My American Dream: This Land is Your Land
Empire, 2021 Oil on linen 45 × 60 inches
Empire, 2021
Oil on linen 45 × 60 inches

For several years before I moved to Southern California to teach at USC, I took pictures every day as I passed by the Empire State Building and posted on social media as a kind of prayer.  My husband and I love New York City and lived there for 25 years before USC brought me out to be a tenured professor and now Chair of Painting, Drawing, and Printmaking.  This was an image from Tuesday, June 7, 2016.  I’m not sure what was happening in the city that night that made the Empire State Building’s people decide on the color scheme, but for some reason this particular image always struck me.  Looking back at that date in the New York Times, Donald Trump Jr. was said to have “sent an email to confirm meeting with a Russian Lawyer,” who had “incriminating information about Hillary Clinton) and that “three hours later said in a speech he would deliver a major address” that detailed Hillary’s “corrupt dealings to give favorable treatment to foreign governments, including the Russians”.  This was also a time of transition for me personally, as I had recently (on my 50th birthday!) accepted the job at USC, and was teaching my last summer in NYC.  I don’t remember the occasion of taking this image, as I did them every day, but when I got a good view, on my bike, or walking, or from a cab window, I would aim and shoot.

I love Warhol’s Empire film, so stately and conceptual, fills me with a melancholy but also power, like watching the original King Kong when I was young, seeing Fay Wray being carried up this art deco masterpiece is truly sublime.  I also appreciate all the early photography of the city, and Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s film Manhatta (and their photography and painting, and ideology behind it…).  To me, the Empire State Building has never lost its luster, and I’ve painted many scenes of the towering skyscraper, but this was my first from afar, thinking about that time and where I’m at now—when painting this, my 3-year-old Anatolian Shepard dog had been terribly ill, and actually died while I was in the act of painting the work.   I love this film Rembrandt, from 1936, directed by Alexander Korda, staring Charles Laughton as Rembrandt—and he really looks like a loving version of the Old Master.  In this also stately, melancholic film, with snowy white landscapes, and windmills expanding out to the horizon, Rembrandt loses his beloved wife Saskia, a woman he truly loved (and loved to paint).  In a terrific scene in the movie, Saskia has just died, and her funeral is happening up the hill from Rembrandt’s studio, where he is furiously painting away a portrait of her.  His friends come bursting in, and exclaim “Rembrandt, why aren’t you at Saskia’s funeral?” to which Rembrandt replies “Go away!  I want to paint her while I still remember her!”.  This happened once before, when I was painting a picture of Google Earth from space when I lost a German Shepard, and I couldn’t stop painting, but put everything I was thinking and feeling into the painting.  Here too, I was working on deadline, but also thinking of power, and the Babylon Tower-like idea of this great building reaching towards and scraping heaven’s roof…. So here, I was thinking of wherever my dog (his name was Jasper Johns!) would be—in addition to all the others who have recently passed away in our lives-and during Covid, our collective lives.  Perhaps if there was a ideation of Heaven that could look like a heaven’s gate or building (or rocket!) it could be something like this.  I love translating pixels from the glitchiness of cell phone pictures, and seeing through those forms to find other forms, like the distortion becoming a portal into a different world.  If this is like gates of heaven, perhaps the windows are like souls, parts of the lights became like skulls piled together at the top like in the catacombs in Rome…

Another great Empire piece is the Carl Andre stack of bricks on the floor of the Donald Judd Foundation in Soho, where Judd used to live and work.  Manifest Destiny, from 1986—8 stacked used bricks that have the word “Empire” (their manufacturer?) stamped on them.  To me, this is just one of the great “minimalists” sculptures, based on my bias for narrative and allegory).  From the corner of Spring and Prince (I used to live on Prince between Thompson and Greene streets and would walk by this almost every day) you can see the Empire State Building from that corner.  The old, used, but stately and fantastic bricks are unstable and leaning, kind of like the luster of America, and the power of what America used to truly stand for—and everything that the original Empire State Building was about, built with willful triumph in 1930-31 in heroic time and optimism when everything felt the bleakest during the Great Depression.  Although it took some time for the offices to fill, and the Kong movie to use the skyscraper as a magnificent, meaningful and symbolic prop to popularize this great building of American iconic culture.   Recently, there was an article in the Times about how, post-Covid, many of the spaces are now empty, the most since the building first opened, as people have found working at home better, the high rents, moves made during the pandemic and so on.

With the emotive blight of our moment, where democracy has seemed to be saved, but just barely and still very much at threat, the feelings of this work hopefully translate in the same manner as to how it felt to mourn my poor dog’s passing.  With hope and resilience, all things ultimately to whatever creator, and we must do our utmost to make the most of what we can in this moment, to help others and the broader communities, no matter how they may vote.  I still love America for all it can mean for hope and optimism, the creative spirit, the ideation of better worlds that come to fruition for all people.  New Yorkers, hit the most by Covid than many other denizens in America, suffered horrible losses and much during this time, but hopefully will come back stronger than ever, like we did during 9-11 and how it always survives and thrives, ultimately, under pressure.  Hopefully the sun is setting on the what is bad about the American Empire, but in the hope of a new tomorrow, where we can squash fascism at home and bring about a more democratic, pluralistic and equitable future for all its people, we can fight the good fight and build new tomorrows, like they did back in the original days of the Empire State Buildings history (which was also built by the extraordinary capable hands, of the indigenous iron workers who built the great skyscrapers, the Mohawks).