This excerpt from an interview with Dan Witz by Marc and Sara Schiller of The Wooster Collective took place in August of 2007. The full text will be included in Dan Witz. In Plain View. 30 years of artworks illegal and otherwise. To be published by Gingko Press in the Fall of 08. With an introduction by Carlo McCormick.
When you were a kid did you have a black sketchbook?
I did! It went everywhere with me, along with my rapidograph pen. I drew compulsively in styles shamelessly derivative of R. Crumb and Raw Comix. Nothing special. I don’t remember being very impressed with myself as a prodigy or anything, but I was the class artist by default. My dream was to move to New York City to be poor and find my dark side and meet the right people and make a career out of my suffering.
You’ve said your creativity’s connected to your rebelliousness.
Well… I had this really normal, healthy childhood. Nice parents, safe home, supported. A nightmare. The worst background possible for an avant-garde artist. Starting around fourteen, I began rebelling, I sought out extreme situations — the stranger the better. I thought you had to have felt real pain to be authentic. So I cultivated my dark side in the hopes of making me a more interesting person, and a more interesting artist-and, maybe, attract some dark, interesting women. It wasn’t until much later though that I actually did my Robert Johnson going-down-to-the-crossroads thing.
I guess I was afraid of being too ordinary. Too well adjusted. Too susceptible to the traps of comfort and security. In the early 70’s that kind of apathy was widely perceived as the cause of the world’s problems. It was how the Vietnam war got started, what made people sleepwalk through life and why the world was so fucked up. Art, being an artist, being awake, was going to be my rebellion against this state of affairs.
(I thought) I needed to burn that middle class midwestern programming out of me. Scorched earth policy. Drugs and drink. Romanticizing debauchery. I read Bukowski and Kerouac, William Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, and listened to Jim Morrison and the Velvet Underground; I idolized dead and dissipated rock stars (Jimi, Janis…), devoured movies like Clockwork Orange and Apocalypse Now. Anything nihilistic or anarchic appealed to me. I wore black. My hair-everything about me was annoying to older people.
Also, during this time — this is embarrassing — my friends and I adopted a motto taken from a beer ad: “You only go around once in life, so grab for all the gusto you can.” Schlitz, I think it was. Embarassing, not just because of that word, egusto’, but because that’s basically how I made all my decisions for the next 20 years.
When did you get your first tattoo?
What was it?
A star? Does that have any meaning?
It meant I had a tattoo. In 1974 having a tattoo-even a tiny little star—was unusual. At least where I came from.
What was the influence RISD had on you?
Coming from suburban Chicago, it was a shock. The Eastern private- school culture was very intimidating. Everything midwestern about me was wrong —my hair, my shoes, my taste. Eager, wide-eyed me, I liked Magritte and The Grateful Dead. I wore hiking boots. Brown hiking boots. Every kid growing up in America deals with taste snobbery, but this was combative. But eventually I had to admit they had a point. The Sex Pistols and Andy Warhol were more relevant; hippie times were over. I began to understand that style wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. And rebellion was sexy. So it was quick: I got my hair cut, got some black boots, and adjusted my taste in music.
Art students should know everything new that’s happening. That’s their job. In such a world, nothing is worse than having the wrong opinions or being uninformed. Their scorn, or the mere risk of it, was a formative experience for me.
Was art school still something you were rebelling against or a place you could express yourself?
Both. Art schools back then were more anti-establishment, less explicitly about careers. Being a loser was considered acceptable, even interesting. Art was still [viewed as] an essential part of the social fabric, an agent for change. Artists had a social responsibility. There was this almost religious belief that Cubism and Modernism had changed the world, painting had freed something; art was a potent force,capable of influencing the public. It sounds quaint now but pictures on a wall could actually change the way people thought.
The big discovery during this period was that there were things hidden below the surface, forces of subtle power. It was an artist’s job to bring these to light, and these universal truths would re-connect us with ourselves and help the world become a better place. Anyway, I bought it.
Besides the politics, did you learn drawing and the basics?
Definitely. And photography. And carpentry. And oil painting technique . And color theory. And anatomy. A lot of useful things.
So, if this was the era of conceptual art, how did your influence move from R. Crumb and Raw Comix to painterly realism? How and why did your technique get so realistic, so technical?
This was later, after I moved to New York: I was at Cooper Union but spending more time exploring the city, in bars and clubs, hanging around the art-punk scene. That group despised successful artists. “Posers”, they called them. Personally, still wanting to be successful, I tried to keep an open mind. I did my time in museums and video rooms. Mostly, though, I found conceptual art unrewarding and dull. Apparently the goal was to be removed from ordinary life, to be beyond regular people’s access, and if you wanted the entrance code you had to work really hard to get it. Why? I understood reductionism but what was wrong with letting people in? What good is art that makes people feel unworthy and left out? I still don’t know. This was the beginning of a life-long aversion to anything exclusionary. Or boring. Especially boring. For me, that was the worst thing art could be. If you couldn’t dance to it (metaphorically, I mean) then fuck it.
And, since that was the mono-movement of the times, I was happy to rebel against it. Realism, accessability seemed really seditious at the time. That suited me fine.
Mostly, I just wanted to make the kind of art I wanted to see. I look back and see that developing my own style had a lot to do with rejection | rebelling against the status quo, a reaction…Mostly I defined myself by what I didn’t want to be.
When did the street start influencing you?
