The Green River Cemetery is where many of the Ab Ex artists now reside, including Krasner and Pollock and Elaine, and it was Elaine who quipped “Everyone’s Dying to Get in Here”. One of the most famous cemeteries in the world, the modest plot of land was originally for the locals, and then became a “who’s who” of modern culture. I went there for the first painting of my Elaine de Kooning House residency, and just the night before I arrived, I was in NYC with my friend the cartoonist Art Spiegelman, and we were talking about one of our favorite movies, Young Frankenstein, and amazingly Peter Boyle, the actor who played the title character’s tombstone was right next to me, in front of hers while I painted, trying to “raise the dead.” I put a rock on the tombstone that was still there two days after when I began this work, that was like my spiritual avatar while painting, and the birds and the sun kept me wonderful company. I listened to the incredible book ‘Ninth Street Women” by Mary Gabriel while painting, in addition to classical music and jazz that Elaine would have liked, and the energy was terrific. I still don’t know for certain what the marble/rock-like edifice of the tombstone depicts, but assume it is abstract, like a rose—or I also saw her portrait within it, with her profile on the left, her hair on the right. It was a sublime, wondrous day painting and ask her blessings…
To honor Elaine, and to have her beckon me into the studio, I painted this image, a film still from a movie from the last years of her life. The top part of the image wasn’t in the photo, I was able to place my easel exactly where the camera had been, and match the colors and the light and architecture from the existing structure, where everything has been kept exactly the same, to the photo itself. I listened to all her original vinyl while painting these pictures, and it was intense listening to the mesmerizing deep opera and classical music she loved—her DNA was all over the records and I cleaned each side from dust and even her hair one by one… It was as if her ghost was in the room, but she had such amazing energy, was really the life blood and spirit for the whole abstract expressionist group, that the painting was pure pleasure to create. She was a wonderful, generous person, and two of her favorite later subjects—Scott and Megan reminded me at our opening in the studio—Scott is portrayed here in the back—the bearded man, who for me (as I have a beard) was my “Les Meninas” like avatar (Velazquez portrayed himself in a mirror in the background of this famous painting). She is working on a picture of her nephew, and there is one of her famous Bacchus paintings in the background, and what looks like to me a Willem de Kooning framed drawing resting in the front. She wasn’t a religious person, but spiritual, and would go to Sunday School to “brush up”, and I noticed crosses throughout this image. I think if her ghost exists, or at least her spirit, she would be wanted to be remembered for her art in addition to her important writing for Art News that helped to define the movement, and her zesty joie de vivre. I’ve made a commitment towards this end, trying to convince my gallery Marlborough to take on her estate, and feel very blessed and fortunate to have this wonderful opportunity to paint in her studio—like in this photograph, her spirit feels very much there…
While at the Elaine de Kooning House residency, I hope to also honor and continue creating paintings stemming from the ideology of her Abstract Expressionist circle, abstract works I call Iconscapes, a continuation of my own painterly practice that I have created and exhibited my whole career since college. The paintings hope to bring about dream-like worlds culled from the unconscious in a more renaissance visual space than the works of such artists as Gorky (without fully illustrating figurative elements, like in the works by Dali).
Elaine was commissioned to create a portrait of the president for the Harry S. Truman library in 1962, that became her obsession for nearly a year. First travelling to the “Winter White House” in Palm Beach Florida, she started to work on a series of sketches from life–“He was incandescent, golden. And bigger than life.” It was fantastic that she got the commission, as a woman at the time, she was under appreciated as an artist, and as she did figurative painting in a time when the men were all being heralded as Abstract Expressionists, she took that ideology to “capture a glimpse of a likeness” to her portraits. But she worked fast, and JFK moved quickly, and her talents were recognized by the president and Jackie, who promoted culture and the arts–they recognized the significance and the role of creativity within a free society. JFK wrote that “But art means more than the resuscitation of the past, it means the free and unconfined search for new ways of expressing the experience of the present and the the vision of the future. When the creative impulse cannot flourish freely, when it cannot freely select its methods and objects, when it is deprived of spontaneity, then society severs the root of art.” She created dozens of images of him, trying to “get it right,” what she couldn’t know was that he was soon to come to his demise, assassinated just after she finished, which devastated her, she couldn’t paint again for a year. But the JFK portraits are some of her most important works–the painting that ended up being in the National Portrait Gallery still is wonderfully different than all the others, and has a fresh vitality even today, and one of the few there of presidents painted by a woman. It was intense to work on this painting, to try to pay homage to this great woman and her masterworks. In the current political climate, JFK was a breath of fresh air and aspirational, but also eerily coinciding with the troubled events surrounding Iran, which reminded me so much of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and many of the same issues that we are experiencing today. Her last work, the giant JFK was her favorite that she kept for herself, where she finally created a work that fulfilled her vision to capture his true spirit. I’m hoping by making a history painting of her history paintings, folding her into a painting of her works, it could be aspirational to recognize her important contribution to art history, and present an image that reminds us of a visualization of the idea of a new frontier for which we should as a nation ever try to strive.
