Artist Fritz Scholder Returns to Sacramento:
I'm surprised I'm here today. Actually, I flew in for a nostalgic show; 30 years ago I had my first professional show in Sacramento. And so a gallery contacted me and said, why don't you come back and have a show? And I'm such a romantic, I do believe in ritual, and I believe in gestures, and I said why not? That's why I'm here.
I haven't been here for a long time. Sacramento's changed a lot. And the campus, of course, is a strange deja vu. And as I was telling one interviewer this morning, it has a cutting edge. I was young and poor and had a young family and a child and didn't know where the rent was coming from, and trying to go to school here...I first started at City College, had Thiebaud as one of my teachers. And City College was pretty laid-back then; I don't know how it is now. And it was lots of fun, and Wayne's a great teacher...and he actually gave me my first Sacramento show; it wasn't a professional, or, how shall I say it, commercial show, it was in the gallery on campus, actually in '80, I mean '60, '50 -- it was sometime.
But then when I came to Sacramento State, it seemed so much bigger and I was just trying to get through, and I'm a terrible student, I'm a...I think most artists are rebels and when someone tells me to do something, I've always done the opposite. So I came here and it was the first time I'd ever tried lithography, so I did a stone, processed it and put it through the press blank. Nothing. So I tried another stone, processed it, and as you know, it's a long process, put it through, blank. Nothing. I didn't know how I was going to get through this course. And by the end of the course I knew that that was one medium that I would never work in. And as I was telling the interviewer this morning, never say never.
Later, in New Mexico, in Tamarind came there, I was the first artist that they asked, to do a major suite. I'd never done lithographics except in Dr. Bohr's class. But for that decade I did hundreds...of lithographs of Tamarind, which made people know the work. I remember Witt. He would have parties at his house for us starving art students and it was the only house I'd ever seen that had a big orange beam that went through it. Strange little flashes of what one remembers at that time.
There's a bunch of us starving artists, and we'd, on the weekends, go to the malls and set up our card tables and with our drawings--everybody: Wayne, Mel Ramos, all the guys--and I remember selling drawings for five to fifteen dollars, and Wayne would be next to me selling his for fifteen to thirty‑five dollars. And we'd sell enough to go have a party, afterwards. It was a fun time.
But it was also a hard time because, as you well know, as a student, you just are always on edge, you just don't know-- what am I doing? I may have had it a little easier than most. In fact, I was telling someone, I think, still, the hardest thing is finding out who you are and who you want to be. It may sound like a cliche, but I truly think it's, that's the main problem: identity. I always knew, because I was such a misfit from the beginning that all I wanted to do was just draw and paint and be left alone, and I would just hide in my room and lock the door and do that. So my parents realized that's all I could do and tried to figure out what was going to happen to me.
Well, I was thinking about it too and I realized at that time, no one made a living at being a painter in this country. The best you could do was go to Paris and starve in a garret. But I realized that one had to teach, and if you were really good, you might get an Artist in Residence position at a University. So I went and got all my degrees - I took speech, debate, language, because I was so afraid to talk in front of anyone, I couldn't even talk...and a little-known fact is, I have a lifetime certificate to teach English in any junior college in California. Oh, boy.
Well, by the time I got through all this, I, well, I went to the University of Arizona, and I was telling someone that I was bad here, I was the president of the art club here, and we raised ruckus, but when I got to the University of Arizona, I really-- there was a whole bunch--it was the first time that they had an MFA program, and they brought people in from all over as graduate assistants, and I became kind of the leader there and would write manifestos and bug everybody, and the faculty, we were about the same size as the faculty, and so they were threatened by us, and I left as a swear word at the University of Arizona.
But revenge is sweet. Five years ago, after several presidents who knew nothing about art, they had a president that did know something, and he looked in the records and saw that I had been there, and so he came to me, very apologetically, said, "I'm sorry for the way the school's ignored you"-- it was just like I'd choreographed this, you see. He was very humble. He said, " Please, please forgive us, and we'd like to give you an honorary doctorate." So I said, "Why not?"