Back then, Providence was the costume jewelry capital of the world. Walking around I’d find all this tiny metal stuff laying on the ground—fittings, ball bearings, odd, tiny, inscrutable things—robot flotsam. When my pockets got full, I’d set up these ordered displays on window ledges or other flat surfaces. Carefully, like in a museum cabinet or store window, I’d line the objects up or make a regimented little circle or something and leave it behind. I don’t think it ever occurred to me to photograph it. I liked thinking about people coming upon them and being mildly puzzled. This was also the first street art I made in New York when I transferred to Cooper Union. I still do this by the way. The stuff is mostly plastic now, which although more colorful, isn’t as much fun.
Right. So you moved to New York. When was this?
What were your first impressions of New York?
Terror. The black-out and riots had just happened. If you lived outside NYC back then, you thought you’d be mugged the minute you got to town, that they’d steal the gold fillings from your teeth before you got out of Port Authority.
How was Cooper Union?
Ok. Good, I guess. Free. You’ve got to like that.
It’s very prestigious-
Yeah, which is a dangerous idea. For awhile after I graduated I kept an updated a resume until I realized no one looked at those things. Interesting group of kids there, though. That was valuable. It was kind of a prep program for the art business, a mini-microcosm of what was waiting for us out there. These were ambitious, knowledgeable, savvy careerists. Way out of my league.
Did it push you more?No. Or, yes, in a reactive way. I mean, I was intimidated by all the New Yorkers with their big vocabularies and cold shoulders. This was before the days when tolerance was fashionable in the art world. Or pluralism. In the painting department, you were either in their club—by then it was macho neo-expressionism-or you were locked out, invisible. Naturally, me being me, I became the opposite of a macho expressionist, painting with tiny brushes and Flemish detail. I joked at the time that I couldn’t help it: I was genetically cursed with good small-motor control.
There were so many amazing things about being in New York though. A few weeks after I arrived, a girl from school invited me over to her loft in Soho. I’d never seen one of these before and instantly decided that was how I wanted to live. She put on Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and this just totally blew me away. One of the strangest, most beautiful things I’d ever heard. A real goosebump experience. Totally opened something in me.
What else was inspiring you at the time? How did you get into the punk scene?
In the galleries, the ruling cabal at the time was still the minimalists, a bunch of older white dudes, Carl Andre, Donald Judd-
You didn’t respect that stuff?
I tried to. Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin, Richard Serra. If nothing else, they’re extreme, which I tried to like, but for the most part the minimal corporate art of the time left me cold. I’d go up to the Whitney or someplace and the only thing I’d really enjoy was looking out the window at the city. I did admire Brice Marden a bit but none of that dry reductionist stuff reflected anything that was going on in our lives. The Lower East Side, the dying city, the crime and drugs, the homeless people screaming their heads off, the graffiteed trains careening by, the kids break-dancing, spinning on their heads, the vacant eyed punks walking around all strung out. I mean, torn fishnet stockings, trash fires, black eyes, rubble — all this seemed more relevant to my life. And definitely more fun.
You’ve mentioned that the cold post modern architecture of Cooper Union inspired you-
Yes, but not in a positive way… Cooper Union was not an especially warm and welcoming place. Painters were kept on one floor, graphic designers on another. Photographers, architects, really interesting folks, all stayed on their own turfs, no one really hung out. I was new to the city and everyone seemed so stiff and wary of each other. Also, the school itself had just been renovated in the highest post modern manner. A show piece… Blazing fluorescent lights, intense angles, dehumanizing grids…theoretical architecture at its most sterile and alienating. No surprise but it was impossible to feel comfortable there. In art school, you should feel free to make a mess, to make mistakes, to be un-self conscious. But not in those studios. It was deadly.
Also I was pretty sure nobody liked me and I began to get resentful. I was living in an unheated loft with a couple of punk bands, and-it’s such a garret clicheÅ-but I was perpetually broke, cold, and lonely.
One night, I was in my studio drinking, smoking, angry, thinking, “Fuck this place, fuck these people. They’re all such dicks-
Were you getting more tattoos?
No, but I had a motorcycle, which seemed to annoy everyone. And I was semi-punk, which was Å|hard to believe-threatening. It was ironic. I mean, the school was on St. Marks Place. CBGB’s, the Mudd Club, the No New York bands — history was being made all around them, but they were stuck in their Neo whatever-it-was-ism: I don’t know, Jism-ism…Julian Schnabel was big, the 80’s uber-egos ruled, and since I didn’t paint that way, — the way everyone should paint — I was out, invisible, so I just said, “Fuck it, I’m gonna set this place on fire and everyone, all the stuck up New York assholes will go running out and maybe they’ll finally talk to each other.” So I got a palette with big blobs of yellow, orange, and red acrylic paint on it and I went up and down the back stairs painting these fast, loosely brushstroked fires. To be honest, by the time I was finished I was pretty drunk and I don’t remember much about it except someone told on me and I got caught. I came into school the next day and found out I’d been expelled. At first the school officials wanted me to personally paint it out but then they decided better and had the maintenance crew do it. Which gave every one at the school an extra few days to see it.
It probably would’ve blown over but the guy who was acting director of the whole school was also the Dean of the Architecture Department — this very famous architectural theorist. One of those academic types who’d never had anything built. Except the renovation of Cooper Union. And he flipped out that I was desecrating his creation. Apparently, others had been grumbling about the de-humanizing effect of the building and my little stunt was the last straw, the final insult, and he lost his temper.
