Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Blue Independence Day

The Japanese internment camp at Manzanar, California

A long rant. Forgive me, but I’ve got a lot to get off my heavily burdened chest this holiday.

I had plans to make a big elaborate post full of fine art for Independence Day, and then I decided to scrap it. The USA sucks right now, and I thought about posting an angry protest letter that said we don’t deserve a birthday party because we sold out. I still feel that way, but I scrapped that one too.

Jingoistic patriotism rings especially hollow this year, since we have thousands of newly minted orphans whose crime was to accompany their parents as they fled violence in their home countries. Despite the official line from the White House, dismissive assurances from state television Fox News, and a court order, a lot of those kids will never see their parents again. Men and women will never see their children again. And it’s all because of a pointlessly spiteful policy clumsily implemented by Our Beloved Leader and his minions. How can anyone who’s not completely drunk on the Trump Kool-Aid feel anything but shame over something like this. And this crime will haunt us for decades and generations as children, grand-children, parents, grandparents, and descendants spend decades, generations, trying to find each other, or what happened to each other. Future generations of American citizens will pay out a lot in reparations. And this is just the worst and most recent of many examples of the current regime trashing the liberal democracy that is the whole reason for the USA existing in the first place.
The GOP and Trump successfully gamed election law and parliamentary procedure to produce what will probably be the most far-right Supreme Court since Chief Justice Roger B. Taney sent Dred Scott back into slavery. And all of us over 25 might live with this court and its decisions for the rest of our lives despite whatever we decide in the voting booth. I expect that this new Court will try to roll back a century’s worth of civil rights and social reform decisions. Since I and so many people I know are beneficiaries of past Court decisions now in peril, I worry about my future and theirs.

Then I remembered this famous line from Mark Twain: “Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.” I waste no loyalty on the current regime and its apologists. As far as I’m concerned, they sold out on the mission statement of the USA as contained in its founding document, The Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
I’m still loyal to this statement (what Dr. King called a “promissory note”), and to its many restatements and expansions in The Gettysburg Address, Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus, Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, among many others. The American Revolution was an opening salvo in the creation of the modern world. An idea that separates the modern era from previous history is the conviction that the conditions of human life can be changed, that we are not necessarily divinely ordained to win our bread in sweat and toil, and that kings are not necessarily our foster fathers and queens our nursing mothers for all eternity. We can make up our own minds and our own lives as we see fit, as individuals and as communities. That idea first gets launched in the USA. The American Revolution remains unfinished, its promises unfulfilled. And now it’s betrayed.

I remain loyal to this mission statement despite our history full of crime from African slavery to Native American genocide. We betrayed our mission statement in order to build a White Man’s Empire. Contrast that to Nazi Germany (whose campaign to conquer and remake Eastern Europe through genocide and slavery was inspired by the American conquest of western North America; Hitler wanted to make the Volga River into a “German Mississippi”). When they killed people in the millions they fulfilled their mission statement; to forge a racist empire and to kill or enslave all non-Aryan humankind. As far as I’m concerned, since 1865 and since 1945 you can have the Empire of the Frightened White People, or you can have the United States, but you can’t have both. In those two respective years, we defeated efforts to create racist empires here and abroad, and in doing so rejected that course of history. We paid a tremendous price in blood in both of those wars as the USA fought for its life. It’s a racist Empire or the United States, only one or the other.

History is mostly a record of crime. The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth described history as nothing more than the biological struggle for survival and domination projected into the social sphere. Where Barth made this observation to point out the failings in human nature, others now embrace that description of history. For them history is a chaotic struggle to the death for supremacy in a world whose only law is domination and submission. They would agree with the current academic view that just about every thought and utterance is a form of aggression (Derrida is one of Steve Bannon’s favorite philosophers); only unlike the academics, they are out to win. These are the people who are serious about returning the USA to the White Man’s Empire as it was in the 19th century. They see a return to social hierarchy and military aggression as necessary to national survival; the American Empire must always expand or die. Society must be stratified along lines of race, gender, sect, and class; and militarized to accomplish this imperative. America must be clearly made into a White Christian Nation or dissolve in internationalist cosmopolitanism in their view. I reject this imperial project as a betrayal of the promise of the American Revolution to everyone. I also reject it as a betrayal of the Christian Gospel.

