Olga Kitt is an artist of extraordinary talent, depth and knowledge. As of this writing, she's approaching 82 years of age and has seen many trends and incarnations in the art world. My friend, artist Matthew Beall did an Art Students League of New York residency with her and urged me to seek out an interview. I'm glad he did. I love Olga's work http://www.artdoxa.com/olgakitt and her undeniable knowledge and fortitude.
MICHAEL: Hi Olga, I love your work which seems to be all over the map. You do mixed media, serious abstracts and fun, whimsical, figurative works. It's so clear to me that you really create for yourself. Am I right?
OLGA: Oh no. Though my work may appear light-hearted, I'm serious. A minister once said that if there were no congregants in the church, he would not have a service. If nobody saw my work, I would not paint. Art is more than entertainment, though it can be entertaining. Art can be decorative, so are curtains, but I wouldn't want to make curtains. Nevertheless, I think a great work of art could be painted on curtains or cave walls (Didn't women paint on cave walls?). However, a decorative work may not be a work of art. I want to create fine works of art that have meaning, whether abstract or concrete. My work speaks not just for me, but as I am a product of my culture and my time, it has something to say. Hopefully, there are people who will want to understand my work, if not today ... then at some future time. Sometimes I do work based on a particular museum painting. I wonder what Rembrandt or Picasso would think of my response to their work. I wonder how some as yet unborn artist might respond to my work. I wonder what Velasquez would have said to Picasso had he seen Picasso's works based on his paintings.
MICHAEL: Very interesting. It seems that many artists spend a lot of time wondering how people will view their work. That means everyone ... from art dealers to critics to the general public. It must be exhausting.
OLGA: Today, to be seen, exhibited and examined, a work of art must jump the hurdles of the art market. That means that an artist must be accepted by an art dealer who is willing to invest his time, reputation and money for the potential rewards of selling an artist's work. Selling the work of an unknown artist requires a lot of work. Selling the work of an artist who has had significant shows, a monograph, works in museum collections and a waiting list of collectors who are competing to buy his next work, sight unseen, is best. Since art schools, college art departments and art supply stores keep growing, the number of artists seeking gallery representation keeps growing. Many art dealers, swamped by these artists, simply refuse to review work that has not been recommended by a collector, curator, museum trustee or Yale Art School authority. Aside from these obstacles, the artist is expected to maintain a "signature style." That means that the artist's work should be easily recognized by his style. A signature should be unnecessary. What happens when an artist wants to grow? What happens when an artist wants to use a better, different way to express new images?
MICHAEL: That's what I meant when I said you're creating for yourself. You're following your own bliss by refusing to have a "signature style," although I must say I do see common threads in your work.
OLGA: One day, Hans Hofmann destroyed a beautiful painting that someone said "looked like" a Hofmann. When asked why he destroyed it, he answered that he did not want to do a work that "looked like" a Hofmann. He was a grand old man, a titan. Each new day should be an adventure. The artist should be left free to explore and comment in a personal way through whatever means. Each work is individual and should be bought and sold on its own merits, not a signature style.
MICHAEL: When did you actually start painting? Are you a born artist or did you develop into one?
OLGA: When I was thirteen, my brother, who was a bit more than three years older than me, took me to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I was astounded by the work there. In particular there was a painting by Kandinsky, about 20 by 30 inches, in lavender and other soft colors that I thought was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. A few months later, I took the qualifying examination for the High School of Music and Art. For part of the test we were asked to draw a rather simple still life in crayons on white paper. There was a tall bottle, a white bowl and some other objects on a tablecloth set before us. I didn't use the actual colors of the objects. Instead, I used the color harmonies I had seen in the Kandinsky. Years later, I was told I had won first place among the entrants. I loved studying at Music & Art. Each lesson was a revelation. I had no idea so many different things went into the creation of a work of art. Just using charcoal for the first time was a thrill. When I entered my senior year, our oil painting instructor, Mr. Bloomstein, said that we would learn the hardest lesson of all. Each art work that we did had to be more than a good composition and a well made image. The most important thing about a work of art was what it said!
MICHAEL: As a collector, I can certainly relate to that.
OLGA: It could not be a work of fine art unless it said something. At seventeen, I didn't know what my paintings were saying. Never had I deliberately tried to say anything. What should I say? I decided to do a profile portrait of my mother. With lyric lines, in various shades of Prussian blue and lead white, I deliberately brought out the refinement of her presence, the physical being and the nurturing quality of motherhood. It was my first real painting.
