Abstract 1987-1990

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Acrylic on Paper
3′ x 5′ Approximate

After I graduated from Penn State in 1983 I went to Taiwan. I was not in a graduate program and I didn’t have a job. I went as an artist. A bum. A bohemian in search of something. I wanted to understand Eastern Art the way I understood Western Art….both scholarly and living in the culture.

I went there on a one way ticket with $200 to my name. And 4 years later I came home. While there I had the good fortune to meet very committed scholars of Eastern Art and philosophy as well as artists from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and Western countries, as well as American expats. In fact, my flat became a bohemian hangout for a whole coterie of arty people. And somehow, despite youthful ignorance I stumbled into a pretty in-depth understanding of Chinese art history, culture and driving principles of Eastern art.

The hard part was integrating all of that when I came home. These works on paper were among one of many ways I started doing this. And even these pieces look “Chinese” in some very basic ways, they were not my first experiments in integration. These were done when I moved to Seattle after 2 years or so in Manhattan where I worked on radically different looking attempts at integration. In some ways, these were a step backward into a more conventional Eastern approach. And even then, it would be another few years before this really coalesced. Now, my abstract work is so enjoyable and so much a part of my creative work and yet is inconceivable without those years of study and integration afterwards.

“Yantras and Dollars”
Oil/poster board
Various sizes

This is a painting on a found object. I like painting over printed imagery for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the fresh human feeling of actual brush strokes against the hard impersonal feeling of the printed mark is an element unto itself. But here, the “V” in the printed image corresponded to the “yoni” I was borrowing from East Indian yantra paintings.

The “v” represents divine female energy in that tradition. And by extension is basically a spiritual. What is hard to see in this photo is the dollar sign that is mostly painted over. The tension between these 2 symbols is also an element in the painting.

Besides all of that, it is what it is in part because I was just broke at the time and wanted to paint a lot. Truth is, I would paint on anything I could find that paint would stick to.

40” x 30” approximate

This painting represents the distillation of many intellectual and visual sources. I was interested in the Yantra’s of Indian art. What interested me was that Yantra’s were created and used as tools or aides for meditation. They were not “art” in the same way painting was in the European/American tradition.

At the same time I was fascinated by the spare elegance of the work of Robert Motherwell. Frankly, looking back on this painting, I wish I had done more of them and I wish I had made them bigger.

At this time I also created faithful copies of canonical Yantra’s that were meant to be sat upon while meditating. The makers of these original pieces did so with the belief that these arrangements of lines, colors and shapes actually brought about the various gods and subsequent states of being, even if you didn’t see them. Simply sitting on them was enough.