Each of us must decide for ourselves if the USA is or is not more than its history. I’ve made my decision. In the end, if we love our countries, we do so not because they are so superior, but because, like our families, they are ours.

The current regime will end someday. Maybe in 2020. Maybe forty or fifty years from now. I may not live to see that end, but I know it will come sooner or later. As I live, so I anticipate that I will die still loyal to my country and its continuing revolution, loyal to my fellow citizens (all of them) and to my neighbors (documented and not), loyal to the once and future USA.

The Selma to Montgomery March, photo by Matt Heron

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Happy Pride!


Pride is quiet for me this year.  I'm in Bluffton SC, and Michael and I will be celebrating it by ourselves here.


Happy Gay Day Everyone!

Sixty year old gay me sits astonished at all the progress I’ve seen over the last 45 years since I was a frightened little gayby peeking out of the closet door. Who would have dreamed back then that something so reviled, so terrifyingly secret and vulnerable to the assaults of both law and crime could become such a successful global a political movement. Marriage equality, gays and lesbians (and trans soon again) serving openly in the military! Openly gay candidates running for high office … and winning! Legal protections for LGBTQs in employment, housing, and public accommodation in many places in the USA, though certainly not everywhere. Astonishing to see other countries around the world that are way ahead of us on so many LGBTQ issues, especially civil rights. Doubly amazing to see the Irish vote in huge numbers FOR legalizing same sex marriage. And here I am with my partner of the last 15 years sitting in a condo that we own, that we bought quite openly as a couple, and in the first state of the Confederacy. In New York City, we can share a medical insurance policy and enjoy anti-discrimination protections in housing and employment. Frightened little 16 year old me with my deep dark secrets would be gobsmacked to see all of this. I am amazed to see gay equality becoming normalized, that in many places homophobia is rapidly joining racism among morally reprehensible archaisms. People don’t want to be friends with, date, hire, or work for homophobes any more than they would want to with racists. That was certainly not always the case, and still isn’t in a lot of the USA.

People lately exclaim over the rapid progress of the gay cause. I don’t know about the “rapid” part. That cause has been underway since the mid 19th century and faced a lot of backlash and violence. Our Book of Martyrs is far too long. In my lifetime, people could still be forcibly committed to “treatment” for homosexuality in state institutions by court order usually brought by one or more family members. I knew one such person over 40 years ago, sent to a state hospital in Texas by his mother to be “treated.” He came out of that experience angry, completely alienated from his family – and gayer than ever. These things happened much more often than people think. I can remember how gay men in Dallas and Kansas City, Missouri were sitting ducks for violent crime. In both places, muggers and worse frequently targeted them in parks where they cruised, or as they were walking back to their cars or home late at night after bar hopping or from parties. I can remember bars before closing time always urging people to leave in groups. I knew one young man in KC with a mouth full of metal teeth after being pistol whipped by a mugger. Since both the State of Texas and the State of Missouri aggressively enforced anti-sodomy laws in those days (the penalty in Missouri was 5 years in the state pen, and yes there were young men arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned under those laws), gay crime victims were usually very reluctant to go to the police. A popular shop teacher that I knew as a boy used to regularly take favorite students out on Saturday nights to go “queer hunting” in Reverchon Park in Dallas. Violence was, and still is, an omnipresent fact of life for LGBTQs. I wish I could say all of this is in the past, but it’s not. Even in officially gay safe neighborhoods in New York, gay men can be attacked and even murdered in broad daylight (remember Mark Carson).