MICHAEL: That's a great story. Given the fact that your body of work is so diverse, how would you describe it? Do you like classifying it by genre?
OLGA: I never considered my entire oeuvre by name, perhaps because I see it as unfinished. At different times, I worked in different styles. The work evolved. My first mature style was abstract expressionism which satisfied my needs from the time I studied with Hans Hofmann until the 1960s. From the late sixties to the early seventies, I played around with ideas presented in a loose realist mode. By the late seventies, I became interested in developing my skills as an artist. I wanted to draw the moving figure as it moved and expressed ideas and aesthetic values of its own in dance. I wanted to express the ideas of the dancer, the choreographer and my evaluation of their art, during an actual performance. I wanted to do something that would be very difficult to accomplish. In the late nineteen-nineties until 2003 I did these dancers in pastels and later in oil paint on very large (roughly 82 by 120 inches) double primed linen canvas. When I stopped working on the heavy canvas and turned to light-weight unprimed Tyvek, I stopped working with dancers, with one exception. And I worked in acrylics and markers. Throughout my life, I have produced landscapes while working on other things, but in 2003, I did four large (60 by roughly 100 inches) acrylic paintings of a copper beech tree. Thereafter, I preferred to work large. My style had changed again. Swift, bold, certain, with meanings that could be grasped in a glance, joyful and fugitive, my paintings are meant to celebrate life. However, a more pessimistic, destructive aspect has creeped into my work recently. It's hard to define my styles. I find it easier to refer to them by the year or decade they appeared. Perhaps you could give the whole of it a name.
MICHAEL: How about if I just call your work fantastic? What was it like studying with Hans Hofmann? And how do you think the art world has changed since your days as a student?
OLGA: I was a Hofmann student in 1954 and 1955. It was a very different art scene. Fewer colleges had art departments. Fewer artists were in New York City. Fewer people expected to make a living in the art field. Art galleries were located primarily on 57th Street off Fifth Avenue, many with street level entrances. Often the artist would sit in the gallery where his work was shown and if things were slow, he would introduce himself to anyone who entered the gallery, even an obvious student. Dealers worked very hard for sales and prices were low. I remember walking past a gallery that was exhibiting George Rouault's "Misere et Guere" prints. The dealer was on the sidewalk in front of the window, hawking the work. "These important aquatints are only $59.00 each," he said. I wished I had $59.00. In 1952, I took a job with the Chappellier Galleries, which specialized in 18th and 19th century American art. Mainly, I typed invitations to shows, greeted gallery guests, wired and hung paintings for new shows that usually changed every two weeks. On rare occasions, I would notice that a painting for sale resembled one I had seen in a book of illustrations of the work in some small museum in America. It was immediately removed from sale. Fakes, sometimes very good ones, were not uncommon in those days. Sometimes an important collector would drive up in a chauffeured black car that was left in front of the gallery. I was expected to invite him to sit in a comfortable red velvet chair in the back room, serve him wine that Mr Chappellier selected, and engage him in some pleasant conversation before Mr. Chappellier placed a special work on the black velvet draped easel before him. At that point, I would quietly leave and the sale would be made. Nowadays, collectors are put on waiting lists and compete for attention. No longer can you buy a Frederic Church landscape for $600.
MICHAEL: I wish! What about Hofmann? What was that whole environment like?
OLGA: In the 1950s, the Art Student's League anchored our art world at the western end of 57th Street. Nearby were galleries that carried regional American art and work that was similar to paintings and sculptures that were exhibited in the 8th Street Whitney Museum of American Art. (Alfred) Stieglitz had his gallery nearby. Closer to Fifth Avenue were galleries that sold School of Paris painters, Matisse, Picasso, Leger. From the windows of the Chappellier Gallery, I could see the windows of the Grace Borgnicht Gallery where so many of the abstract expressionists showed their work. We watched streams of excited art students and visitors pass through their doors. With envy, Mr. Chappelier's daughter and I would wonder about their sales. We joked about the undiscovered artist who covered a slice of bread with varnish and slapped it on a canvas. Was such work taken seriously? It was years before I learned that they were selling fewer paintings than we were. Ultimately though, their Pollacks would sell at much higher prices than our highest priced works. For years, people argued about the validity of abstract expressionism. Cubism, Purism, the works of Mondrian, Matisse and Picasso were admired as was Dali. The European intellectuals who arrived during the war stayed on and elevated American taste. Meyer Schapiro lectured to overflowing audiences at The New School. But the general public, from Nebraska to New York, called anything that was not totally representational, "screwball art." Journalists and critics amused themselves with jokes about American abstract expressionist paintings being done by chimpanzees.
