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.