oil on linen, 60 x 70 inches, private collection.
As a pre-teen, I often felt an unbearable delight in things: There was a local sub shop run by a Sicilian man named Tony. Tony used imported Italian ingredients to make his submarine sandwiches, and the combination of rich flavors created an explosion in my mouth and spirit. It was the same with da Vinci drawings. Da Vinci drawings swept me through currents of light and air giving me a delicious feeling for his beautiful people. I felt like I was born Italian in a past life, but was cursed to be brought up in the artificially bright culture of mid-20th century America, with its Doris Day look-alikes, CIA-sponsored Rothko paintings, Wishbone dressing, and psychologically immature, posturing, drunken men. Though my normal character loves wondrous things, I also felt sadness and shyness. Shyness about the things that rocked my world, and sadness for seeing so much superficiality in my town.
I couldn’t stand school or my teachers with their silly memory demands and lack of enthusiasm. If it wasn’t exciting nothing could make me participate. Rembrandt was my first introduction to a world where I felt at home. Like a moth to a flame, I flew in the direction of painting light with deep feelings. I brutally rejected anything and anyone that did not inspire me.
I drove myself relentlessly, pursuing art through art schools, through Holland–the land of Rembrandt–on to New York. One of my constants was listening to music while I painted. But I got bored by the repetitive pop radio stations, so I turned to classical music stations, where the pieces at least lasted longer, and didn’t repeat themselves. One night in 1982 (I was 25 years old), I was painting in my Staten Island hovel and listening to classical music on WQXR, and the announcer indicated that the next work would be a live opera concert. I was like, “Oh no, opera???!!!” The concert featured a soprano singing arias from famous operas, none of which I knew. One aria was a slow moody dark work sung in Italian, which the orchestra was driving intensely, when the soprano let out a huge, beautiful, passionately ringing high B flat (reportedly) that went on forever. It was thrilling beyond belief, and I wasn’t alone in thinking so. The audience went crazy, thumping their seats, whistling, and thousands of people shouting “brava!” The soprano was Leontyne Price singing an aria from Verdi.
Towards the end of the concert, she sang another aria, with a wistful voice floating ethereally high up into the netherworld. I thought, “What the fuck am I hearing, does anything this beautiful really exist?!” Every single note from her, and from the orchestra, played to my soul. I was dumbfounded, elated, engaged, and puzzled–the music didn’t sound like it came from instruments, but rather from pure energy plucking my nerve endings. I have never felt love this powerful. The aria was “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta,” and the composer Puccini https://youtu.be/r_fkV5LgCiU.
I was to discover the Puccini universe. Synesthetically, I was hearing in his operas the world I wanted to paint with amazing color harmonies, human passion, structure, reaching for the high notes, momentum, and authenticity. Meanwhile, in the art world, postmodern art was driving towards its suicide, dragging the rest of contemporary American culture down with it; mind-numbing installations, moronic gesture paintings, and its fixation on potty art. Puccini was/is my greatest art friend and postmodern antidote, inspiring me to do better, to feel more, to not give a fuck what stupid postmodernists think, and to use love and life as the standard for what is best in my art.