I was living in SoHo during the time of 9-11, and that morning heard the planes flying overhead as I was preparing to go to work to teach drawing at New York University. Very soon my partner and I saw the news on the television that a plane had hit one of the towers, and we left the apartment to see the hole in the building, with the people inside quite visible from the intersection nearby our apartment at the intersection of West Broadway and Prince. In shock, I proceeded to go to my class (I was to teach my freshman "composition via the gag cartoon"), where my students were awaiting, also stupefied as to what was happening in the city and country at that moment. I told them that I certainly didn’t feel it right to look at cartoons at that moment, and although I don’t necessarily feel "art is therapy," but perhaps we should go out to Washington Square Park and draw what it was that was happening at that moment. We went to the park, by that time the second plane had hit the other tower, and just as my students began to draw, the first tower collapsed. Adults in the park cried and shouted out in pain, and my students and myself comforted whom we could, and I dismissed class, telling the students to please call their parents and let them know they were okay.
My own father was in town, whom we spent the rest of this time with, and who also collected the newspapers, telling me "I should paint images of this one day." I told him "no, that this was in bad taste" and found other means and images to express my feelings and ideas towards the horrific events of this time in the proceeding years. However, I continued to have nightmares, one in particular that I saw the falling bodies of the victims of the towers, whom (being a John Lennon fan) I called out to saying "all you need is love!" One morning, after a particularly acute nightmare in 2007, I felt the desire to dig out one of the newspapers my father had given me to save, and began to paint this few series of paintings. I felt it would be cathartic to finally paint directly (and not, as previously, by means of allegory) imagery from the morning of 9-11, in order to "save" the people of this tragedy by remembering their images and the events by painting them.
This was one of the most difficult paintings I have ever created. To make myself calm and to allow myself to keep working, I listened to audio cd’s of lectures and writings of the Dalai Lama and also Tibetan chants, along with soothing (and symbolic—as in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, etc.) classical music that (like I do with all my works) created a synaesthetic audio environment for me to create in. This painting took a very long time (for me) to paint, as I wanted to micromanage as much as possible to make the best painting I could to record what had happened and also my sensory memory and feelings of the moment as a witness to it all. It was a "beautiful" clear day that morning, and I was (as were many) fully aware of the irony of such a horribly catastrophic event juxtaposed to a clear and light blue sky of a September morning. I tried my best to record the colors as they appeared in the source image, in addition to being mindful of my thoughts and memories of that day as I was painting, hoping that the emotions I felt would come through the translation of my rendering. I am also influenced by much of art history, and impressionism and the works of Monet were something of particular relevance to the time of this painting, and in the back of my mind (although I wanted to avoid consciously contrived relevance) thought of Monet’s smoke in his train and the Gare Saint-Lazare paintings. I am also a son of a psychoanalyst, and believe in the ideas of the subconscious "leaking through" in painterly works, and hope that in the micromanaging of what I perceived in looking and remembering the image as I was painting it, that the ineffable and unconsciously symbolic ideas and emotions might also present themselves somehow in how I was painting the image, to make it have a life of its own. Ultimately, I hope to have done justice to the people that were directly affected by the tragedy, and our nation and world that were forever changed in my painting of this historical event.
After painting this work (and the other triptych now in the Corcoran Gallery) I was gratified in the sense that I no longer had the nightmares of that morning and its victims. However, I was nervous to exhibit the painting for fear of how people might react. I first showed the work in a solo exhibition in Cleveland entitled "Friends and Family" (along with other important real and fictive people and events—such as Anne Frank—in a painting acquired by the Cleveland Museum, Matthew Shepard, JFK, the planet Earth, etc.). Instead of being offended, people were moved by the painting and received (at least those who discussed the image with me) basically what I had hoped they might—that it was an homage to those who died in the towers, and the day that changed history for all of us. I then exhibited the work in a group show at John Connelly Presents that was thematically curated around ideas of melancholy in America post-9-11, with similar responses. I finally wanted to exhibit the work in the context I had grown to desire the most, along with the 9-11 triptych that had more close-up views of those who died in the towers that day. This was in the exhibition "Good Leaders, Endangered Species, Ships at Sea" at Derek Eller Gallery in New York, the second part of an exhibition begun in Los Angeles at Lightbox Gallery, where I hoped that viewers would realize through the juxtaposition of imagery that "we need good leaders, as they are like endangered species, in a world that was a ship at sea." Along with images of Barack Obama, Louise Bourgeois, endangered animals, and references to religious icons of now (like the Dalai Lama) and art history (as in appropriations of the Duccio painting at the Met of the Madonna and Child, and El Greco’s Opening of the Fifth Seal) I was able to show this work isolated with the other 9-11 paintings to represent allegorically "ships at sea" but mostly directly reference this event for what it represents for all of us.