I did teach; I had one job in my life. My first and last. I taught for five years. I love to teach. I love students. I hate the bureaucracy. And I still accept usually two artist, guest artist things a year, no more than three days, because I still like to teach, but I don't have much time. And, believe it or not, in three days I can teach you more than you need to know.
And I remember the guest artists that I had witnessed, and some of them just had to enter a room--I remember Thomas Hart Benton--he entered the room with his gold cane and just stood there. That's all he had to do.
I remember afternoons with O'Keefe. And it's often dangerous to meet one's heroes because you can be disappointed. But when I first came to New Mexico, I wrote a fan letter to Georgia; I knew the horror stories: she never answers her mail, she never opens her mail, she turns away Life magazine, she is just mean. I had to do it, as a gesture. I believe in gestures; come halfway, and you'll be surprised what happens. By return mail, I receive a hand-scrawled letter from Georgia, very terse. She said, "Dear Mr. Scholder, I don't know why you'd want to see me, but you can come Thursday afternoon." I was there Thursday afternoon at the famous gate, I rang the buzzer, waited, rang the buzzer again, waited. I thought, "I've been stood up by Georgia O'Keefe!" Just then the door opened, and it's dumb to say, but people have said it to me, there she was, and she looked just like her pictures. She looked like Georgia O'Keefe: black, severe dress, a Calder pendant, hair pulled back...and as we were crossing the patio with the famous black door, and she spoke in poetry, and she truly floated instead of walked. She said something I'll never forget, she said there are times when one must spend an afternoon with one whom one will never see again. But I knew what she meant; I'd caught her at the right time. We spent many afternoons together after that.
So. In a way I guess there is a responsibility when you have are been able to achieve your dreams, and really I give thanks every day for being able to take my craziness, and I'm completely nuts...I've learned to act civilized when I leave big walls around the houses, to communicate, not only in the work, but if I find myself in front of some people...I've been criticized for it, a lot of painters think well, you shouldn't talk, you should just...the painting speaks for itself. Well, it does, of course. In fact, we'll talk very little about the work today. You can't talk about the work; you can talk around the work. You've got to see the work.
I've always worked in series; to me it's most logical to make a statement on whatever subject. The series are all autobiographical. It has to do with my interests; a couple years ago I got a new dog, Felix. And he appeared in the paintings. The longest running series has been the Mystery Women. I've done series on butterflies, dogs, cats, flowers, Indians, you name it. I never know how long the series will be, or long it'll last.
I don't go into the studio every day. I like it to be special. When I walk in...oh, I go into the studio, and I get too nervous, I've been quoted saying if I didn't paint, I'd be out in the streets shooting people. I think that there's an intensity for an artist. An artist is a rebel; I've never done what I've been told, and I'm here to prove it. And I relish that fact. I don't live the way others live. I believe in three realities; I've always had three places. I just sold a New York loft last year, and now have a new studio on the beach in Venice. I also have a studio in New Mexico and Arizona. I don't like to be bored. And I'm not bored; I have a great time, and I-- every day is an adventure.
A while back, I was asked to give a commencement address, and it gave me perverse pleasure, because I remember all the terrible commencement addresses I had to sit through in which I'd never remembered anything...I don't remember who gave it--and I sat down and wrote out exactly what one should do in one's life. A bit audacious, probably, but I felt that, again, one couldn't deny me, because I'm here. And I won't bore you with all of it. The dean had tears in his eyes afterwards, and the students were all quiet and they asked if they could print it up. Which they did.
It seems to me often we make things so complicated. And it's easy, of course, to fall into traps, and I guess it has a lot to do with one's priorities. Some of us, I think, are masochists in what we do. However, for me, I decided that I wanted to try to live a, what I would consider a nice life. I have assistants who do all the things I don't want to do, including take my laundry or put gas in the car, anything. They do it. And I've become very spoiled. I live with walls around me; I don't answer my phone except between ten and twelve, if I feel like it. I have the opportunity to sit in a room and just do nothing. And yet I'm always doing something. I'm constantly thinking. I have more ideas than I know what to do with.
I'm in the library. I was just in the State Library this morning. I remembered that some of my nicest hours was to go to the State Library. It was free, and I could find out things. I was there this morning.
