OLGA KITT
Early Career

The Armory Show of 1913 was part of the accumulated memories of the art world when Walter Pach, one of the great architects of that historic exhibition, lectured at The City College. By then he was in his seventies, paunchy but vigorous and determined to set his ideas before the public. I was his young assistant on a Fellowship granted by the Art Department. Pach’s lectures invariably included remarks about the necessity of seeing the original work of art. No books, photographs or even his lectures would be able to give one the profound understanding necessary to appreciate a great work of art. One had to see the original. Only the original, through its size, texture, color and presence, could convey its perfection. I wonder what he would have thought of today’s artist websites, where judgments of art are made from web images that developed from camera images reduced to screen sizes that are then further changed through enhancement processes.

Pach hated Jackson Pollack and non-objective art. I asked him, “If you hated non-objective art so much, why did you include Kandinsky in the Armory Show?”

“If I only knew!” he replied.

When I returned to New York City from Omaha, Nebraska and before I took the readership and fellowship at City College I briefly worked in a 57th Street gallery, then the hub of the New York art market. I asked Charlie Egan, one of the foremost art dealers at the time, who showed many of the first generation abstract-expressionists, for a job as a gallery assistant. He asked me if I was an artist. When I said I was, as Franz Kline sat watching, Charlie Egan replied that I would have to choose between being an artist and selling paintings. “You can’t do both.” I went across the street and took a job at the Georges Chapellier Gallery assisting in the sales of 18th and 19th century American art. But, I thought Egan was prophetic.

I have always been a painter. In those years at City College we were removed from the hot spots of the art world and yet many who were later to be recognized passed through its halls. Hans Richter, the film maker, set up a film school within the college and used the skills of Jack Rothenberg of the Art Department for movie titles. Jasper Johns started taking a drawing class. Phil Pearlstein spent a summer working as a Fellow in the Art Department. General Colin Powell was taking R.O.T.C.. I was raised to the position of Laboratory Teaching Assistant, as I continued to study at The Hofmann School of Fine Art. Hofmann generously gave me a scholarship.

I first studied with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Wolf Kahn said to me recently, “Wasn’t it a great time!” Allan Kaprow still struggling with his paintings was later to become known for developing “Happenings,” a performance art. Sam Feinstein was working on a film about Hans Hofmann. We were sober, serious artists, many were veterans and/or former students of the High School of Music & Art, academically inclined, far removed from the groups that hung out at the Cedar Bar. Hofmann had instilled in us not only a desire to “search for the real,” but also a need to grasp the luminous. “Push and pull” explained life as well as our part in the nature of fine art. Earning a living through sales of one’s paintings, although always desirable, was not as important as making a great work of art. We were all aware that Hofmann suffered damage to his reputation as an artist by being a great teacher.

Many of us went on to teach, too. The Art Departments in colleges across America were soon dotted with former Hofmann students. Later students would proudly announce that they were a student of a teacher who had studied under Hofmann.
Mid Career

“You have all the qualifications. I wish I had your talent. ...And, I will give you a teaching position when you grow a beard.” That was how The Evening Division Director in City College seriously answered my request for a position as a Lecturer or Instructor.

Never before had I been so faced with a limitation I knew I could not overcome.

At that time a full professor in the City University system received roughly a yearly salary of approximately $9,000, whereas a public school teacher with my experience might be able to earn $7,000 in the suburbs. The advantage of a college position was considerably fewer hours of work and a higher social status but a public education system would value my skills without questioning my rise from poverty, my sex, my appearance, my right to have children, my age or the number of exhibitions I could command within a certain limited time. I turned to the public school system. A few years later, on the eve of the feminist revolution, the City College Art Department would hire a woman for a studio teaching position.

During the years I worked in Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, an all boys school. I was treated with respect and, occasionally, admiration. Those students who elected to take my cartooning class produced six sold out editions of “Clinton Comics,” graphic books that were put in the collections of The New York Historical Society, The Bronx County Historical Society, The Schomburg Collection and El Museo del Barrio. They were the first comic books written, drawn, published and sold to children in local elementary schools by public school students. In some schools they were photocopied and resold. Many of my students were accomplished graffiti artists. I was told that Mayor Beame had given their books to his grandchildren.