It was my hope that a museums in Washington D.C. and New York City would finally acquire these works, as I didn’t want them to go to personal collections and that they would be safely in museums in the cities that were directly affected by the tragedies of that morning. I am very honored that the Whitney Museum of American Art would want to have this painting in their permanent collection. This is a most moving to me, and I hope it helps others remember this day and everything that it conveys symbolically and emotionally, and I truly hope it honors those who were lost and affected by one of the most tragically important mornings in our nation’s history.
I felt it would be cathartic to finally paint directly (and not, as previously, by means of allegory) imagery from the morning of 9-11, in order to "save" the people of this tragedy by remembering their images and the events by painting them. I found this image at the NY Picture collection, a part of the Mid Manhattan Library. The original photo was taken by an amateur photographer Seth McAllister, and as he wrote me after seeing the work at the Whitney (I didn’t know originally who had taken the image), it appeared on the cover of the Washington Post and appeared elsewhere and is still available from AFP (Agence France Presse). Fortunately, Mr. McCallister was happy to see it rendered "in such a beautiful way," despite its troubling subject matter.
I painted this image for a show called Friends and Family, that depict a wide range of iconic figures, images and moments from popular culture, history, art, literature, film and music in the service of composing a larger allegorical narrative about the times in which we live, and the issues and values that shape our collective history and future. I wanted to be at once individual and collective, admonishing and optimistic, for my work to serve as both a personal homage to those people and experiences that have shaped his own individual identity and beliefs, and a reminder of their broader social and historical impact.
I wanted to endeavors to imbue the theme/notion of friends and family with a broader, social and humanistic concept. Although I base my paintings on pictures appropriated from magazines, books, newspapers, and films, his complete personal immersion in, and reverential, painterly treatment of his chosen subjects and moments transforms them, allowing them to transcend time and context, and the pre-existing source imagery from which they derive. My respect for post-modernism results in paintings that are highly self aware and referential to external ideas and politics. Simultaneously, my love of modernism renders my paintings highly personalized, allowing them to move beyond their original context, and become as much about what I bring to and invests in my subject matter than the subject matter itself. Through coupling this with a painterly verve reminiscent of Impressionist and old master painting, I seek to a foster post-post modernist sensibility that embraces concept, beauty, emotion, transcendence, and the subconscious.
Muhammad Ali is one of the greatest icons of all time, which has earned his place in world history. People forget that he was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., having changed his name after converting to Islam and his affiliation with the Nation of Islam, an incredibly radical public thing to do as a great American who also happened to be the smartest, greatest Heavyweight Champion of the World. After his public outcry against the Vietnam War, he was outcast and denied a boxing license in every state and stripped of his passport. He couldn’t fight for three years, touring colleges to speak out against the war, and advocating African American rights, justice, and pride. The Supreme Court finally overturned his conviction, and he was able to fight again, famously beating Joe Fraizer in the "Fight of Century." This is around the time this LIFE magazine came out, and I learned much about boxing and his amazing influence around the world, where he was like a king for so many people in so many countries and still is to many. He was a fiercely intelligent, brave, and courageous fighter, and continues to be an inspiration to this day.
This was for a show I had in Cleveland at Brett Shaheen Modern and Contemporary, called "Friends and Family." I didn’t want McCain to win the next election, and Ohio being a swing state (like my home state Colorado) I wanted to do "my part" by creating a conversation of who might be "friends and family" for the America I want to live in, one that is about the agency of all peoples to rise up, and have equal power for everyone. Katherine Hepburn is a "strong female protagonist" of all the films she is in, a powerful figure in Hollywood cinema who also acted as a wonderful role model for all. She was one of the first to wear pants suits for women, helping to create a craze for this fashion, which become ubiquitous and also symbolically powerful. She also was fiercely independent, outspoken, and strove and fought for her important place in Hollywood for her long career. Despite her secret long affair with Spencer Tracey, its also rumored she was bisexual, and/or a lesbian, which was probable, and was public speculation that didn’t diminish her idolization—which is also intriguing as she played spinsters in her later life that had indomitable, "unsinkable" spirits, like the great lady herself.
