Born: Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1935 Served in Vietnam, U.S. Army 33d Transportation Company (Light Helicopter) Bien Hoa Helicopter Pilot and Flight Leader, 1962-63
From the artist:
In the early years after the war I had to paint Vietnam in order to tell it. Nam became the only truth; the experience of the war became the authority to paint. After that all else paled; everything else became absurd, trite. After all, why paint unless you must? You must when you can put your whole self into it. My self-appointment as an artist was catalyzed or crystallized in Vietnam. Here was a world larger than one could imagine: a world far beyond my control. In such a world men are identified by what they do: by deeds and especially by courage. That medium—Teilhard de Chardin calls it the noöspere—became the air we breathed. D Zone ("D" for death) was the area of operations we flew into every day. We were enthusiastic about nation building, suppression of totalitarianism—I am speaking here of the early phase of U.S. involvement and the collective idealism of the Kennedy years.
As a pilot flying a helicopter, I read Ho Chi Minh's writings, and I understand that we were involved in a world process, not a local insurrection. That year in Vietnam, if it didn't kill me, would form the rest of my life, especially my life as an artist.
The helicopter we used then, the CH-21, was obsolete and hard to fly. It had been designed for the arctic, not the tropics. Flying it was a performance; it took a certain skill, daring, and a sense of the urgency of the mission; it had to do with functioning under tension. It had to do with expecting a surprise at all times. You were always thinking about emergency procedures, getting hit in the flight controls, the blades, the transmission, the torque tubes, about fuel running low, being over enemy territory, about where to go in a forced landing, returning to a friendly place. Everything at once. Like art.
Toward the last day of my tour I began to know that I had to stay alive in order to paint. Then and only then I began to feel the need not to get wasted—I began to feel awe and wonder at the miraculous experience of staying alive. I saw that the same sense of urgency I felt in Vietnam was needed for painting. Being a painter, one continues to live at that level of urgency. My paintings, drawings, and prints after I returned from Vietnam oiled the gears of my deep engagement in art, heightened and liberated my convictions about the war, and what art could be and needs to be. I felt, and still do, that in order to paint one must be inside life, death, so hard that everything is understood, dealt with, nothing left out. The idea, the urge to paint is clear, but the painting must make it on its own terms, visually, not verbally. All LZs are hot; art is hot, or it doesn't exist.
I came back to the United States and found the art of the 1960s, which was asking the question: How do you create unusual art? How do you set up the audience to expect one thing, and then ambush them with a surprise? Alan Kaprow was making the first Happenings and I know that flying a helicopter in combat was way beyond, but similar to, the thing he was after: Vietnam was a Happening. The art that comes out of Vietnam is authentic; it has historical momentum; there is a history being made in the painting while it is being painted. It is a mark on the earth.
The art is THE. I want to make an art that is THE.