Artists talk

Since 1963 – the year he met Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and R.B. Kitaj to persuade them to contribute to his student magazine – Michael Peppiatt has been writing about art and interviewing artists. Now, he has selected 40 of his best interviews, some previously unpublished, for a new book, as an exhibition of works by some of his subjects opens in London. Highlights from both are extracted here

R.B. Kitaj on Lucian Freud

Michael Peppiatt After first meeting Kitaj in 1963, what brought us together again more closely, in 1986-87, was a “School of London” exhibition that I curated. Its manifesto proclaimed that, like Paris and New York before it, London could lay claim to a group of artists, however loosely allied, of international significance. Kitaj helped me define my concept, and gave me some valuable leads to finding the works I wanted to include. This interview took place in 1987 in a café near the house in Chelsea where he lived and worked.

MP Do you still see many of the London School painters these days?

RK Everyone’s becoming more difficult to see now. It’s only because Frank Auerbach has had this tremendous, marvellous, wonderful success in recent years that he’s allowed himself to appear in public, and he does it with great verve. He leads a quite restricted life, I suppose, and he almost never leaves London. Kossoff is becoming reclusive, and [Michael] Andrews certainly is. But I suppose you could say that Frank is no more of a recluse than Bacon or Freud.

R.B. Kitaj, 'The Architects', 1981, oil on canvas

MP I thought Freud was fairly reclusive. Is he painting much?

RK He puts in more hours than I do because he works all night. A friend of his tells me that he hardly needs any sleep.

MP I once heard he’d cut down to a couple of hours a night.

RK I don’t know how you do that, but that’s what he does. And he works at night, in that studio, I imagine, where I saw him recently. I went to look at some big, beautiful new etchings he’d done. I think they are the most extraordinary etchings anyone has made in recent years. They show a power of concentration that is breathtaking. Because it’s hard to continue in this way without making all kinds of mistakes that you can’t correct. So all you can do when you think you haven’t got it right is do another line – thicken the line the way he has in some places. I think Freud really came into this big flowering about 15 years ago or so, and everyone began to notice what was going on, that here we had a master painter in our midst, and I suppose the finest straightforward depictive artist alive. There’s no one to touch him. My idea is that this development wouldn’t have been possible without that early magic realist period. Then you have the basis, you have the vibration, you have the power that underlies his later style, I think. What I’m saying is that this didn’t come out of nowhere, it’s not a middle-aged blossoming. It comes out of that highly logistical method. With that you can do anything.

Frank Auerbach on the School of London

My first interview with Auerbach was in 1963. I did a second in 1987 and a third in 1998. We recorded several more sessions, all in Auerbach’s small, paint-encrusted studio, then edited them vigorously until two new interviews were ready. But Auerbach felt “uneasy” about the idea of publishing all our talks [in book form], suggesting we put the latest interviews “on ice”. These two unpublished documents have been carefully preserved now for well over a decade.

MP I’m curious to know how much fellow feeling there was among the figurative painters showing at the Beaux-Arts Gallery [in Bruton Place, London W1] during the 1950s. I mean, you and Leon Kossoff were close friends, and you saw Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon there quite often ...

FA Yes, all that.

MP [And] you felt closer to those painters?

FA I did feel closer to them, because I saw them more often … although it wasn’t exclusive. I didn’t particularly think whether my friends were painters or not.

MP But there was a sympathy and an admiration between you?

FA Maybe. But I think a better way of putting this would be that there was a certain rivalry between us. Not for ignoble reasons. When one’s young, one’s tremendously aware of everything that’s going on and of anybody who is doing something exciting. One is affected by the scale of the effort, by the commitment, by the sharpness of the critical faculty ...

MP So the rivalry came through admiration?

FA Exactly. But nobody thought there was a group going on. And we didn’t do that thing – except possibly to some extent with Leon and me – that Picasso and Braque were supposed to have done of going to each other’s studios then rushing back to try to take their own pictures further.

MP Did you go to Francis’s studio or to Lucian’s?

FA I did go to Francis’s studio because he lived opposite the framers I used. If I was early, I would ring Francis around half-past seven and have a cup of tea with him and a chat. I sometimes saw things he had done. He once asked me for an opinion, which I gave him; I wouldn’t have done so unasked. And he was pretty touchy. I made, in the most tentative way, a comment about what I felt about the painting, which was a triptych, and I said: “Do you want them to look like three cones?” – because for me there was something uncomfortable about the way all the figures tapered towards the top. And he was pretty miffed. But he did change the painting. And of course Lucian has been a friend for a very long time ...

MP Is it a completely different experience when you paint landscapes rather than people?