I believe in ritual. I make gestures, constantly. A couple years ago I had breakfast with my very first hero, and, again, a dangerous situation. I grew up in a little town in North Dakota, nobody came there. One day, here, a grade B Western movie star was going to be at the radio station, downtown. I'd seen all of his movies because I would, had to take my sister to the matinee every Saturday. I'd make her sit on one side of the theatre, and I'd sit on the other... But I knew all of these grade B Western movie stars: Lash LaRue, Charles Starrett, Monte Hale--Monte Hale was coming. I was the first little kid in line, asked for an autograph, which I still have, big six foot six good-looking Texan dressed like a cowboy. I thought that was great.
Well, a few years ago, I had a show at the Arco Center in Los Angeles, and I was talking to the director, and for some reason, Monte Hale came into the conversation. He said, "Well, Monte Hale's wife is on our Board! I bet maybe Monte would come to your opening." I said, "Well, that'd be great!" Well, he couldn't come to the opening, but he sent back an invitation to have breakfast with him at the Sportsmen's Club in North Hollywood the next day. So there I was, and there was Monte Hale. Monte Hale is still six foot six, still big and gregarious. Still wears very hideous cowboy attire, with gold coins hanging from I don't know what. He has a hearing aid and white hair. Well, he came in; (it was) in many ways very touching. I brought my one big book, book-- he knew nothing about art, and I was sure that some of the images shocked him, if he ever did look at it. But he brought an envelope of big 4 by 5 or 8 by 10 glossies of him riding his horse in the '40s, and signed "To my longtime pal, Fritz." Well, the director of the museum had come with us for this historic occasion, and out in the parking lot took pictures, which, when I saw, really made me laugh, because, I had, in a way, transcended time. There I was, with Monte Hale, and Monte has his arm around me, like this, and I'm this little kid. There I was. I truly believe that one should make one's gestures.
I always had a thing for vampires. So I went to Transylvania. I studied up. I found that Dracula was actually-- Bram Stoker had found an historical figure named Dracul, which is "the devil" in Rumanian, because there was this guy in the 15th century, was a terrorist. His speciality was impaling, but he did a lot of bad things to zillions of people. The Turks, mainly. He never was accused for sucking blood, but he was the historical figure for Dracula. Well, when you-- it happened that the State Department had contacted me and they wanted to send me and my show to the (Capitol's?) Bureau. First stop was Bucharest, and I realized that's where Transylvania is. When you get to Bucharest, the tourist department has a spot near a city where supposedly Dracula's castle is, or what's left of it. And it's not right, it's not true. I knew where Dracula's castle was. And it was up in Transylvania.
So first I had to be nice to the embassy people, who gave me parties, and then I realized embassy people really didn't care about me or any artist. You see, artists often are used as pawns. I hate to sound paranoid, but let's face it: the State Department puts on these shows so that they can have real nice, cool parties. But I was interfering with their tennis matches. And they didn't want to have me around.
So I ran away to Transylvania with my guide, and she was very knowledgeable about the whole area, and I found myself on top of a mountain at the ruins, fantastic ruins, of Vlad the Impaler. And we got there just before sunset. And the gale was blowing, and you could look all around you at the Carpathians, white, jagged teeth of mountains that didn't look real. I was living out my fantasy: here I was. The wind was blowing; it was scary. I loved it. And so the next stop was Berlin, and I started the vampire series.
So throughout that time, I started to become known, and immediately went into shock to realize what Norman Mailer, which I read later, what Norman Mailer wrote: that we function on factoids. We're a society that, that's really told what to think by the media. And the media takes facts, chews them up, spits them out, and they're factoids. We don't know the facts. And when I started to give interviews, I would read what was in the paper and wonder, "Who were they talking to?" And I'd realize that the interviewer always has an idea, perception of who you are, and you can say anything you want, but if they don't think that's you, then that's too bad. And once it's printed, you can ask for a retraction. It doesn't matter, because the first thing people read is what they believe. More and more I realized that here was a public persona growing up, of me, which had nothing to do with me. And of course, this is just the way it is, but I was so sensitive that I just...it kind of freaked me out. I didn't know what to do.