The 7 Chakras
“The 7 Chakras”
7 Separate Canvases 
5′ x 5’
In the late 1980s there was a widespread interest in East Indian philosophy, Buddhism, Taoism and all things mystical. It became a kind of echo to the rampant materialism some people called “Reaganism” and “trickle down economics” of the 1980s. This same decade that gave birth to “yuppies” and “bottom line” mentality also gave us the New Age movement. At its most superficial level it was about burning incense and candles while doing yoga to lose weight. On a deeper level it was people trying to find what “spirituality” actually meant for them. In a world where their lifestyle and very survival depended on the ever more inter-dependent industrial and technological systems of everything from food production and distribution to the electrical and power networks that kept the food refrigerated not to mention the increasingly complex communications networks that were making the world and ever more interconnected place.  
I was freshly back from a five-year visit to China. There, I studied Asian art and art history and was familiar with these eastern ideas in their more historical sense. It was quite interesting to see how these ideas were being reinterpreted in late 20th-century America. I could see the influence everywhere. And I myself was part of that.  
When I first returned to the United States in 1987, I went to live on an art farm in northeastern Pennsylvania, about halfway between Penn State University and New York City. Before long I was also living part-time in the apartment of my former college mentor in her Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan. Her name was Dr. Helen Woodall.
She had become very interested in these eastern ideas. Her apartment was full of images and conversation about the new age movement. And my friends on the art farm in Pennsylvania we’re also very involved with this in their own way.
Within a short time I developed a chicken coop into an art studio at the art farm and begin working. I lived both in the country and in Manhattan like this for two years. During this time, I became very interested in the work of Hans Hoffman and other abstract expressionists especially Robert Motherwell, Franz Klein and Robert Rauschenberg. But I deeply distrusted what was going on in the current artistic scene.
When I was living in New York, artists like Julian Schnabel and Damien Hirst were hugely popular. I mistrusted their intentions and just simply did not like their art.
Dr. Woodal also introduced me to the work of Arthur Dove and Georgia Okeeffe and the whole Southwest visionary scene that had developed in the 1940s and 50’s. Dr. Woodall was in fact working on a paper based on these artists, especially Richard Pousette Dart.
Eventually, I had a breakthrough and discovered a synthesis of various art styles in my own ideas about spirituality and painting. The result was a body of paintings that became my first signature work. This became the basis of work from which I created these chakra paintings. 
Eventually I moved to Seattle in 1989. Shortly after I moved here I met Denny Sargeant who took my interest in all things spiritual down a darker turn. He was an occultist with a particular interest in the work of Alister Crowley.
Denny liked doing invocations of spirits, especially along his animist tendencies. He also cultivated my interest in “automatism“ and anything needed to get past the intellect. This particular feature of Denny’s influence was probably the most important. I was a learned artist. I read a lot, and I thought a lot. My primary mentors had all been art historians, not artists. Nevertheless, my body and my life experiences were both driving me to feel more powerfully in concert with what Denny was doing. Denny’s emphasis on irrational action and altered states was the right thing at the right time for me. We stopped short of ingesting Hallucinogenics or any substances. In fact, we felt it was important that we invoke what we could without any sort of chemical support, not even alcohol. Later, though, with a different mentor, I used ayahuasca, mushrooms and MDMA in carefully guided settings. But that is a story for another day.
One of the East Indian ideas that was very prevalent in American culture at that time was the idea that one’s body had an actual spiritual anatomy. The idea was that your spiritual body was made up of spheres of energy with nodes, or places where this energy intersected. Those nodes were called chakras or “wheels of light.” One could improve one’s physical and mental well-being by doing things to refine or heal one’s chakras. This is not the place for a full explanation of chakras. (A simple google search will yield lots of information about that.)  One way in which it was felt one could tune your chakras was by gazing at paintings that were created for this purpose.  
These images were called Yantras and had a great deal of dogmatic formulae associated with them including what they should look like, what settings they should be used in and how one should view them. In these respects they are more like religious icons than art. They were not meant to simply be viewed in either a formal gallery like setting nor as decoration. I had studied these images as part of my education at Penn State and then again at this time. I even did several very careful copies of famous Yantras.   
These 7 paintings are the distillations of those ideas and concerns. To anyone familiar with traditional Yantra they represent a serious departure from the dogma of what the Yantras should look like. So much so, that they probably would not recognize them as Yantras. Nevertheless, looking at them now 30 years later I still feel they are imbued with the ideas that undergird the notion of Yantras and what they are used for and have an innocence that is refreshing even now.
These pieces, and what they represent have seriously informed my idea of what a gallery experience can be about. Instead of simply a room to display and sell paintings, an understandably necessary function, I have ever since considered a gallery to also be a place of meditation and contemplation. A place to reintegrate various aspects of myself that become scattered by the contingencies of daily life. And a place to rediscover my values and principles which are largely informed by the invisible and tenuous connections that make me both at one with everything and at the same time a unique individual. This is, at least potentially, the quiet unseen work going on in the viewer in a gallery. That stuff, that quiet work, is the stuff of what I call spirituality. And these paintings helped me get clear about all of that. And still do.  
50″ x 40”
This painting is part of what was my first signature style. It evolved in my New York City studio after returning from China. After a few months of dismally bad painting that was derivative of Mark Rothko, Gottlieb, and other early 20th century “visionaries,” this style emerged. The bands of color and black over a field of muted color, along with symbols and shapes seemed to provide an endless set of possibilities. It also expressed many of the ideas about transcendence and spirituality that I had been searching for. These ideas were also informed by an artist named Hans Hoffman, as well as the writings of Allen Watts. This body of work would continue to serve as the basis for stylistic developments in my work even to this day. 
48 x 32”
I painted this piece in New York City in the studio of an artist I worked for at that time. During the summer he let me use his SoDo studio while he and his wife went to their summer home.  
It was sweltering hot. The neighborhood was filthy and stank of stale urine and garbage. There was frequently human excrement on the door step or even a human being passed out or maybe even dead. I never checked. Inside, my mentor – turned art dealer, Helen Woodal, was often screaming at me to produce another piece more original than the one before.  
Helen was also working on a book based on the work of Arther Dove, Richard Pousette Dart and other artists in the so called Transcendentalist Movement. Those artists were some of the first to introduce Eastern philosophies into American culture. I could easily see, even at the age of 27, how easily some of those ideas would merge with American’s notions of Nature as a source of redemption, spiritual grounding and renewal.    
At the same time, I was certain there would be an eventual bodily component to this. Helen and I both became interested in the developing New Age Movement of the 80’s. The ideas that attracted us were the traditions of Chakras from India and the idea that the physical body had a corresponding spiritual body, with its own principles of anatomy and structure.  
It was of course, interesting to both of us that there were traditional visual tools to stimulate, even cure, maladies with one’s spiritual body. These were called Yantras, the visual analog to the more well known mantras which was something one chanted for the same reasons.  
The idea was that one would either gaze at or sit on a Yantra. This would somehow align or stimulate a particular chakra, or set of chakras. Naturally over thousands of years these Yantras took on a specific formulaic look. Not dissimilar to the canon of the geometric proportions that classical period Ancient Greek art employed for its carvings of the Human figure. Those were the proportions that the Ancient Greeks felt were necessary to invoke a particular god or goddess. Like the Hindus, they felt the god was the proportions. Both of these traditions were based on mathematical principles and both were interested in transcendence through proportion and sight.    
I also became very interested in the color field painters of the 1950’s at this time. Since I was living in New York I had the opportunity to experience Mark Rothko paintings first hand. They worked for me. In those days the museums were mostly empty so I had the opportunity to sit for long periods of time in front of each piece. And as such I had the opportunity to experience what I believe Rothko had intended.   
At this time I also had a chicken coup at an art farm in the Pocono Mountains 2 hours west of Manhattan. Out at the farm I made dozens of Rothko paintings of my own. My desire was to figure out ways of applying paint that would create those harmonious fields of visual “sound.” In some respects these studies were purely mechanical experiments, the stuff of an artist working out the terms of his craft. But I also discovered that these visual concerns worked best either very large for wall hanging, or very small for lap or table top viewing. This idea of table top viewing would become an important part of my production many years later.  
I was also interested in the work of another New York colorfield painter named Gottlieb. His use of cryptic symbols amidst the color fields was another component I would absorb. His work would also eventually be an important clue for moving back to figuration in my own work. His work inspired me to create my own symbol vocabulary that would grow into stick like figures at first and then eventually into the fully developed figures that became the predominant way I painted the figure for the next 20 years.  
This piece is a break through of integration and innovation. It has many of the elements I was working with at that time from Yantras to color field painting and Gotlieb’s large symbol paintings. I remember how excited I was at the time I painted it. Even now, I still see this piece as important to me personally and to see it working the way it was designed to do. From this piece on my work was no longer derivative.  

