For the intellect conceives not save limited things. Verily bound by the realm of limitations, men are unable to gaze upon things simultaneously in their manifold aspects….. No one can recognize the truth of the Middle Way between the two extreme poles except after attaining unto the gate of the heart…”
Syyid ‘Ali- Muhammad Shirazi – The Bab
I first learned the wax resist technique, as a child, from my father Syd, and I practiced it sometimes as I went along in art. Syd’s work is all about resist techniques. His singular contribution perhaps, was that he was able to expand it to the scale of Abstract Expressionist grandeur.
The wax resist is mostly used with watercolors or inks on paper. It was made to reveal layers of color saved by the resistance of the covering of wax coatings over watercolors or ink. After creating the initial layer of watercolor, portions of it are then “saved” by a covering of wax. It is usually melted wax that is used but sometimes it’s applied in a cold state by rubbing it on to the surface. Batik can be a form of wax resist, using wax with dyes, on cloth. In painting, one can superimpose multiple layers of watercolors and wax. It is a way of creating visual context, as one sees the elements of one layer contextualized through a subsequent one. If more than two layers are made through the process, then things get really interesting as patterns of hiding and revealing become a kind of thickly complex camouflage.
In 1990, I saw it done in the most masterful way possible when Alfonso Ossorio showed me his 1950 – 1952 works on paper, masterpieces of the technique, that, in my opinion, no one has yet surpassed. It was these works too that Jean Dubuffet wrote a book about in 1951 titled, Peintures Initiatiques d’ Alfonso Ossorio. These works also influenced Jackson Pollock to go back to the figure in 1951. They came to occupy a good deal of my attention at the Ossorio Foundation and even after, as they stand as a kind of talisman of what can be done.
Out of all this experience, I developed quite an affinity for the mechanism the resist technique contains. Basically, it was pre-Photoshop, a manual way of creating layers. Eventually I came up with a process that combined the save and reveal of the resist technique with an assemblage procedure which had also been a mode of working I had been interested in since the beginning. I have written about that in previous chapters. See Group 4
Behind the combing of these two techniques was a philosophy, which had developed from the awareness of the ever present phenomenon of opposite forces. This dialectical format is visibly embodied in various diptych works of mine; in some of the post cards of ’83, some clay prints from ’85 – ’89, all the subway Polaroids of ’87-88 and in various diptychs that continued in the ’90s.
The genesis of my understanding, is that essentially, we think, live and work within a binary system. This notion first came from my earliest and dearest mentor, James Brooks, who stated once that he aimed at balancing his works so that one element did not dominate the others. This implied a kind of push- pull, ying-yang structure to painting as well as revealing the emphasis of Jim’s ethic. In another instance Jim said he wanted to “absorb the accident”, meaning, that he would start with a chance operation, but then after that initial impulse, he would become deliberate with the opportunities it provided and resolve the work consciously.
From this origin, of accepting and finding resolutions with opposite modes, I later found similar ideas expressed by artists dealing with a multiple elements. The goals voiced to me by John Chamberlain and Alfonso Ossorio, as they dealt with the relationship of the parts of their respective assemblages, had many of the same ideals I had experienced with Brooks. “Chiaroscuro” is a perfect example of the opposites that create form. Diversity, plurality are other words that imply this duality. Chamberlain and Ossorio were seeking a unity in the diversity of their respective assemblage parts. Later I encountered the thinking of Otto Rogers, a highly refined artist from Canada, who also spoke about working with opposites and all that was evoked and implied by the comparison of two very different elements within one work. Otto was most precise and elaborate in defining the idea for me.
So…. with all this brewing, I conceived of works which would incorporate two very different modalities but the qualities of each part would be such that they would need to be visually permeable, so that they would blend. Transparency / translucency was the way in which this was achieved. I would paint one part or “level” with a chance operation and paint another with a very deliberate operation. The deliberate one would consist of drawing, using the continuation of the rendering / drawing style I had been developing since my student days, a simple line contour that depicted the object. As I had been working with grids that warped and bent to depict wave shapes, I did drawings of these grids based on images I created from draping nets. The drawings were the mapping of space and form, through the tool of the grid. Drawn on muslin, the lines were made by melting beeswax into the muslin. Where the melted wax was put down, it turned the muslin translucent and so what ever was put underneath it, could be seen. A group of these drawings of the nets were made with beeswax on thin muslin canvases.