Now I'm blase, it doesn't matter, just so there's space; it doesn't matter what they print. Because the artist has become a celebrity today. Art is big business, and it's mean business, and it is tough. The pressures that are on any artist are horrendous. And you have to really look into yourself and preserve your self-integrity. Because the artist today must live in a dichotomy. There is what happens in the studio, which has to be completely you. You are alone; no one can tell you what to do, you must do it and stand behind it and say "I did this." And it must, you must paint for yourself. But you cannot, it seems to me, ignore the big bad wolf, which is out there ready to jump on you. And you have to protect your work if you want it to leave the studio. Now you may want to just hide it in the studio, and that's just fine. But if it goes out, you have to protect it. And so it means you have to be a constant guard dog on what happens, on whether or not people misquote you, and again, it's a very frustrating type of thing. And probably one of the reasons I show up once in a while to live people, live audiences, so that I feel at least I'm trying to do something to set the record straight.
Most artists find themselves having to fight against what makes them...what made them famous. And, again, it's because the media grabs you and plasters you for a while, as long as they can sell whatever they're selling, and then they drop you. And they don't really follow up; they don't care if maybe next year you're doing something different. They've had their way with you, and that's it. And so, again, you have to pretty much know who you are, and realize that that's just the way it is. That even the museums are there to use artists; they're not there to help artists. They're there to mount big shows for their own prestige. And it is something where you have to constantly keep an idea of an equilibrium and to realize that all you can do is to do what you have to do. And that's all I've ever done. And I hear the craziest stories. I read the craziest things...about myself. And in the beginning it hurt. Now it's funny, because I know what I'm doing and, once in a while, somebody says something that makes sense.
This is a brand new book that, in fact, tomorrow, at the gallery, is one of the first times it's available to the public. On Saturday, I fly to Los Angeles where I do a book-signing there, for the book. I'm very pleased with the book; it's the last five years of paintings and monotypes. Beautifully done. There are three essays in the book. The first two are by the directors of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and are very much your art historian kind of writing, which is very good, and I was pleased with what they wrote. You see, when a writer is asked, an art historian is asked to write in a book, of course, you're pleased if they accept, and if they have a certain prestige, but of course, they...you have absolutely no control on what they say. What they write, and they always say, ask that nothing be changed, and it isn't, but you're really putting yourself on the line, and I'm very pleased with the writing.
But the third person who wrote was a director of one of the print publishers that I've worked with throughout the years, and an excellent writer. His writing is so interesting that when I started to read this, I didn't even know these things about myself. But then started to read more and more, and he had caught something I was happy he did, because no one else has and that's the dark side of the work. I've always maintained--and it's not just me, I think it's just facts-- any work that's worthwhile can be seen on many different levels. You have the superficial level, the surface; you can look, and maybe you like the color or the absence of color. You like the image. Fine. But then the more you know about the artist, about his times, about what he was trying to do, the more you can get into the work, get under the work, get into those different levels.
This guy immediately realized that there's been a dark thread through all of my work, even when I do a flower. This person, I realized, had discovered the dark thread in the work, and I was pleased. Because when one paints for one's self, there are many secret statements in the work that you hope that maybe somebody will understand or catch, because I often have denied even making statements. I don't want to be literal. And yet, it's all there. And it depends on the viewer. I come halfway, and you have to come the other half. I'm not going to come any further. Well, this guy caught all of this, and he's an excellent writer. He starts writing, and he writes and he writes, and I'm reading, and it's getting stranger and stranger and stranger, and pretty soon I'm starting to get shocked, and I'm thinking, "This is in my book! This book is going to outlive me!"
I've just got to read you just a little of this writing. Now, to give you a background, I've been doing a series called Mystery Women. And I've been working a lot of monotypes. With those two facts, here's what he wrote, and this is just one little thing, he goes on and on and on. He says, "Making art and looking at it intends to elicit a voyeuristic charge." (Now that's a good writer.) "Thus the monotype, like the mask, objectifies the Sexual encounter, and mystifies it, amplifying it with wilder meanings. In some images from the series, Mystery Woman appears in an evening gown with long white gloves/her face is usually concealed in the shadows of a wide-brimmed hat. In at least one instance, however, her face is exposed as a death's head. Sexual terror cuts in every direction throughout the monotypes. As the familiar or lover of the demon-artist, Mystery Woman presents herself as the modern equivalent of a witch. Originating in ancient, agrarian fertility rites, witches initially were considered responsible for spell- or potion-induced illnesses and destruction to harvests, as well as for famine, abortion and sorcery to children. During the Inquisition they took on diabolical dimensions, the reaction to the persecutions of the Roman Catholic Church, and by the seventeeth century, they were said to gather at night at sabbats over which the devil presided..." And I'm not going to go any further...[Richard Newlin, "Introduction to the Monotypes", Fritz Scholder: Paintings and Monotypes, Twin Palms Publishers, 1988.]
