< Rap It Up, I've Been Patient


I was interested in rap music and the hip hop culture only briefly: in 2010 when I frequented the graffiti mecca 5Pointz, mining the material, and 2012 when I built the art.


Although disinterested, it did indeed, inspire me. My work certainly wasn’t done to honor it but rather to exploit it; as it has blatantly done by sampling the work of others. And I had no desire to accurately document it. The art is offered only as my personal impression of it. There is little or nothing about it that I hold sacred. And I care little about what an expert or a passionate player might think about who I chose to include or ignore. I had no favorites nor did I care to search any out; except for Tupac Shakur, whose street cred and cultural significances speaks for itself. 

< Precious Days


I’ve been aware of September Song ever since . . . well, ever since I’ve been aware of anything. It was likely Sinatra’s 1946 recording that I first heard, probably the first piece of music I ever took note of —excluding Mister Moon, first warbled to me by my mother before I could walk away or talk back. Soon after I remember Jo Stafford’s version of 1950. But when I heard Sarah Vaughan sing it, then Billy Eckstine’s rendition, its arrow pierced my heart, the song no longer just background music, but something significant to my life

.

I had no idea where it had come from. Nor had I cared. But if I had been curious I’d have discover its music had been written by Kurt Weill, its lyrics by Maxwell Anderson for the 1938 Broadway play, Knickerbocker Holiday, and performed by Walter Huston as the dictatorial governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, an older man frustrated by his affair with a lady much younger. Which is a scenario that puzzles me today as it would have then.


Even though my fascination with the charms of the opposite sex was already in full bloom at ten, I never felt as if the song was about love and romance and the time, or lack thereof, that it takes one to fall under its spell. I took it more broadly. Instead of a young woman, I imagined the object of desire to be the state of happiness achieved by living one’s life in the pursuit of a dream. In my case being an artist. However, that life turned out to be far too unruly for any art I knew, always coming at me like a maniac swinging a baseball bat. So as a result I spent the spring and summer of my life ducking for cover. But then in September, as days grew short the bat finally landed smack in my face. And when I woke I had only the dream.


September, November . . . these precious days, I'll spend with you and with these faded flowers, perhaps I'll make the dream come true.

< Framework


You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

But You Can Tell a Picture by Its Frame


When I was young, many, if not a majority of the gods of art held no academic degrees. Mark Rothko bid an early good-bye to Yale in spite of a scholarship. Jackson Pollock was famously expelled from a manual arts high school in Echo Park, California. Before he became a star, Willem de Kooning stowed-away in a tramp steamer then survived in New Jersey doing carpentry and painting houses before becoming a commercial artist in New York.

That was how it was in the 1930s and 40s and into the 50s. But by the time I hit town things were changing. For better or worse everything was in flux. It was the 60s, after all.


I’d ended my college years short of a degree then bee-lined it to New York. Since Pollack had never worn a cap and gown, I figured I too needed none of that pomp and circumstance, just a class or two at the Art Students League or Cooper Union if I was lucky, Parsons or SVA if I wasn’t.


Since I was hardly alone rejecting academia, many of the major colleges and universities not obsessed with football noticed this spike in kids who craved a career in the arts and began aggressively expanding their programs, offering not only B.A.s but advanced degree programs as well, lorded over by the usual pompous old profs along with big-name contemporary artists where if one had the talent and the cash and was willing to spend a decade climbing the academic monkey-bars, one might then be branded at some point in the future a viable investment.


Unfortunately, that came a bit too late for me to take advantage of. By then I was already deep into a real-life grown up soap opera, the challenge of basic survival crashing down upon my shoulders. Distracted from making art, instead I worked hard to perfect the art of hanging out and talking about art, art that seemed more and more beyond my reach as years paged by. Then whenever the topic of art gestating behind ivied walls came up, my standard pronouncement was already on my tongue. “Art is everywhere,” I’d declare with a smug grin and a sweeping hand. “You don’t need some art star to show you where it’s at, man. All you need is a frame to throw around it.”


Though cute, that quip didn’t hold much weight for very long, the concept’s foundation shaken each time I failed to respond when asked, “What do you mean by a frame?” And, “Is not this frame then the work of art and not what it contains?” So, I was like, huh? Because no matter how much I dug the analogy I was no longer serious enough to interrupt an evening getting comfortably lit at Kenny and John’s, or Puffy’s, or settled on a perch near the pool table in Magoo’s, or listening to Sinatra croon Under My Skin at the Beach Street Bar, to forever try to define something that was really never more than a lame excuse for being unable to make art myself.


To make this dilemma even more complication, I’d gotten myself tangled up in photography, which just by the mechanics of framing a photo pretty much answered the riddle better than I ever could, and in a sublimely simple way. However, I was never very satisfied by the boundaries it imposed, squinting one eye as the other peered into a looking glass, hoping for that elusive white rabbit to appear. But in time I got used to it, even serious about it.


