A funny thing happened last Monday. My father wrote to ask if the painting I used to illustrate last week’s newsletter was available for sale. When I told him it was from the mid-90s and long-gone, he commissioned a copy. I didn’t ask why this little self-portrait grabbed him, but thought instead back to the circumstances in which it was made.
I was living in an artist loft building on Rugg Road in Allston, Massachusetts with my best childhood friend. Our few months living together would damage our relationship to the point that it never recovered. Living with somebody will do that.
It was a large, mostly open room with occasional sheetrock partitions in place of actual rooms. An industrial blower provided heat ineffectively and the bathroom and shower was down the hall, shared with other semi-legal tenants. After a lifetime of apartment dwelling, all the undefined space drove me a little crazy. I was there less than a year, as I remember.
It’s weird to copy your own work. I don’t know how it is for other painters (and there’s a long tradition of artists cranking out multiple versions of the same popular motif), but it’s not a thing that feels natural to me. Still, as an occasional exercise, it’s not uninteresting. I wasn’t interested in slavishly recreating every last brush stroke, but in making a new riff on an old theme. I made a free new version of the Rugg Road self-portrait, framed it, and put it in the mail.
When I was choosing art to illustrate Soviet Stamps, I wanted to use one of the charcoal drawings from my BFA Thesis show. They were very dark drawings done at night with the lights off. Unfortunately, the only digital files I had were way too low-res to print. So I took out my Sumi ink and made a new version using the blurry picture on my computer screen as a reference. Once again, making this new picture from an old one made me think back to another time. I was depressed over a recent breakup and didn’t like having the lights on. Hence the dark drawings.
A few years ago I was working on a series of paintings at the Skylark and made one of the photobooth in the back of the bar. A friend liked it enough to want to buy it. But when she found out the size she said it would never fit in her place—she had the misfortune of living in a New York apartment. So I returned to the bar with my gouaches and painted a new postcard-sized version for her. Unlike the other two painted copies, this one was not done with the earlier one as a visual source. I didn’t have to contend with my own marks, but rather just the same subject-matter. The result is similar but different.
They say you can’t step in the same river twice and that’s true for art as well. At least the way I do it. I suppose I could make the new, copied versions of old pictures closer to the originals, but that would be really boring. I’m not a machine and don’t get anything from mechanical reproduction. In the best-case scenario, the new paintings are reconsiderations or tributes to the old. A way to look back without dwelling too much.
Still, left to my own devices, I’d rather just try to make something new.