“Homage To Hans Hoffman”
6’ x 4’ Approximately

 After I returned from living in China for nearly four years I landed in New York City. At the same time I established a small studio in a chicken coop in the country two hours west of Manhattan.

In the chicken coop, I discovered the color field painters and the “new age“ movement that was sweeping parts of the country, while Reaganism and rampant materialism were flowing concurrently. I did dozens of “homages” to Hoffman and Rothko and others from that time period when I returned from China. I was curious to see if the concepts and paintings themselves from the “Color Field” painters would really lift my spirits as they purported their works and style of painting would do.  

These works were among the last of my overtly derivative paintings. Out of this soup of influences that extended back to my undergraduate studies in Western Art to my years in China to my stint in New York and burgeoning interest in East Indian Art, and Yantras I was able to create my first signature body of Art.  

In this work, I wanted to really understand the design elements that were so central to Hoffmann. The notion that a shape exerted its influence beyond its dimensions- it pushed and pulled on the composition. It’s color, size and edge quality would vary that pushing and pulling and that a work of art could be made out of such subtle forces.

This piece is very full and complex with a lot of pushing and pulling going on. With the help of Rothko’s influence my work became simpler, more isolated and stronger.

This close examination of Hoffman’s work and principles drilled into me the basic design concepts of movement within a piece without the more obvious directions signaled by figures with gestures and facial expressions and even the arrangement of bodies. This sunk in more thoroughly than any other painting style or principles I had studied up to that point.

“Transcendental Yantras”
Oil on paper, canvas, panel
Various sizes

After studying Western Art History, then going to Taiwan and China for a few years to learn as much as I could there about Chinese and Japanese art, it was not too surprising to look back and see that I was then interested in the art of India. By this time I was living in Manhattan eking out a living working as an artist assistant to much older artists and trying to put together a body of work that brought my nascent ideas together.

