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Last updated Oct. 12, 2018, 1:35 p.m.

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Ninth Street Women

Dear Artist,

“To be put in any category not defined by one’s work is to be falsified,” said Elaine de Kooning, responding in 1971 to being characterized as a “woman artist.” She was pushing back against a new field of art history which was burgeoning on the sidelines of the contemporary art world called, “feminist art theory.” She wanted to be judged not by gender but solely on her ideas and skill.


oil painting
by Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)

Twenty years earlier, Elaine de Kooning had debuted with 71 other artists at the Ninth Street Gallery in New York. The show featured eleven women and sixty-one men, including Elaine’s husband, Willem de Kooning, plus Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock, the husband of another exhibitor, Lee Krasner. The month-long show launched a new wave of up-until-then virtual unknowns — loft squatters soon to become the Modern Masters of American Abstract Expressionism. Well, the men were soon recognized, at least. The women lumped along on a circuitous path as the at-times painter-wives of stratospheric art stars, with another ten, twenty, forty or sixty-plus years to go before establishing their own places in art history.


“Sunday Afternoon” 1957
oil painting
by Elaine de Kooning

At the time of the show in 1951, Lee Krasner was 43. She’d studied classically at Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design and had worked as a muralist for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project after being singled out as a star pupil of Hans Hofmann, who’d praised her work as good enough to pass for a man’s. She was living in Springs, Long Island with her husband, who’d recently been featured on the cover of Life, dripping aluminum paint and cigarette butts under the text, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”

By comparison, Hoffman’s other student, 23-year-old Helen Frankenthaler had only just graduated from Bennington College when she was accepted into the Ninth Street Gallery show. The following year, her painting, “Mountains and Sea,” would blow up the fiefdoms of colourfield and abstraction and pioneer her own personal and technical voice. She would marry Motherwell six years later. “What makes certain paintings successful or not,” she said, “has to do with my being a painter and a thinking, feeling person, more than my sex, color, height, origin.”


“Untitled” 1961
oil on canvas
by Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)



PS: “Let the picture lead you where it must go.” (Helen Frankenthaler)

Esoterica: I remember receiving a rejection letter from an art gallery that focused solely on dismantling gender bias and the devaluation of women in the arts. When the letter stated specifically that my work did not meet the standards to elevate the status of women in the art world, I wondered how any woman artist could not, in some way, be advancing the status of women in the art world. In terms of representation in commercial galleries, women hover around the 30% mark, with women continuing to make up only 3-5% of museum permanent collections in the U.S and Europe. Of all the ways my work might not be up to snuff, not contributing to the elevation of the status of women in the arts was considered my failing? After a moment of rage, I let the letter slip down casually behind the radiator and went back to work.

Mary Gabriel’s new chronicle, “Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art,” is available here.


Sara Genn: New Paintings runs until November 2, 2018 at Voltz Clarke Gallery, 141 East 62nd Street, New York City. If you’re in the neighbourhood, we would love to see you there.

“A work of art is the trace of a magnificent struggle. All time is comprehended.” (Grace Hartigan)

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Golden Day

Dear Artist,

Called “The Order of the Golden Day,” here’s a bit of fun that can change your life:


“In Rittenhouse Square, Nurse Maids” c.1910
oil painting
by Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones (1885-1968)

You set aside a clear and uncluttered day to work and love your craft. Start early; end late. You put your head down and push yourself from one thing to another. It’s a day where everything comes out of the end of the brush (or pen, or chisel), a luxury day where all that counts is the universe of your creation. After, on your weary way to bed, you can give yourself a badge.

This day has rules: No TV, no email, no phone, no car, no visitors. Add your own personal controls, lack of controls, or whims. Prepare a polite statement for the telephone: (“I’m sorry but there’s a conflagration at my easel — do you mind if we talk tomorrow?”) Even the mayor understands and respects this.