MICHAEL: Yikes! That must have offended many artists, to say the least.
OLGA: The often crude behavior of our hard drinking artists didn't help. Art students and college professors took sides in heated arguments. Young people and returning veterans flocked to art schools. It was in this atmosphere that Hans Hofmann's School of Art thrived, both in New York City and in Provincetown, Massachusetts. While he had few students in the thirties, by the fifties they were hanging from the rafters. To them, he looked like an ancient Greek god, in total command of his environment. He held court in the studio. Young and old clustered around him, straining to hear and understand the meaning of whatever he said. His phrases regarding the importance of a millimeter of space or of push and pull were repeated in student apocryphal tales, as when driving he was pulled over by a policeman and explained that he couldn't have been driving more than a millimeter over the speed limit. Not only did his students admire him, but many continued to be a part of his entourage after they stopped going to his classes. Sam Feinstein, artist, filmmaker and critic at Art Digest magazine kept a studio in Provincetown. Not only did Sam edit Hofmann's papers, but he also made a film about the master where Hofmann explains his theories. Wolf Kahn was usually nearby, as was his friend, Allan Kaprow, who became famous for his Happenings. Students often copied down Hofmann's remarks in their sketchbooks or notebooks. Myron Stout, who lived year round in Provincetown, later had his quotes of Hofmann published in a book edited by Dickey, one of Stout's former students. These were only a few of the talented young artists who recognized Hofmann's importance to their generation. Even I later wrote a small as yet unpublished volume about Hofmann's lessons.
MICHAEL: I know it's nostalgic, but that sounds like such a magical time especially for art students.
OLGA: After serious work in the studio, students socialized. Dinner parties, evenings on the beach, gallery openings were part of the Provincetown scene. At that time, Jan Muller was very ill and needed help to pay his medical bills. A big beach party was held at Race Point. Everybody chipped in. The money was collected in a small brown paper bag that unfortunately was stolen sometime during the evening's festivities. Hofmann would sometimes invite us into his home. Over food and wine, we exchanged stories, told jokes and generally enjoyed the evening. He had a wonderful laugh that made you think of Santa Claus. His house was colorful, thanks to his wife. She had been an artist and used her keen sense of color to create a rich environment. Old furniture was painted in primary colors and was strategically placed near a bright red blanket or couch. The furniture against Hofmann's colorful paintings created an effect much like an installation. It was warm and so comfortable we were reluctant to leave.
MICHAEL: Finally Olga, What do you want your legacy in the art world to be? If your work could speak for you, what would it say?
OLGA: Some years ago a particular earthquake struck the area of Italy where Giotto had worked. The town of Assisi and the church where Giotto painted his humanistic reflections of St. Francis stories were severely damaged. The art world feared the loss of these masterpieces. Many hurried to the town to see if they could help preserve what was left. One day, as a group made their way to the church, a woman came to her window and shouted at them, "Why do you care so much for the paintings and ignore the suffering of the people all around you?" No answer was recorded. People need paintings to remind them of themselves, where they came from and what they could be. Paintings need people to preserve them, but unless they are valued they will end up in the landfills of history. Old artists, if their work is not already protected in museums or permanent collections, worry about what will come of their oeuvre. Foundations can be set up if the work has sufficient monetary value, but that's not an option for most artists. Usually there's too much work for families to maintain. So whatever wisdom the artist wanted to convey, whatever memories he/she wanted to preserve, whatever legacy there is, becomes subject to chance. That's the risk most artists face. Unlike some women artists, I never decided to devote myself to my art. I always put people first and tried to earn a living as best I could. I needed to paint but I loved teaching too and valued my young students. I hope that someday a way will be found to preserve the art work of old and young artists, men, women and children of all economic conditions, ethnic origins and addresses, famous or obscure. Each is saying something of value that some future person will want to know. They will need to know the past. Trust me. Michael, it has been a pleasure knowing you. Your honesty and integrity are admired. Your work is more valuable than you now know. I wish you good fortune.
MICHAEL: Thank you Olga. This was a pleasure, an education and a privilege. Many blessings to you.
To find out more about Olga Kitt, check out her portfolio on artdoxa ... http://www.artdoxa.com/olgakitt