From 2001-2006, I pared down the elements in my paintings to the vertical and horizontal. Instead of depicting the figure, I implied the figure by emphasizing the surface, or the trace of the human hand. There were more than a few reasons for this hiatus from the figure. Soon after finishing graduate school in New York in 2001, where my focus was entirely on academic figuration and I was painting big witty paintings that were preoccupied with flatness and superficiality, the WTC disaster occurred on September 11. It was an uncertain and challenging time, especially in the City. In news and politics, the discourse turned to absolutes—politicians spoke in terms of good and evil. Bush pronounced, “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists,” for example. There was little room for nuance, only dualities. Here we were at the start of the 21st century, revisiting Manichaeism, that 3rd century heresy that saw the world in black and white.
In the studio, I started to turn away from large-scale work and away from the superficial themes I’d been dealing with. It felt like a time for modesty—in scale and subject. I began using past painters’ palettes or working methods as a way of sublimating my own ego. As Philip Guston humbly put it, “I still have a lot to learn from Piero.” I borrowed Whistler’s palette, which was comprised of primaries—in prismatic and earth pigments. The idea of using geometric abstraction to convey metaphysical concerns came from early modernists like Piet Mondrian, Kasimir Malevich, and Hilma af Klint, and later abstractionists like Agnes Martin and Mark Rothko. Since irony and banality dominated much of the art in the 1990s, modernism seemed to me the last time artists had grappled with these ideas and developed a visual vocabulary to deal with absolutes. So, I attempted to learn this language.
The cross appealed to me because it was both a premodern icon in art history and a modernist grid, and had come to represent all sorts of fusions of opposites. In Christian iconography, it’s a symbol of execution and salvation, its necessity signifies sin and the triumph over it. As the modernists would have it, the cruciform is formally, the union of the vertical and horizontal. Mondrian had written about the vertical representing man and the horizontal representing woman. I loved that this symbol was so loaded and so infinitely repeatable in all sorts of cultures and contexts. When I introduced the cruciform shape, I realized these crosses were surrogates for the figure.
In 2005, I described this work as follows: "My current works are developing from what I see as the renewed interest — for better or worse — in absolutes we are experiencing in contemporary culture. Many civic and religious leaders invoke terms like 'good' and 'evil' with a Manichaean certainty of their mutual exclusivity and fervently protest relativism. The subject of Truth is back at the forefront of our cultural consciousness although it is a topic that has been considered unfashionable by intellectuals and has been usurped by cultural conservatives. For this series of cruciform paintings, I drew inspiration from the strain of modernism, which originated with Malevich and Mondrian, and continued with Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Agnes Martin, in which geometry represents metaphysical concerns and the nearest visual equivalent of Truth."