FA It’s become less so, particularly because I now do these daily drawings so that I come in with memories of the real thing. It is different in that I’m totally uninhibited and can carry on in any way that I like.

MP What does that entail?

FA Well, firstly that I’m working slightly more at my own pace, and I can go on as long as I like. And of course it just feels different when you’re in a room by yourself. And when sitters are here, I have to be careful not to splash them with paint and that kind of thing. On the other hand, because one can do the landscapes at any time, there’s not quite the urgency as when someone comes once a week.

MP The landscapes don’t get up and walk away.

FA That’s right. Though you’d be surprised how much landscapes change. You’d be surprised how often buildings are torn down and scaffolding goes up and so on. If you took a slow-motion film of London, it would seem like a boiling cauldron. I mean, sometimes I have put a steeple into a picture after the steeple had been pulled down, and so on. I’m making it seem that I’m totally a slave to the subject. I am in a sense. Unless I believe the picture to be true, that it feels like the subject, I can’t leave it. But “feeling like the subject” entails all sorts of inventions ... I’m so conscious of the evanescence of experience, so conscious of the fact that everything we do, everybody we know, is carried along on a tide of time and will disappear, that I do have a strong sense of wanting to pin experience down before it disappears.

MP You must have extraordinary energy to keep up the daily battle with your pictures.

FA Well, for me it’s very exciting. The reason I work in the way I do, and not the way other artists work, is that it’s the very opposite of boredom. It’s a little bit like being on the stage. When I was 16, I thought how marvellous it would be to spend all one’s life in a room with paint and brushes and move the colours around, and it still seems exciting to me. There’s a real stimulus. I don’t say there’s as much as riding a horse over the jumps, but it’s exciting.

MP So that when you start, you’re “on”. You don’t think of it as a rehearsal?

FA I don’t want it to be a rehearsal. I want it to be the real thing. But it usually turns out to be a rehearsal. I always have this ridiculous idea that one day I might be able to pick up the brush and by some miracle paint the picture and then go and spend the afternoon in the Ritz. But it has never in all these years worked that way. There are certain things one learns, certain connections one senses, certain things that were difficult that become second nature. So in this way the performance accrues. And then, if one’s lucky, it transcends itself.

Hans Namuth on Jackson Pollock

Anyone interested in the Abstract Expressionists will know Hans Namuth’s portraits. In a sense he became their official photographer. I first met him in the early 1980s, when I was writing a history of artists and their studios, and he was generous in making his work available when I relaunched [the magazine] Art International in Paris in 1987. Before his untimely death in a car accident [in 1990] we had discussed working on a book devoted to his portraits of artists.

Jackson Pollock by Hans Namuth (not in exhibition)

HN I grew up with the German Expressionists. That was in Essen, and from an early age I looked at their paintings in the Folkwang Museum there. I left Germany in 1933, when I was 17, and went to Paris. I had been gaoled for political reasons – I was a communist – and had to get out of Germany. Otherwise I would have been destroyed. After Paris I got caught up in the Spanish Civil War, and later I joined the Foreign Legion. I didn’t realise it when I got there in 1941, but New York was to be my home.

MP How have you managed to photograph so many different artists?

HN Mostly on assignment, except right at the beginning. Back in 1949, when I was a student of Alexey Brodovitch at the New School, he brought up Pollock’s name in class, and I felt that I simply had to meet the man. The following year my family and I took a summer house in the Hamptons and the opportunity cropped up. I saw Pollock at an opening at Guild Hall in East Hampton. We talked. It was somewhat comical – one shy man talking to another shy man. He said “yes” to my request to let me come to his house during a painting session, but when I arrived he said, “Sorry, I’ve just finished the painting”, and that was that. He had obviously changed his mind – or perhaps Lee [Krasner], his wife, had decided against it. I was absolutely crestfallen and asked if I could go inside and photograph him with the new work. He agreed reluctantly, and as he was looking at the enormous canvas at his feet he suddenly started the whole thing all over again – and he feverishly covered the original image, replacing it with a new one, while I clicked away.

MP What kind of man was he?

HN He was at his best at that time, back in 1950, after a period of almost two years on the wagon – very ascetic, lean and good- looking. I instantly liked him. I met Helen Frankenthaler in 1953 at the Pollocks’, and in short order thereafter Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still and others. I took pictures of all of them, just for my own files, so to speak, without an assignment. I still do the same today. As a rule, artists trust me. They know I will never betray their confidence.

Francis Bacon on the role of chance

I did three interviews with Francis Bacon, spaced as far apart as those I have done with Auerbach. But since I saw a great deal of Bacon, I often felt I should interview him more frequently, yet I sensed a reticence whenever the idea came up and I did not insist. And since he talked to me very freely, in all kinds of moods and situations, I learnt far more than I would have done from any number of more constrained, recorded conversations.