Now this book is about me, about my work. So you can see why I'm a little paranoid. No, it's really very good writing, but it gets even stranger.
I have all kinds of ideas of what at least I should do in my life. And I do them. One of many was to go away, out of the country, and have no one know where I went. And when I came back, I was gone three weeks, I'll never tell anyone. However, during my secret journey, I got the concept, okay, you're on this secret journey, you're witnessing fantastic stuff, all this is happening to you, are you going to be so dumb as to not ever tell anyone? I mean, wow! things are happening! So, I thought, well, I know what I'll do. I will write, and come out with this little book, small book, very limited edition. Each page will be a little vignette of a particular experience in detail. And it seemed that the experiences that I wrote about are all very bizarre. But the challenge was to write it so you won't know where I was. Still. So that will be out next year. Next year. Along with....
I'm doing another fancy thing I want to tell you about. I've always wanted to write songs and sing them, and I'm working with John Stewart in his Malibu studio, and hopefully an album will come out, that its, will be one of the most strangest things you ever heard. The songs are strange; when I sing, it sounds like Dracula, and, but I....and John's music's great. And here again, it's a thing of "why not do it?"
I'm, I, really, when I write, nobody can read it, it's a real scribble. Really, I think maybe the reason I'm now doing many diverse things is, when you get to a certain point, you get all these offers, and they're very seductive. I mean, people, as I've contended, there seems to be people that I don't even know exist who are staying up nights thinking what I should do next. That's why I get all these offers, in the mail, and by telephone...and most of them are nuts and crazy and weird, but once in a while, there's a nice...you know, I think, "well, I'd like to do that! Sure, I could do that!" And again, I, it's nice that artists of whatever area...right now the time is so open, a lot of rock stars, for instance, went to art school, and they are frustrated painters. Bob Dylan and Jagger and right down the line.
On the other hand, I know of a number of painters who are frustrated rock stars. In fact, a buddy of mine, a sculptor in Tucson, just came out with an album. He'd been telling me for years, "I'm going to come out with this album." Yeah, yeah, yeah. He came out with it, and it's great! It's all about art. Art, art, art--songs. And, you know, songs about not getting accepted. And every artist should have one of his albums. Mine are, pretty much go with the work; in fact, many of them parallel different series...there's one called "Dreams." But, they're even stranger than the paintings. Because I find that music, at least for me, the writing of songs, is much more personal than painting. For some reason, painting to me is, I don't know...it's been harder, in a way, these songs, and I've been in the studio. It's, you know, I just thought you go in the studio and start singing or something. It's not like that! You've got to lay down track after track, right after the digital number comes up, I mean, it's just like, you're sweating, and god, you have to try it 18 million times, and at one point I turned to John Stewart and I said, "You know, is it, does everybody have to do this?" He says, "Yeah", he says, and he names some big names, he says, "When they go into the studio, and I've been with them, it's like, not only do they hate it, but they've got to try over and over and and over and over." It's surprising that any song sounds spontaneous because of what you have to do in the studio. It's much harder than painting.
If you have, are known to some degree, the media can really make a mess of your life. And of course, you see where movie stars have a hard time. And they do. I mean, I was with Redford one time, coming out from a place after a party, and a mob rushed us and threw us against a glass door, and I thought someone was going to get killed. It's no fun. But.