On this particular day I had my critical theory class, the ean-aesthetics of boredom’ I called it, where we dissected the most tedious hidden subtext of anything anyone was calling art that day. Hungover, freaked out, and, as usual, having nothing art-smart or conceptual to offer, just realist paintings, I decided to make the fires my piece for the “crit”. The class dutifullly trooped out into the stairwell and, to my surprise, everyone was into it. Suddenly, hidden subtexts I’d never thought of, and definitely hadn’t planned, were getting gushing reviews. I got all this attention. Girls started noticing me. And since my expulsion was threatening to become a cause that other people dissatisfied with the working environment could rally around, I was quickly re-instated. Lucky coincidences I know, but the attention was a real revelation to me.
This was the early 80’s?
Yeah. After I got out of school I pretty much concentrated on survival and starting a band.
Did you go see a band at that time that was so memorable, so inspiring that you decided to get up and do it yourself?
Yeah, at the time the No New York bands were starting to peak. Mars, DNA, the Contortions, Static, The Lounge Lizards. Theoretical Girls. Their ruling aesthetic was to be completely original, to never do anything anyone had ever heard or seen before. Also, since there was no chance any of them would ever get rich or famous, since there was no product being sold other than the moment, it was largely incorruptible, and very liberating to someone like me. That scene really helped me to see past my middle-class programming, especially the need to make good, and please the people in charge.
Rauschenberg once said he wanted his stuff to be somewhere in the space between art and life. These bands were actually doing that. And I wanted to get in on it.
What was the name of your band? I was in a few. The first, Civil Defense, played out only once, at a loft party. We knew someone so our picture ended up on the cover of the East Village Eye, which totally freaked us out. We immediately started arguing and broke up. Later, my main project was EQ’d with my wife and friends of ours.
In the downtown scene back then, there were these big guns—Rhys Chatham, Laurie Anderson, Elliot Sharp, and Glenn Branca—who used the local bands as a talent pool-or, in my case, considering my lack of musical talent, more of a labor pool. Anyway, they tapped the scene for musicians to play in their various ensembles and projects. Sometimes it even payed. Most of my friends played with someone. The guy who I admired the most was Glenn Branca. I ended up playing in a couple of his ensembles.
And painting the whole time?
Yes. That’s right after I did the first big street project, the hummingbirds.
How did that develop?
I’d been doing those little ledge accumulations, the found objects. Walking for hours every day to save subway fare. Somewhere along the way I decided I wanted a tag.
Was working on the street illegal back then?
So there was still the risk and excitement?
For sure. Probably less the danger of getting arrested and more about getting roughed up or mugged. Random violence was common back then. Something we don’t have to deal with as much today.
Did you ever get messed with by street people?
No. Close. Stuff was often happening nearby but I always managed to avoid getting involved.
I’m not sure. Maybe because I’ve always been a kind of grungy guy. Muggers don’t seem to pick me. Also, I’d travel to painting locations on my motorcycle and sit on my helmet while painting. Believe it or not, I mean I’m clearly not like this, but having a bike, being a biker’, is an effective deterrent to predators.
And the cops? They wouldn’t arrest you?
I suppose they would if they were in the mood. If you were in their face too brazen or defacing city property they’d haul you in. But, back then, they’d prioritize, they’d make judgement calls. A white guy painting a hummingbird on an acceptably decrepit surface wasn’t usually important enough to make them get out of the car. I learned to show them pictures of birds I’d done, and a lot of times they’d even be, like, “cool, keep going”. That really taught me a lot. How to find the outer limit of what I can get away with. I’ve worked that way ever since and somehow I’ve never been arrested.
You were doing them downtown?
Yes. Basically in a circle around Soho. That was where the galleries were so I didn’t put any there. I wanted them to be in regular neighborhoods so real people would see them. Art types in Soho not being real people.
Were any of your friends doing street art?
Not really. Except for punk band posters. That was a big influence on me. Graffiti was getting talked about a lot. I liked it but was never really interested in trying it-the tagging concept was interesting though. I thought of my hummingbirds as an anti-tag. This was something that was three inches square and took two hours to finish; like portraits they were unbelievably difficult to pull off, to bring to life, and hardly anyone would see them-and the people who would see them probably wouldn’t be useful to my “career”. That twisted kind of dynamic really satisfied me.
And what did the hummingbird represent?
Well, most importantly it hovered. It had a formal reason to hover. That was why I initially chose it. But then I found out more about them and it became a creature I could identify with. Fierce, elusive, high metabolisms…Also, my hummingbirds were anatomically correct but the color was a total improvisation, a response to the environment, which was a very satisfying painterly experience for me sitting out there. Also, it’s kind of-if not exactly corny-then definitely anti-hip. I mean, little hummingbirds? They’re so likeable, they’re actually pretty—which had to be the most offensive thing art could be at that time. (Maybe, still?) In any case, the little birds fulfilled my need to be in reaction against the art establishment of the time.
How many hummingbirds did you do?
And did people notice them?
Yes. To my amazement. It became a kind of a word of mouth thing, but the Village Voice ran a thing, and so did NY magazine, so people knew about it.
Who else was doing stuff outside then? This is before Keith Haring?
Yes. The only street art I knew about was Charles Simonds’ Little People Villages on the Lower East Side. That’s an underknown piece. Basquiat was doing Samo stuff around the same time but he was considered more of a graffiti artist. I wasn’t aware of John Ahearn, Rigoberto Torres, and John Fekner, older guys working up in the Bronx, until a few years after I painted the birds. I’d definitely seen the aphorism posters by Jenny Holzer; and I was very aware of Gordon Matta Clark’s abandoned building interventions.. This isn’t street art but I had postcards up on my wall of Sandy Skoglund’s Radioactive Cats and Donald Lipski’s Gathering Dust piece, which I’d seen at Artist’s Space. Two pieces that influenced me a lot.
