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.