Secret Painting, 1994, 16.5″x16.5″, oil on panel
Colors swirl, spitting outward like fireworks against a night sky – shapes fragmented and flying.
There is a story behind this painting.
For seven years, I had been making art based on self-portraiture. I would begin every piece by making marks from looking at my reflection in a mirror, then allow each piece to dictate its form. Over time, the works became more densely marked, increasingly abstract. Yet no matter how colorfully fractured the art became, each image invariably sat centered within its square format, bordered in white.
The figure was contained. Even restrained.
I assumed this one would be too.
A common misunderstanding about abstract art is that it is always non-narrative. In many instances, that is so: Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still said of his work that “demands for communication are both presumptuous and irrelevant” – many working in an abstract mode would say the same of their own art. But such has never been true for me – there is always a psychological edge, if not a direct autobiographical anecdote behind what I make. My art almost always has a story (even if I am not aware of it until the painting is done).
I toiled at the then-unnamed Secret Painting for months. I built it up, I scraped it down, I tried again. With each effort, the one unchanging aspect (as with all my preceding work) was the white border left intact: I simply could not imagine any other way of making a painting.
But the restrictive white border had stopped working for me.
I can’t recall the moment of breakthrough – the first brushstrokes layering the edges in blacks, browns, and blues over my ubiquitous titanium white – but I do remember that once I did it, I knew that was the way to go. Released from the boundary, the painting became what it needed to become.
And then I knew what it was about.
Secret Painting has a story – a moment of personal evolution – but the specifics aren’t the point.
Here’s the point: as with dreaming, making art helps me process life, with painterly decisions driven by what lies just beneath consciousness (“I’ve no fears about making changes for the painting has a life of its own,” said Jackson Pollock). Something had been happening in my life, and Secret Painting – breaking the edge, removing the boundary – helped me make sense of it, as art so often does.