You had mentioned the Indian thing. I got into a very weird accident on my way to where I am. And that is that my plan, and this is a good example of how plans don't go the way you think they're going to go-- I was going to be a California artist. I knew it. I mean, I was here in California, I was going to live on a houseboat, not pay taxes, in Sausalito. And have a great time. Well, for one reason or another, I ended up in the Southwest, and I liked the Southwest. And one thing happened after another, and I found myself at the time of accepting a job, and,for instance, I remember a college in Los Angeles-- there were a hundred and thirty applicants for this one art position, and I was one of them, the last three. But I didn't get it. But the best job offer was in Santa Fe. I'd never been to Santa Fe. At an Indian art school that had just opened. The government opened it.
Now I didn't know anything about Indians. I had met a few. I had a teacher in South Dakota that was a full-blooded Indian, and he just kind of stood around-- he never talked much. But that was the best job opportunity, and so I went. And it was weird, because here's all these Indian students from all over the country, different tribes. And I learned that all the Indians hate each other. Indians are nationalistic. And they think their tribe's the best. So if you get a classroom of different tribes, you really have a classroom. And I'd never taught before.
So when I first got there, there was a big faculty meeting and I realized that this had, this institute, the school, had been organized so that half was the arts, for the arts, half of the faculty was white, considered Anglo, and half was considered Indian or were Indian. Except me. They decided that I was both. Because I am one quarter Diegueño, which is Southern California Mission Indian. I never thought about it until they had this meeting. They said, "Well, now, we're going to have trouble, because...the Indian students are going to relate to the Indian faculty, but they're not going to relate to the Anglo faculty. But Scholder, you are the bridge. And you are going to have to help us in all of this." I thought, "Why me, lord?" I mean, I was just going to try to have a job, right? And they said, "You will have Advanced Painting," which was, kind of, when you cut through all kinds of classes, if you're really, really good, you get up here with me, with Advanced Painting.
And so I taught for five years, all these Indian students, and many of them had talent, and many of them got to my class. And at the time it was, it sounded pretty good. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has had a terrible history, all through, on what they did, what they thought they should do for Indians. First they thought they should make them white. That didn't work. So they finally decided, well, Indians seemed to have, most of them seemed to have some kind of artistic bent. And in a way it's true, because here were people who came out of a culture where art was not this thing on a pedestal. Art was their whole lifestyle. You carved, you decorated your utensils. You decorated your tepee. Whatever culture it was, there was art. And so they had a good point. And miracles happened, and I'm a cynic in education; I'm a critic in most education, especially art schools. But here, here was happening. Students that had been kicked out of every Indian school in the country were--all of a sudden blossomed, into a poet or a painter, and they were doing magnificent work, and everyone's standing around, "Jesus, look at this!" And we all got jazzed, and, plus, all of a sudden I realized I was part Indian and that's pretty good. And the whole country, remember the hippies, they got in on the Indian thing. Indian finally became "in." And all of a sudden, we could do no wrong. Everybody came to this particular school. One day, in the morning, Edna Ferber read to us; in the afternoon, Vincent Price read to us; and that evening I introduced Allan Ginsberg, which I now wish I hadn't. But it was a weird, weird deal.
Well, so, I was doing kind of non-objective, kind of horizontal landscapes, that's right, I was in New Mexico. And then all of a sudden I thought, you know, all around me, painters were doing Indians. My students were trying to do Indians, and not doing too good a job. I looked around in Santa Fe; every Santa Fe artist was doing Indians. Pitiful, romantic images of the Noble Savage sitting, squatting by the bonfire, sharpening his arrows, the same old junk. I mean, it had nothing to do with anything. The non-Indians were doing romanticized stuff and the Indians were doing the tourist-pleasing Bambi art. I was the one, unfortunately, who originated the term "Bambi art." Because there was a woman Indian artist in the '30s who did these blue little deer jumping around. Well, all of a sudden, this school got very well known. Everyone was so excited. I was kind of the head guy with the students who were doing paintings that were different. And in the interim, I started... I decided to do an Indian series myself. And I decided to kill off Indian art, because I would provide the last, the last word in the subject. The subject, let's face it, had no meaning because it was warriors, Indian warriors, I mean, they were gone long ago. But everyone was doing Indian warriors like they were there. I thought I was going to do these really ugly Indian warriors, part tongue-in-cheek, part abstract expressionism. I don't know. I decided, I wanted to show my students what could be done with the subject, and at the same time, kill the subject.