Dream space and time is almost impossible to describe–once you begin telling the story of your dreams, language changes it, defying the natural order of things that happen whilst you are sleeping. But pictures say a thousand words, and as one thing leads to the next in the web of automatic imagery, perhaps your unconscious can work faster than your consciousness and ascertain, and you can capture of glimpse of your inner imagination and what is there that speaks to us in dreams. I think if we could project our dreams on a screen, they would be iconic, almost cartoon like essentialized forms of memories of people and places that we project meaning unto later or while we watch what is happening in our inner mind. The Ab Ex artist were into Jung’s theories of the symbolic consciousness and Freud, trying by all kinds of automatic gestures to capture it, and then Duchamp, Marx, and Post-Modernism took us off that track necessarily in an age that the politics required objectifying art and it’s history to understand how patriarchy organized things to support its power, etc. But in the 21st century, perhaps we can have both Freud and Marx in the same camp, and sometimes, especially in our moment, there are sometimes no words, just as in the days of Ab Ex, with the bomb, post-WWII and McCarthy. I have sought since college, inspired by this generation, to realize what they were achieving in their efforts, to bring out that dream space time in a more volumetric, plastic space, like those of Renaissance heroes Fra Angelico or Da Vinci even, but without declaring a specific identity to the ethereal forms that that might in their era give symbolic value too. Maybe there is freedom in how the mind works in ineffable ways, beyond language and understanding, and I want to try to coax the iconic forms and space out into my Iconscapes.
It was fun to reinterpret this famous 1953 b&w Hans Namuth photo of them, taken on Leo Castelli’s improvised studio porch also in East Hampton. When Rauschenberg erased his de Kooning he ushered in a whole new era, killing the metaphorical father, bringing about Duchamp, appropriation, pop art, and more about Marx than Freud and Jung. I’m hoping we can have our cake and it eat too, making work that relates to the world outside the picture plane but still have a role about the unconscious and the ineffable, and ideas about beauty and transcendence in art and painting. Willem obviously is going strong, but the ideology from which he sprang not so much… Fortunately we are now recognizing the women more and more, especially Elaine’s legacy in the books of Nine St. Women and the Cathy Curtis bio, but her art is still greatly underestimated… I want to forefront her, but also her work and the unconscious world of the ab ex artists… This Woman ptg, Bill later painting over and ultimately destroyed. I think, beyond everything else, the figure was a frame to hang his subconscious onto, opening up different worlds that transcends the figure, it was cool to, without looking at other reproductions to find my way inside the work, building into the dream like otherworldly space…
I have always been inspired by the Ab Ex artists’ attempts to bring out the subconscious in their work, in a time post WWII and the bomb and during the McCarthy era, in part as it seems that no words, or narrative figurative language could bring about the emotions and feelings they had towards their own sometimes horrific worlds. I’m hoping that in our era, it’s still “ok” to create abstract images, for these very reasons, especially in a very current time where, at some points, there are no words.
Building on the Abstract Expressionist ideology at the Elaine de Kooning House, I’m painting my Iconscapes, trying to bring out from my subconscious trying to find out what dreams look like without illustrating them, transcendent other worlds of iconic shapes and forms.
It was super fun to paint the Pollock Krasner House and barn “en plein air”. I got special permission to be there for two beautiful days that they weren’t open, to work on the site, a shrine to Modernity and the legendary couple. Wonderful energy on a sublime journey to capture their spirit, the house and barn studio, and the fantastic landscape where they helped to change history. I had photographed the spines of the vinyl they still have there that represented Lee and Jackson’s favorite music, and listened to this amazing early Jazz and Blues (including Bessie Smith, Bunk Johnson, Jimmy Yancey, Louie Armstrong and Lead Belly) which regaled me while painting. The early honky tonk like tunes gave me a Harlem Renaissance vibe, and I had no problem distorting the buildings a bit to fit them into the picture, like those early paintings, and picking up vibes of the place and time which they lived and how they were influenced. The buildings themselves took on an anthropomorphic feeling—the house felt like Lee, and the studio Jackson. I’m also a big fan of Elvis, and visiting there was like visiting Sun Studios, a small humble place that was the birthplace of rock n’ roll and the future. Helen Harrison, the historian who runs the place, came to greet me, and she let me know the birds that were keeping me company were “cat birds” as they make a “meow” sound—and mentioned to please paint the crows, as Jackson had one for a pet—the crows later appeared in the sky, on the trees also in the top of the picture. She also reminded me that Jackson lived his high school years in Riverside where I currently reside—and I realized after looking this up he lived just about 8 blocks, 3 minutes away from me! When the deer to the left of the studio appeared that was the end—I know they are ubiquitous in East Hampton (as are the ticks, I was dressed after their warning head to toe to prevent this, rubber boots et all), but to me the deer was like a spiritual avatar for Jackson, and after capturing that moment (and the heavenly sky) the painting was complete.
