Talking about not talking....

Well, it has been a very interesting couple of days.

My friend Tom runs a blog called The Good Men Project.  He was putting together a edition of the blog on race.  And he asked me to contribute.

I should say that Tom and I have been friends for well over a decade.  I've held his children, he's seen me cry, we've have very similar experiences with mental illness in our families and have had to come to terms with a lot of our dreams and limitations as men.  He's a great guy and I love him a great deal.  So when he asked to me to write about race I knew that he was asking me, his friend, to write.  He wasn't asking his "black" friend to write.  He knows me, knows the range of my interests and thoughts and values that.

Tom may certainly look white, but he's never acted white.  I will leave it to my hero, James Baldwin, to explain what I mean.

As a policy, I don't usually talk about race.  It's too difficult.  But as I said, Tom is my friend and because he asked me to, I figured I would tell him, in an unvarnished way, why I don't want to talk about race.

There's been a pretty wild response to my letter to Tom.  I am really grateful to him for the opportunity to say things that I have been thinking for a long time.  My friend Patrick sent me a link on tumblr that had "reblogged" a section of it over 300 times.  I am sort of amazed that so many people are reading it.  As of now, there about 700 reposts on Facebook.  I know that isn't "viral" but people are sharing what I wrote.  I didn't upload a cat video, I wrote a polemic and people are interested in it.  That is really wild to me.  The comments have been pretty interesting.  Some people really don't get what I am saying and some people really need to not sit at the computer all day writing responses to blog posts.  I have seen the same guy on a bunch of blogs.  He really makes me glad that my home address isn't published with the article.

One of the reasons I started this blog, or rather why I came back to this blog, was to really start to try to write.  I wanted to dismantle the notion that an artist is purely a visual person, that somehow I lost my voice because I make images.  A lot of the artists I admire were terrific writers about art and culture.  Fairfield Porter was the art critic for The Nation, at a time when the flavor of art had very little connection to his practice as a painter of the observed world.   I always loved that he loved art so much that he could write about it as well as make it.  I aspire to that.

"You're black wherever you go."

I am getting ready to leave Istanbul.

In a lot of ways, I have left already.  I have sort of contracted into a ball here, walking around the city in the morning and coming back to the hotel in the afternoons to sleep for a few hours.  Then going out in the evening for dinner at a couple of kebap houses near Tunel Station.  It's really great food and it's very cheap.
I think I have exhausted my time here.  
So many things were greater than I expected.  To see the work of Sinan, tiles from Iznik, the multiple layering of cultures, has been beyond belief really.  I have so many ideas for painting that I cannot wait to get back to my studio.  I have started making drawings and some things are coming into place for the work.  I am developing some ideas based on the grid that were not really available to me before I came here.  I also am wondering about the Tablet paintings and if they need to be figurative at all.  I have been really rethinking how I make these paintings.  Is color and light enough for the pictures?  Even the Savannah paintings have started to change with the insertion of various portraits into the schema of the grid.  The tiling here has really brought out the idea of pattern as an end to itself.  I am not sure if I can make a picture like that.  The figure to me has never been a thing about a way to investigate shape, it was the content of the picture for me.  To start making pictures without the figure is a thing that is coming up very much in my thinking and I have to start to deal with it.
At the same time, the ideas that I was looking at in the Tongue paintings have REALLY come back to the fore.  Seeing people walk in front of a tiled wall has really impacted me.  It is such a simple thing really.  I just started seeing it in a new way.  That space between can be flat and ornamental at the same time.  It is something Gregory Gillespie has done and even someone like Christina Renfer is doing now.  It is really the difference between painting the atmosphere and painting an area.  I was always the kind of painter who if I didn't know what to do with something, I just made it flat.  Now that idea is not enough.  I think the tile is a way into this, a way to have a dialog with pattern, flatness, content and character in the work.  I have been thinking of a way to bring the Tablets and the Tongues together.  Istanbul is giving me that, I think.
The other thing, the hard thing, the thing I did not expect, is that I have not really been able to relax here.  Turkey does not have a very diverse population.  I really stick out here, and people stare - a lot.  At first it was interesting to me because it didn't seem weighted with the racism of home.  I was like "The Brother From Another Planet," or something.  I took photos with school children who were shocked that I said "Merhaba" when they said hello.  That was the nice part of it.  The not so nice part was the cops, the stares on the subway, people putting my change on the counter instead of my hand.  The accusatory way they ask "Where are you from?"
Apparently, I look like I come from the Arabian peninsula, and since the end of the Ottomans there is not a great deal of love between the Arabs and the Turks.  Also, I have been taken for a "gypsy" or one of the Roma people and let me tell you, there is not a great deal of love for the Roma anywhere.  In light of all of this, I walk down the street feeling very uncomfortable and very vulnerable here.  I know that I am safe, but the looks on people's faces are not exactly welcoming.  I don't think I could ever get used to being looked at that way.  You might think that all of that kind of prejudice is the same, but it really isn't  In America, you get looked at like a criminal or a danger. Here it is like you are a freak or something.  It is very unsettling, especially since the Turks are such nice people and cannot understand American-style racism at all. But when they think you might be "arap" or from Iran, or gypsy, it gets a little weird.

