Her Own Way: The Life & Work of Taťana KellnerJuly 18, 2016
Through the side door and up the stairs of the barn on Binnewater Road is Taťana Kellner’s spacious, pitch-roofed and many-windowed studio, filled with an artistic practice spanning over 40 years. She apologizes for the mess: she’s screenprinting for Poisoned Well on one table; figuring out a new digital process for an upcoming class on another; playing with materials in abstract mixed media collages pinned up on a wall. All this work is “like exercise, like trying out recipes.” (Táňa is an excellent cook.) “If you don’t do your regular stuff, it’s like not brushing your teeth,” she adds. “You have to go to the studio and just do something. If I don’t do this, I get antsy.”
Tenacious and pragmatic, Táňa speaks quickly and works intuitively. In her career, she’s had over thirty solo gallery and museum exhibitions and has been an artist-in-residence in twenty-five residency programs. Now she’s at a crossroads, divining her next step. She’s wondering where these collages are headed. But more pressing: after 42 years as Women’s Studio Workshop’s Artistic Director—overseeing a residency program that has supported over 600 women artists and produced over 200 handmade artists’ books—Táňa is retiring.
As an artist, Táňa has displayed great willingness to follow her voice even as it takes forms that are hard to classify under any single rubric. Easily bored, she is a post-medium shapeshifter: her work has brought together a diverse range of painting, printmaking, photography, and papermaking techniques; it has crossed from print to object to installation to durational works in the landscape. She has addressed life cycles, identity, family history, war, labor, and societal structures—and has grappled with the challenge of living in a world without answers.
“It’s a nonverbal thing. What’s so exciting is making something out of nothing,” Táňa says. “I’m interested in unknowingness—can you make unknowingness knowable?”
Born in 1950 in Communist Czechoslovakia to two Holocaust survivors, Táňa and her family landed in Toledo, Ohio in 1969. The culture shock was immediate: she spoke limited English, and was alienated from her adoptive American culture. “I was rooted in a sort of 1950s culture and it was suddenly 1970—it was a different time in Eastern Europe when I left,” she says. “It was like, you fall asleep and wake up twenty years later—how quickly can you adapt?”
Adapting meant deciding to seriously pursue her interest in art and developing a visual vocabulary to address the world around her. But while studying painting at The University of Toledo, Táňa found that her loose, brushy still lifes of bottles hardly resembled the vessels she tried to reproduce. Her teacher told her, “You’re a born painter.” Táňa resolutely disagreed. In her first of many turns toward the unfamiliar, she began pouring energy into learning traditional printmaking processes.
“I responded to the language of printmaking because it was a process that allowed me to be more indirect than something like drawing,” says Táňa. “I like the element of surprise, the lack of control. Accidents could happen and I could really respond to that.”
At 21, Táňa began her MFA at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY. Here, she explored her immigrant identity, caught between two worlds, and tried to find her artistic fit. Words and images became many-layered, often satirical signs. She studied photography and began manipulating the medium to respond to her developing visual language, using hand-painted emulsion or making photo-etchings. As the early 1970s art world embraced the cool, iconoclastic aesthetic of conceptual art and minimalism, Táňa was looking at Klimt, Goya, and German expressionism.
“My interests were just elsewhere,” she says. “Beautiful controlled images—they just weren’t me. It takes a long time to decide, Okay I can give this thing up, it’s not a failure because it isn’t me. It’s hard to give yourself that permission.” Táňa talks a lot about permission, about being allowed to tell a particular story. For her, ignoring contemporary trends as a young artist was less about ideological rebellion than developing earnest expressiveness; to speak a language that wasn’t hers, she says, would feel false.
“I think it has to do with purity of vision,” she says. “When you’re a young artist it’s good to have influences and work through them, but at a certain point you have to sort of say, Ok is this me? What do I have to contribute to the conversation? There is no answer, and realizing that is a sobering thing. Wow, you mean I have to find my own way?”
At RIT, Táňa met Ann Kalmbach, who knew fellow artists Anita Wetzel and Barbara Leoff Burge, down in New Paltz. Anita heard that New York State Council on the Arts was giving out grants, and Barbara had a press handy. So Ann and Táňa headed south. In 1974, the women rented a two-story house in Rosendale—etching in the living room, papermaking in the attic, silkscreen in the basement—and began hosting community-based classes and programs. The rest is history.
“The art world just was not open to us,” Táňa says of her experience as a woman artist. “We decided it was important for us to still do the work, to just let the system be the system and to be an alternative to that system. The ‘70s were very anti-establishment.”
In the 42 years since, Táňa has helped develop WSW’s unique identity, which has endured major shifts in global and local culture, economy, and art production. This longevity has to do with obstinate survival instinct as much as Táňa’s aversion to complacency and boredom. Her formula to stay vital and engaged: Embrace the talent, energy, and perspective of younger generations. If someone has a better idea than you, do it instead. In everything you do, make things interesting for yourself.
WSW keeps things interesting in part with its publication of handmade artists’ books, in which Táňa has played a key role. Rooted in early 20th century avant garde movements, artists’ books gained popularity during the 1960s and 1970s during an expansion of alternative modes of art production, exhibition, and distribution. But Táňa’s interest developed afield of the trend.
“I was doing photographs with sequential imagery,” she says of the accordion-folded Suspender Saga, the first of her many collaborations with Ann under the KaKe Art moniker. “I’d make them into prints. Ah, how does this make sense? Better fold it. Okay, I see, I made a book. We were printmakers, not conceptual artists. We knew nothing about binding—everything was stapled or folded. It was funky. We were doing everything by hand because we didn’t have access to mass-production. It was about our labor.”
Táňa maintains that WSW is defined by its resolute emphasis on the handmade. Though WSW’s studios and technical support have been professionalized over the years, she insists on her artists’ investment in their own process—an extension of her belief that unknowingness becomes knowable by living the questions yourself. Since 1979, Táňa has worked extensively with artists before, during, and after grueling limited-edition book projects that reflect a remarkable range of styles, structures, and content.
“The books are the most difficult thing we do, and the most unique thing we do,” she says. “The process is so laborious, but rewarding. What’s nice about the books is that they have a lasting place in the world, and so much art doesn’t.”
As Artistic Director, Táňa has also placed WSW’s editions in the collections of research institutions and libraries across the country, making the legacy of women artists more visible to future generations. Their afterlife is a tangible manifestation of WSW’s belief that women’s art should be integral to mainstream cultural production. The success of such an artistic program rests on Táňa’s natural skill as a teacher, the breadth of her knowledge of art and its processes, her ability to problem solve, her exacting standards—and her generosity toward the often young and emerging women who move through the workshop each year, many of whom are in the process of creating themselves as much as they are creating their work.
Amidst all this, Táňa has managed to find her own voice again and again, has learned to manipulate so many processes to say what she must. It’s in the visceral distortion of her figurative works, the double-edged inquiry she makes into language, the concise visual statement of her installations. It’s in her attention to materiality and in what she leaves unsaid, letting us fill in the blanks.
And it’s in the abstract collages pinned up in her studio, toward which she turned five years ago. It may soon be time for something new. So, onward to the next adventure—because Táňa is fearless in her willingness not to be precious about the way things are. “When I feel I’m at the end of something, I just have to change,” she says. “And I never really know what I’m going to do next. It’s art; it’s very unpredictable.”