“The Shoe Shop” 1911
oil painting
by Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones

I had my first ten-thousand-dollar-day using this system, but that was a side benefit. The real value is the action on the creativity graph. Creativity is an organ that improves with use and when fully engaged is difficult to wear out or to get stopped. You put your heart into the adventure and try to keep making new demands on yourself. Second-winds and surprising breakthroughs will come as the clock rolls around. Ideas beget ideas. The hand moves faster. Imagination goes off the dial. In a dawn to dusk marathon these hours can be almost disorienting — they are certainly more exciting than any cabaret or racecourse. Before long you’re pushing into bonus territory and you may startle yourself. It won’t kill you. It’ll hook you. You will know that it can be done again and again. It’s a beautiful high, like love itself.


“Shop Girls” 1912
oil painting
by Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones


Best regards,


PS: “Travelers on the way of dreams receive gladly the badges that they award themselves.” (The Dreamway)

Esoterica: …take a photo of yourself wearing “The Order of the Golden Day” — a badge you have made and given yourself… show your work and a bit of your workspace… “Yes, anywhere, anytime.” (The Dreamway)

This letter was originally published as “Golden Day” on April 24, 2001.


Sara Genn: New Paintings runs until November 2, 2018 at Voltz Clarke Gallery, 141 East 62nd Street, New York City. If you’re in the neighbourhood, we would love to see you there.

“Eternity is in love with the creations of time.” (William Blake)

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Dear Artist,

Quincy Jones says that when it comes to making good music, God walks out of the room when you’re thinking about money. By “God,” Quincy doesn’t mean organized religion — he doesn’t believe in an afterlife and disparages the peddling of “smoke and fear.” Instead, he believes an ineffable magic occurs when the heart is present. “Another word for it,” he says, “is love.” Quincy says you’ve got to be prepared. “Make your mistakes now and make them quickly. If you’ve made the mistakes, you know what to expect the next time. That’s how you become valuable.”

TV - Merv Griffin Show, Ray Charles, piano, Quincy Jones - early 1970s

Ray Charles and Quincy Jones
preparing for an appearance on a Merv Griffin television special, c.1970

“I’ve been driven all my life by a spirit of adventure and a criminal level of optimism,” says Quincy. “I believed in my dreams because they were my only option.” Born on the South side of Chicago in 1933, Quincy, at age seven, and his younger brother, Lloyd, watched their mother being hauled away in a straightjacket to the Manteno State Mental Hospital. They dodged switchblade and gun-toting gangsters in the streets until their father, a carpenter, sent the brothers to live with their grandmother in a shotgun shack in Louisville, Kentucky. There, they survived on rats they would catch in the river and bring home for their grandmother to cook with greens. After remarrying, Quincy Delight Jones, Sr. moved his new, blended family to the Pacific Northwest, where he would work for the war effort at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. In 1947, at age 14, Quincy Jr. learned the trumpet and joined the National Reserve Band.


Quincy Jones and Aretha Franklin
in the recording studio c.1973

Quincy befriended 16-year-old Ray Charles after seeing him play at the Black Elks Club. After earning a scholarship to Seattle University and then Berklee College of Music, in Boston, Quincy went on a European tour as a trumpet player with Lionel Hampton. Soon, he was arranging music for Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Gene Krupa, Billy Eckstine and his best friend, Ray. He got a job writing and arranging for Mercury Records in New York, then moved to Los Angeles to break into scoring for the movies. He fought racial stereotypes in Hollywood and set out to decompartmentalize musical styles and genres. Later, he would arrange and produce for Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Horn, Peggy Lee and Lesley Gore. He produced the music for The Wiz, a film starring 20-year-old Michael Jackson, and then arranged and produced Michael’s breakout solo album, Off The Wall. The highest-selling record of all time, Thriller, came next, then its follow-up, Bad. “The people who make it to the top are addicted to their calling,” says Quincy. “You have to honor the gift God has given you. The people who get the call are the ones who’d be doing whatever it is they love, even if they weren’t being paid.”


Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson
Los Angeles, 1982



PS: “Music was the one thing I could control. It was the one world that offered me freedom. When I played music, my nightmares ended. My family problems disappeared. I didn’t have to search for answers. The answers lay no further than the bell of my trumpet and my scrawled, penciled scores. Music made me full, strong, popular, self-reliant and cool.” (Quincy Jones)

“What happens when you get a big break and you haven’t prepared yourself? That becomes the biggest mistake you’ve ever made.” (Quincy Jones)


Quincy Jones, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, c.1965

Esoterica: When he was 14, Quincy was the only survivor of a car accident in Washington State. He lost four friends. Of this and the traumas of his childhood, Quincy says they’re things you never forget. “My stepmother was like in the movie Precious. I couldn’t handle it. So I said to myself, ‘I don’t have a mother. I don’t need one. I’m going to let music be my mother.” Quincy taught himself to play the piano, then percussion, the tuba, b-flat baritone, French horn, trombone and trumpet. “I started imagining this whole different world. It was a society of musicians, a family I hoped I could belong to one day.” While in Paris studying arranging for strings with Nadia Boulanger, the first woman to conduct London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, to lead the New York Philharmonic, and the mentor of Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copeland and Thea Musgrave, she gave Quincy a piece of advice he’s carried ever since: “A person’s music can never be more or less than they are as a human being.”

The tender 2018 documentary Quincy, directed by Alan Hicks and Jones’ daughter Rashida, is available for streaming on Netflix.

Quincy Jones c.1970 photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Sara Genn: New Paintings runs until November 2, 2018 at Voltz Clarke Gallery, 141 East 62nd Street, New York City. If you’re in the neighbourhood, we would love to see you there.

“You cannot get an A if you’re afraid of getting an F.” (Quincy Jones)

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Art and stress

Dear Artist,

There’s no doubt about it, stress in the life of an artist can contribute to the diminishment of the art. Not only the amount created, but the quality as well. Simply put, daily stresses block the clear flow that exemplifies the artist’s life. Apart from that, stress over a period of time can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, and a host of other disorders that greatly interferes with the quality and duration of life itself.


“Figure on a Porch” 1959
oil on canvas, 57 x 62 inches
by Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993)

That’s not to say that some stress isn’t valuable. Here’s something that may surprise you: Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine have found that when baby monkeys are subjected to a lot of stress, they become less clingy and more adventuresome as adults. The doctors surmise that this goes for all primates. The thinking is that stressed young may be better able to put their fingers on the early sources of stress and thus learn skills to reduce stresses in later life.

When an artist has stress — either from interpersonal problems, creative frustration, or other studio nags such as bank balance or dealer pressure — a self-education with the highly regarded Stress Inoculation Training (SIT) might just be useful. The idea with SIT is to focus on specific stress triggers — one at a time.


“Interior with Doorway” 1962
oil on canvas, 70 5/16 x 59 1/2 inches
by Richard Diebenkorn

Identifying (and more or less understanding) the source of the stress leads to a careful examination of the evidence in each particular stress zone. Very often we find we are generalizing, magnifying or making cognitive errors in our judgments of situations. Whether the trigger is genuine or exaggerated, the stressed artist needs to play the role of the calm, objective observer — “The Perry Mason Role” — even when “calm” is farthest from the mind. This role-playing is vital — it’s my experience that artists can be particularly good at the game. By reframing the source, a chronic stress is reduced to a recurring annoyance. The script has been rewritten.

Other stress-reducing ploys are well documented. Watering plants, tending goldfish, reading, meditation, yoga, exercise, journaling (no whining), music, lavender and herbal tea may tame the beast, but they do not neutralize the source in the way that SIT seems to do. Unfortunately, creative people in particular are moving targets. For example, as most of us know, sitting at an easel may salve stress one time — at other times it may stress us out even more.


“Seawall” 1957
oil painting
by Richard Diebenkorn

Best regards,


PS: “You build up resistance to stress by learning, acquiring and practicing skills needed to go forward and cope.” (Dr. Donald Meichenbaum, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada)

Esoterica: When all else fails there is always work. Someday I’m going to write a book called “The Easel as Avoidance Activity.” After a period of time a committed artist can come to the conclusion that the easel solves everything. While keeping the stress-bearing wolves at bay, it is its own panacea and its own dominion. As Louise Nevelson said, “At my easel I’m as happy as a cow in her stall.” There’s definitely something about the easel and the stuff that goes around it. Outside the studio, the moles making a “World-War-One-Landscape” out of our lawns have been reduced to a “natural phenomenon.”

