It’s easier to admire your shoes when you hold them in your hands.
It’s hard to be a hero when you trip over your Helmut Langs.
It’s hard to be a rock star when you’re not in a band.
It’s hard to be the avenger when you see only mirrors on the other end.
I have always been devoted to seeing and understanding the world through painting. The arc of my work has been an odyssey of various subjects and painting genres, abstract and representational, that have circled, overlapped and fed back. I have never accepted the implicit taboo against serial, and sometimes abrupt changes in style and subject--that in order to develop with integrity, an artist must continue to work within a narrow set of parameters. That approach has worked for many artists, even great ones, but not for me. Throughout my life as an artist, I have frequently revisited and repurposed aspects of my earlier work, investing them with different meanings in different contexts, taking risks to reveal the complexity of my vision while creating a coherent language and body of work.
My recent paintings are part of a group of works that I began in 2009 of rodeo bulls and bull riding. These works veer more into abstraction, with parts of the bull emerging from paint facture and color that is barely, or often not at all descriptive. Like all of my paintings from the past few years, they are made without the use of brushes. Instead, they are made with a technique that can most accurately be called finger painting, palm painting, back of the hand painting, etc. Identifiable parts, such as hooves, function more like recurring characters in an abstract story. The interplay between the identifiable forms and the more completely non-representational areas is a central part of the meaning of the paintings. The aggressiveness or delicacy of the abstract forms, surfaces, finger strokes, etc. can conjure associations and meanings that surprise and inspire me as I am working, and that can seem contradictory to the alleged subject. The powerful twisting, spiraling form and space of the bucking bull, however hidden or disguised, is a foil for an evocation of vulnerability and secretiveness.
There has been an evolution in the bull paintings that has taken place in several stages with both physical and conceptual manifestations. At the start I thought of them as meditations on mortality, unstoppable natural forces, vanity and virtuosity. I was always aware of the absurdity of the entire spectacle--that the riders engaged in a potentially self-annihilating activity while wearing funny, colorful outfits in their quest to contradict the danger while looking cool in the process.
When I began working with bull riders I was interested in finding ways to incorporate as many of my seemingly disparate impulses and interests as possible, to find a way to pack the works with everything I loved about painting and to orchestrate the various elements. The first paintings were very large, and contained a dramatic depiction of the rider being thrown from the bull, an armature that provided me with a seemingly vast range of painting possibilities and references.
From a purely visual point of view, I was fascinated by the Baroque dynamic of the twisting bull and rider, which connected with my long preoccupation with Baroque architecture. (From 1969-1976 I made large-scale paintings of vertiginous views of the interior of a Baroque chapel, designed by Francesco Borromini. In addition to the concave/convex dynamism of Borromini, I was also fascinated with the abstract, mathematical spirituality that was so central to his architecture and the subtle sense of reserve I sensed in his vision. Borromini’s architectural geometry provided me with a way to mediate abstraction and representation that has influenced me throughout my life as an artist.) The bull riding paintings were also inspired by my immediately preceding paintings from 2002-2007, a series of large self-portraits in which I was dressed in spandex outfits attempting to perform various athletic acts such as bowling or climbing a gym rope (a self-mocking critique of my experience of aging, and trying to look cool in the process, like the bull riders).
In 2011, I began to incorporate abstract elements, mostly geometric, culled from my own abstract paintings and drawings from 1976-1992. Rather than presenting a contest of styles, I felt I was introducing two old friends with different interests for a conversation. There was an absurdity to the pairing, but also a synergy that offered many new possibilities. When, in 2013, I eliminated the riders, the interactions between the bulls and the other elements in the paintings became more focused. The geometric shapes became markers that affected the dynamic of the bull as well as the entire painting. The grounds of these paintings were just off white oil primer. As the abstract shapes morphed into notations or symbols the bulls did as well, although unlikely, imposing, three-dimensional ones. The flailing bulls, trapped by the physical limits of the canvas, become both violent and vulnerable even as they simultaneously remain just another formal compositional element, thus enacting the historically uneasy relationship between subject matter and art.
In 2015, I began to eliminate the external geometric forms to make the interaction between the abstract and representational elements less of a symbolic, quotational gesture. Rather than being separated within the paintings, I wanted abstraction and representation to be more embedded and responsive to each other to create a different single language. At the same time, I also replaced the white grounds with full color, to achieve a more expansive, expressive sense of light. These works immediately precede the most recent paintings described in the second paragraph.
My history as an artist has included: large paintings of Italian Baroque church interiors, 1969-1977; a series of self-portrait photographs taken intermittently for several years in which I acted out improvised personal dramas in a subterranean funeral chapel in Rome designed by Borromini, 1971-1974; experiments I conducted in which I blindfolded myself at night and crawled through my entire loft, attempting to navigate and crisscross the space, then locating strategically placed sheets of drawing paper and black oil pastels, and attempting to retrace the path I had taken, while still blindfolded, 1976; large abstract paintings and pastel drawings made during a 15 year period, inspired by both Baroque architecture and my nighttime crawling experiments, and subsequently, large-scale, eccentrically shaped paintings influenced by constructivist forms as well as Baroque architecture, 1976-1991; large computer based word paintings, with symbols and images, that focused on an exploration of my outsider status as a Jewish person from Queens obsessed with Italian Baroque church architecture, and then broadened to include a wider range of issues surrounding religious assimilation, 1991-1994; a series of paintings that focused on the responsibilities of parenthood, in which I dressed as a doctor with dozens of stethoscopes, interacting with my children, titled “The Artist as Good Provider”, 1994-1997; a series of portraits of one of my sons, who is a musician, dressed in eccentric rock and roll outfits, weighed down by numerous electric guitars and other paraphernalia (part of the “Artist as Good Provider” series), 1998-2001; a group of large self-portraits described above, 2002-2007; a series of paintings of a Korean Buddhist monk, easily climbing the same rope, 2007-2008; and finally rodeo bull riding.
My path as an artist has been guided by the freedom as well as the imperative to do what feels appropriate and interesting to me at any given time. I have worked sequentially in different styles while viewing each new move as part of a larger, more complex narrative. I understand that art styles represent worldviews, but I also believe that ideas, experiences and sensibilities are not bound to any one style. My goal as an artist has been to create an inclusive visual language that synthesizes my art interests as well as my understanding of how I exist in the world.