on a missed career as Pop-Artist in the sixties, important tips from James Dean
and the limits of drug-addiction
Published on SPIEGEL ONLINE and on
You've said that actors never really get taken seriously enough for their art. Is that a motive for you to go back to other artistic fields?
No. No, I never stopped doing work. What I was trying to point out was that in the United States, and probably in the world today, if you haven't gone to college and have some sort of credentials that say you are an artist, it's almost impossible for you to get shows. Unless you have a body of work that is so staggering that they just say, "My God, I've got to have it!" It was very difficult for me to get shows because the artists I wanted to show with had already established themselves as artists.
They weren't famous yet; I mean, Andy Warhol, when I first met him, was not famous, and Rauschenberg and Rosenquist and Oldenburg and all these guys I took photographs of... Jasper Johns. Well, Rauschenberg and Rosenquist were, but when I photographed them, they'd graduated from Black Mountain College, or they'd been here or they'd been there and they had credentials and they were getting grants and foundations were helping them. And in my life, I never had any foundations, I never had any grants, and it was very difficult for me, especially when I was younger, to get any kind of shows at all. Finally, I started showing with Ed Ruscha and with William Burroughs, but it was tough. That's what I was trying to point out.
So you're now not only showing your artistic works from the 60s, you're also showing contemporary work and you're also showing, which is very interesting, your film works in this studio installation. Is this something like a preliminary summary of your artistic life?
Yeah, I think so. The big billboards are really going back to the 60s, with photographs that I took in the 60s and rendering them as billboards. Because I spent a lot of time in the 60s in the billboard factory. I photographed Rosenquist in the billboard factory in 1964, the same place that I painted these billboards. And Henry Geldzahler, who was then the curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum.
I think of my environment in Los Angeles as a car culture. So a lot of these things, the billboards, the big man selling you Mexican food, the Salsa Man, as I call him, and Bob, the big Mobile Oil man selling you gasoline. These are all things you see in your car as you drive on the freeway. Detroit, where they make the cars, decided it would be a good idea not to put a transit system in Los Angeles, so more people would buy cars. So this has sort of sabotaged the environment in LA. I think, as an artist, I feel a responsibility to show the place and time that I live. That's the best I can do.
I've read that James Dean introduced you to photography, or gave you the idea to take up photography to school your camera eye.
I was taking pictures, but he said I shouldn't crop photographs. Because, you know, it's easy to take a photograph and crop it later. He said: Learn how to compose inside your lens. When you do film -- you'll want to be a film director someday -- you're not going to be able to crop your film. So you've got to learn how to compose full frame. So I've never cropped any of my photographs, which I learned from him.
Why do you pick up a camera?
A lot of it is a very nervous thing. If I have a camera, I'll sort of take shots of everything, and then, finally, maybe, I'll settle in and compose and take a serious picture. But I like formal composition. Almost all my photographs are natural light and full frame. And I'm not really interested in the printing. That's why I shot in black in white. In 1961 through 1967, which is the main body of my photographic work, just before Easy Rider. I stopped taking photographs when I made Easy Rider, and I didn't take them for a long time again. And then, finally, I went to color. I didn't want to shoot in color because I thought that I'd only be going for the color and ignoring the content. And I thought content and composition were more important. Learning how to do that in black and white was more important.
There's also a little ironic twinge, as I see it. Photographing paintings and then painting off photographs.
Well, the graffiti on the walls. Oh yeah, the color fields. The big photographs. I think of them as paintings. I'm not photographing paintings, but I'm photographing walls, found things. But I think of them as paintings. And I shoot them flat on so that they have no depth of field' they're just a flat on surface, like a painting surface.
Can you elaborate on that a little?
Because it looks like a painting. If you take a wall flat on, it becomes like a painting surface. If you take it from an angle and have depth of field, then it's no longer a painting for me. It becomes something else with a different perspective.
This intermingling of film and art; I think Vincent Price introduced you to abstract art?
Well, I was painting abstract art, but the first abstract art I saw was in Vincent Price's house. I saw my first Jackson Pollock, my first Franz Kline, my first Richard Diebenkorn in 1954, actually.
So who was the strongest influence on your work?
I think a man by the name of Emerson Wolfer and Richard Diebenkorn are probably the ones.