I remember people banging on for years about how the gay movement lacked leadership, that it devoured so many of its leaders. Few movements are more faction ridden and consumed with internal quarrels than gay liberation. And yet, the success of the gay movement here and around the world is due to thousands, millions of personal decisions to be true to one’s self, to no longer be afraid and ashamed, and to come out publicly. It turns out that people are safer out in the wide open, that the closet is the most vulnerable place of all. It’s the cumulative weight of all those personal decisions to come out, and their impact on families, friends, communities, and businesses that really drove the victories of this movement, that defeated crippling stereotypes, and moved the issue out of the realm of abstraction and into the concrete and personal. Everyone who ever came out of the closet is a leader.

Our enemies always obsess about our sex lives, reducing us all to a set of sex acts. The more radical among us I think wisely decided to accept the sexuality that makes us distinct and to celebrate it, taking all the dehumanizing poison out of our enemies’ sting. The stuff of straight men’s jokes and curses are our pleasures. Certainly, I’ve tried to do my part as an artist to take the stigma of same sexuality and turn it into a distinction to be embraced (everybody speculates over Caravaggio’s sexuality; no one does this with Rubens’ work). Our enemies obsess over fertility as though a world with 7 billion people is in any danger of becoming depopulated. They regularly predict our demise in sterility, that our refusal to reproduce in the conventional fashion guarantees our eventual extinction. And yet, I see no reluctance on the part of nature or God to replenish our ranks, even in the face of pogrom and plague. Religious leaders from Savonarola to Kevin Swanson to any number of rabbis, mullahs, and would-be messiahs are out to kill us all. The Nazis used us as fodder for their “medical experiments” and killed thousands of us (a gay veteran of the Wehrmacht I once knew said that you could double the numbers on all the memorials and have a conservative estimate of all the people who really died while gay under the Nazi regime). And Marxist-Leninist regimes from Stalin to Castro were murderously homophobic. AIDS killed us by the hundreds of thousands. And yet, here we still are. There are as many of us now as there always were, and always a new generation comes out. This will continue so long as straight couples (and now not so straight couples) continue to have gay babies.

Gay liberation is on the march around the world, even in the Muslim world in the face of unimaginable threats and violence. Expectations continue to rise throughout the world. Gays and lesbians, trans folk, queer folk of all kinds in every corner of the earth continue to discover themselves, find each other, and to struggle for their freedom and dignity. This continues even in such hostile regions as Eastern Europe, central Africa, and the Middle East. The cause of gay liberation makes inroads into religious communities of all kinds, even in the gay hostile Roman Catholic Church all the way up to the current occupant of St. Peter’s throne. Even among communities of Evangelical Christians, there are small movements for gay acceptance. That they exist at all is significant.

The light of Liberty goes out in the USA as it rejects democracy for fascism, as the corporate oligarchy that rules over us and writes our laws keeps us all pacified and obedient in a low wage high cost economy that puts us all in debt. Some clergy eagerly look forward to riding shotgun with the police to force everyone to stick to the straight and narrow as they define it. Soon, we may take up the Chinese practice of assigning everyone a “social credit rating” that tolerates no deviancy.

But liberty is a hard thing to give up once it’s been tasted. That toothpaste will not go back into the tube, even with violent force. Gay Liberation will continue to expand even if it must do so underground and once again under a constant threat of violence. In our future police state, it will be the deviants who keep the light of Liberty burning, even if in secret. Far from the rot of democracy and Western civilization, we are instead its canaries in the coal mine. So long as we are safe, then so is everyone else, so are democracy and liberal values. The tyrant slaying lovers Harmodius and Aristogeiton remind us that we played our part creating Western civilization and democratic values. We who are frequently scapegoated include those who publicly and courageously demanded Liberty and paid for it with their lives (hello Fanny Ann Eddy). We who are always seen as weak brought down a dictator’s minions (hello Willem Arondeus) and even saved the world (hello Alan Turing). Thus always to tyrants who threaten us. Defending Liberty is up to all of us, but for LGBTQs it is especially urgent.

