I painted this specifically for the Biennial, but also knowing it would—like a coming attraction for a movie—first appear at a NADA fair in Miami. I wanted it to be specifically at this fair, as being in Miami, Lincoln is a dynamic political image there that for me could be in part be an example of a "good Republican" who fought for the rights and agency of the American people, which in a time that race is still a factor, and the rights of LGBT people is in a current state of struggle, the vision of Lincoln seems more pertinent and dynamic than ever. More than merely Miami, however, I knew of and was creating my non-linear narrative installation "My American Dream" for the Whitney, and I absolutely wanted Lincoln to be included. I have rendered him several times before, in diptychs (with portraits with his cabin at his side-"Lincoln Remembers," from when W. Bush was first elected and I was missing my partner Andrew who was at our cabin in CA, a drawing diptych of Lincoln and Obama coming on stage for his inaugural address, and more). I have been thinking of Lincoln in the past few years and have been wanting to paint him again, collecting images and contemplating, and also waiting for the Spielberg movie-that serendipitously came out during this time-to subside so neither I or my viewer may be too influenced either by that wonderful interpretation by Spielberg and Daniel Day Lewis.
Like a method actor, while I am painting, I like to step in the shoes of the character I am portraying, and bring some of my own life to it to help bring life to the image. While painting this, along with the Mozart opera Lincoln loved, I listened to Team of Rivals (the unabridged version!). The original photo was taken by Alexander Gardner, (who at that time had become known as a civil war photographer, and whom Lincoln knew at his new studio at 7th and D Street, above Shephard and Riley’s Bookstore in Washington, D.C. He also had a new camera, which didn’t take as long to pose for, and Lincoln volunteered to be the first person he would photograph with it, on Sunday, August 9,1863, accompanied by his secretary John Hay in 1863, as Team of Rivals mentions. I was thrilled as I went to Brown University, where Hay went to school, and where now the John Hay Library is, and thought this was interesting and special! Lincoln was in a good mood as the tide was turning in their favor during the war. Evidently it was one of Lincoln’s favorite pictures of himself, that wasn’t seen much in his lifetime due to the uncanny out of focus elements of it, but this made a perfect image for me to paint from (Lincoln also took other photos for the purpose of creating a source image for his portraitist Matthew Wilson!). After looking and gathering Lincoln images throughout the years, I was drawn to this one as it really seemed to capture the expression of Lincoln winning the war, but quite cognizant of the great sacrifice it took upon the country and its peoples, and his giant beneficence-at only 55, Lincoln seems wizened beyond his years as the great emancipator. But also the background intrigued me, as it seems to be withholding all kinds of forms and symbols, which like the details of the floor and chair and table seemed to harness secrets to unpack. I love in the Old Masters, in micromanaged moments paintings fall into unconscious abstraction, and how in many modern works from Cézanne forward, how images may break apart into unconsciously realized figures and forms, and here, with perhaps a painted backdrop behind Lincoln, it seems to fall into other dimensions, perhaps the spirits or souls of those who he helped to save or whom were killed in his time of struggle. Nine days after his sitting John Hay, on the behalf of the President, wrote the following letter to Gardner, which Lincoln signed:
Washington, August 18, 1863.
My Dear Sir,
Allow me to return my sincere thanks for the cards and pictures which you have kindly sent me. I think they are very successful. The Imperial photograph in which the head leans upon the hand I regard as the best that I have yet seen.
I am very truly, Your Obt Sevt,
I feel more than most other presidents, Lincoln helped to forge the ideology for civil liberties that my husband and I enjoy (having married after 20 years the first chance we could in CA before the window closed temporarily). Of course the rumored sexuality of Lincoln is very intriguing, if not provable (but I also think our contemporary ideas of homosexuality hadn’t even been formed at this time). But more than this, I like to paint images, when from appropriation, of people and scenes that give me hope, that I would want to aspire to be, to learn something about them more to give me clues on how to live a great life and to help others, and hope in painting these images, to inspire them about what inspires me about the picture. Adjacent to Sitting Bull and Annie Oakley, which are also studio views with painted backdrops, I hope this creates a triptych-like arrangement of American heroes that were ahead of their time in their struggle for agency and respect for themselves and others like them. As a part of this non-linear narrative of "My American Dream," in context, I hope that Abraham Lincoln becomes a wonderful patriarch of an America that I want to live in, that has given me the freedom to do what I do as an artist and teacher and person, along with so many others who enjoy the rights these people helped fight for. In the super salon installation, I do see it like a comic on the wall, with each painting like a panel in a comic, juxtaposed to create meaning, but also like a mural, a "gay Guernica," but in a good way, or Last Judgment, or a Thomas Hart Benton. Although I have done salons in the past, for the Biennial, I was thinking of the early years of the Whitney, where salon shows of "figurative narrative allegory" were more common, now heightened (literally, as the tallest painting grazed the Breuer cement ceiling, and the bottom pictures just touched the floor!) to bring attention to the fantastic architecture and its history, not just to bespeak for the Whitney and its past, but also for the Met (whose art both within the American Painting wing and much beyond continues to inspire me) and its future, as obviously the building’s new home will be for the visions that great museum will bring to it!
Inspiration. This great Velazquez at the Prado traveled to the Met, and was a huge inspiration to me—of the Holy Trinity crowning of Mary, it is both rendered fastidiously, but also has the life and nuance of a spiritual unconscious driving the work. It has more life to me than the American Gilbert Stuart’s famous presidential portraits, such as the Lansdowne Portrait of Washington at the National Gallery, which seems awkward and stiff. And although I love these early American (and based on life and photos, perhaps for the first time) portraits of Lincoln by his contemporaries Healy and Wilson. I do love some of these early American works, and even though Stuart was like a Warhol of his time, as he repeated motifs and did many copies of the same portrait of Washington for money, he was also able to paint transcendent beauties like the Skater in the National Gallery. As much as I appreciate these great American Portraits, I think we can revisit historical paintings with less academic restraint, and like the old masters, try to invoke a spiritual, subconscious, transcendent painterly poetry to the proceedings, that not only depict these great figures, but also allow for the images to portray the inner personality of the people, and the ineffable effect they ultimately had on our world and culture.