Since I was 11 and got my first surfboard, surfing was the central activity in my life and so when I started painting at about 14, naturally I painted scenes related to surfing and to waves. My first show was with a surf buddy, Chris Lundy, who also painted surf scenes. Chris went on to become a world class surfer, an influential surfboard shaper in Hawaii, as well as successful surf industry artist. Our high school art teacher, Mrs. Davis, was so important to us in terms of encouragement and, letting us go to the Hong Kong Kitchen for lunch where we had great discussions about what we would do with our lives. Those freedoms gave us wings.
At fifteen I attempted to make a wave sculpture out of paper and wire, but I lacked the skills and gave it up. Eventually the only art I did that related to surfing, was to paint “en plein air ” watercolors of the places I surfed, following in the tradition (I thought) of Winslow Homer’s travel watercolors. Eventually I called them “meteorological watercolors” because I included notes as to tides, wind, swell size and direction water temperatures and the like, as captions. To this day, I still, on occasion, do these watercolors and because they span the entire course of my life, they will be featured in a special section of the blog once I am caught up with the chronological progression.
In 1999 I had a kind of down period, when I didn’t feel much relevance to going on with art. We all have these times, especially when one works for decades. I was surfing a lot then. It was kind-of “better the second time around” thing. I started up again partly because I had a son who approached the age of being able to learn to surf. It was fun to take Malik out and watch him progress as a surfer, and fun for me to return to the water after some years not surfing and to get into long boarding which had been re-invigorated by the surfing prodigy, Joel Tudor. I got to know Joel through my friend, the photographer Michael Halsband. It was a lucky confluence, because along with long-boarding, Joel and others in the surfing world had rediscovered the kind of surfboards that I had first learned on, which were called mid-lengths. Mid-length surfboards range from 6’8″ to 8’6 or so and have a way of fitting onto the faces of waves that neither the modern shortboards nor the older longboards do. Joel and Michael and I had some important discussions about the flow that came from riding theses kinds of boards. I then collaborated with shaper Tom Ninke of Ziphius Surfboards in making a number of models, one of which was called the Solomon. It worked really well and sold like hot cakes. This was also at a time when the surf spot Ditch Plain in New York was still a viable venue for serious surfing. Now surfing has become so fashionable in New York and there in particular, that there’s almost no way to ride without dealing with hordes of crowds on stand up paddle boards or novice surfers clogging up the waves. But from the 90s through about ’03 the place was an awesome wave for progressive longboarding and mid-length surfing and I made good use of it. I am grateful for having a kind of resurrection as a surfer in those years. To tell it all that would require another blog. I just wanted to give a hint of where I was coming from around 1999. Up until then, my thinking was that it was redundant to make art about surfing, because surfing was an art in its own right. I still think that, but reality is more thickly layered. Degas painted ballet dancers with a certain validity, so I realized that one art can inspire another. For me the ocean is a serious subject, both as a source of form and also of metaphor. ”.. the billows of the Ocean of Thy mercy…” is part of a prayer by Baha’u'llah, and if you know something about the endlessness of waves that constantly and faithfully arrive at all the shores of the world , it illuminates the metaphor; the endlessness of the Creator’s love, as expressed in that prayer.
As I had been working with bees wax in drawings on paper, I guess it was sort of a fetish driven thing when I first made a little wave from beeswax in 1999. I just had the notion one day to make a little wave, just to look at. That failed paper and wire piece that I tried to make when I was 15 came back into my memory. And I found some hardware cloth which contained the grid, which had always been an element in my work. With the beeswax, the two came together in a surprising way, as they were very opposite one another in qualities and attributes. I made more little waves and it started to open up a whole world to me which,, had always been there in the background. It was sculpture. It had been hovering in my life, but I hadn’t really ”seen” it till then.
In my childhood, the sculptor Gabriel Kohn lived with our family for while and worked in a little shop my dad had behind his studio, next to our house. I used to take the scraps he left from cutting wood and try to put them together in imitation of what I saw he was doing. I distinctly remember him encouraging me by exclaiming that my attempts were better than his. That was Gabe, a very loving and generous man, one of the kindest and saddest men I have ever met. His life was tragedy after tragedy but he left an impeccable, if small, body of work, which combined the reductions of Brancusi with the raw and rough qualities of American art being made at mid-century. The art dealer David McKee has faithfully done his best over the years, to champion Gabe’s decidely excellent and unique body of work. Later I came to work for John Chamberlain as his first assistant in Florida, so sculpture played a big role in my life. And in a way, most of my paintings were done with sculptural, or at least in an assemblagist method, and the tactile aspects of process and material was always present in my paintings.