The institute, like all government places, all of a sudden died, because with change of administration--every administration looks over everything and decides they can do better. And so a new administration looked at the institute and thought, "Well, what are these guys doing? This needs to be changed. This, then, has to be changed." All of a sudden it was different.
In the interim, we, in hindsight, created monsters. And it's so difficult to know what to do, because I truly believe that Indian people have a very hard time. In fact, I don't think the problem can be solved. I've said publicly, tongue-in-cheek, that the white man should have killed off all the Indians so that we wouldn't have this problem. He made the mistake of not doing so and he didn't realize the tenacity of these people. Because now they're the fastest growing minority race in this country. They're not going to go away. And yet, they still are in a complete vacuum. And art is one of the few ways that a young Indian person can achieve a certain success, and even a good financial status. But in doing so, we created monsters because they all had in their vision, painting to sell. Now, you cannot paint to sell, if you want to be taken seriously, because that's not what it's about. If you paint to sell, you're a commercial artist, and you should, you know, go and work in a company. But these students saw how they could, even as students, earn quite a good money. My students were taking their paintings and selling 'em for $800; in the '60s that was pretty good. Sadly, later, when we officially put them in some of the top art schools, they couldn't sell their works for $35. We made a mistake, and I.... it was just the whole institute, they wanted to make them feel successful, and in doing, so they created something else.
And so, today, I'm the biggest critic of Indian art. There isn't, I shouldn't say that-- well, I just am. Up until that time, you could feel sorry for Indian people because they had been exploited by the non-Indian. Now, unfortunately, the Indian is exploiting himself. And that's even sadder. So, that's about Indian art.
And when I grew up, I never thought anything about Indians. I didn't know any Indians, and of course, my father, I think, was part of the thing, in that he didn't want to emphasize that, because he was enough Indian, half-Indian, where he had problems with it. So there was a reason, and we just grew up as regular kids, and so it was kind of traumatic, all of a sudden, I--to realize and, it wasn't that I didn't realize, but other cities...see, Santa Fe's different. Santa Fe really is interested in how much blood...and in what kind of blood...you have. In fact, I don't know if you know the controversy that's going on now, they literally are trying to pass, in the state government, you can't call yourself an Indian artist if you don't have papers from a tribe because--there are artists working there now who we think are Indians that aren't. And, let's face it, in Santa Fe, and probably the only place in the country where this happens, if you are an Indian artist, you can sell your work much for more than if you aren't, because...the tourists come, they want Indian art. And so now they found a lot of artists who call themselves Indians, aren't, weren't Indians.
Now I was just the opposite: I denied when this happened, where all of a sudden I was being, the media was saying I was an Indian artist, I refuted I said, "I am not an Indian artist." And I had to be careful, I said, "I'm very proud of being Indian," which I am, but how can you be an Indian if you're only one-quarter?) I mean, I'm one-quarter German, I'm one-quarter French, and one-quarter English--I could be a German artist...I have a German name. You know, these labels--even today, at the interview, this one interviewer said, "Well, you must be a Southwest artist, what do you" ...I said, "Wait," I said, "I'm not a Southwest artist!" I said.."give me a break! Just because I like to live in the Southwest-- just because two of my homes, of the three, are in the Southwest-- I came from North Dakota; I'm a Midwest artist." Or, since I have my Venice Beach studio, I can now be a California artist!
The more you know of the artist's life, in most cases, the more research you do, you can find all kinds of symbols and clues to why conceivably he did what he did, and, and how. It's ... kind of like a detective story. I, I am kind of a researcher at nature. I collect paintings and drawings and prints of living and dead artists constantly, I am a compulsive collector of artifacts, Egyptian goodies, of bizarre, weird things, like dog rugs--I mean, I love all of it, and I, I fill my places, so that wherever my eye lights I see something that really makes me smile or gasp or do something. And to me, art enriches one's life so much. I mean, I'm so pleased every time someone acquires something of mine. Not necessarily because it's of mine, but I know what it's going to mean to them, because--once you get into, truly get into art, it's better than any drug; it's something that you just can live with; it's an emotional thing, of course. I walk into a gallery, and I truly...it's a matter of falling in love with some object or painting you know you can't live without. You must acquire it; you want to have it there for the rest of your life. It's great. I'm so pleased that I am in art.
