I began my career as a conceptualist, posing as George Washington. I came upon this idea by chance while driving along the Delaware River on March 20, 1969, looking for a spot to drip a line of paint across a body of water. I intended to document the act with a camera, just as Dennis Oppenheim, Robert Smithson, and others at the time were documenting their transient outdoor sculptures. I chose, by coincidence, the place where Washington crossed the Delaware before taking the city of Trenton and winning the Revolutionary War. While crossing the river, I slipped, and as I discharged all ballast, in a struggle to get to the surface, lost the camera along with my cans of paint.
This was like a second baptism. When I emerged, all I had left was a story. But I realized that for me the text (which included language and photographs) was most important. I jotted down the story and photographed myself as George Washington. Not a document but an obvious fiction.
Because a camera needs some sort of reality (something in front of it) to make an impression on film or a digital chip, photography assumes a greater measure of truth than other mediums. But one creates an alternative world within the reality of a medium, and any medium's capacity for truth is dependent on its capacity to lie. The idea of truth through photography is now more interesting to me than ever, since my most recent photographs are abstract.
My influences have been mostly painters, in particular Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. But my greatest influence was Sol LeWitt. His wall drawings are masterpieces of conceptual art. Sol told me to read Wittgenstein. For me, this was an aesthetic tsunami.
George Washington freed the colonies from English domination, and in 1969 it felt liberating to cross a river and believe it was art. My sympathies still lie with the colonists and their desire for liberty - ridding themselves of imperial power. But they also lie with the Apache, the Sioux, and the Navaho who suffered as a result of the colonists' liberation. That is why, in part, in the puritanical environment of conceptual art, I took photographs of calla lilies, poppies, and daisies.
I have always believed that art transcends. Words by their very nature transcend the guttural sounds of the voice box connected to the palate and lips that produce them. They do this even if they are badly written. But if they are written well-as in Proust, Nabokov, Dickinson, or Stevens - then the reader gets lost in the meaning that somehow evolves from those sounds or the erratic black squiggles that try to represent them. Language becomes a human means of transcendence. Each of my series of photographs, whether Gothic Attempts, Heroin Trade in Afghanistan, or the more recent vases, is an attempt at a visual alphabet. But they are ur-alphabets. The kind of alphabet a child sees. He knows from Doctor Seuss that "foot" begins with f and "feet" begins with f and that "all alone" could possibly end with n but doesn't. Not all the sounds are as yet consigned. And some letters, believe it or not, are silent. In the space of this ambiguity, I would like to live.
--Bill Beckley, 2011