Big City Murals
THE HOSTILE WORLD 1978
78 x 180” oil on canvas in three panels
This is the first large mural size painting I attempted. The title came from a conversation I had with feminist author Shere Hite, who described the international male dominated culture as being hostile to the advancement of the Women’s Rights Movement agenda. The heroines in this painting are a group of feminists confronting the dragons chauvinism, sexism, and misogyny. I also included one gay man, dressed in a red waiter’s jacket, because the gay community, struck hard by the HIV crisis, experienced similar forms of bias and oppression. I included two Arab men as symbols of the long entrenched patriarchy system found through-out the Middle East, where women’s rights are severely oppressed under the aegis of cultural tradition. Radical Feminists were battling to break down such discriminatory customs and liberate women everywhere from male dominated oppression. I remembered seeing a wealthy Arab with his entourage at the Cairo airport the year before, and was struck but the subservient way the hijab clad women behaved.
Likewise, the New York art world was under attack by the Feminists. It was my experience that three quarters of the students in most college art departments were women, yet ninety percent of the artists showing in major galleries were men. This, plus the fact that I have eight wonderful sisters, who I felt deserved the same respect and equally opportunity accorded to men, made me very sympathetic to the women’s rights movement. The dilemma was: Would it be seen as condescending for a man to take on this subject as a mural painting? I concluded that supporting noble social causes is the responsibility of all citizens, so I forged ahead.
KHAN EL KHALILI 1981 13 x 29” Etching
KHAN EL KHALILI 1979 78 x 180” oil on canvas in three panels
This painting was inspired by my 1976 trip to Egypt. The following excerpt from my journal describes the scene.
Cairo, 25 June, 1976
Wake up; breakfast at Groppi’s; go to the American University to participate in a tour of some of the mosques around Cairo. It is very hot (110 f). We arrive at a medieval fortress where we ascend to the top to hear a lecture by El Hamey about the architecture. Down below is an incredible scene – hundreds of people, trading, bargaining, selling, cooking; kids jumping into piles of sand and dirt; carts full of birdcages; carts full of melons; carts full of rubbish; incredible piles of rubbish everywhere, with rubbish sorters picking out selected items and putting them in baskets. The filth is incredible. The scene is so mind-boggling that one of the students nearly steps off the roof while photographing a minaret. What we are witnessing is the height of absurdity! Then suddenly a stallion attempts to mount a tethered mare, and as the owner hangs on to his rope while throwing rubbish, rocks, bird cages, etc. at them trying to separate them the stallion breaks loose and begins to run and jump down the road, scattering buyers and sellers, overturning carts, stomping out the little fires, all this and more, even while his two front legs are tied together by a short piece of cord.
The Ottoman spires are fantastic and beautiful and awful dusty too! Next we go down to the market to look at the old library and attached house which is “air conditioned” by an incredibly efficient vent system. We listen to the lecture as swarms of goats, donkeys, flies, children, and curiosity seekers gather around us. The heat and dust are unrelenting. We go inside the building and listen to El Hamey, drink a few Cokes and then move on to the next architectural site. The children say ‘hello” and “What time is it now?” and other such phrases. They are very sweet but very poor and dirty. We move on to another façade and then visit a small mosque with beautiful windows. The keeper locks us in over a dispute or the payment (baksheesh). We are finally released, and head to the oldest university in the Middle East which has a fantastic mosque. I really wish we could have spent more time in this one. We then return to the university and eat lunch at the Estoril. I feel dizzy. Upon returning to the hotel I feel sick so I go to sleep and stay in the hotel until the next day.
My long obsession with James Ensor’s masterpiece, “Christ’s Entry into Brussels”, impelled me to travel to Belgium in 1976 to visit Ensor’s house in Ostend and the Koninklijk Museum in Antwerp where I stared at the painting for two hours making notes. Ensor’s anxious color, wicked satire, and edgy social commentary had fully captivated me. I was twenty-seven years old when I started “New York Parade City”, the same age Ensor was when he painted “Christ Entering Brussels”. I wanted to paint a contemporary scene to rival his. Famed for its raucous parades, New York City provided all the source material I needed. Indeed – walking down any street in Midtown Manhattan you can’t help feeling like you are in a parade, a grand parade of all humanity, marching in stride side by side with every sort of character known to man.
One of the most memorable events in 1979 in New York City occurred in early October when Pope John Paul II was honored with a huge parade. Images of the Popemobile with the smiling pontiff waving to all were plastered on every newspaper on every corner kiosk. These images stuck in my mind as I struggled to organize my most ambitious composition to date. In my painting the main character, a composite pope/ pharaoh/riverboat float, makes his entry into New York along side a lobster clawed clown freak. The gold and white pope inspired figure capped in his magnificent bishop’s mitre represents The Sacred; the orange colored lobster clawed creature, The Profane. They are trying to maneuver through a total mob scene of parade goers, police officers, emergency vehicles, taxi drivers, marching bands, Chinese dragons, miscellaneous performers and passers-by. I was trying to recreate the claustrophobic tension that we feel in the New York Streets and subways at rush hour. For all of its rough edges New York remains for me a city of great promise and hope. To express this notion I packed painting with over five hundred figures energized with highly optical colors and patterning.
After completing this group of paintings on urban themes I found myself in a state of nervous agitation. My first four years struggling to survive in New York City had taken a toll on my health. I was exhausted and had to take a break from working. I was invited to show my three new murals at Drew University in Madison New Jersey. While visiting the campus, I went for a walk in a small wooded preserve. This experience was incredibly restorative. When I returned to my studio I made a small painting of the woods in muted colors. The painting had a calming effect on my nerves. I knew then I had found my next subject, and for the next eight years I concentrated on country landscape scenes, not returning to urban imagery until 1989 when I began my series of Brooklyn cityscapes.