So the birds were the first thing you actually painted out doors?
The first thing of mine. IÅ’d worked for a billboard painter before this. So I already knew how much I enjoyed being outside painting. Working as a sign painter’s helper was as important a part of my art schooling as Cooper Union. My boss, Gonzalez, was probably the best technical draftsman I ever met. A natural eye. A genius. Way beyond me or anyone I’ve met since. To him art was silly. Effete. Realistic painting was something you figured out how to do fast and efficiently, to get the maximum effect. Time was money. A lesson I consolidated later by copying Crananch and Bosch and other 15th and 16th century masters. Not to be too precious. Not to let me get in front of the effect the painting’s supposed to have. When I get that way I can still feel Gonzalez smirking over my shoulder.
And these pranks, these one-off pieces, you were doing these all along?
Yes. That was when I was touring with Branca. I couldn’t sustain big projects so I’d go out and do small intervention type things. I was just beginning to understand that I was making photographs, so I would go out with a camera, careful not to be a “photographer” though. Making objects for consumption felt inappropriate, hypocritical. The photgraphs were, and still are, souvenirs of the real piece.
Tell us about your first show.
My first show was at an alternative performance space my band played at a lot. Inroads. I knew the guy who booked the bands so he let me put up my Birds of Manhattan photographs in the lobby. The first show of my paintings was at a bar on Avenue A. The hand portraits. A kid I knew from Club 57, Carlo McCormick, came to the opening and brought an art dealer he was working for, Barry Blinderman, who was this reputable art dealer by day but a rock club dude by night. He’d seen me play. We hit it off and eventually he offerred me a show in his Soho gallery, Semaphore.
So what was the significance of the hands?
When I was touring Europe, as crazy as it was, I used to slip away to the art museums, the pre 20th century ones. I began private relationships with the old masters, a mental museum which I keep to this day. Maybe it had something to do with the contrast of my death-noise life style by night, but the light, the space, the astonishing quietude and duration of reality in those paintings…even hung over and sleep deprived as I was (or maybe because)—it was a revelation to me. I became convinced that the truth for me lay somewhere in the fusion of the two worlds.
Giotto, I remember in Florence, really affected me. The hand portraits came from that. Simple gestural, architectonic. For my portraits, I used artist’s hands, my friends who were artists posed for the photos I worked from. Portraits because I think people look exactly like their hands. (And their shoes. The worn-in ones.)
And the old white guys with their shirts off?
Yeah. Still fucking hilarious. Not one of my better selling series.
Were you still rebelling at this point?
Yes. Well, I think I was hoping to outsmart my self-sabotaging ways by making objects that were both rebellious and consumable. Something I’ve never had much luck at.
How did the shows go?
Okay. Nothing stellar. I did ok. Not enough to quit my day job. I never really hit it too big in the East Village scene. Even though it was pluralism personified, somehow I managed to stay on the fringe. The real story behind the East Village era was that it was more a social phenomenon than anything else, and I think my personality was a problem. Arrogant and thin skinned. Fearing the people I most wanted acceptance from, resenting them because of their power over me.
So your street art was mainly pranks at this point?
Yes. I was so overwhelmed with the bands and the full time job and getting evicted again and the shows and the paintings, I’d go out a couple times a summer and do some pranks.
Were Keith Haring and those guys doing stuff by then?
Yes. One day I was painting uptown and this woman walked by and kinda huffily asked me, “Who do you think you are, Keith Haring?” My first reaction was not to paint uptown, then I began to wonder if my days of doing street art might be over.
So what kept you painting through all that? It seems like you were doing really well at music. Why didn’t you just become a musician? I sucked. Admittedly this was an asset in that scene, but it became pretty clear I was in danger of becoming the thing I resented most in the art world: mediocre but well connected. Knowing I was really a painter and this was a fodder phase or something, I accepted it. I remember playing somewhere, Pyramid Club on a Saturday night I think it was, and it dawned on me that I was an entertainer, I was in show business. Honestly, maybe if there was more of a living in it, I would’ve stuck with it like a day job, but, fortunately, there wasn’t. The truth is, I wasn’t interested in music in the overall sense, in the obsessive way I was with art and art history. People I’ve met who are really good at what they do often seem to posess an encyclopedic knowledge of everything about their medium, they see themselves as the logical continuum of that time line, they know and are constantly gathering more information about every aspect of their field of choice. The canon, the anti-canon, trivia, anecdotes, etc. A couple of guys I played with in Branca’s band were like that about music, dedicated, obsessed: they ended up forming Sonic Youth. I’m naturally that way about painting and visual art. But not music. For me being a musician was mostly about fun. I will say, performing on stage is still one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had.
So then you started putting the words into the hot tar. The Poem Down Broadway. How did this idea come about?
Walking. Most of my ideas come when I’m walking around the city. After 30 years I’ve got a story for every street in Manhattan. I’m serious. Every street. Strangely though, whenever I’m walking along with someone and tell them this, they never ask me the story about where we are… Anyway, having a dog and walking her three times each day has been a huge help to my thinking.