They were around. [laughs] I think Richard Diebenkorn is the finest painter in America of the 20th century. He's not very well known in Europe, I think; hopefully, he will be someday. Great painter. He never was a social person. You never saw him at any of the art openings. I only saw him once actually at the Los Angeles County Museum when they asked 200 artists to come and have their photograph taken. He was there to be photographed, and I was there also, and it was one of the only times I saw him. Never went to openings, never played the art game. He did his work quietly. He was painting abstractly before other people, and then, when everybody started going Pop, he'd gone back to the figure. He did everything that was not popular. [laughs]
You were actually at the core of a vital moment of art history.
You mean the shift between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art.
Right, you were right in there. Do you sometimes look back on that time and say, Hey, maybe if I hadn't gone to film, maybe I'd have been one of them?
Well, you know, I've been very fortunate to be in film, and this is only difficult for other people, it seems, to understand, but it's perfectly logical for me to think that an actor would want to paint.
Because it's a sensitive, creative act, acting. It's using your emotions and playing with your senses and trying to expose your feelings, real feelings, in front of an audience. So what's the difference between approaching a canvas and trying to do the same thing? If you're in an artistic environment, then be an artist! I mean, I don't play an instrument, but if I did, I'd be playing an instrument all the time, too.
That's about the only thing you don't do, right?
No, I don't, but I do use music in my movies and I had the first rap album that sold a million copies for Colors. And Easy Rider certainly had all the found music from the rock 'n' roll era. Hot Spot, a soundtrack, was Miles Davis's last album, with John Lee Hooker.
So I've dabbled in music, but I don't play an instrument. And directing a movie encompasses all the arts. It encompasses writing, it encompasses photography, it encompasses acting. Painting, set design, architecture, I mean, you name it, as a film director, you'd better know it.
When I was a young man, there was a big book called An Actor Prepares by Stanislavski of the Moscow Art Theater and everybody wanted to read that book. But that book was so thick, man, I couldn't figure out anything out of that book. But there was a small book called Six Lessons in Acting by Richard Boleslowski. Well, Boleslowski broke away from Stanislavski and he went to the country. He took some students with him and he wrote a little book. And in this book, a female called "the thing" comes to meet the great master, the great professor and she says, "I want to be an actress."
And he says, "Do you know contemporary literature? Not the history of writing. Do you know contemporary literature? Do you know your contemporary painting, your contemporary sculpture? Do you know what the other artists are doing around you?" She says, "No." And he says, "Well how dare you come to me and ask me to be an actress? Until you know these things, how can I help you?"
I was 13 years old, I was already painting and I never stopped. I just considered that that was the way you did artistic things. I'm a farm boy from Kansas. I didn't go farther than that. It's a simplistic idea, but that was my life, and it's been my life. So, when I was 18 years old and became an actor and started to make money, I never had to go back to digging ditches and gassing trucks, which I used to do. I never had to go back and fry hamburgers, which I did, I never to wait or bus tables.
I became an actor. And sometimes I didn't have much money. I went through some very lean times. I got in trouble as an actor and I was black-listed and all sorts of things, but the point is, I never had to go back to those things. I was allowed a life in culture and art, and I pursued that in my own way. In my moments, not as a continuous thing. Not every day did I paint, not every day did I write, not every day did I act, not every day did I direct a movie, not every day did I take a photograph, but when I couldn't act, wasn't allowed to act, I would go and paint. Or I'd take a photograph, or write a poem or do something.
Do you see this as an expression of creative restlessness?
I used to call it a compulsion.
Is it insecurity, not knowing where to put all your energy?
No, it's the way I thought. I walk down a street and I say, "Wow, that's a great painting," or "Wow, look at that object," as I have all my life, so if I take a picture of it, that's another thing. I go through life looking at things, thinking, "Wow, that's incredible." My visual sense is my strongest sense. In the Gospel according to Thomas, he says, "There's only one moral. If you know what you see with your eyes and hear with your ears, all the secret wonders of the world will be revealed to you."
Are you a religious man?
No, but I found this book, it's a Gnostic book. Thomas and John were the only ones who wrote. They went off into Egypt. After Christ died, his followers became known as the Orgiastics. Love your brother and your sister as you love yourself, and eat the bread and share the wine and they became a bunch of drunks having orgies. So John and Thomas went off to Egypt and formed the Gnostic religion, which has not been accepted. But there are no miracles in this book. It's just the sayings of Christ. The only moral judgment he made was: Don't lie and don't do what you hate. For all things are manifest before heaven.
Do you live by that?
I try to. Yeah.
Did you ever have the feeling that your talent might not be adequate in one field or another?
I feel it constantly.
Of course. I think all actors are very insecure people.
