These paintings, which have never before been exhibited as a group, serve as the occasion for me to describe the feeling and thought behind them and the atmosphere in which they were created. They are important to me because through them I was able to link, for the first time, intention and means in a way that has persisted in much of my later work.
This development was due in part to a long association with Boris Lurie. Even though we disagreed on many points I felt a kinship with his ideas about art and our discussion helped me at a formative stage. I returned from Mexico in 1959 and resumed my friendship with Boris and Sam Goodman at the March Gallery on Tenth Street. I had started painting with Boris in 1955, so it was natural for us to pick up where we had left off two years earlier. By this time Boris had taken control of the gallery changing it from an artists' co-operative to a forum for his work along with Sam's and later with Stanley Fisher's. This triumvirate was making art that was boldly and blatantly political and they attempted to do this with expressionist means. Every month or so they would rotate shows of their paintings, sculptures and assemblages, each one of them exposing our basic inhumanity towards each other. Pain and rage against an endless liturgy of cruelty and the need to bring this to the surface - that was the driving force, and although it had no official political affiliations, this was a revolutionary group. It was their intention that art reveal these ills and not be used by the society as a band-aid to cover up festering sores. There was a sense of urgency in this given the climate of that time, and also of intense need which came most strongly from Boris Lurie who, as a survivor of the Holocaust, had much to keep the world reminding about. They saw art as a tool in the service of expression of very specific social content. No "art for art's sake" here. Formalism as content was retrograde, and whatever else art may be, because we are living in the middle of the bloodiest century in the history of the human race, the activity of art cannot afford to simply indulge the senses, to entertain, or to divert attention from our capacity for horror. This attack aimed at the art community, too, for it was their contention that real energy and meaning had been bled out of Abstract Expressionism after it was accepted and venerated by the art establishment.
It was responsive to these attitudes and ideas about art. They were close to my own, but I had not yet found a way of making marks that was significant to me. Although I never showed at the March Gallery, my association was close because I was trying to find solutions to similar problems in my own work. Sam Goodman and I did collaborate a lot in street theatre pieces which we used in "Ban the Bomb" demonstrations 1961/62. I found the directness of this experience important. I wanted to get that same directness and immediacy in my own work.
The paintings I was working on that time were basically expressionist. Although figurative and precise in content, the means were part of the past, and as such were robbing the work of effectiveness because it had the patina of art. The same problem existed in the work of the Group at the March Gallery. I was aware of the lack of its effectiveness and of the thematically cliched content. I did not have any faith in political revolution. Altering the institutions of power does nothing except alter the institutions of power. My feeling was that for any qualitative change to occur in the human condition, it is necessary for individuals to change. I wanted to aim my guns not at large generalisations but rather at the soft underbelly of our lives as they really were, because it is here, in our collective psyche, that the seeds of past catastrophes germinate.
The desire and need to imbue my work with content, my perceptions of the world I lived in, required other means: clarity and simplicity. I want to shorten the distance between meaning and metaphor I had things to say about us and wanted to do this in the most direct way possible, while at the same time divesting the work of references to art's immediate historical past in order to make the content more available and immediate. I looked for a visual language that would be broadly communicable, direct and clear, and that was intimately part of my experience. I drew on Infory of "real visualisations", rather than "art visualisations" to find that common language. The particular look of these paintings comes from working in a way that was directly opposed to many of the sacred canons of expressionism, abstract or otherwise. They are without gesture, without brush stroke, without colour modulation, without mysticism and without personal angst, because these qualities would have obscured the intention of the paintings. The work is pretty much preconceived and the execution is relatively mechanical. In this sense my art, as well as that of many other artists at that time was being formed as part of a reaction to Abstract Expressionism. These paintings are icons formed from our own pool of mutually shared images. They relate more to the Middle Ages in that respect except that ! was trying to unearth the mythic content of our life as we live it now.
This was the point at which I found the means to say what I wanted to say, and much of that was in the nature of critical commentary on the quality of our lives attacking an exploitive value system, laying bare the corruption in all of us, and attempting to reveal how close cruelty is to our lives, sometimes so close we can't see it.