At West Side High School, an alternative school, my student’s wall drawings were done in coordination with NY’s Museum Of Modern Art and Sol LeWitt for his show there of conceptual art. Our part was covered in the April 1979 issue of “School Arts” magazine. For years after the show closed Sol Lewitt would call and ask if our, his and our coordinated work, was still on the walls of our school. It was. Our students respected and cared for the wall drawings. (See article, “The Exhibiting Artist And The Public School Student” in the April 1979 issue of School Arts magazine).

Over the years, I used more strength than I really had. I developed illnesses that started with rheumatoid arthritis and included Type 1 diabetes, breast cancer, ulcerated colitis and C difficile. I am glad to still be alive.
Near the End, Almost,... and the Future

Unable to travel much because of physical disabilities, I concentrated my exhibitions in the Bronx. The College of Mount Saint Vincent, a few blocks from my apartment, presented large exhibitions of my work in 2001 (NYC Ballet, oils & pastels), and 2002-3 (Night & Day). Manhattan College in Riverdale (Oils & Sketches, 1980) and Riverdale Temple Corridor Gallery (Pastels, 2002) were nearby. The Starving Artist Gallery on City Island (Trees Of Wave Hill, 2005), Bronx Community College (GRAFFITI, past, present and future, 2006), The Riverdale-Yonkers Ethical Culture Society (Prints Etc., 2008), Kittay House (Meeting The Muses, 2014), Gallery 18, and Riverdale Y (Meeting The Muses, 2014) were extensive shows.

I showed my work at the Bronx Museum when it was located in the Depression Era Bronx County Courthouse in 1979. A 48”x36” oil painting of a violinist in the Mostly Mozart summer concert in Lincoln Center won the approval of a young British curator who placed it centrally in the Rotunda. This painting is now in a private collection in Israel.

In 2005 I exhibited pastels of the Bronx Arts Ensemble in the Bronx Borough President’s Gallery in the same courthouse building and won a woman’s recognition award, Certificate of Merit, during Woman’s History Month. As opportunities arose I placed works in a number of Bronx group shows including the Longwood Gallery’s 25th Anniversary show (2007), Riverdale Art Association shows in the Atria and the College of Mt. St. Vincent (2001-2014), The Zealous Gallery in Riverdale (2008) and The Blue Door in Yonkers (2010).

Fortunately, there were people in the Bronx Council of the Arts and the Joan Mitchell Foundation who came to know my work (probably from my BRIO award applications) and found it suitable for archiving in the CALL (Creating A Living Legacy) project. This was a wonderful opportunity to organize my work, my records and my future plans. Their detailed examination of my work, my studio, my home and my life led to considerable self-examination and reevaluation, which continues today.

I would have sought shows more frequently and more widely, globally had my health permitted.

So much of my work, having been done on site, rarely needed a studio, but I rented a studio, sometimes small sometimes very large, in Yonkers where i still work. Cezanne, who was also a diabetic, found the hills and fields of southern France an ideal studio. An artist who runs a workshop, like Jeff Koons, needs warehouse size space. I work alone and need more storage space than work space, even though my work is considered large by some standards. However, because of a need for fellowship with other global artists and a large place where I could both live and work I was granted residencies from 2009 to 2014 at the Vytlacil Campus of the Art Student’s League. Some of my best works were done there and one of my large acrylic on Tyvek works (Mother & Child) is in their permanent collection. Vaclav Vytlacil was a teacher at The League as well as a friend and student of Hans Hofmann. The League carries the memories of so many great American painters who have studied and worked in its studios as well as countless artists who just wanted to learn more. There is nothing like the creative excitement it generates.

I was born in 1929 and witnessed the transformation of American art from one that Europeans dismissed as provincial to one that is imitated. I watched as European artists arriving in America during World War II enthralled the American market while American artists fought for recognition. Hofmann was among those who found recognition here and young American artists owe them all a debt. I owe Hofmann a special debt for the scholarship he gave me. By competing with the best 20th century artists, we found our own voice. Picasso sought renewal in traditional African art but American art reached its mature stage in the 1950‘s. It is still developing and New York City is its volatile center. Although we have drawn upon our émigré and immigrant sources, our native and slave sources, our technological and commercial sources, we have not fully developed our own cultural roots. I believe we will still be astonished by what will yet come out of our art world. We now have a global reach, but we may find our treasures in our own back yard.