PRINT July/August 2020



Cy Gavin, Untitled (George Washington’s Saxon Blue Sofa), 2020, acrylic, oil, iron fillings, teeth, and aquarelle pencil on canvas, 7' × 11' 3".

ON WEDNESDAY, JUNE 3, night three of New York City’s curfew, the mayor’s gutless try at repressing the conflagrant uprisings for Black lives, Cy Gavin and I checked in on each other.

Cy was upstate, where he’d moved a few years back to live and paint more or less as he wanted. He was excited about some paintings he was finishing and I asked if I could see them. One depicted a Saxon blue sofa that belonged to the enslaver George Washington. Cy kept him out of the picture but perched his rotting dentures on a cushion. To simulate the little brass tacks in the upholstery, he used the tip of his middle finger, dipped in paint.

The other canvas showed a bald eagle in the freezing rain, unsheltered, against a golden sky. The image belonged to no one, was just a picture in Cy’s mind’s eye. He looked at this native creature that the country enshrined and nearly annihilated, that we lampoon on every dollar we hand to every stranger. He tried to see it again. His bird became less than heraldic, less than some phoenix rehabilitated by sentimental flame. Instead he restored its dignity and saw it as it was. Only someone who pays close attention, who has spent some years listening to birds and building a reasonably quiet place amid the storm, could paint an eagle like that.

David Velasco

Cy Gavin, Untitled (Bald Eagle), 2020, acrylic, oil, and oil stick on canvas, 90 × 90". Installation view, Cy Gavin’s studio, upstate New York.

I WAS A COMPETITIVE BIRDER in high school. My family drove all around the countryside, so I spent a lot of time in the car, and I had to keep myself busy and project my brain somewhere. I would bring sketchbooks and field guides that I got from the library. I had started an Envirothon team at my school, to compete in the national decathlon pitting nerdy teens against each other in their knowledge of soil surveys, forestry, wildlife, and aquatic ecology.

I was the birding specialist. I learned more than two hundred birdsongs and birdcalls from CDs and from the field. I participated in other competitions where I would win binoculars and forty-pound bags of birdseed. I didn’t even have a bird feeder—I’d just become obsessed. 

Unlike bird-watchers, birders often rely first on auditory cues to identify a species. You immediately know so much about the bird—its seasonal plumage, age, sex, if it’s making a courtship call or a warning call—from listening. The second thing you cultivate is an idea of where the call is coming from, so you can zero in on it. You develop a spatial awareness, so even with your eyes closed the woods become a vivid visual experience.

A steward of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania once took me out in a canoe to this extremely remote location to see a bald eagle’s ten-foot nest. Eagle populations had been devastated by the use of DDT. At the time, all nest sites had to be reported to the government and kept secret. In 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the list of threatened and endangered species, and ever since, I would catch myself looking out for them whenever I’d pass a lake or river. Where I work, in upstate New York, I see bald eagles all the time. Two years ago, I found a nesting pair in Poughkeepsie near a waste-treatment plant on the Hudson River. I just spent time watching and drawing them. It was very unglamorous. They eat garbage. They’re like pigeons. The river freezes in the winter, and I have a vivid memory of watching this wet, bedraggled eagle on a chunk of ice. 

I thought about the ubiquity of the eagle on American seals—the mythology that surrounds the animal, this weird, moldering relic of an empire. Now that their numbers have rebounded, I’ve read about trainers releasing bald eagles into sports arenas as people set off fireworks and scream out the “Star-Spangled Banner.” At Oral Roberts University, a Christian school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, they released a bald eagle in their chapel for some reason, and it flew at top speed into a window and fell—as the congregants chanted, “U-S-A!” It’s upsetting.

This bird has become so freighted with propaganda. I’m not a person moved by patriotism, ever, anywhere. But when I see a bald eagle I have to really disentangle all of that imagery to see it as a bird of prey and not see the negative associations I’m inclined to graft onto it.

I MOVED MY STUDIO UPSTATE in November 2016, during the presidential campaign. My timing made it easier to choose an area. People were posting political signs on their lawns, so I could drive from one place to the next and see the texture of different towns. I felt I could make some responsible decisions about how I existed up here.