For that piece the idea was to make a kind of automatic writing poem on Broadway from 96th Street to the Battery. I think I was interested in DuChamp’s or John Cage’s modernistic rejection strategies. Allowing chance to cancel critical intervention. Whatever. I was trying to be hip. Maybe I’d been reading art magazines. It’s funny. Even though I fancied myself some kind of art terrorist, using beauty and poetry as rebellion etc. I see how I secretly wanted to be accepted, to be allowed at the party. These days, I realize how lucky I was that no one was interested and that I was allowed to keep developing on my own.
What happened to the poem?
I lost it. Probably cause it wasn’t very good. Suspending critical intervention can be pretty dull it turns out. What did happen, the unforeseen thing, the Å’lucky’ surprise about the whole project, wasn’t my original concept, but the documentation photos. Since my pieces were meant to be experienced on the street I’d always tried to underplay the aesthetic object of the photos. Another received notion from art magazines, probably. But I noticed that every time I went to pick up my slides I’d get really nervous. There was no way of avoiding it. These were photographs. Like nothing I’d ever seen either, like these images were really mine.
Unintended results are always a good sign, I think. Every project I’ve done that’s been successful has had this element of accidental revelation: a change of course that, looking back, totally feels like a lucky break. I know that platitude about the harder you work the luckier you get probably applies, but it feels more like something random and fragile, some slippery, elusive x-factor like “inspiration”. I know artists who allow room for this in their conceptual process; they’ll trust that more will be revealed by the process. I can’t. I just try not to fear it won’t happen.
A lot of your work is centered around projects. Do you have one-offs that failed, that never became projects or do you usually conceive of things as projects?
The one-offs or Pranks fail or succeed. Sometimes a one off succeeds and becomes a series, usually not. I think for every project you see there’s one or two that fail, or never get off the ground. It’s getting better now. I’ve learned to be suspicious of myself when I get really clever ideas—especially after going to art shows. It wasn’t always that way though. That’s why I like to work in series. From start to finish things shake down and change. Sometimes the early stuff is good and fresh and the later ones mannered and contrived, and sometimes the early stuff is crude and the later ones develop and acquire that grace/luck thing…it’s maddening cause I never know. Even while I’m in the process I don’t know. I need to get some time away from it, some distance. The best I can do managing this dilemma is with another artist’s clicheÅ, “Heart on fire, Mind of Ice”. Balance. That’s the only way I know to survive the hellish doubts and second guessing that inevitably starts about half way into any project. The heart on fire part’s easy, a given, it’s the discipline though, the stick to it voice that I’ve had to cultivate. For me though, failure’s so disheartening, so cruelly depressing, it’s got the potential to shut me down completely. It’s absolutely crucial that I maintain this cold calculating side, this paranoid technical overseer that keeps the whole contraption on track.
Were there any back then that failed?
God, yeah. The early sticker pieces… It took about 2 years to get that working. Lots of bad pieces back then: I must’ve cut out thousands of bright yellow American cheese food slices. Nothing from that series made it. I remember a batcave thing, with dozens of bats, sleeping upside down. Stupid. Sophomoric. Took weeks to paint. I don’t think I even kept any photos.
I totally lose interest in my work after it’s finished. After the actual installation or painting phase is done I’m over it, out of love, they’re dead to me. It becomes an administrative problem then (photographing, archiving, etc.). Maybe editing 50 pieces down to 10 to 12 usable images each year takes its toll. Too many little deaths. So much hope, so many near misses. It’s brutal. I think I protect myself by investing my self-worth in what’s next. For me, the new work’s always the thing. If you meet me and ask me how I am, sooner or later I’m gonna start telling you about My Next Big Thing.
So there’s a gap here in the early 90’s. Set that up for us.
Ok. New York had been bottoming out for awhile by the early 90’s. Especially on the Lower East Side, my neighborhood, things were pretty desperate. Crime, homelessness, addiction, HIV, it was unbelievably dismal. I had a little saying that the street was a bad dog and if you got too close to it, sooner or later it would bite you. It did. I’d found the dark side I’d naively been hoping for as a teenager. I’d had a very serious motorcycle crash in 1990; there’d been some bad relationship stuff, the end-game of my own addiction problems; my last show at Semaphore had bombed and I’d pretty much detached from the gallery scene. I was still doing street art but it was haphazard. This was a dark time for me, my trip down to the crossroads, and frankly, with all my life problems, art just seemed superfluous. A self indulgence. I mean people were dying, you know? Downtown was decimated. Every week it seemed you’d hear about another drug overdose or suicide, or some other sweet helpless soul fading away with AIDS.
I was doing paintings as well, developing what would be my mosh pit style, but in the face of all that was going on, and my financial independence (due to the insurance settlement from the motorcycle crash), I drew inward, avoiding attention and becoming increasingly uncomfortable with my role in life and the artist’s secret-that mostly what we’re doing is making products for consumption by wealthy people.
Around this time, a friend of mine, Walter Robinson, the art critic, said something, an off-hand remark, which he claims not to remember, about, “artists being lackeys, making shiny baubles for rich people.” This really stuck with me. My first joking response was something like, “yeah, if you’re lucky,” but eventually the awful truth of it really began to depress me.
Which brings us to the hoodys. How did that come about?
Yeah, well, after all that, the question became if you can’t sell your soul, what can you do to keep your soul alive? I knew that I was always happiest, most at ease with my creative self when I was working out on the street. It’s uncomplicated, there’s no ulterior motives, no critical static; maybe people see it, probably they don’t. No big deal. I could handle that. I did some prankish pieces, then the hoodys.
