statement regarding twenty years of art-making
In the spring of 1989 I received an MFA from Hunter College in New
York City. At that time I had already been living in New York working
as an artist for 12 years, having received a BFA from the Cooper Union
in 1977. But more than receiving a graduate degree 1989 was important
because that year I began a course of work that I have developed consistently
over the past 20 years. This artistic turning point was marked by
a focus on personal, figurative imagery taken from the imagination.
I believe these images showed our shared world but as if from the
inside. This had been an occasional tendency in my work up to that
point. Until 1989 my work had been tackling the issues of abstraction
versus figurative representation with little resolve.
There were two strong formative influences on the direction my work
would take. The late paintings of Philip Guston were familiar to me
since my last years as an undergraduate. I liked their storytelling,
their melodramatic humor, their painterliness and emotionalism. These
qualities became touchstones for my art. Equally important to me was
Guston’s belief in the significance of the artist’s endeavor,
which I felt was apparent in all the choices in his varied career.
He became a sort of spiritual artistic mentor for me. I still hold
his example in the highest regard.
I had written poetry and studied it seriously since my college years.
A second influence on my art was the surrealist poets of Spain and
South America. I read them primarily in the 70s Press translations
of the poet Robert Bly. His short introductory essays to their poems
were more influential for me as an artist than any writing about art
I read at that time. Like Guston’s art their work was deeply
personal but presented in a language of images that often had the
wildness of dreams. The imagery in their poems seemed to leap into
consciousness as a natural response to the world. I wanted these qualities
in my art.
Two works from 1989 signal the direction my art would take. One is
entitled “An Open Book.” It
was originally intended to be an accordion-fold book that could be
viewed by either turning the pages or opened out completely to reveal
a seamless narrative landscape (it was ultimately displayed as two
long panels hung one above the other). My working process depended
on improvisation whether doing abstract or image-based work. The implied
endlessness of a single continuous landscape felt like the visual
space best suited to the uninhibited flow of images. Passages of writing
appear throughout this work. The writing evolved during the process
of working on the drawings and served to amplify the feelings present
in the images.
The other work from this period that was significant was a large drawing
called “Private Property.”
In this work I wanted to resurrect all of what I felt was the unwanted
imagery buried in the heavily painted surfaces of my past abstract
works. Its unedited, personal, and psychological imagery became the
backbone of my art. This was a very concentrated period of work and
in the autumn of 1989 “An Open Book” was included in the
exhibition “Selections 46” at the Drawing Center in New
Over the next nine years I developed these ideas in oil paintings.
I always thought of myself as a painter so this was a natural choice.
Painting would add richness and depth, and therefore a greater emotional
impact, to my art. I also began to make actual books. I liked how
a narrative could be suggested by stringing together unplanned and
sometimes disconnected images. Each double-page spread within these
books was a fully realized drawing. The density and sheer abundance
of book-making appealed to me.
My daughter was born in 1992 and in anticipation of that event I took
a staff position at a publishing company for which I had previously
worked as a freelancer. This is a position that I still hold, although
with more responsibility. Looking back I wonder if the extensive use
of collage, as well as the book form itself, offered a way of working
incrementally, adding bits and pieces of imagery, text and other fragments
that allowed me to accomplish a lot in shorter, more concentrated
periods of time. Although these methods developed out of tendencies
in my art, they were also suited to my new situation.
I began to feel there was a fight within me regarding the success
and failure of the books versus the paintings. So I tried to make
the process of the paintings as similar to the books and drawings
as I could, incorporating odd collage elements—scraps of wood,
canvas from discarded paintings, aluminum foil—and even writing
with thinned-down oil paint. Still, I felt the books were winning
this fight. And yet I held to painting as an area where I had to gain
true achievement. I never worried about the commercial viability of
my work, but at that time I began to think that the books alone would
not open up professional possibilities for my art because of the difficulty
of displaying them. I felt it was unfortunate that the intensity contained
in them remained hidden between two covers. But I did exhibit some
of the paintings from this period in a group show that I co-curated
called “Unwanted Figures of the Imagination.” It was sponsored
by an independent artists organization in New York City, and was held
in a former police headquarters building.
In the spring of 1997 I met the artist Leon Golub. I had always admired
his work for its political content and rawness of imagery and technique.
He invited me to visit him in his studio in response to some photos
I sent him of works I was exhibiting in a two-person show in the basement
of the Tompkins Square Branch of the New York Public Library. I brought
one of my books and reproductions of recent paintings to show him.
The book impressed him, the paintings not so much. He questioned my
commitment to the medium of oil painting. He pointed out that his
wife, Nancy Spero, had worked exclusively with drawing on paper for
years—one could make important works in media other than painting.
I knew this was true, but I felt uneasy picturing myself as an artist
without painting. Golub’s interest in my work at this time helped
me take a hard look at subconscious assumptions I held about my art,
and to focus on and develop the strengths in my work that I had begun
to take for granted: an intensely graphic quality that had a lot of
emotional impact, and a genuine and personal imagery.
In late 1997 my work was in a group show at the Painting Center in
New York City. It was a good venue and I felt it was a great achievement
to show there. But when looking at my painting
in the gallery I felt the figure wasn’t clear enough, that it
was mired in the paint. After that show I switched to acrylics. They
allowed me to work in a way that felt freer and closer to the methods
I practiced in my drawings and books. I made multi-paneled paintings
that I thought of as books spread out across a wall: “Losers
Chorus,” and “The Landscape
of Attis” are two examples. I then began a series of large
paintings called “Mercy Street.”
They incorporated photographs, text, collage, and painting. I thought
I would work on this series for a long time, each painting adding
to a panoramic depiction, a metaphorical landscape, of contemporary
life. I made large books to accompany the paintings. They were to
be a gloss on the paintings, simultaneously complicating and explaining
them. This series ended sooner than I had planned: the last painting
of the group, “Our September,”
was a memorial painting for the victims of the attacks of September
11, 2001. Events compelled me to deal with other subjects.
In my works between 2001 and 2006 I tried to deal directly with political
issues that were important to me such as our country’s unilateral
militarism that culminated in the Iraq War, hurricane Katrina, and
returning Iraq War vets. I was invited to show a large selection of
this work at the Brownson Gallery of Manhattanville College in Purchase,
New York, in January 2007. I called this exhibition “Imaging
the Political Soul—Paintings and Books since 9/11.”
For most of 2007 I suffered profound doubt about the purpose of my
art and my abilities as an artist both technically and intellectually.
I am still not rid of those feelings. But I had a project that year
that inspired me to take a new and fruitful course. That year I created
a set of twenty-four drawings for a novel
by a friend, the writer Ben Miller. The novel was about an imaginary
6th borough of New York where people went to live who had failed at
everything in the other boroughs, an antic and compassionate collection
of lost souls. The sympathy I felt for his subject helped me see a
new path for my work. I saw that I could create a world that was a
metaphor for experiences people have in common yet often prefer to
ignore: our failures, vulnerabilities, and our strivings. I’ve
stripped everything out of my recent work but the figures themselves,
wanting their evident struggle to be a real and affecting presence.