Painting @Elainedekooning house, I’m trying to let my unconscious be my guide, much in the same manner of the Abstract Expressionists. I’m painting where my hand leads me and where my mind takes me, thinking about distant memories and dreams as much as our current political crises. If we could project our dreams onto a screen, I think they would look like essentialized icons or cartoons, onto which we the project meaning. To bring about dream space time in my paintings in a more renaissance like space, but without literalizing the forms to be something they are not in the unconscious—to lift the veil and go beyond language is my goal.
When Jackson Pollock was in high school, he lived just 8 blocks away from us in Riverside CA. This is from his high school senior portrait, where he was starry-eyed and ambitious, wanting to follow in the footsteps of his older brothers who were into art, but also with his own unique (he was into spirituality, was introduced to the spiritual beliefs of the Theosophical Society and the teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti. There is a chapter in the biography by Naifeh and Smith called “Fruits and Nuts,” outlining some of his gay experiences, and it seems from his actions and attitudes, my theory is that he also might have been on the spectrum. I think his alcoholism helped him to come out of his shell, and he over compensated for his neurosis by acting super macho, and of course, at the end of his life, when he got into a car accident drunk driving, killing himself and his mistress’s girlfriend, was egregious and bad. But as a young man he had real aspirations to break through the ceiling of art and invent something new, and was one of the spiritual centers of the Ab Ex movement, and arguably it was his work that proved to be the greatest inventions of the era, changing art for that time and forever. I was tremendously influenced by him when I was a teen, it was he that showed me the transcendent nature of what are could be, and a fitting end to create this portrait at the end of my residency at the Elaine de Kooning House. Hopefully there is something political about doing a portrait of this giant abstract painter, and like Elaine, creating a picture of man who normally wouldn’t allow himself to be regarded in a sensitive way that hopefully shows his romantic aspirations, following Rimbaud, to be a seer.
From the famous Nina Leen photograph, taken for LIFE, November 24, 1950. Front row: Theodoros Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, James Brooks, Mark Rothko; middle row: Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, Bradley Walker Tomlin; back row: Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, Hedda Sterne.
Hopefully there is something political about creating a figurative painting of these Abstract Expressionist artists (and this iconic photo, taken by a woman who was famous for her animal photography!), who devised part of the New York School of painting! I’ve been wanting to paint this for years, and listened to all of Mary Gabrielle’s incredible book “Nine Street Women” while composing it, along with jazz greats from the Pollock Krasner record collection. It’s true that without Elaine de Kooning and the other dynamic women that were all part of the movement, these men couldn’t have achieved what they did—sad that only Hedda Sterne was allowed to sign the infamous letter to the Met that engendered the resulting image that came to define the group (as great as she is!). More women, including Louise Bourgeois were part of the “Studio 35” symposium (and clubs and groups) that banded together in a three day symposium trying to define the Abstractionists and the Expressionists to come up with a title for their ultimate collaboration, and at the end decided to write a letter opposing the more traditional curation of the forthcoming giant Met exhibition of contemporary art. But you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and these artists, back in a time of the very conservative 40’s and 50’s, recovering psychologically from the war and the bombing of Japan, and the McCarthy era, wanted and succeeded to change art, by creating abstract images, generated from their subconscious, emotions, and a need to express themselves in a manner that figurative painting seemed incapable of expressing. I love abstract painting, too, and in our moment sometimes it feels analogous to this period, although being able to frame feeling and synaesthetic content on narrative seems also necessary for our time, I respect these heroes, despite their, in some cases, very un PC way of life and thinking. They rose up, as a community of artists, working for years isolated in their ideology, and without public recognition or institution and market validation, making art in the most “pure” way, an energy that we can’t forget, collaborating as a community to make “art that mattered,” and a real American art that, although influenced by Europe and the East, rose as its own vitality that still resonates deeply.. Painting this as part of my residency at the Elaine de Kooning House, I realized that Elaine, and many of the others “had their cake and ate it, too” in that they created both figurative works and abstract works, with the figurative paintings falling into abstraction, and the abstract works conjuring iconic figures from their unconscious. I have long sought to do the same, influenced by the work of these masters (and being a son of a psychoanalyst!), and in context with my figurative works heroizing Elaine, Krasner, and the other women, hope that this work capturing the spirit of these ultimately flawed men (Hedda Sterne and the women really are the strong protagonists of the group) both brings attention to their corporeal limitations and that of their ideology, while at the same time creating a history painting of a group of artists that took on the world and the establishment and won, pathing the way for all artists of all genders and orientations, to hopefully follow.