As a young man growing up in the 1960s, I was involved in everything that is stereotypically "'60s"—psychedelics, rock, communes, free love, and that anarchical spirit that viewed tradition as dead and stultifying. I was also deeply involved in Eastern mysticism and even followed a guru in India, seeking esoteric knowledge that Western culture and Christianity seemed powerless to give. In college I slept through lectures on 15th-century Italian painters, steeped as they all were in Christendom and its aims and stories.

I slept through those lectures partly because I viewed most of art history as irrelevant—at best a dusty memento that held little gravitas either for me or for my generation. My fellow art students and I wanted to make images that carried emotional weight, and for the most part we were all expressionists—that is, we were less interested in art for the sake of any particular community of shared ideas or values, and more concerned with evoking the personal angst of our existential predicament. I saw my art as a means of deepening my own personal spiritual quest—a path that lay largely outside the precincts of settled religion.

At that time my graduate advisor Philip Guston, a prominent New York painter, gave an intimate lecture to nine of us painters holed up in our warren of art studios in an old car warehouse in Boston. He told us a story from his life that helped galvanize my own sense of purpose as a painter. While on a tour of Italy, Guston had visited the masterpiece of his hero Piero della Francesca—a mural cycle called The Legend of the True Cross in the Cappella de San Francesco in Arezzo. Guston had looked up at the magnificent and complex set of images surrounding the little chapel and wept. When a ...

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