My town and the neighboring ones were once one big town called Washington, after visits George Washington made here during the Revolutionary War. I bought a lot of books on Washington and learned he was not a great military strategist. He was six foot two, very tall for the time. He was not fit. He would ride into battles threatening to shoot anyone who didn’t want to fight the British. He would sacrifice all these soldiers, many of whom didn’t have basic provisions like shoes, but he avoided getting shot himself, which apparently gave him a mystique.

It seems that he was a pawn of his neighbors, the Fairfaxes, a very wealthy family in Virginia, who had been his patrons, setting his military career in motion and introducing him to the local gentry. The original president was a puppet of the era’s oligarchy, who had come to America not to get away from the British, not for freedom from oppression, but to land somewhere with unlimited resources where they wouldn’t be taxed or held accountable.

George Washington’s dentures were made, in part, with teeth extracted from people’s mouths, people he owned. Any address that he made, any food that he ate, was effectively with someone else’s mouth. The dentures in this painting are those housed at his historic estate in Virginia, Mount Vernon.

George Washington apparently didn’t want to sit for portraits, or so we hear from his portraitist Gilbert Stuart, who wrote a lot about his experience and about Washington’s comportment, about the shape of his mouth. Stuart enlarged the bridge of Washington’s nose; he made the jaw broader to make him look more like a lion. This is the likeness that ends up on the quarter and whatever else, and it’s a fabrication. 

We have a clear idea of what George Washington’s face looked like because Jean-Antoine Houdon, a prominent French neoclassical sculptor, made a life mask of him in 1785, which is at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. In 1815, Thomas Jefferson commissioned a full-body marble statue of Washington to be executed by Antonio Canova, then the most sought-after sculptor. The sculpture was destroyed in a fire, but a fascinating plaster cast model survives. 

The founders were consistent in asserting their belief that America should not be another empire. They looked at Rome, they looked at the Caesars, they read Suetonius. They knew what they didn’t want to be, but Canova’s sculpture betrayed all of that. Canova’s George Washington wears an ancient Roman centurion’s breastplate—clinging to a ripped torso—and drapery. His hair is in coiled rings over a marked brow, which makes the whole thing look like Julius Caesar, notorious for his fatal ambitions. 

I became briefly fascinated by the quotidian existence of George Washington. Visiting his house and plantations at Mount Vernon, I noticed how striking the interiors are. I expected a beige-gray Federalist thing. But it’s opulently painted with supersaturated greens and wild teal and a lot of Orientalist patterns and flocked wallpaper and wainscoting. This was how you showed wealth. My painting is of this blue sofa from his front parlor that was part of a set of blue silk damask furniture gifted to him by the Fairfaxes.

Originally the painting was to be of him relaxing, having taken out his dentures. But I made all these sketches and it seemed like a farce. Gilbert Stuart wrote about how Washington only wanted to talk about horses. He was very stony, but Stuart noticed that his mouth was swollen all the time. His gums were infected, and he took high doses of laudanum, a powdered form of opium, to ease the pain. He just wanted to be alone so he could remove this stuff from his mouth, which was totally necrotic. George Washington died of a sore throat. Did you know that?

I thought about the ubiquity of the eagle on American seals—the mythology that surrounds the animal, this weird, moldering relic of an empire.

I STARTED THE EAGLE PAINTING in December 2019 and finished it in June 2020, while working on other things. The impeachment inquiry dominated a chunk of last year, with even Nancy Pelosi invoking the founding fathers in this cringey way, turning the rhetoric back on Republicans, but ignoring the fact that the framers of the Constitution did not anticipate a country where people of color had personhood.

Sometimes paintings sort of paint themselves. At first, I was trying to paint a wave. Then it became a landscape, and then I recognized the location of the landscape as being a bend on the Hudson River. I would stop looking at it for a long time and work downstairs on the painting of the couch, then go back and forth, never looking at them together. When the landscape began to resemble an eagle, it seemed like the painting was trying to be an eagle. So then I painted in an eagle, with some reluctance, honestly. 

It’s not like I’m imposing ideas fully onto a painting. That is the easiest possible thing, by the way. Like, if I decide to make a painting of my house, I just paint the house. That’s one of those things that differentiates art from illustration. It’s a harder but much more interesting job to leave yourself open to a painting declaring its own identity, which is some combination of your subconscious and what you’re actively begging the painting to do. It’s like the formation of a crystal: It buds off and it gradually refines itself on its own.