Say what you will about JFK, and hopefully its mostly good things, but Jackie was a tremendous first lady. Kennedy I think was a great President, and symbolic for so much, but some people have their issues. I can’t imagine what you might want to say that would be negative about Jackie, who assumed her First Ladyship with perhaps not the same staunch power of Eleanor Roosevelt, but with a feminine power all her own. I like everything she stood for, and for her incredible finesse, protocol, and sense of fashion. When JFK died, she was the one who symbolically carried the weight for the country mourning—and instead of depicting her crying in her pillbox hat as Warhol did (although I did paint this as an emotional, expressionist moment also in the show), for this heavenly wall I thought it would be appropriate to place this painting, originally to serve as a model of a great American in the show Friends and Family at Brett Shaheen in Cleveland, next to the Madonna and Christ, as a non-religious portrait hopefully breathing life into this icon, in heaven as it seems she already is, standing in front of this screen which hopefully also comes alive in the hegemony of the painting. I love that she loved culture and historic places and things—it is because of her and her campaigning in part the Grand Central Station still stands, and that the Temple of Dendur graces the Met. She is one of our great first ladies, and never will be eclipsed (although Eleanor and Michelle Obama are definitely in her constellation!).
Edna Ferber was an American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and great matriarch of the Algonquin Round Table. Importantly for this painting, she was the wrote the 1952 novel Giant, which was the basis for the great movie of the same title of 1958, directed by George Stevens, and starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Dennis Hopper, and James Dean, pictured here talking with the Grande Dame. Most of Ferber’s output starred Strong Female Protagonists speaking out for the marginalized and oppressed, and Giant was no exception, with Liz Taylor in one of her great roles, defending the Latino community of Hudson’s Ranch (one with whom their son played by Hopper marries), and holding off the advances of Dean’s character Jett Rink, a local handyman whom works for the patriarch Hudson plays, Jordan "Bick" Benedict. It strikes me that this great film, based on this amazing book, was so ahead of its time for feminisms and gender/identity politics (especially when you consider that both Hudson and Dean were gay in real life), and they were written by this sharp wit Ferber, who never married.
When they met on the set of Giant, Ferber mentioned that "James Dean was a genius, I don’t think there’s another actor in the world who could have portrayed Jett as well as he did. But like most geniuses, Dean suffered from success poisoning." When they met she supposedly said to Dean just this—"you remind me of myself, Jimmy, You’re a genius, but you suffer from success poisoning." Unfortunately, she was right—soon after his last day of shooting, Dead took off in his new Porsche to go to a race, and was driving fast when a truck, who didn’t see his small silver car racing in the California desert, broadsided him sending him hurtling to his death.
I loved my grandmother on my father’s side, Carolyn Mayerson, who was a bit of a dragon lady, who drank too much and chain smoked, and was a cantankerous mean lady when she wanted to be, which unfortunately was often. But she loved me, and loved art, too, and took my sister and I to museums, and encouraged us to draw new pictures for her and my grandpa which they would hang in their kitchen to eat their cereal by—her encouragement, and great knowledge of art, writing (she taught English at one time, too), and music was one of the reasons I became an artist, beyond my own parents loving encouragement and environment they created for me. Although she was edgy, I did respect her, and remember fondly our conversations, although she died when I was still young. It is partly this that I’m thinking about when I’m painting this picture, speaking through their avatars, although of course I love Dean, too, and this is about the friendship of these two great characters that strove to be heard and have great careers despite their normally marginalized status, and succeeded to great degrees to have massive impacts on the world.