It turned out that the mystic traditions of Indian art would have what were some important missing ingredients in my efforts to synthesize into a coherent art form what I saw going on in the culture. There is not space to go too deeply into this subject here, but in a nutshell, America was torn between an intense materialist revival on the one hand and a deepening of the mystical and transcendentalist ideas that took hold in the 1960’s. Yoga and meditation were big. But so was conspicuous consumption, upward mobility and unabashed displays of wealth. Donald Trump built his Trump Tower in Manhattan during that time. And at the same time Bhagwan Shri Rashnish was building his city of spiritual devotees in the desert in Oregon.

Trump had his gold toilet. And Rashnish had his followers in purple. It was a strange time.

Well…this little painting has some of the ingredients of how I reconciled all of this. There are the bold expressionistic strokes of being in the moment and having the energy being expressed in the moment of the stroke. There is the sense of order and structure which is an element in itself but also acts as a balance to the gesture painting. And then there is the bindi stone, an unabashed reference to the spiritual principles of Indian art especially its traditional use of yantras, symbols as aides to meditation.
It was this third ingredient, the Indian art, that would be the piece I needed and which became my first really personal body of art.

“The Studio”
60” x 42”

Several times during my 20’s I tried to do a large painting that would summarize all the philosophical ideas, artistic styles and personal emotions I was contending with at the time. And each time I failed. This piece was physically large for me up to that point, and arguably had a larger agenda.

During the time I worked on this piece I had recently returned from Taiwan and was now living part time on an art farm in the country and part time at my old mentor’s apartment in Manhattan. Despite the fact that I was broke which made getting back and forth risky, it was an ideal situation for an artist.

In addition to struggling with reverse culture shock, I was trying to integrate rural life where I was living in a chicken coup that I converted into a rough studio and an apartment in upper Manhattan. I was also trying to put everything I learned about Asian art and Western Art into a style that cohered. And to top it off, I really wanted to convey an idea I had about space and time I had been toying with since I was 19 or so. But more on that later.

The reason I feel this piece was a failure was because it just didn’t move me the way I wanted. I didn’t expect to be wafted into the stratosphere just by looking at it. But I did expect to be moved the way I had experienced something powerful in front of other works of art. Instead, what I discovered was that this was a painting with too much packed on it and too many ideas without enough feeling. In the words of some of my harshest critics, I over thought it. And though I didn’t want to admit it, I knew it.

But it proved to be a treasure trove of pieces. And as it turns out, this was not the first time I was to do a work with too much in it but became a source of ideas and inspiration for a long time afterwards. In this case, I not only pulled several paintings directly out of this, I also left behind once and for all some ways of drawing the figure that clearly no longer served my expressive needs.

And lastly, the ideas about space and time proved to be a dead end. The basic idea was that something could be simultaneously in more than one place at a time and that more than one universe could exist all at the same time. Well, here, it merely looked like I painted the same thing more than once and that just fell flat as a concept.

It wasn’t until a few years later when I started using a roller which by its nature repeats a mark with each rotation and when I incorporated the idea of how memory works did I start to make progress on this set of ideas. It would take another 15 years of experimenting before this really started to work. Now, this way of working which I loosely call “my abstract” work and more poetically call my “conceptual Impressionism” is a deeply satisfying way to paint and communicate how I conceive and feel about reality.

"The Studio"
Linoleum Landscape

“Linoleum Landscape”
Oil on Linoleum tile
12” x12”

Thirty five years later I’m still exploring the creative possibilities implied in this painting done on the back of a floor tile I found in the garage of a house I rented in 1988. I was broke. I would paint on anything, whether paint stuck to it or not. But I also like the creative possibilities suggested by the way materials behaved. There was nothing sacrosanct about conventional artists’ oil paint, although I like that too.

People made fun of me in Manhattan when I told them I was moving to Seattle. “Isn’t that close to Alaska,” they would ask . When I explained that relative to the moon it was indeed close. But the part that stung the most was that many said I would end up painting landscapes if I did that. It was as though they were saying I would end up as a drug addict living under a bridge robbing innocent passers by to get my next fix.


I dreaded the inherent backwater that was more than implied.