Because of the nature of our work, exposing our emotions in public. It's like somebody going out and getting drunk and having a blackout and not being able to remember what they did. Then going and looking and seeing everybody looking at you strangely. You reveal your emotions in public, it doesn't make you secure.
But you'd have to have a certain level of security to be able to do that.
There's a certain relaxation. You have to have a lot of relaxation and confidence, but that doesn't mean that after it's over you don't have a hangover from it. There's nothing that says you're going to make this amount of money this year, no guaranteed income. There's no kind of job security, because once you finish the job, you're out of work. And you have to wait for the next job.
Also, we're very much like gypsies, actors. Especially because of the way films are now. We live this very privileged life, but at the same time, we're in trailers most of the time, out on location somewhere. We're an extended family and we're with that family for an extended time. For a couple of months, maybe longer, depending on the film.
We're all together and we love and hate and do all the things that people do, and suddenly, the movie stops. It's over. And you may never see these people again. Unless you work together again or run into them somewhere. And you're like family again. It may have been twenty years since you've seen each other, but you hug and kiss and "how are you" and all that, and they've had children, they've been married and divorced and all these things have happened. But you still have this bond together. So, in a sense, it's like gypsies, I suppose.
Also, our craft or our art -- I like to think of it as an art -- has only been accepted on any kind of social level when we started making so much money in the movies. Because in the 1800s, the actors weren't allowed, really, to even perform inside the house. They were fed in the barn with the animals and with the servants and they would build something for them to perform in outside. They were always thought of as something strange, these people trying to emote, trying to show their emotions in public -- there's something wrong with them to begin with. But it's amusing, so we'll allow it to happen. But they weren't treated with any kind of respect.
You started out with a brilliant film - and then Hollywood showed you the cold shoulder.
Well, I fought Hollywood very desperately. I fought for what I thought was creatively correct. And I wasn't James Dean and I wasn't Marlon Brando and I wasn't Montgomery Clift. I was a kid who had watched them and admired them and had worked with them. But I wasn't a star. A star could get away with a lot more than a person playing small parts in movies and do it his way and the correct way at the time, which was method acting.
And you were also lacking the charm of a Jack Nicholson. He knew how to play people.
Absolutely. And Jack's wonderful. He has a great gift for the gab, he's a very humorous, very charming, very deliberate man. He knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it. And he's one of my best friends.
Is the art business easier in that way?
No. It wasn't for me. Everything's been difficult for me. But that's probably because I have a lot of turmoil in me.
Is that a good thing, do you think?
I don't know that anything is good. I don't know that it's good at all.
But it brings out the best in you.
Oh, I don't know. The creative act is really all I should talk about. The creative act to me, and the reason that I got into trouble with Hollywood, was because of preconceived ideas. In method acting, you cannot approach a role with preconceived ideas, any more than you can approach a painting with a preconceived idea.
You should be free enough to allow it to happen, whether in an action painting or in an expressionist painting. In acting, you go into a scene and you have no preconceived idea and you live a moment-to-moment reality. Somebody says "Hello," you say, "Hello." Now you may have an accent, you walk a different way or whatever, but you still have to deal on a moment-to-moment level. If somebody tells you to go fuck yourself, you say, Hey, wait a second, what -- and it goes moment to moment.
Then your real emotions start getting involved and that's the way you play. But you can't go into your subconscious through a preconceived idea. You have to relax your mind and allow yourself to think and to feel what's happening by going through your senses. What was I wearing, what was I hearing, what did I smell, what did I see, and then allow these things to hit the moment that allows you to have an emotion. And control that emotion and use it in an imaginary circumstance. I think all that's dictated to me all kinds of creating, not just acting. All things are done through our senses. Our brain is controlled by our senses. This is just Strasbourg.
How big a role did that fire in 1961, which destroyed all your work, play in the break you took from art?
Well, I think, at the time it was devastating because I lost all my paintings. We'd just moved into this house and my wife lost all of her mother's furniture. Her mother was Margaret Sullivan, an actress. It was devastating to us.
But as I think back, it was a very cleansing thing for us. Because I think it probably destroyed a lot of bad paintings. But it destroyed some good ones, too. If we hadn't had all our stuff wiped out, we wouldn't have started collecting Pop Art. Suddenly, in 1961, we had no furniture, we had no paintings, we had nothing. So we got insurance money and we were able to start again. That's exactly the moment, then in 1962, suddenly I see the soup can painting of Andy Warhol. It's his first show. So I was right there at that moment, and I saw the difference from Abstract Expressionism, which was the first time America had an art form of its own, we'd always emulated the Europeans, which was our history, and we suddenly found that we could paint and use paint as paint. Not painting a person's face or painting a landscape, but using it actually as paint.