Then like that, twenty, thirty, forty years rushed by until the day a few months ago I found myself on Greenwich Street in lower Manhattan. Suddenly, as if feeling the cool breeze of the visitation from a ghost, I stopped in my tracks and for a few seconds I was smack-back in those days, standing in front a joint that had been the fore-mentioned Beach Street Bar, where my good buddy the bartender kept me loaded with Martell Cordon Bleu for a nominal charge and where a lady I knew well, danced for me from time to time up on the bar, keeping my interest peaked.


The contemporary joint still offers alcohol, although serving a much less colorful clientele, and no longer sitting at the edge the world where, beyond it to the west, had been darkness and danger and the gurgle of the Hudson at high tide and the skeletal remains of the Westside Highway. But that black magic now bloomed with glass and steel, where stick figures whose only talent was moving money around, streamed out of the palace doors to take lunch, blissfully ignorant of anything other than the size of their paychecks and bonuses or their next round of fantasy football.


I crossed the street, something I never had a reason for doing back then. Like wading into a wave I stepped up on the curb then paused as a gang of business-casual cats and chicks passed when something just down the street caught my eye. Now this something was not out of the ordinary. In fact, it was no more note-worthy than a fire hydrant or mailbox or lamppost. But that was the point. That was key, damn-it. There was nothing self-conscious about it! And there were more than one—five that I could see, one every twenty feet or so, twelve-inch diamond shaped portals cut from a plywood wall painted playground green, offering for anyone interested a peek at what was going on behind those walls. I stepped up to the first one and looked in.


What I saw simply took my breath away. In front of me was a venue both expressly abstract yet plainly real, and if I positioned myself just so, a mirror mirage of me, all defined by the natural elegance of a wounded and worn sheet of plywood. It was nothing less than a miracle to me, at last an indication that the reckless bullshit of my youth may have actually been a credible observation. I had finally found my frame.  

< 1+1=3


The late German photographer, Michael Schmidt, was known for presenting images in dramatic sequence to powerful emotional effect. Mr. Schmidt expressed his goal in arranging pictures as “1 + 1 = 3,” a coinage illustrating his belief that juxtaposing a series of photographs greatly increases their emotional power. His work has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Haus der Kunst in Munich and the Berlin and Venice biennales. He published more than a dozen books and exhibition catalogs.


Years before Michael was so inspired I was earning a living each day from 9 to 5 doing exactly the same thing, first for Photography Annual, then at Camera Arts. Of course my configurations aren't hanging in MoMA or anywhere else. But you might find them on Ebay every once in a while.


I confess the photographs I was working with were not mine. Never the less, I, as well as others in publishing, whose job it was to apply photographs that face each other across a spread, knew that the spread should be more than just the sum of its two parts. Or, as Mr. Schmidt chose to call it, 1+1=3.


Finally, after many years, I'm now juxtaposing my own images, in dramatic sequence, to powerful emotional effect . . . or sans the bombast for just a wink or a sigh.

< Devils In Detail


In New York City, directly across the East River from the United Nations building, there’s a community in the borough of Queens called Long Island City, once an industrial district populated mostly by working class residents. During the last decade that has changed enormously. Now much of the population and many of the businesses are gone, the funky brick and mortar replaced by soaring steel and glass and by an entirely different class of people.


In the 1990s, before this gentrification came about, there was an artist co-operative in a five story factory building nested along the tracks of the number 7 elevated line as it snaked its way through the neighborhood. In time, and by design, the co-op, as well as, the entire building became a mecca for street artists, the building covered in large murals that were known as pieces, as in masterpiece. Soon the main building, as well as several smaller buildings that surrounded it, became known as 5 Pointz, a phrase that proclaimed the site to be the gathering place for all such artist throughout the five boroughs of the city. But by the time the building was sold in 2011, 5Pointz had become a unifying symbol for not only New Yorkers but for many of the world’s street artists.


I spent the last full year of its operation photographing there. But I wasn’t at all interested in documenting the scene. Nor did I care for most of the work that covered its walls. Although these works were thought to be masterpieces, I thought otherwise. Instead I was interested in the haphazardly scrawled “tags” that were applied nightly to every flat surface at the site’s periphery. Whereas the “pieces” were respected and never painted over, the tags were violated again and again with gusto until one could barely distinguish one from another. There I found my art, in the details of this jungle of shapes and color there emerged spontaneous creations, each a product of perhaps half a dozen hands that to me was as artful as any mid- twentieth century masterpiece by the gods of abstract expressionism. 

Street Fish

 

In Chinatown there are restaurants that display fish in tanks positioned by the windows facing the street. Apparently this is done to imply the fish they serve are as fresh as can be.

However, the fish a customer is likely to dine on is more often than not one that has died waiting to be consumed. No longer attractive, no longer appetizing — in fact, because of chemical changes due to prolonged trauma — they are no longer as tasty as their schoolmates whose lives were ended quickly.