MLK was a painting I did some years later after Hamlet 1999, but another stormy time in our world. We had moved to Chelsea, and I had a larger place to work and better light to work in, and we were generally happy, enjoying the success of my newly assimilated career, and our life in general, but Andrew’s best friend Alicia had just abruptly died, due to just-realized complications due to AIDS, and Hurricane Katrina had just happened down South. We were going through a lot of personal trauma as to Alicia, and were frankly appalled at the US government’s reaction to the tragedy befalling New Orleans and the southern region that many of my family come from. I felt if Dr. Martin Luther King were alive to experience what had happened, he would never stop crying, and painted this for the Miami art fair soon after the tragedy occurred. I do think art can make the world a better place, and after creating many narratives through the years "employing" famous actors and icons to play different characters, I realized that any portrait was truly about bringing out the inner personality of that person, and if I painted real people that had real relevance to impacting the culture of our world, I could make an iconic painting that would stand for both that person and allegorically what they represent to our culture, where the viewer could relate to the figure or scene also due to the modernist notions of how paint can transcribe warmth and feeling in the experience of looking at it, in addition to the content of what it could "mean." I hope that this painting of MLK goes beyond Katrina or other timely matters—I have painted a number of portraits of this great man (two of which were recently in the Whitney Biennial), and we have lived with this picture of him (one of my favorite portraits I have ever painted) on our walls for years to give us hope. Dr. King helped to change the world and give people agency through his passion and teaching and beliefs, and serves as a great model (I also appreciate that many homes throughout the world live with this image in photographs and posters) for all people including artists.
This is a picture of Marvin Gaye, an appropriation from the cover of his famous "What’s Going On" record that changed Motown records and made music history as being one of the most politically charged soul albums of all time. The smoky, spiritual sounds of it send me and I was obsessively listening to it while painting the "Archer Prewitt (Montgomery Clift)" painting that was also featured in the show this originated in “Rebel Angels at the End of the World” at QED Gallery in Los Angeles in 2005, and felt compelled to render the cover of Gaye’s masterpiece immediately. This album seemed more relevant than ever in those dour times as we were getting more involved in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and Gaye’s cynical, yet somehow ultimately hopeful view of humanity seems as necessary as ever. He is a transcendent figure, in a way a saint and a true rebel, one of our great artists, murdered by his own father. It is my hope to be able to make work, that like Gaye’s is able to address the culture outside of the work itself, to make work that is political and conscious of it’s place in contemporary times and also cultural history, but also to have the same work be beautifully formal, and ultimately transcendent beyond immediate context and times and meaning. Gaye began his amazing career as a Motown soul stylist, helping to forge the sound of that great studio, but as the politics of the time and the singer/songwriter movement grew to create songs of deeper meanings, Gaye fought for the right to make this and subsequent works of great meaning, and while Berry Gordy resisted this creative control, ultimately everyone realized the power of the work and it became one of the touchstone albums of all time. It’s always important to make work that is “about something”, but also, in a post Post Modern way, to make work that can also be instinctive, melodic, and ultimately sublime in transcendence beyond language. While painting this, I listened to Gaye obsessively, and tried to capture the spirit of all this while painting the cover of the album, like I used to listen to records as a kid while gazing at the cover, bringing me to another place within the music.
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Portrait of Juan Pareja, by Diego Velasquez, 1650, Metropolitan Museum.
One of my favorite portraits at the Met, and one of my favorite in the world, is this picture at the Met of Juan Pareja. In fact, the day I found out I was in the Whitney Biennial, I was on the steps of the Met when I received the email, after taking my SVA comics kids on the “kinda like comics” tour of the Met. where we look at narrative works and also seek out the people of color and respectful pictures of women throughout the museum, to give these students (many of whom aren’t regular museum goers) as sense of the history of narrative in art, and also to demystify and give access to art history, which can seem remote to them, for political reasons of class, race, and gender. I don’t want to make the same mistakes of art history, and want to people my exhibitions of all kinds of communities and histories that make up our world. The “Sister Wendy” story of this work was that Velasquez was already famous in Spain, but when he wanted commissions while visiting Italy, he had his assistant Juan Pareja hold this painting up and slowly lower it, to show how well he painted and how he was able to capture the proud dignity of the man who carried the work, who was himself an artist, who Velasquez freed from slavery, and whose work he encouraged to leave around the studio to introduce it to patrons and royalty, establishing Area as a renown artist in his own right and lifetime. I hope to bring proud agency to the people in my painted portraits, especially those like Gaye, who changed culture with his amazing work.