So then, after third generations of Abstract Expressionists, people said, Wait a second, where's the return to reality? We saw it in San Francisco, the Bay Area figurative painters, David Park, Nathan Oliveira and Richard Diebenkorn had gone back to the figure and were using Abstract Expressionist terms. These were the same things that were already going on in Paris before everybody went totally abstract. So I saw this not as a return to reality, but as a return to an old school. When I saw the soup can and I saw the Coca Cola bottle and I saw the billboards, I saw the comic books, I went, Yeah, man, that's what we came out of. That's what we are, the hard sell commercial world that's constantly jabbering at us. It's buy this, buy that -- this is the reality that we live in.
And we studied more about comic books. I remember, I used to go in school and buy these Classic Comics. You could read Alexandre Dumas and all the great classics, but they were comic books.
Oh, yeah. I would read those and do my book reports. Sure, that was my reality. So, I got it immediately. And it wasn't something that people wanted to see. They didn't want to see a soup can or a Coca Cola bottle or a billboard -- what are they doing to us, you know? But there it was.
Rosenquist, when we were young, in 1962, we talked all night long. It was just amazing. And the new French Realists were all in Los Angeles. The first Pop Art show was in Los Angeles, Andy Warhol had it. Before that, Walter Hopps at the Pasadena Museum had six artists in the Common Object which Andy was in and Roy Lichtenstein and Ed Ruscha and so on.
Then Andy has his show in '62. All the new French New Realists Niki de Saint-Phalle, Jean Tinguely, Yves Klein, Arman, Christo were at the Dwan gallery. Virginia Dwan was the heiress to Minnesota Mining. She opened a gallery and brought all these French New Realists, so we were all in Los Angeles.
And then, with Marcel Duchamp's first retrospective, which Walter Hopps gave him in Pasadena in 1963, everybody sort of converged on Los Angeles. Rosenquist, Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and the French New Realists. We were all in Pasadena, we all saw each other. Duchamp had a big tablecloth, and we all signed this tablecloth, and you talk to some people, it's like signing the Holy Grail! [laughs]
But then, what was really surprising was that I found out later that Duchamp was not really known very well in Europe at all. I mean, it just shocked me. Because he had come to the United States during the Second World War and never really returned. He didn't do any work. He only played chess. Anyway, we were really into him.
At the end of this last century, I'm convinced that there were two schools and only two schools. One was Duchamp and the ready-made, the found object, the intellectual approach and conceptual art. And the other was the child-like painter like Picasso, who created like a child and continued to change and so on. These are the two tremendous forces in the 20th century that I see clearly went two different directions. And I'm this schizophrenic kind of person who went both ways. [laughs] I have to say, happily, too! I would stop painting and say I'm never going to paint again, I'm only going to make objects. And then, twenty years later, I'd say, I can't stop painting!
Does this have anything to do with your work with David Lynch? Blue Velvet is one of your greatest film works, David Lynch is also an artist --
Also a painter, and he also does photography, as far as I know.
Yes, he does. As a matter of fact, he was just here, I think. He was over here photographing factories. And nudes. Nudes and factories. He said, "Ok, I'll come over, but I've got to photograph nudes and factories." So he just brought back some work.
So you've been coming back to the creative process --
No, I never stopped. It wasn't a coming back.
Wasn't there a twenty-year lapse?
Oh, yes, I see. Yes, this is true. Because I was working in film. Right, what happened was, I had a movie that I really liked and that everybody really liked and that didn't get distributed. It was called Out of the Blue.
I was at the end of my rope, so at that point, I was in Taos. I was broke, didn't have any money. I'd been out on this big tour, trying to get this movie out. And it obviously wasn't going anywhere. So at that moment, I didn't start taking photographs, but I decided I would paint. I had a big photographic show, actually, traveling. It started at the Chicago Art Institute, my black and white photographs from the 60s, and was going down to Houston.
I decided I would do all these paintings and show them at the same time. Then I would do this blowing myself up at this speedway outside of Houston. During a race car thing, the intermission, I would blow myself up. Which was something I'd seen in a rodeo in Dodge City, Kansas. Called "The Human Stick of Dynamite."
I wanted to do it as the beginning of Easy Rider. It would be the way we made our money, Peter and I. On our motorcycles, as a trick show. Then he would blow himself up in an American coffin, a tissue paper coffin. And he'd wave at the crowd and we'd drive off and get our money and go score dope.
