on a missed career as Pop-Artist in the sixties, tipps by 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. continue