened that I’ve been working on a wall-full of “portraits,” a built-in, imaginary audience that seemed to enjoy every minute of their performance.  I keep adding to the crowd and there seems to be no end in sight. 

In a few months, when - and if - the pandemic subsides – I’m hoping to hold some outdoor events on my property. You’re all invited and I will let you know when, or if, anything happens. Bring a chair, a bottle of “something…” and enjoy coming back to life. The “Webb’s Hill Center for Music & Art”, featuring the “Webb’s Hill Mountain Boys” (or whatever they call themselves) will, hopefully, be open to the public. 


P.S. my new website is www.reneekahn.com


Monday, January 24, 2022

Post #186 Ode to a Paper Plate


 One reason I was such a good art history teacher was that I taught the subject from the viewpoint of a working artist, like myself. I could turn out a credible Renaissance “Madonna” on the blackboard in the blink of an eye.

But here’s the meat of my blog: My favorite period in art history has always been Ancient Greek ceramics, preferably from the 5th and 6th century B.C. I connect it to my childhood love of drawing on paper plates. In fact, I got my “start” as an artist in kindergarten by creating a much-admired paper plate. I don’t remember what it looked like; all I remember is that my teacher held it up to visiting parents as an example of the quality art produced in her class. It sealed my fate. My mother was besides herself. And when, as an adult, I made the connection to Ancient Greek pottery, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to create plates all my own. Off I went to the local Party Shoppe at the Mall, bringing home stacks of paper plates, all kinds: shiny black ones, cheap white ones. 100 to a pack. I was in creative pig heaven. During the many years I worked for the City of Stamford as an architectural “consultant,” I survived endless boring meetings by drawing on my lap under the table on the paper plates that were brought in to hold inedible snacks.  My unwitting models, the people who sat at the meetings with me, never knew they had been captured for posterity on a penny’s worth of cardboard.


Over the past dozen or more years, I have carried the Art of the Paper Plate to a higher level, this time Inspired by the ancient Greeks, not boredom. I bought a package of black construction paper and, with a pair of incredible pre-war German scissors I found at a tag sale (they read my mind), I proceeded to create my own Classical art. From my subconscious, no drawing required, the cheapest material imaginable, I began to cut out a cast of characters: silhouette figures based on my love of Greek ceramics. There was never a story, just whatever the scissors came up with. I have stacks of images. I could literally paper entire walls with them (and one day may do just that).

The moral of the story is, you don’t need expensive materials to create a work of art: just your imagination and the willingness to let your subconscious lead the way.  I’m already on to my next step, life size “murals” using the overhead projector. I project my small cutouts to whatever size I want, from inches to feet. These are ‘ephemeral’ but can always be captured with my IPhone or cut out of sheets of brown wrapping paper. I can’t wait to see what happens next. Many years ago, I picked up some colored cellophane from an industrial dumpster and now I can add color to my images. Wait until you see them!

By the way, check out an old blog of mine, Post #  1  called “Arte Povera,” (literally “Poor Art, ”a movement that began in Italy after World War II that emphasized using “humble, non-traditional materials like concrete” (or paper plates).

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!