About 20 years ago I did a series of paintings about people dancing. I had been painting a lot of commissioned portraits and that changed the way I composed a picture. My earlier pictures ‘Working Girls’ were composed to illustrate the spaces and tensions between people which are not elements one desires in portraits. I wanted to apply my new way of composing to the rest of my work, and dance seemed like a good subject. I had great fun painting people dancing, I would go to dance clubs, get a table next to the dance floor and sit for hours watching people dance, then I would go to my studio, turn up the music and paint. I wanted my paintings to express the exhilaration of dance so it was important that the viewer felt as if they were on the dance floor or close to it. One way I achieved this was to use silhouettes (dark figures) in the foreground, it intensified the action and drew the viewer in.
My dancer friends told me that when people paint dance, they get it wrong but that I had gotten it right and when I asked why they said: “It’s the weight and you paint how it feels to dance.” It was an observation I welcomed. My earlier pictures had been criticized by some for their sexual content and the objectification of women, something I and my models thought untrue. These works were about the joy of dance, I thought they were audience safe, and I certainly thought they wouldn’t offend anyone.
When I did my New York ‘Dancers’ show in 2001, I stood anonymously in the gallery and heard people saying: “I don’t want to hang paintings with black people on the wall,” or “…black and white people dancing together?” It was a shock hearing these remarks, and then I realized that while I thought I was painting pictures about dance I also was addressing something quite different; like my ‘Working Girls’ pictures, I had hit a nerve.
The show did not do well. Two years later my dealer in Palm Beach asked if I had any new pictures for him. I said, “I have a bunch of dance pictures but you won’t be able to sell them,” and told him the story. When he looked at the photographs of the work, he grinned, and as he had been a jazz musician in another life he understood my pictures on both levels. “Send them down,” he said, “I can sell them.” In 3 months they were all sold.