Well, being literal is boring, first of all, I mean, so what? I mean, speaking is really pretty primitive. In Atlantis, it was-- communication was by telepathy. I don't know. It... I guess today, especially, in contemporary painting, anyone who...you do have now...(it's nice...I was telling someone) so many styles are acceptable. Even in the fifties, if you rem...or you may not, if you weren't an abstr...if you didn't paint in an abstract expressionist way, no one would look at you. I mean, in this country, art happened, came about, for this country, in the fifties, as far as, finally artists were starting to be able to make a living. But you had to paint in an, as an action painter. If you painted any other way, you really couldn't make it. And now you can do pretty much what you want, and that's great. The problems with that, of course, is that every charlatan and bad artist can come out of the woodwork and make like they're Somebody and get somebody to print up a big catalogue and most people wouldn't know the difference, which has its problems. And yet I do believe that everyone has a right to create and do whatever they want to do. But they don't have the right to fool people or to exploit people. It's a complicated deal.
Being literal...there are certain styles where, you know, that's what it's all about. But today, let's face it, art...you know, I contend that the times truly dictate the artist. And the times are so complicated, that I don't see how anybody can be very literal. Because we don't even know what's happening. And ... I'll throw out some things that you can...I'm not afraid of naming names and saying what I think, and that's, somebody in the interview this morning asked...I think that Kiefer is the top artist living today. Kiefer...now he was a student of Joseph Beuys, who when Joseph Beuys was living-- Joseph Beuys I think died last year; Joseph Beuys was the top dog. He was the Picasso truly of the '80s. A lot of New York people won't agree with me, `cause New York tries to make like they're still top dog, and they're not, they're down the tubes. It's the Europeans that are on the cutting edge right now, which is, you know, fine. And really, Kiefer is...some things I hate about him, like the straw I know is going to rot and fall off. And I truly do believe an artist has a responsibility for the permanence of the work he makes. I may be old-fashioned, but the guy has such audacity to do what he does that you have to give him credit. And ..Berrys before him, by putting lard in the corners and the weird stuff he did, he truly was the top conceptual artist. I mean, Christo is nice and pretty, but it was Berrys who was tough and ugly. In this country, I believe that the greatest living painter is Diebenkorn. I just saw his opening at MOMA the other week, and it was strange and interesting. At first when I heard that MOMA was giving him a show of his works on paper, I thought, oh, God, why don't they show his great, big canvasses, they're so great! This poor guy, here's the first California artist that I know of, contemporary, that a major New York museum has ever given a major show to, and here they're showing his paper works! Well, when I went, I realized that Diebenkorn is so good, it doesn't matter what he shows--beautiful catalogue, gotta get the catalogue, the paperworks just...I stood in front of them and I was ready to give up. I mean, he's too good; the guy's too good! He's a dirty rat!
I say something every morning when I wake up, and this probably's gonna sound dumb, but I must tell you simply because it's just the beginning of some of the ritual. A number of years ago I discovered a poet named Charles Bukowski, who was kind of a rough kind of poet, kind of a cult figure--he's more known in Europe than here, but one of his poems goes...and he did a record, recording of some of his poetry and so I know how he sounds, and I like to imitate it--I might kill my voice, but...one of his poems he says:
Are you in a motel room in Detroit
with the shades pulled down
at three o'clock in the afternoon
looking for a cigarette?
Another good day.
So every morning, first thing I say, "Another good day." No, I think that ritual is very important. I turned fifty last year. I immediately went to Willa Shallot (in) New York City and had a life mask made. She's the one who does everyone's life mask. So I could sit it there in front of me. I then went to the Museum of Holography and had a holographic portrait made of me. So I could put that over here. It was a time to truly stop and think about who I was, and also to re-evaluate all of it, change parts of it, and -it, it really gave me great pleasure in many ways. It wasn't, you know, I mean, I was...I was traumatized; I'm traumatized every day, but at least there was a reason to be traumatized, and it was a good time to truly go into ritualistic things.
Recorded and transcribed in 1988