It’s not an anti drug thing or anti drug dealer message, which is what some people thought –
Cause you put it up in drug cop spots-
Right. I think the working title was “The Plague Angel”. I likened it to deer crossing signs or the X’es they painted on houses that had the plague in the Middle Ages. I know I intended it as an elegy of the times and the place, an archetypal high sign.
Is it painted on the wall?
These are photo silkscreens wheat pasted on the wall. My last analog piece. The digital era is dawning…
Did this get you a lot of attention?
Magazines, newspapers… I’d really blanketed the East Side below 14th Street so most people couldn’t help but be aware of them. Also, I’d put them up high with a ladder so they weren’t easily removed. Getting those up was insane. Me and a friend would go out at three in the morning; we’d be creeping around these very sketchy neighborhoods, me up on a ladder obviously up to no good. Not cool. Very risky. This was when I first learned about choreographing installations, shaving seconds off the time I was exposed, regulating everything down to the smallest detail to minimize the risk. Somehow I was lucky with the cops, but even more lucky that no local vigilante saw me on the ladder and thought I was breaking and entering.
How many did you do?
Around 70, I think.
This, at a time, when, thinking about street art, people talk about Keith Haring and Jenny Holzer, but they were long past. So this was totally unique, right?
I’m trying to think… but not much was going on back then. Revs and Cost xeroxes were everywhere. Stuff like that. This is still before the cheap sticker revolution.
So, are you showing in galleries at this time?
Not really. No one was interested. At that time the whole topic of my career was very disheartening. I was struggling. You know though, all the problems I had back then, as bad as it was, now I can see how it was a good thing, how in the end it worked out to my advantage. Anyway, it forced me to figure out what made me happy creatively, to find the joy in it again.
Some artists thrive on career pressure, not me. And I have to say, having had that experience of making art purely for myself—from then on it’s been easier for me to deal with the career crap, to not let it make me crazy or take the fun out of being an artist. Ambition’s inevitable I think, but it’s a lot simpler, cleaner, to be ambitious with the bigger picture, with art history.
The Hoodys were a turning point. Not only did it re-ignite my interest in street art, it re-set all my intentions about making art. Starting in ’95, the digital era, I began doing hundreds of pieces a year. I went nuts.
Were these getting photographed, were you associated with these as well?
Oh yeah, I’m a compulsive archivist. But I didn’t have a web site; the internet wasn’t really a common thing in our lives yet. For the most part the work was purely anonymous. I’d show the photos in galleries and alternative spaces if I could but the response was always pretty tepid. No one seemed to get it. Commercial gallery types would be sympathetic but avoid eye contact, like I had toilet paper stuck to my shoe or something. I think they assumed I put my stuff on the street because I wanted attention and couldn’t get anyone to show me. Again, I just had to let go of that, or any need for approval. Which was a lot easier than it sounds because I was having such a good time. The stickers were so labor intensive and the photos were so bizarre and surprising, I barely registered that people didn’t care.
So in ’96 you started adding the shadows?
Yes. A big moment for me. The whole thing broke open when I started doing that. Remember this kind of middle brow art movement in the 70’s, abstract illusionism? It’s a cheesy cousin of photo realism. Abstract gestural backgrounds with little blobs of paint magically floating above airbrush shadows?
My dermatologist had one of these paintings in her waiting room. One day I was staring at it, kind of liking it actually, and I had a real honest to God epiphany. Like a lot of my generation I’d been a big fan of 60’s custom car culture-especially the airbrush artists and pin stripers. Similarally I’d always admired tattoo artists and skater graphics, underground cartoons, Big Daddy Roth, Robert Williams, Raw Comix, all these fantastically gifted artists we’d later refer to as the inspiration for the Low-Brow movement. Anyway, it must’ve been one of those zeitgeist visitations or something because I went straight from the dermatolgist and bought an airbrush and started getting busy with a huge new bag of trompe l’oeil-fool the eye-techniques. Kitschy maybe, but jamming with the urban backdrops, it really made sense to me.
By 95, 96, the city’s getting cleaned up, gentrified. Were you feeling the pressure from the police and property owners?
Definitely. And in response my installation tactics were evolving. Not only am I spending less time exposed, but this is helping me choose where I put my work. In most neighborhoods there’s an area or two that, because of location, neglect, and some mysterious village social dynamic, attracts the graffiti. These were my walls. Actually, it was after seeing the black-and-white hoody pictures that I realized how bizarrely beautiful these walls were—especially the really old surfaces with long uninterrupted accumulations of tagging. Maybe because the hoody photos were in black and white, I could really see the graffiti; I didn’t take it for granted like I usually do. I was amazed by how much energy there was in it, how fresh it seemed. The gestural confidence, the swooping bravery of the writing; the way the spray paint fizzes, it’s like a flare, or a sparkler—it actually glows! And the drips! Such gravity—like a force of nature. And, incredibly, this is going on everywhere in the city; it’s in our faces every day, shouting. But, even me, a street artist, I hardly noticed it. Until I started integrating my trompe l’oeils with it. Then things really started acting up. The walls came alive. Layers of tagging became weirdly spatial, the walls transformed, became six feet deep.
Ok. I love these guys but maybe three years of Jackson Pollock’s entire career, two years of De Kooning’s and some Franz Kline’s come close to the uncanny perfection of these surfaces. Rothko got the palimpsest part, but no human artist could produce such marks. “Force of nature” is the term for it: I mean it’s like erosion, or a coral reef, or randon mutations in evolution. Leonardo Da aVinci has a famous quote on this, I’ll look it up and send it to you:
[QUOTE AS SIDEBAR]
With the trompe l’oeils was it still a rebellious theme?