So those were the precedents, but up until 1999 I really had not made any sculpture to speak of, just a few things here and there. Around the same time I had also explored doing grid drawings in beeswax of wave like shapes – all to learn how to see the warping of the grid. Warping space was certainly Chamberlain influenced. One of my jobs with John was to crush sheets of car metal in a paper bailer. The warping of material stuck in my brain. Isolated as an event, and mapped, by seeing what it did to the grid, that image, became my interest. The fact that I had used a grid based material like wire mesh, was classic to armature building in sculptural practice, but, to cover that armature with a translucent skin so that the under structure showed in the final work, this was was were I had departed from tradition. But there were others before me, in this showing of armature and skin, and interestingly, all were women; Eva Hesse, Claire Falkenstein and Lee Bontecou – great company as far as I am concerned. In a sense too, I was more on the path of contemporary architecture, except without the limits of having to deal with functionality.
At some point having made a dozen or so small wave sculptures, I began to show them to friends and colleagues and the response was unlike any I had ever received. One of the first to respond was the esteemed art historian and Pollock expert, Dr. Francis V. O’Connor. I had gotten to know Francis through my work at Ossorio Foundation. At the time we were formulating the idea for an exhibition on the relationship between Ossorio, Pollock and Dubuffet with curator Klaus Ottmann (Angels, Demons and Savages). So I shared images of my new works with Francis and he had a wonderful reaction. He said he thought they were exactly what Sir Kenneth Clark was talking about in his essay The Blot and The Diagram. I was very pleased by this, because I was familiar with the essay. And it was true that the amorphous and mystically invested substance of beeswax combined with the rigorous and analytical quality of the grid was a compelling combination of opposites, both archetypes that represent elements in art that the essay deals with.
Michael Halsband did a lot to promote these works. First he volunteered to photograph them and that probably accounts for much of what happened subsequently. The photographs were amazing, and I will always be grateful for his generosity. Then he called Scott Hulet at Surfers Journal and soon they were featured in that most eminent of all surfing publications. From there things took off and the work was featured in Big Magazine, Hamptons Magazine and the coffee table book, Studios By the Sea: Artists of the Long Island’s East End by Bob Colacello and Jonathan Becker. In 2001, Halsband and I, along with the late great curator John McWhinnie did the first show on surfing and culture in New York, at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller in East Hampton. We had works by Ashley Bickerton, Richard Prince, Julian Schnabel, Ken Price and others (including some boards that Joel Tudor painted). John McWhinnie had been collecting all kinds of vintage surf related ephemera. We also had contributions from board collector / surfer Jerry Hirsh. One of the boards was a customized longboard that had won the first Noseriding Contest at Malibu that Tom Morey had organized. I had my sculptures and some meteorological watercolors in the show. It was a great success. (Much to Glenn Horowitz’s surprise and pleasure, he told me that our opening was larger than Cindy Sherman’s who had a show there, just before ours.)
A month or so later the world was changed due to 9/11. I was surfing at Ditch the morning of the event. The waves were incredible that day and a number of guys didn’t report to work because of the waves. Surfing saved quite a few lives that day. I happen to get out of the water just after 9:00 and there was a small crowd gathered around an RV in the Ditch parking lot watching thier small TV. The first building had been hit and we watched in horror as the 2nd plane came in. I raced home to make sure my family was safe. They had sent the kids home from school. At that point we still didn’t know if the whole country was under attack or what.
The surf continued to be great that entire week and I know so many people who went surfing as a way to de-stress from what had happened. I found myself somewhere in between emotions in those days, and one morning on the 14th, after surfing a lot the day before, but still being freaked by what had happened, I woke up in agonizing pain. My neck, back and right shoulder had seized up as hard as a rock and I had to be taken to the hospital. They had to give me 3 injections of morphine before my muscles would relax. I had herniated a disk in my neck. Was it the effect of 40 years of surfing on my body or the stress of what had happened? Probably both.
Eventually I have worked my way back into some semblance of health without having major surgery. I can surf but not without a lot of stretching and having some pain. That’s ok, I am older and I’ve had a good long run. I don’t mind surfing less at this point. I have seen surfing and surf art explode culturally. I continue to paint the watercolors when the urge hits and I went on to make larger sculptures using the wave metaphor, a lovely part of my physical, as well as spiritual life. The ocean is both a source of life and language, of form and metaphor, and it will go on eternally, giving us everything we need.