The fish in Chinatown suffer a long death. The cod especially can last three weeks or more. Called snow fish in the neighborhood they appear from out of the cold waters of the north Atlantic, strong and robust, their eyes exuding confidence they'll find their way back to the sea. But as days become weeks the look in their eyes changes, confidence giving way to confusion, to desperation, finally defeat as they settle passively to the bottom of the tanks. Then, when death is near, they surface for a final gasp.

Relics from the Ruins of My Life


How does one paint snow? By painting what the snow has fallen upon: a blue spruce, a weathered split-rail fence, a red barn off in the distance. But wouldn't that be just a painting of a barn, a fence, a tree? If there was a cumulous cloud over the barn, a blue jay in the tree, a withered vine clinging to the fence, how much would the painting be about the cloud, the bird, a vine? Not much at all, or about as much as the snow on the meadow outside my window defines what I see looking out upon it — or more precisely, what I feel from the fact that it is there: cold and white and pure, but lacking character of its own, defined only by the lay of the land it rests upon.


I slip off the stool, step back and stare at the empty canvas — the cold, white, virgin canvas. How can I paint snow any better than not painting it at all?


I go to the skylight and look out at the storm. Flakes are falling furiously — not falling but rather rushing this way and that, frantically swirling about as if trying to make up their minds which way to go, all one hundred trillion of them, all with a destination of their own, it appears. How do you paint that? How does one define that energy, that perpetual motion and at the same time describe the profound inertness of a single flake sleeping through a moonlit night deep in a snow drift?


If I am able to answer that question this then will be the last time I'll attempt a painting which is driven by the articulation of an idea rather than an interpretation of a material — thing. Now that everyone is painting like me what's the sense in doing it any longer? Abstract expressionism has gone as far as it can go. Let me do the same.


Once I've managed to paint snow — mastering the limitations of white on white — then let me paint that barn, that tree, the fence. But I shall paint them like no one has ever seen them before. I will paint them with such detail it will be impossible to distinguish them from a photograph. Then, when I've accomplished that, let me go further — beyond reality — let me paint them with even more clarity, more exactness than a photograph, or even what the naked eye can see. Let me paint that barn as if it's under an immense microscope. Then let the pundits call it hyper-realism, or whatever they feel is a nifty handle. And let the crowds following their proclamations while I move on to something new.


Behind me the phone rings. I walk back to the taboret where it squats like a little black Buddha. I pick it up. "I'm busy," I say. He asks me if I'm painting. "I'm thinking," I tell him. He tells me it's good that I'm thinking and that he's at the bus station and will soon be on his way. He says he'll pick up his car from the garage in town so I don't have to pick him up. I tell him about the snowstorm and what I was thinking about and how I am going to paint photography — which amuses him, inducing a gentle chuckle that warms me and reminds me of how sweet his smile can be. 
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< Reflections


New York’s a big town. And in this big town are three very big cemeteries: Green-Wood in Brooklyn, Wood Lawn in the Bronx, and Calvary in Queens. They’re all about 400 acres, give or take and all were established between the years 1838 and 1863. You’ve probably heard of Green-Wood and Wood Lawn. In fact, they’re world-famous, both being National Historic Landmarks. But I’m sure very few people living outside of the New York area have ever heard of Calvary, even though 1,750,000 former New Yorkers recline eternally on it’s gently rolling landscape, hard by the intersection of two major expressways.


While both Green-Wood and Wood Lawn are non-sectarian, Calvary is Roman Catholic, established by the trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1848. And where-as Green-Wood and Wood Lawn boast a who’s who of the biggest names in the arts, business, sports and politics, Calvary cannot. But Calvary, so much more than her famous rivals, has embraced real New Yorkers, the people who indeed made this city great and the opportunity for their more famous brethren, who lie across town in Brooklyn or the Bronx, to forever bask in glory.


About the most famous person to rest in Calvary—from polite society, that is—is Al Smith, former governor and unsuccessful 1928 Democratic candidate for president. Also notable is an Irish lass, Annie Moore, the first person to enter the United States through Ellis Island. Annie, who was just in her teens at the time, joined her parents already living on the lower east side, soon married a German emigrant, bore eleven children, and died of exhaustion in 1924, while still only in her early forties.


And, as I implied above, there are also the infamous: gangsters and their victims. There are tough guys and hit men like “Lefty Guns” Ruggiero and innocents like little Joey Varotta, only five years of age, who was kidnapped by the Blackhand gang (early mafia) from the stoop of his home on E. 13th St. Several days later, after his parents were unable to pay the 2,500 dollars in ransom for his return, little Joe’s body washed ashore from the Hudson at high tide near Piermont, New York, on June 11,1921. Three members of the gang were tried and convicted of his murder and sentenced to death. But New York Governor Alfred E. Smith (the Al Smith in this essay) commuted their death sentences to life in prison.


These are the stories that have drawn me to Calvary through the years, and now to the graves of the recently departed, many of whom are memorialized in photographs, their likenesses taken from favorite snapshots or official portraits, then etched onto the faces of polished black granite tombstones. Check them out. If you're at all like me you might imagine yourself, one day, as one of these eerie and sad reflections. 
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