Inasmuch as I was doing art on the street, yes. But, aesthetically, except for the low-brow factor, not so much. This was still my private rebellion, my pocket realms, the weird secret art I made. There was even some guilt involved, like I shouldn’t be devoting so much time and resource to something so clearly obscure. I was hooked though.
So at the same time as this you were painting the mosh pit paintings?
Yes. I work in the studio during the cold weather and on the street when it’s warm.
So you went to concerts and stood in the mosh pits and photographed and made the paintings from the photos?
Yeah. I went for weeks actually and took hundreds of pictures. All the group paintings are like that-massive research. I love it-shooting the pictures, waiting, being still. It’s supremely fulfilling in some kind of hunter-gatherer way. For these I had the camera on a long pole and I stood on the outside of the mosh pit and held it over the center. After awhile I got to know the music and could hit the timer and count down to the climatic moment. Very thrilling when I nailed it right. I’ve always loved this part of my work, the chasing down and dragging home of source material. Instantly gratifying. Much more so than painting. The first of these are composed with a slide projector, then I got into scanning the pictures and working in Photoshop and that made a lot more interesting things possible.
In 2000 you painted more hummingbirds-
Yes. My farewell to Lower Manhattan. I’ve always wanted to develop a thesis or riff on how the greatest single influence on the development of my street art has been New York City Real Estate. I could make a graph. One vector would be real estate value and as it climbs, the other one, my time spent on site, declines.
Oh yeah— that year, as the eviction notices began arriving, I was so busy with lawyers etc. trying to hang onto my loft on Ludlow Street that I didn’t have the time or the heart to get involved with one of my big projects. But, when the weather got warmer I couldn’t help it, I had to go outside and do something. I figured it would be apt to finish my Manhattan years where I started-to close the circle with some hummingbirds.
These window paintings are from the same time?
Yeah. The Home Sweet Home Windows. When I started that series I don’t think I really understood the full story of why I was so drawn to these warmly lit windows. For awhile I was working some anti-Clement Greenberg rap about how paintings really are windows (duh!), but it wasn’t until I’d painted four or five of them that it dawned on me that I was so attracted to the image because of my own impending homelessness.
And that led to the World Trade Center shrines?
Right. I’d been learning how to paint light—that was my Next Big Thing—and I’d been thinking a lot about shrines, how art often functions as secular shrines, as objects that promote that kind of reverie. The week before September 11th I was actually up in the Bronx at a housing project, photographing the shrine neighbors left at the doorstep of a murdered nine year old girl (balloons, flowers, stuffed animals, photographs). I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do exactly, it was just my way of researching or sketching.
Tell us about September 11th.
For about a week after September 11th every night I lugged my large format photo equipment to Union Square Park and photographed the shrines people had left there. I wasn’t sure why, I didn’t have a clear idea or project in mind. I guess I was just groping in the dark, doing my best to deal with the shock like everyone else. One thing I did know: every time I put the hood on and those tiny flickering candles came into focus, I felt something eerie, a moment of communion with all those poor extinguished souls.
I started out by making some paintings of the candle fields, warming up, then, gradually, I came up with the street component of it all-putting the trompe l’oeil shrines on the bases of the light poles. Getting those made was complicated and absurdly technical; there were so many steps, so many new ideas, and oddly, nothing went wrong. Every phase went as planned; it all worked, no struggle, no false turns, no frustration or drama…it was spooky. Usually, for me, there’s gotta be some horrible 11th hour obstacle to overcome, but this was the most trouble free series I’ve ever done.Very strange.
And you put these up emanating from the World Trade Center?
Yes. A star pattern. I’d wanted to do something like that for awhile, enforce an arbitrary structure, obey a grid on a map, but it always felt too self conscious or art-smart. But for this project, I could do no wrong, it totally made sense.
And so that set me onto painting light. By this point, with my fluency at digital sampling this is getting possible. My work has always been about trying to utulize what’s unique about oil paint on canvas, what paintings can do that no other visual media can. I love paint’s ability to create light-it’s extraordinay-paint doesn’t just evoke or suggest light, it actually produces the experience of light. Miraculous.
Since the early Renaissance, painters in oil have known that light, entering a painting, traveling through the magnifying lens of transparent color glazes, gathers strength then bounces off the bright white ground making their canvasses seem to glow. Oddly, this technology’s been mostly lost or forgotten.
This was the first time I think we were introduced to your work. The shrines. This is when we realized there was a whole other level to street art. For us it’s why we became so interested in it, it had an emotional depth that we didn’t know street art could have. Because at the time there were a lot of stickers, there was some really great work, but nothing that you looked at and your breath was taken away.
When did you get a digital camera?
I’d had one for awhile but the 9/11 Shrine Series was the first of the purely digital documentations. A lot of the inspiration to get busy in the digital world came from the music I was listening to. Sampling was changing everything. Things I’d been wanting to do for years were suddenly possible with the click of a mouse. And for free. And I could do it at home. I’ve only really had any success sampling my own photos though.
Originally you said you were taking pictures as documentation not as art but then, starting in the 90s, you said you were selling the photos, the documents as art.