This letter was originally published as “Art and stress” on September 29, 2006.


Sara Genn: New Paintings runs until November 2, 2018 at Voltz Clarke Gallery, 141 East 62nd Street, New York City. If you’re in the neighbourhood, we would love to see you there.

“My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful, the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles.” (Richard Diebenkorn)

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Ideal conditions

Dear Artist,

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work,” wrote E.B. White, “will die without putting a word on paper.” Instead of looking to the future for better working conditions, we can begin now, understanding that the idea is merely a draft, and a draft is merely an idea.


“Charlotte’s Web”
book by E.B. White
drawing by Garth Williams

Elwyn Brooks White was born in 1899 in Mount Vernon, New York, and grew up with a love for books and animals. At Cornell, he edited the university newspaper while completing a Bachelor of Arts degree and after graduation worked as a reporter and advertising copywriter. When the The New Yorker was founded in 1925, White submitted manuscripts, and the new literary editor, Katharine Angell, recommended he be hired as a staff writer. After months of trying to convince White to come in for a meeting and work on the premises, they finally agreed he would come in on Thursdays. Four years later, he and Katharine were married.


E.B. White writing in his boat shed, Allen Cove, 1976

E.B. White would contribute essays, wit and humour pieces to The New Yorker for almost six decades, including feature dispatches on literary style. He also wrote a column for Harper’s Magazine and, in 1959, edited and updated The Elements of Style. First written and published in 1918 by White’s professor at Cornell, William Strunk Jr., it remains the gold standard guide for grammatical and stylistic writing in American English.

In 1933, White (or Andy, as he was called) and Katharine bought an 18th Century farmhouse on 44 acres along State Route 175 in Brooklin, Maine. Perched at the edge of Allen Cove, a small inlet on Blue Hill Bay, they summered there with their sons, Joel, who would grow up to be a boat builder, and Katharine’s son from her first marriage, Roger, who would become the fiction editor for The New Yorker. In 1937, the Whites made additions to the house, adding chimneys so they could live there year-round. With views of Acadia National Park in the distance, Katharine tended to the gardens and a pond and continued her editing work in the sunlit rooms facing the bay. Andy set up an office in the north-facing part of the house and made the boathouse into a writing shed, setting up his Underwood at a table and bench with a barrel nearby for paper waste. The house’s massive barn with rope swing, milking stool and hayloft served as the inspiration for E.B. Whites’s 1953 children’s novel, Charlotte’s Web. When suggestions were made that he give the house a name, Andy argued that it would be pretentious, wanting only for his home to be lived in and worked in and enjoyed as a family place. If he absolutely had to, he said, he’d have called it, “Two Big Chimneys and a Little One.” E.B. White died in 1985 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease in his house at the age of 86. He’s buried beside Katharine in Brooklin Cemetery.


“Charlotte’s Web”
book by E.B. White
drawing by Garth Williams



PS: “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” (E.B. White)

Esoterica: Humourist John Hodgman ruminates on the unique features of being a writer in rural Maine in his 2017 memoir Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches. After a few years of summering there with his young family, John learned from the locals that his almost daily drive passed right by the secret location of the historic farm of his wife’s favourite author. In a rush of artistic and New Englander duty to protect the posthumous privacy of the writer and the location of his sanctuary, John set out to describe a place to his readers using only creative details and meaning, encouraging us to sleuth out the facts. As it turns out, in 2018, the farm at Allen Cove has for the second time since the death of E.B. White, come up for private sale, only because the current owners are elderly and wish to pass it on to new, loving occupants who might continue to carry out the wishes of the Whites and keep it as a family home. “Money cannot buy happiness,” writes John in Vacationland, “but it buys the conditions for happiness: time, occasional freedom from constant worry, a moment of breath to plan for the future, and the ability to be generous.”

Sara Genn: New Paintings runs until November 2, 2018 at Voltz Clarke Gallery, 141 East 62nd Street, New York City. If you’re in the neighbourhood, we would love to see you there.


“…not everything in life is unpleasant, but most of it is, and certainly all the things that lead to real and lasting pleasure are.” (John Hodgman, from Vacationland, True Stories from Painful Beaches)



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