My American Dream: Mystery Train
Bethlehem Steel, 2017 oil on linen 32 × 48 in. | 81.3 × 121.9 cm
Bethlehem Steel, 2017
oil on linen 32 × 48 in. | 81.3 × 121.9 cm

The primary influence, beyond my dear friend Dan who recently passed away and brought me here, is the Elsie Driggs’ painting of Pittsburgh from 1927, that was displayed in the inaugural reopening of the Whitney Museum when it moved downtown in 2014 (and a painting that currently is on display at the Whitney during the same time as this exhibition!). Driggs is an artist, although I love American Modernism and the Precisionists, I didn’t know about until this time (as the misogyny of art history has prevailed until the recent amendments of great curators and critical thinkers and artists and intuitions that are helping to bring history back up to speed with the artists that time hopefully won’t forget!). Driggs, in her painting (unlike her male peers) not only idolizes the factory of the industrial revolution and the heyday of American industry and power, but brings her own wonton, melancholic and eulogizing memories to the picture that also is of her youth growing up in Pittsburgh.

When we went to Bethlehem Steel as part of our photographic odyssey across America, Dan knew well the factory (and perhaps its photographic legacy in the work of Walker Evans), and once there we learned together more about the place that produced the steel that helped to build the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building (which I’ve painted many times), and much of the war material of America’s history. Visiting the cemetery nearby (an ode to Walker Evans?), we met a groundskeeper who once worked at the factory, who regaled us with the stories of the fat cats that ran the place into the ground with their greed. Once the thriving heart pump of the community, Bethlehem Steel exploited their workers in dangerous jobs, but gave them employment and the means to raise generations of families. Now, beyond the religious allegorical metaphor begotten by its name, the factory is a sad lament to times gone by, with lights strung up its side and a nearby mall, with movies and empty restaurants. We were too late to go on a tour, but we did take many pictures, and I tried to capture this silhouette thinking of Driggs but how also how the factory was itself a graveyard of man’s (and America’s, in our current era) hubris. Dan had configured my camera to take full advantage of the lens, that didn’t quite capture all the sensors in the unit, usually creating a circle like image, but here, with the plastic hood over that lens, creates a batman-like silhouette, that I thought enhanced the picture’s solemnity.