Harmodius and Aristogeiton, the Tyrannicides

Marty Robinson and Tom Doerr during a Gay Activists Alliance 
occupation of Nelson Rockefeller's campaign headquarters in 1970.  
Photo by Diana Davies.

Photo by Diana Davies

Marsha P. Johnson, photo by Diana Davies.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

What I'm Working On in Bluffton

I'm having a very productive summer so far down here in Bluffton SC. 

I'm painting yet another picture of Apollo.  It's been a real struggle with a lot of wiping out and starting over again, and days when I've wanted to kick this canvas across the room. 
But now, it's starting to take shape.  It's still a long way from being finished, but it's starting to look like something I might actually consider exhibiting.


This painting for the new Passion series is now finished.  It was a little further along than I thought and I finished it in a couple of days.

Jesus Before the Magistrate


This one is not finished and won't be for awhile.  Another for the new Passion series.

Jesus Before the Soldiers.

And finally Willy my studio assistant.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

My Studio in Bluffton

This is where I will be working until the middle of August.  It has one thing that my studio in New York does not have, central air conditioning (and my bed).

On the easel, yet another attempt at painting Apollo.  This one is a long way away from being finished.

My studio/ bedroom icon, a reproduction of Cimabue's great Santa Croce painted cross in its pre 1966 flood state.

I'm working on two panels from the new Passion series.  The one on the right is now finished.

The living room of our condo.

Willy, my studio assistant.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Remembering Robert Grant

Robert Grant died suddenly in the early morning hours of Memorial Day this year.  His death shocked everyone.

Robert always told me he acted as a kid, and that he was one of the original kids on The Electric Company (a show that I watched a lot in the 1970s), but I had no idea just how successful an actor he was.
Here he is on The Electric Company in the early 1970s.  I think the man giving the introduction is the young Morgan Freeman.

And here he is again a little later doing a guest appearance on Good Times as Eddie the Bully.  I remember seeing this episode and one or two others with Eddie the Bully when they originally aired over 40 years ago.   I had no idea that it was Robert until after he died last week.  Eddie apparently had a fan following that's lasted down through the years.  I found some "where are they now?" fan sites featuring Robert.

Robert acted, sang, and danced, and even strutted the stage on Broadway in Maggie Flynn.  He also did some film roles.
Robert was a modest mensch who never mentioned any of this to me.  I knew he acted as a kid, and I knew he was on The Electric Company, but I had no idea he had such a big career.

I knew Robert as an artist.  I shared a studio with him at the Clemente Soto Velez Center with him for almost 20 years.  About 1999, I needed a studio mate, and Robert at the time was reduced to working in a small garage in Williamsburg in Brooklyn.  So he moved in and began a long period of great productivity.
So much of Robert's work in those early years was channeling the spirit of his beloved mother Claudia Grant.  Robert was a straight boy who lived a lot of gay boys' dreams of having an Auntie Mame to introduce him to life and to show him how to live it to the fullest.  Claudia was the one who inspired Robert to take up music and theater.  She played the role of muse and mentor for Robert even long after she died.
So much of the work that he did in those years incorporated the stuff of stage spectacle and larger than life personas; glitter, feathers, bright colors, party dresses, and fans.

Here is a small sample of some of that work:

I think this is a particularly well done painting/collage that has some of the formal beauty and discipline of the collages of Kurt Schwitters, but so very different in spirit.  Robert's has very mixed emotions of joy and tragedy.

I wish I had some pictures of them, but Robert made a whole series of paintings in the shape of a party dress like those his mother Claudia used to wear.  Those painted dresses carried a remarkable range of color effects and emotion from joyous exuberance to dark tragedy.  These later paintings and collages reproduced here hint at some of those qualities.