MP You told me recently that you’d been to the Science Museum and you’d been looking at scientific images.

FB Yes, but that’s nothing of any interest. You see, one has ideas, but it’s only what you make of them. Theories are no good, it’s only what you actually make.

MP Are there certain images that you go back to a great deal, for example, Egyptian images? You look at the same things a lot, don’t you?

FB I look at the same things. But for myself I get a great deal from poems, I get a lot from the Greek tragedies, and those I find tremendously suggestive of all kinds of things. It’s true that, not reading Greek, I don’t get them in all their vitality. But there was this man who did remarkable translations called Stanford, and he wrote a very fascinating book called Aeschylus in his Style.

MP Do you find the word more suggestive than the actual image?

FB Not necessarily, but very often it is.

MP Do the Greek tragedies suggest new images when you reread them, or do they just deepen the images that are already there?

FB They very often suggest new images. I don’t think one can come down to anything specific, one doesn’t really know. I mean, you could glance at an advertisement or something and it could suggest just as much as reading Aeschylus. Anything can suggest things to you.

MP You must be quite singular among contemporary artists to be moved in that way by literature. Looking at, for example, Degas, doesn’t affect you?

FB No. Degas is complete in himself.

MP But you are a visual person, above all. Is there a whole series of images that you find haunting? There are specific images, aren’t there, that have been very important to you?

FB Yes, but I don’t think those are the things that I’ve been able to get anything from. You see, the best images just come about.

MP Did you ever experiment with automatism?

FB No. I don’t really believe in that. What I do believe is that chance and accident are the most fertile things at any artist’s disposal at the present time. I’m trying to do some portraits now and I’m just hoping that they’ll come about by chance. I just long to capture an appearance without it being an illustrated appearance.

MP It’s something that you couldn’t have planned consciously?

FB No. I wouldn’t know it’s what I wanted but it’s what for me at the time makes a reality. Reality, that is, that comes about in the actual way the painting has been put down, which is a reality, but I’m also trying to make that reality into the appearance of the person I’m painting.

MP It’s a locking together of two things?

FB It’s a locking together of a great number of things, and it will only come about by chance. It’s prompted chance because you have in the back of your mind the image of the person whose portrait you are trying to paint. I mean, there’s no point in trying to make a portrait that doesn’t look like the person. You see, this is the point at which you absolutely cannot talk about painting. It’s in the making.

MP But there is the person’s appearance, and then there are all sorts of sensations about that particular person.

FB I don’t know how much it’s a question of sensation about the other person. It’s the sensations within yourself. It’s to do with the shock of two completely unillustrational things which come together and make an appearance. But again it’s all words, it’s all an approximation. I feel talking about painting is always superficial. We have lost our real directness. We talk in such a dreary, bourgeois kind of way. Nothing is ever directly said.

MP But is your sensibility still “joltable”? Does one become hardened to visual shock?

FB I don’t think so, but not much that is produced now jolts one. Everything that is made now is made for public consumption, for money, and it’s all become so anodyne. They might make it just slightly shocking, just enough for people to want to see it, so that it makes a little more money. That’s all it’s about now. It’s rather like this ghastly government we have in this country. The whole thing’s a kind of anodyne way of making money.

Claes Oldenburg on the start of the Sixties

The first time I met Claes Oldenburg and his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, was at their summer home in the Loire valley. Several years later I was lucky to catch a show of his works in Madrid. Claes was there [and] it seemed too good an occasion not to do a more complete, formal interview. After a visit to his studio in New York, we agreed on the final version.

[Here he explains how his soft sculptures first came about.]

Claes Oldenburg, 'Fagend', 1966, crayon and watercolour on paper

MP New York was already very hip?

CO Always in one way or another, but this was New York in 1956 and with much underground that would soon be released.

MP Did you feel Abstract Expressionism weighing very heavily on you?

CO No, I liked de Kooning, I got a lot from his line and sense of space. I tended to connect Abstract Expressionism with the look of the city’s surroundings, street art, movement ...

MP But there was a feeling something new had to happen.

CO Yes, everyone was looking for a solution. Were we going back to figure painting in a loose way or were we going back to collage and assemblage, or would junk sculpture take over ... ?

MP Was this an attempt to bring back a personal or everyday reality? I mean Abstract Expressionism was quite far removed from what you might call everyday reality.

CO I wanted to integrate what I saw in my work. Every morning I would walk to Cooper Union from my place far out on Avenue C and through the neighbourhoods at night. This way I got to know a world I had never seen before and that contributed to not only what I call the context, but to the actual materials I used like plaster, chicken wire and cardboard, which gave form to the expression themselves.