The goal is to be self supporting. I think people buy the photos to be connected, to support the concept as much as for their aesthetic value as photographs. I mean it’s like the experience of the art itself. It’s got to be best on the street, that’s the true piece — but it’s important too that there’s layers and subtexts, that there’s something that will walk away and stay with you. Worlds within worlds…The photograph and all the internet incarnations of the piece are just supporting that. I agree that my photographs are art objects-but with an asterisk.
When I see a movie or read something or see a band or some art that cracks me open, it stays with me. I get to carry that open feeling around with me—for awhile. Unfortunately life takes over and it fades. The blinders go back on. I’ve often wished I could carry around some talisman of that experience, a souvenir to remind me. People put art up in their homes for that reason. Maybe that’s why I get tattooed.
When did you start getting tattoos?
I really started getting covered about 15 years ago.
Are any of them your own designs?
A few but mostly I’m collecting the tattoo artists. I find an artist I like, we discuss what I’m thinking about and I pretty much let them do the rest. I like thinking of my tattoos as permanent notes to self. That I hardly ever read. But somehow it’s very liberating.
Do you think there’s an element of it where you’re not in control of the outcome? I think it’s very interesting that an artist would let another artist do art on their body permanently.
I believe that Tennesee Williams thing: for artists security is death. I’m vulnerable to the seductions of security. I guess I seek outside help to keep me uncomfortable. Every now and then I gotta get someone to to stick a needle in me and deflate me-to poke me and keep me awake.
I used to say that art should be an agent for change. I wanted my work to wake people up, but as time went by I realized that it’s useless trying to anticipate how people will think. Now I’m content to let doing my stuff help keep me awake-to be an agent for my own inner change. Which is, admittedly, a lot to ask, but a healthy thing to aspire to.
When are you the happiest?
Hmmm…when I was a little kid, me and my brother used to draw together, we’d have these battles, complete with sound effects, we’d lay on the floor and draw these battle scenes and hours would go by without me knowing it. Today, before I came over here, I went out and put up some of those Do Not Enter signs. Two hours went by and I was gone like that, utterly out of my body. I’m driving around, just a big roving eye-ball, calculating risk, marshalling my forces, planning my attack, it’s dirty, I’m hot-
You’re in the zone-
Yes. I’m so absorbed, I’m totally relieved of my self. Very happy.
Do you see this period of time as a culmination of all the time spent working on the street? Obviously now there’s all this attention to street art, the media’s certainly been writing about it in a different way than they have in the past. Where do you see yourself now in that continuum that started when you were a kid in Chicago?
To me this is just an interesting phase in it all. Our 15 minutes. To be honest, I’ve never been very good at analyzing my (so called) career. I’m trying for this conversation but in real life I know better than to get too involved. I mean, if this is a culmination then what comes next—you know? I guess if anything, all the media attention’s a bit problematic.
In what way?
It adds pressure, self consciousness. I’ve been through it before so I recognize the pitfalls and have some ideas on how to deal with it. But on the plus side, now that there’s some familiarity with what we’re all doing, there’s more freedom. My subject matter can be more personal, less mediated for mass consumption. Like doing a redux of the hummingbirds in 2000. Or the Man of Sorrows, or Lonesome Boats. I never would’ve done something as personal and obscure as that in the 80’s.
The internet must have changed a lot for you. Now you can see what other people are doing, keep connected in a whole new way.
Yes. And it’s so much more fair than when I started. It’s not like you have to know the right people to get your work out there anymore. An artist has a chance now that if they do good work people will get to see it. You don’t have to go to the right dinner parties or be charming or good looking; it doesn’t matter where you went to school and who’s ‘taken you up’. I’m not naive. I know that stuff still matters. I know the art busine$$ still rules. But, thanks to sites like Wooster, not with such overwhelming hegemony.
I’m excited about working globally. The 2007 project, the signs, I can send anywhere and even have people put them up for me. Anywhere in the world. That’s a radical departure. I was working in Manhattan today and I have to say I wasn’t really feeling it. The city’s been locked down, sanitized, a lot of what inspired my love affair with this place is gone—gentrified away. I’m not giving up though. My feeling is that I should be able to make art out of anything, anywhere. The Manhattan Mall is just another new environment, another opportunity. As a matter of fact, my next series is going to hit the Ugly New Buildings, the sterile condos sprouting up everywhere in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. Should be a blast.
Do you still work alone?
Usually. I had help in Copenhagen last week, but I really didn’t need it. I like working alone. It’s easier to get into that zone-
Totally. There’s a lot of similarities between doing street art and performing. You have to be very present, very in the moment. Focus is crucial. I’ve got some kind of minor A.D.D. or something which makes it hard for me to concentrate with too much roof brain chatter going on. When I’m working alone it’s no problem.
One summer though it actually helped to have someone along. I had a girlfriend, Lisa From Norway, who would ride on the back of the bike and help me. That would be our weekend fun, which we both preferred to going to the beach or whatever couples normally do on the weekend. She’d watch for cops and peel stickers and hand them to me then clean the airbrush while I was photographing. We were a team. With her there my focus was actually enhanced, it was probably the best it’s ever been. Talk about happiness! I could be in the zone for hours. A few times lately, IÅeve brought photographers along. They’re careful not to interfere but I feel their presence. I make unbelievably stupid mistakes, I’m not in the zone.
Was there ever any one moment that stands out for you as a moment of creative bliss, an epiphany, that zen samadhi moment.
All the time! Take, for instance in that period doing the trompe l’oeils, I’d be out with Lisa in Sheepshead Bay or wherever, someplace deso