In the last few years of his life, Robert began doing smaller paintings and collages in black and white.  These were inspired by his late father in law who was also an artist.  While the size of these pictures was small, they expanded the scope of Robert's work both thematically and formally.  These paintings dealt with Robert's emerging religious faith, his identity as an African American artist, and his long relationship with music.  I think these were some of his best works.

Robert's homage to Jean Michel Basquiat, an artist who meant a lot to him, and to my students.
Robert's collage painting is quite a bit more structured than most of Basquiat's work.  It's organized around a diagonal grid, very similar to early cubist painting.  Robert's brushwork is much more broad and rougher, similar to Abstract Expressionist painters like DeKooning.   Robert's brushwork could sometimes be rough, but it was never slap-dash or crude.  Robert uses a limited palette of colors (these paintings are not quite monochrome) to give the painting a sense of loss and tragedy fitting to Basquiat's sad and premature end. 

Robert takes on religious issues in this painting.  It's very hard to photograph, but Robert used a little gold glitter here and there in the black and white brushwork.  Perhaps he meant this to be a very distant nod to more traditional religious art.  It also recalls his own earlier work that used glitter a lot.  He uses glitter to different ends here, suggesting something more transcendent along with a little show biz dazzle.

A blue sectional scan of a head intrudes upon this black and white painting giving it a seriousness and ambition beyond a simple formal arrangement of limited colors.
These are some of Robert's best and most ambitious works.  Watching Robert work on this series, and watching its progress unfold was very exciting.  I regret that we will not have more of these paintings. 

One of the last photographs of Robert standing before a wall full of these black and white paintings.

Many years ago, I arranged a solo show of Robert's work at the college gallery at Bronx Community College.  I remember how striking his work was on the gallery walls apart from the clutter of his studio.  I always liked his work, but then in the neutral gallery environment it really shined.  A lot of students and faculty loved his work.

Robert was a musician.  I knew him as a guitarist and a great one, but he also played drums and sang.  He performed a lot with his very close friend Debi Ray Chaudhuri seen above to the left.  Robert liked everything from Django Rheinhardt to 1970s punk and early metal; especially King Crimson.

Robert taught art in grade schools in the New York City public school system for many years.  Robert was a serious educator, and enjoyed teaching very much despite the difficulty of working for New York City public schools.

Here is Robert with his wife Eileen who is also an artist.

Unlike so many artists and musicians that I know who are estranged from their families, Robert remained close to his.  The years only strengthened the bonds with his own family from Ohio, and with his in-laws, especially with his father in law, another accomplished artist.  Through his wife Eileen, Robert became a regular at Saint Joseph of the Holy Family Church in Harlem on 125th street just within sight of the famous Apollo Theater.  I attended his funeral there.

Knowing Robert was a privilege and a blessing.  He was the most gentle of souls, kind and modest.  He was an anchor of decency in an environment full of artists who sometimes suffered from too much artist temperament.  He led a remarkable and accomplished life, so much of which I'm finding out only now.  He so rarely talked about himself.  He was a modest man who left us too soon, but touched us all.

Robert's studio shortly after his death.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Beyond the End

Two very old and dear friends of mine flew over the western horizon this past month, Paul Lane and Robert Grant.

We will all die. Our bodies will quickly disintegrate. The people who know us and know of us will all die, so every memory of us will die with them. The earth, the planets, and the stars will eventually die. At the very end, the structure of matter itself will come unstrung in cold dark entropy. “Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.” Even the dust itself and the space it occupies will end and there will be absolutely nothing left.

Nothing is forever.

And knowing all that, I wish Paul and Robert could have stayed awhile longer. They left us too soon.
In the face of certain extinction, I believe (perhaps foolishly) that we will all somehow and in some fashion live again, and that we will meet again glorious and unafraid. Until that time, Paul and Robert my friends, I will miss you. Until that time, adieu.

Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men by the Sea at Moonrise, 1817