MP Was your work accepted quite easily? Or was there a reaction against it?

CO My work had not yet been discovered at all. In those days you could bring it to galleries, but few galleries would take the time to look at it. My first one-man show in New York City was in May 1959. At the last moment I made a radical decision not to show the oil paintings and drawings of the past year, but to concentrate on the metamorphic works which seemed more original. [By the next year] with the performance of “The Street”, I stopped figure painting from life altogether. I had found a style composed of the ingredients of my experience, the first of several. The Sixties had begun.

MP Were you experimenting a lot technically at the time, using street materials and so on?

CO “The Street” was entirely made of found cardboard and burlap trash bags, string, materials from the street. It marked the transition from figure to object. It was followed the next year by “The Store” in which reliefs and sculptures based on store objects and ads were made of canvas dipped in plaster and placed on forms of chicken wire, then painted with enamel ... “The Store” is sometimes written about today as if it were a real store, where you went to buy soap or a toothbrush. [But it] was art form, even if it was a disturbing form. Very few people of the neighbourhood dared to come in.

MP They knew you were on acid at that point and completely out of it.

CO I guess. Those who dared were dealers, collectors or artists. Henry Geldzahler and Andy Warhol each bought a shirt. Prices were very low: $50-$100 and sometimes people paid half and I never got the rest.

MP What date was that?

CO December 1961. By [1963], I had relocated to Los Angeles, living with [his first wife] Patty [Mucha] in a bungalow in Venice, California. The first soft sculpture was the “Giant Toothpaste Tube”. Of course being a soft thing, it was more of an example. Then I selected light switches, which – in the example that I chose off the wall in our living room – involved redoing a hard geometric form into a soft sagging one.

MP Was Surrealism at all influential?

CO Not really. My intentions began as an experiment, to take a subject and do a very simple thing, substitute the surface, change it from a hard to a soft one – so that it still retains the potential of an outline. Just that move within a realistic concept enabled you to see the thing as an unrealistic form. The technique became even more eloquent when vinyl came in about that time. Early vinyl was very beautiful, it was thick and rich and colourful. The vinyl from then still has its colour, it hasn’t cracked or anything. It was even more convincing if you did a metal object out of vinyl, very convincing.

MP So that it sort of slips into another reality?

CO Yes, right.

MP And then in a sense, hell is let loose, isn’t it? Because it changes the rules.

CO That’s the important thing. It changes the rules.

Peter Blake on elephants

I had long admired the poetic irony of Blake’s pictures, and when asked to write a preface for a new exhibition, I felt I would do much better to invite him to talk about his work, particularly if I could combine this with a short description of his studio, which I’d heard was a kind of Aladdin’s Cave filled with discarded treasure and kitschy memorabilia.

Peter Blake’s elephant collection (not in exhibition)

MP Your studio has all those rooms full of different objects: found things and bought things and whole collections, whole curiosity cabinets. It’s almost like a reference library for certain types of visual inspiration.

PB Yes. Some of it has settled into being almost a museum and those things won’t be used in my work. In other areas there are stacks of wood or driftwood or folders of paper or marbles or whatever it might be, that will be fed into the work.

MP And do you continue to add to it?

PB All the time.

MP You look around. Do you go to flea markets?

PB I go to the Portobello Road still quite often, and there are certain stalls there. There’s a stall where I buy lead figures for some of the work I’m doing, and there’s a stall that has children’s kind of ephemera.

MP And you’re consciously looking for things to put into your work?

PB Certainly. I also discovered boot fairs about a year ago. I only go to the one local one, but I’m looking mostly for Elvis Presley stuff. I’m also looking at the moment for – I hate the word “kitsch” but it’s the only word to describe them – I’m looking for a series of small white sculptures that have a kitsch quality, little white sculptures of pretty children, for instance. And I’m making a series of sculptures of those.

MP And you also still buy things simply because they fascinate you and you’d like to own them?

PB Sometimes. I collect elephants, toy elephants, so if I see a particularly nice one I buy it. I started to collect elephants as a safety valve for my other collecting. If I went to the Portobello Road and I came back with a little elephant, that was a good day because it would have stopped me from maybe buying a complete kitchen or an old bicycle or something that was probably ludicrous. So that’s how it started. But then I bought every elephant I saw, and there’s a lot of elephant material around. I’ve cut down on the elephant-buying now, but if I see a good one I will still buy it.

MP When you cut back, do you get rid of the surplus elephants?

PB No, I never get rid of anything. But I stop adding to what’s already there.

These edited extracts are taken from ‘Interviews with Artists, 1966-2012’, by Michael Peppiatt, published by Yale (£20). ‘Interviews with Artists’ opens at Eykyn Maclean, London, on June 19,

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