And yet, despite my Manhattan fantasies of being a “serious” artist, that is exactly what I did. I moved to Seattle and almost from the very beginning began to commit the cardinal sin, I reinterpreted abstract expressionist painting into landscape painting. And went on to make some of the most compelling and complex landscape paintings I have ever seen. And maybe, with a little luck, help someone understand the power of landscape to commingle with memory to forge the very foundation of hope. Hope that beauty is indeed in the eye and mind of the beholder and from there can be impressed upon the world. An antidote to despair and soulless neglect and destruction of the landscape that sustains us. It’s a quiet religion, that started with a 12” square of blasphemy on a discarded piece of remodeling refuse left behind in the corner of someone’s garage.

“Transcendental Landscape”
Oil/ canvas
30″ x 40”  Approximately
I did a couple of Landscape pieces like this while I was exploring a way to paint abstract paintings that were trying to achieve the same thing… a kind of oceanic trance state. These landscapes and my abstract work at that time were meant to be a kind of visual ohm.   
They were popular and I sold every one that I painted. I probably could have made a career of painting these. And I enjoyed painting them too. But I had other things to say as can be seen on the hundreds of paintings featured here that came next.  

“Sumi Abstract”
Various sizes

I became interested in Far Eastern Art my 3rd year at Penn State. It was more compelling to me than the rich history of art in India or the many Middle East countries. China and Japan’s emphasis on cultivating an awareness of spiritual fulfillment in the act of painting as much if not more than the result seemed a natural next thing for me to explore since these ideas were permeating American culture at this time and even influenced how Western Art History was taught. In hindsight I can see that my professors placed a heavy emphasis on the qualities of an artist’s brush work and spontaneity. These were also qualities of the very powerful Abstract Expressionist movement that was by the 1980’s in serious decline on the art scene but still held sway in the corridors of University Art History departments.

I was so interested in this approach to art and art making that when I graduated in 1983 I left for Taiwan to be a bohemian and didn’t come back for 4 years. Along the way I did many works on paper like this, absorbing the approach and building an intimate and personal relationship with the materials.

Oil on paper, canvas, panel
Various sizes

Yep … it’s practically a copy of a Rothko. And yet it isn’t. In some very important ways it is quite different. For one thing, it’s too small. You can hardly dissolve your sense of self into the color fields of a painting that isn’t much bigger than your face. For another, it’s too thick and as such too materially present. But perhaps the thing that is least Rothko is the thing that points to what will become a central element in my own mature work years later: it’s too landscapey.

Nevertheless, the reduction to zones and rectangles are there. The centralized nature of the stack. The suggestion of space as in landscape space as opposed to volumetric space … even to some extent my choice of colors … are obvious indications of my effort to absorb and integrate Rothko’s work into my own evolving direction.

“Black and White Abstract”
40″ x 30”
When I returned from living in China between 1983 and 1987 I set up a studio right away. I began integrating my interests in Chinese ink painting and calligraphy with my love of the work of Robert Motherwell and the color field painters.   
I converted an old chicken coup into an art studio and got busy. Below are some images that might help visualize how this work was an effort to integrate these seemingly disparate sources.

“Pollack and Gottlieb”
Oil on paper
Various sizes

As I mentioned in descriptions of other paintings on this site, in the 1990’s I was in my 20’s and studying and absorbing as much art and art history as possible. I did outright copies of paintings, I read countless books and biographies and I did works that were in the spirit of whatever artist I was interested in learning about. Sometimes these efforts were conscious or unconscious efforts to resolve what I thought were interesting differences between artists who were working at the same time. The old “thesis, antithesis followed by synthesis” game.

In the case of this painting it seems to me I was very much aware of the similarities and differences in 2 of abstract expressionist’s most important artists: Pollock and Gottlieb. Gottlieb was the less famous and I am guessing is not the household name that Jackson Pollock is. Nevertheless, Gottlieb’s use of symbols, an apparent predilection for a mystic spirituality and his emphasis on the energy of gesture were to become hallmark characteristics of my own work even to this day.

A painting by Gottlieb

A painting by Gottlieb

Oil on paper
18” x 24”

“My de Kooning Phase”
Oil on paper
24” x 18”

I put myself through a long apprenticeship which lasted for almost my entire 20’s. During that time I absorbed as much art as I could. I read books. I copied paintings. I lived in China for 4 years. I joined art collectives devoted to this or that vein of art history. I had whole chapters of my work during that time in the spirit of this or that artist.

And that is what we have here. This is not a copy of a deKooning. But it is definitely a work that looks like a deKooning. I loved the Abstract expressionists and for years was under their sway even though the movement had already been passed over for at least 20 years by the time I reached my 20’s. Their insistence on purity of the moment and integrity spoke deeply to me and to some extent still does.