But they kept saying, "Well, we'll do this at the end of the movie," and of course, at the end of the movie, we had no money and we didn't get to do it. It was never done. So, I decided that I would do this and call it "Life After Death on Canvas" as a piece in the show and then announce that I was painting again. 'Cause I'd gone through this thing where I was saying that I'd never paint again, that painting was for cavemen, I was only going to make objects, man-made objects. Duchamp is right; the artist of the future will point his finger and say, "It's art."
Do you think that's possible anymore? Is Duchamp dead because of TV?
No, I think Duchamp is well and alive in every conceptual piece in the world. It seems everybody's a conceptual artist now. There are very few people doing anything else.
I want to know something about the turmoil that you talked about. Do you have an explanation? Where did that originate?
I think if you're born in Dodge City, Kansas, on a wheat farm, you know? Out in the middle of nowhere, and there's no mountains and there's no trees and there's just a horizon line and the train goes by every day, you wonder: Where is that train going? [laughs] And how do I get out of here, you know?
And this, just after the dust bowl, when all the land blew away in the United States. Before Franklin Delano Roosevelt restored the land. I used to have to wear a gas mask to school. Very often, you'd open the door and three inches of dirt would come in. The sun was like this little glowing thing. I used to say that the first light that I saw was in a movie theater. I mean, it's an exaggeration, but... in a sense, it was true. I wanted to know who these people were on that movie screen. [laughs] And how I could get there! That was about it for me.
There's a Rocky Mountain watercolorist, and I started taking lessons with him when I was a kid, from the time when I was seven til I was nine. I was doing these watercolors. When my father came back from the war, we moved to Kansas City, Missouri, and I continued at the Nelson Atkins Museum. I would go there on weekends and do art there. Then, when I was 13, we moved to San Diego, California. That's when I started acting at the Old Globe Theater. That was my first experience, when I was 13 years old til I was 18. And I went under contract with Warner Bros when I was 18 years old and did Rebel Without a Cause. At 19, I did Giant.
About this turmoil. At one point, you locked yourself up in New Mexico and took a lot of drugs and just started doing art. Now, obviously, you have a different approach. But how does it differ?
I've been sober so long, I don't know anymore... [laughs]
I haven't had a drink in 18 years. No alcohol and no hard narcotics for 18 years. You know... I don't want to promote drugs. I'm not here to promote drugs. But there's a moment when drinking frees you. Liberates you. There's a moment when cocaine can liberate you.
But then, if you're an obsessive person, which I was, these things can start working against you, and I became and alcoholic and a drug addict. At that point, you're not doing anything creative. You're just trying to get more drugs and alcohol. That's a very unproductive thing. So, they may work for a moment. They may open the doors of perception, as Aldous Huxley says. They'll open the door, but they'll slam the door on you, too, if you continue. It's one thing to open the door. It's another to keep it open. And to keep it open, I think you have to have a sober life.
I was under the impression that I needed to have these things to get my senses so deranged that I could like, actually, step through. I'm talking as an actor, also. There are tremendous legends about actors drinking. Sometimes you have these Shakespearean actors in England, the ones I admired, you knew more about their drinking than you did about their performances. All the people that I admired when I was kid, like Rimbaud -- Season in Hell was my favorite book when I was in high school. And Baudelaire and Verlaine and that whole group and the Existentialists. And then getting into, like, Van Gogh and Charlie Parker and jazz and W.C. Fields and John Barrymore and all those alcoholics. So, drug addicts and alcoholics were the people I admired. I just figured that, as an artist, you had a license to do this and you were supposed to do it. I went for it.
The title of your exhibition is "A System of Moments." It's also a good title for your life. Where do you want to go from here?
I'm going to direct a movie in New York called Night Job. I know Val Kilmer's going to be in it; I think Johnny Depp's going to be in it, at least I've got an offer out to him. It's a three-character mafia movie, but it's --
You'll play the third role?
No, no, it's two men and a woman. It's a relationship movie, really, even though it's a mafia picture. It's more like a Jules and Jim, with these three characters. And then I'm going to direct a digital movie that I've wanted to do for the last five years on the homeless. It's a romantic kind of look at a flower girl and the guy that pushes the hot dog cart on the beach in Venice. And their love story and how they interact with the homeless and the street performers and the people and the culture that we sort of turn our backs on and don't look at and walk by and ignore. But they're all around us. I want to show that there's a society that takes care of each other and that we don't see it. So, it's more of a romanticized look, not an expose of the homeless. Looking at them as human beings.
c Nina Rehfeld