One thing I learned from punk, whether it be the Clash, who really knew how to play their instruments, and the Germs, who barely could and Darby Crash, their lead singer, who wouldn’t sing into the mike, is that you could have great, poetic content that did have a critical, political edge, but at the same time have emotion and feeling surging through the words to give it life. The lyrics were the content, and the music was the form, much like what figurative painting can be—where the "lyrics" are the narrative allegory of whatever the people in the scenes are doing or represent, and the "music" is the way the artist has brought up the idea aesthetically… Maybe the Americans lost the ability, at their most cool, to convey emotion in their smart art in the Postmodern debunking of beauty and more Modernist notions of form conveying the ineffable. Beauty and emotion were seen as a drug that made the viewer forget their mind and mystify how work might not be addressing the world outside the hegemony of the picture plane—the subjugation of peoples and the proletariat digging the ditch wouldn’t be helped by pictures of women with parasols in a flowery meadows or Rothko creating sublime color machines to transport people while he listened to tragic opera. I think Postmodernity was important politically to let more people into the system and voices to be heard, and to necessitate content into the taste of fine art industry and the mainstream viewing public, inspiring artists to make work that did address issues surrounding the work as much as the form of the work itself. However, in not privileging what a picture might do best—to "say a thousand words" and to remind people they were human being living animals that have emotions—possibly we forgot something in the process. I love that image by David Wojnarowicz of himself as Arthur Rimbaud standing in front of the graffiti quoting Joseph Beuys: "the silence of Marcel Duchamp is overrated." David Hammons once said something to the tune of "all artists working today are children of Duchamp," and while you can see this is largely true, especially in examples of appropriation and conceptual art in galleries and museums today, I think its fantastic that you can now also see work that has more to do with Picasso than Duchamp, more Freud than Marx. Or maybe—as in Duchamp’s final masterpiece, étant donnés—an interesting hybrid of both! I believe in the "have your cake and eat it too" plan of art, like the best of punk, that allows for emotions, beauty, and the transcendent while at the same time being self-aware, smart, and critical about itself and the world in which the work operates.
My friend gave us a wonderful present, and bought us two tickets to the incredible play by John Logan entitled Red, about Rothko when he was painting the infamous Seagram murals, with Alfred Molina as Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as his fictional assistant Ken. As the audience was initially coming in to take their seats, Molina was in his characters chair, smoking a cigarette and contemplating his paintings. I thought it was hilarious and poignant that instead of watching Molina as Rothko and taking in the pretty excellent emulations of his work and the scene in general, the audience was actively ignoring him, reading their Playbills, chatting with one another, and generally jostling as I took this picture. I think the secret to Post post Modernity, or the very genesis of it (if form and content in painting, and works that relate the larger world in a critical fashion hasn’t always been the key to great art of any time, if this is part of what "post-modernity" can mean) is Manet, who painted the world of his time, his place, of his friends and lovers, but did so with a very smart, critical eye and mind, and let his subject matter become a talisman for his own painterly finesse and emotions to be projected onto the subject matter. This was a terrific play, that had as its apotheosis, Rothko storming back to his studio after going to an opening of Warhol’s, complaining about the banality of Warhol’s subject manner, and entirely rejecting everything that Warhol could represent. His young assistant comes back at him, telling him that Warhol was way more relevant to his time than Rothko was, and that Rothko’s addiction to sublime tragedy, and abstraction, was over. In my mind, seeing the play in our contemporary time, it synthesized what was now aged about both modernity and post-modernity, if this is what Pop was, and if Post-modernism wasn’t merely an extension of Modernism, or if we aren’t in an extension of modernity today. Rothko is allegorical, if you believe someone like Craig Owens—if you step back from his work, like in this play, his work was about a depressed Jewish man who committed suicide. But also Rothko himself would listen to tragic opera to be moved by and into his painting, and thought of them, I believe, to be their own movements with narrative intention, and would reject ultimately what Greenberg and Rosenberg might say about them. Still, I always "teach" people how to look at a Rothko in the way he wanted you to—to stand in front of the center of them so the edges extend beyond your peripheral vision, to stare into the center of them, to find a point you can focus on, and while staring, to think of a vision or a memory that you have experienced in your own life. They are like essential zed, iconic landscapes, and as you think "this is like staring at the ocean at night" or some other incredible sublime memory of landscape, the edges begin to fluctuate and WOOSH you are transported into a world of emotion and feeling. His work really DOES do this—but its ideological—you have to TOLD to do this for the most part—many common browsers of museums—and I remember overhearing someone actually say this during a Rothko retrospective—may think he came up with a good design and repeatedly repeated himself until he killed himself." Of course, there is MUCH more to it than that—I’m a HUGE Rothko fan, he really is one of my favorites—but you have to be taught about this, and then it may happen, unfortunately its not so universal as he might have liked his work to be. But Warhol also lacks the depth and the passion, emotion, and transcendent qualities a Rothko may have, and trades it in for its relatability, its relationship to the outside world beyond itself, and how, however significant the aesthetic qualities of a Warhol are, aren’t necessarily images you would want to stare into for hours on end in a "Warhol Chapel" feeling transported into a sublime state that makes you question life and existence.
I like the "have your cake and eat it too plan" and want to make work that has the cultural relatability of Warhol, but the depth and emotion and feeling of someone like a Rothko, and again, going back to someone like Manet is key, or early artists who used photography to create some of the first "all over imagery" like Bonnard, Vuillard, or Derain, given the nature of looking at a photo makes every element have an equal weight of aesthetic importance, or someone like Hopper, very important to me here and in general. In his famous New York Movie, from 1939, Hopper eschews painting the most important aspect of why most people go to the movies—to see the film, and instead focuses on an usherette, lost in her own thoughts at the margins of the movie house, his own Manet’s barmaid. I love the Broadway theaters, and before grad school, worked as house manager at the New Amsterdam Theater, right at the genesis of when they were transforming 42nd street from a sleezy porn row into what it is now (not much better—some may say worse!), when it was just a converted back from being a movie theater into a play house. It was still a bit decrepit, with glory holes in the bathrooms and more, but still held onto some of its grand dam grandeur. And if you dim the lights you could be transported into different times, as you can in the theater in general (my husband and I still routinely go to movies like Hopper and his wife Jo did, and I’ve been equally inspired by movies in all my work). It was fun trying to transport this scene to create my own Rothko in the golden ratio/rule of thirds compositional structure of the painting—in the optical blacks above I wanted it to bliss out into an unconscious other world, and in micromanaged moments turn into figurative abstraction. I thought there was a cool doubling/mirroring of the figures—the men’s bald heads with Molinas—tangentially to one like the Buddha statues that have many heads coming out of one, as Molina the actor channeling the lines that may or may not have been quotes from Rothko through the voice of the playwright acting as an avatar for the ideas and ideology the play was espousing while criticizing. And of course, no one is paying attention. I’m proud that I got to be an extra for my friend Ira Silverberg’s movie "Love is Strange," starring Molina and John Lithgow as aging gay men who get married. I got to meet Molina and exclaim that I’ve painted him "twice" (actually only his prosthetic Doc Ock arms in a Spiderman vs. Doc Ock), but showed him an image of this work and I think, as someone who has played many artists, he appreciated it.