To represent the unconscious / chance operation mode, I made gestural abstractions with acrylic colors on canvases or on wood panels. These solicited chance, the unknown, the unconscious. In these, I let phenomenon and the accident rule. There was a lot of wet on wet technique and pouring, dripping etc. These paintings too were made as an autonomous group.
Then, having sets of each type, “deliberate” and “accidental”, elements of both mind and heart, made of the same size, I would then match them up, by superimposing the muslin / wax drawings over the colored canvases. When the fit/blend seemed right, meaning that the image that was underneath would marry with the top in some intuited way (probably too complex to discuss) those two would be permanently joined by stretching and attaching the muslin over the canvas below. The areas of wax on the muslin would reveal the colors from the acrylic canvases underneath more than what you could faintly see of them through the areas where wax did not exist on the muslin. It was a see-through, but it resembled a resist technique but it was also assemblage. ___________________________________________________
The two “levels” represent a number of things simultaneously. First and most basically, the bottom level represents the unconscious and the state of the heart as it expressed itself through choosing colors and making gestures with paint. It represented the phenomenological, the big forces that course through life, the raw and automatic. The top level, the carefully rendered analytical drawing, represents the conscious level, the mind and how it operates, by mapping and isolating one thing at a time. The idea of these modes was backed up by the essay, The Blot and the Diagram by Sir Kenneth Clark, which Dr. Francis V. O’Connor had referred to, with regards to my beeswax and wire sculptures. These two levels also represent an historical progression, the raw energy of abstract expressionism on the bottom and the refinement of consciousness of depiction on the top. Also the two levels represent “father” who was an abstract expressionist and “son”, one who used representational depiction.
I have to credit Michael Halsband for dragging the then budding art dealer James Salomon (no relation) over to my studio one day in 2005 to see these works. Having worked with Mary Boone Gallery for almost 10 years, James was establishing himself and was ciphering what shape his program should take. He had redesigned a large warehouse in East Hampton – made it into an absolutely marvelous Boone-like space. I was asked to be in with the initial crew, which included, Ned Smyth, Michael Halsband, Peter Dayton and Darius Yektai. Now James is on 26th St, in Chelsea and the roster has morphed and expanded exponentially.
The first show of these works in James’ warehouse in 2006, was accompanied by a superlative essay written by the late Robert Long. I think it’s the best essay ever written on my work as far as literary style goes and also as far as perception into how my work delivers itself. He talks about the way it “sneaks up on you”. Very sadly, Robert passed on shortly after he wrote the essay and I will forever be grateful for this parting gift. His book, deKooning’s Bicycle, if you haven’t read it, is a work of pure genius and is so entertaining; the culmination of a life where his literary achievements meshed with first hand experiences with artists and writers in the Hamptons. Even though its device is fictional, someday it will be regarded as the closest thing to being there. As Picasso said, “painting is a lie that tells the truth” and Robert’s book would fit into that description perfectly.
The most splendid thing happened with the show in 2006 at Salomon Contemporary Warehouse. #1, 2006 was bought by the curator Joan Inciardi for Cantor – Fitzgerald, the firm that had lost most of its people in the 911 attack. The firm’s head, Howard Lutnick, having survived, decided to rebuild the prestigious art collection that they lost when the building went down. I was very honored to even be considered for the new collection. That was the cake. The icing was John Chamberlain’s reaction to #1. He just raved about it and I got the message that at least in his book, I had finally arrived. Having known him since 1976 while John had always been quite encouraging about my work, he had never been so plainly and explicitly demonstrative about it. For those who knew John, that kind of thing didn’t happen very often.
In 2007, I started making smaller paper versions of these works. The process was exactly the same except that the supports were rice paper for the beeswax layer and watercolor paper for the acrylic layer.
Though I haven’t made works like this for a few years now it is a mode I intend to keep exploring because of the rich possibilities inherent in the materials and the long term development I have in the process and ideals. In some way it boils down to seeing one thing in terms of another, understanding or comprehending one form though another form. In this there is that mystical experience that seems to be essential to our lives, the “metaphorical nature of physical reality” as Dr. John Hatcher, so aptly put it.