I had a moment at Topkapi's Hall of Relics where I got a little worried.  I was in line to see the mantle of the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) when I felt this man looking at me. I turned and he said "Where are you from?"  I usually start speaking French at this point (and I thank my mother for making me take 5 years of the language) but this time I answered in English that I was from the United States.  He glared at me said "I hate your President."  I said that I understood.  "Bush wants to kill all the Muslims," he said.  "Well, we won't let him," I said.  Then we both stood in front of the window that looked into the golden room, with the golden stand, holding the golden box in which was a piece of cloth worn by Mohammed.  We shook hands and departed each other.  My friend Michael made me promise that I would stop telling people I was from the United States after that.  I didn't, but I did speak french in public a lot more.
I think I was chasing the experience that James Baldwin had when he went to France and got treated like an American.  Not as a negro, or colored, just some knucklehead writer from the US.  I didn't get that in Istanbul.  I got a real reminder about being different, being outside. It is the position of the constant observer, really, the flaneur, the "Painter of Modern Life."
My father used to say, "You're black wherever you go."  It was a warning about the way the world saw my brother and I.  

Rauschenberg is dead at 82....

Michael Kimmelman memorializes him in the NYTimes (and actually mentions his partner, Darryl Pottorf).  
For me, he is so incredibly important because he could do whatever he wanted.  He exercised complete freedom in his work.  When I saw the Guggenheim Retrospective in 1997 (so large that it filled the museum's midtown and SOHO locations), I was completely blown away.  It was then that I realized all the stuff that people were crowing about in the 90's (collaboration, performance, expanded painting, technology, mediated imagery, working outside of the rectangle, graffiti, symbolism, painting as language, politics, multiculturalism) had been part of his practice from the beginning.  And the "Erased deKooning Drawing" is still one of my favorite works of art of all time. 


I have a sketchbook that I take with me everywhere.  I really pride myself on having a daily practice, but I gotta say I have not made a single drawing since I have been here.  I have been so completely overwhelmed visually that I can't even conceive of how to make a image right now.  I think I am intimidated by the glory all around me.  My friend Linda tells me that I have to let the experience sink in - that I should not be too hard on myself.  For a workaholic painter like myself, that is easier said than done.

What I have been doing diligently is making notes in my sketchbook.  Writing things down as they occur to me or so I do not forget them.  It has been a useful practice for me.  
I stress that I do have to start trying to draw while I am here.  I have taken a lot of photos (so many that I had to buy a portable hard drive to keep from crashing my Mac), but they are no substitute for the drawn experience.  The ability to translate what I am seeing to a painterly realm is only available through my eyes, not through a lens.  The lens is democratic - it includes everything - the eye does not. 
  • The "Splendid Door" at Hagia Sophia is a character in its own right. I want to make a painting called "Boys at the Splendid Door."
  • I understand the effect the bleached marbles of Turkey (Ephesus, Afrodisias, Pergamon) had on LeCorbusier (Chromophobia, chapter 2), but the fact that he found an absence of color is truly astounding. 
  • The grid can be divided endlessly.
  • Pattern works because you see the pattern before you see the individual elements that make it up.  This leads to hidden meaning in patterns that become clear through longer term investigations.
  • Simple tessellation results in complex patterns.
  • Reconsider blue (Aegean, Iznik, sea, sky, ocean, salt, heavy, hard, electric, air, invisible, protein, mavi, denim, headscarf, endless).
  • Intersecting patterns look more complicated than they are.
  • Iznik tile is impossible to replicate but I have to try.
  • If a pattern has an effect on the viewer, does the viewer change because of the pattern?
  • The amount of ornament is secondary to its absence.  (Palace vs. Mosque)
  • Is ornament a sign of overindulgence?  Amazing design show at Istanbul Modern about this very issue.  Adolf Loos Ornament and Crime is noted and I haven't read that in years.  I don't even think I can remember reading it.  Did I read it?  Well, now I have to read it.
  • If the grid can hold anything, what does it hold?  
  • Can the grid hold anything? Does it have to hold anything?
  • I want to paint the light from the chamber of relics at Topkapi.
  • "The Arm of the Baptist" is a great title for a painting.
  • I want to remember that a photograph is just an index.  I have no responsibility to the photograph.  I am responsible to a painting.
  • The grid is the situation.
  • Small things in a big space can be as awesome as the space itself.
  • I want to make paintings of tourists looking at nothing.
  • I want to make paintings.

No picnic this Labor Day....

Let me reiterate: cops are the same all over the world.  My friend and colleague, Noel Ignatiev says "All over the world cops beat up poor people; that is their job, and it has nothing to do with color."

I spent the majority of the day in my hotel room yesterday.  In every country that is not the United States, May Day is International Workers Day.  Here in Istanbul, there was an attempt to hold a rally in Taksim Square in honor of the union activists who were killed there in 1977.  Every year they try to do this and every year it is squashed by the police.  This year was no exception.
I went for a brief walk and was confronted by the image of amassed firepower across the street from my hotel.  Suddenly I understood why the cop was being so aggressive yesterday; he probably thought that I was some sort of agitator for the rally.  The rally was set for Taksim Square about a mile from my hotel, but the cops were EVERYWHERE.  They were decked out in full riot gear with shields.  I thought better of taking a walk and went back into the hotel.
Now to prevent people from getting to the rally, the Mayor of Istanbul effectively cut all transportation to and from Taksim Square.  That meant there was no way to get here, but really also no way to leave unless it was on foot.  And since many of the roads were blocked by the above referenced police, you could get to a point where you were allowed no further.  And there is no point trying to explain something to a teenager with an M16.  
So I sat in the lobby of the hotel and looked at the news and saw all those images that everyone else saw.  I am not remotely interested in seeing people squirted with fire hoses, so I did not go down there to take photos.  Also a foreigner in a situation like that runs the risk of being misunderstood by gesture or presence.  I am not a photojournalist and I am not a hero.  I did feel my heart break for the people as they were hosed down.  I wished I could do something.
The police presence was reduced in the evening and I had to get some dinner.  I went to a place for a kebab sandwich and saw the school buses that they used to round up the protesters.  Some of the people detained had been on the bus since the beginning of the day.  There were armed guards protecting the buses and the same massive police presence.  I ate really fast.
Today, May 2, it is a different story.  It is really as if May 1 did not happen and the city was not occupied for the entire day.  The Turkish people seem to have taken all of this in stride - something akin to the running of the bulls in Pamplona.  It happens every year, some people get hurt and then we move on.  
We moved Labor day from May to September in the US.  Most people don't connect this change with the Haymarket Massacre, the Wobblies or Eugene Debs.  We don't really think about solidarity with foreign workers or unions.  We take the right to assemble for granted (even when it is denied like at the Republican National Convention in NYC).   It really made me think about how precious it is to be able to walk down the street in solidarity with others.  All over the world, even at home, this is becoming a harder experience to have.