Artist Interview: David Lynch’s diamond dome

The cult film-maker shows off his skills as an artist with a new, atmospheric work in Miami in the Cartier pavilion


American film director and screenwriter David Lynch is best known for his dark and unsettling films such as “Eraserhead” (1977), “Blue Velvet” (1986) and “Lost Highway” (1997) that have become international cult favourites, but few people realise that he began his career as a fine artist. A major exhibition of his work was presented last spring at the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain in Paris including a selection of digital images of vintage erotica, Post-it note drawings and expressionistic paintings from 1960 to the present. For the Cartier Dome in Miami, Lynch has created an immersive environment furnished with gold-fabric walls, gold-printed carpets, gold-trimmed vitrines and a seven-minute film projection of a “floating diamond” accompanied by an atmospheric original score. Fittingly titled Diamonds, Gold and Dreams, Lynch’s installation is on view this weekend only, in the Botanical Garden.

The Art Newspaper: Most people are unaware that you began your career as a painter and that you studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Why did it take over 40 years to publicly exhibit your work at the Fondation Cartier in Paris last year?

David Lynch: I had shows before, but never one that big. I was represented at the Corcoran Gallery in Los Angeles for a while, and then James Corcoran left the city and began to deal privately in the early 1990s. I also had one show with Leo Castelli in New York. I love to paint.

TAN: Are your works for sale, or do you think of them more as an archive?

DL: The works from the Fondation Cartier show are for sale, but I don’t have a gallery dealer right now.

TAN: Can you tell us about the painting you are currently working on?

DL: It’s a painting of a woman sitting on a bed, titled Woman with Broken Neck and Electric Knife Speaks to Her Husband.

TAN: Many of your paintings appear to have a dark quality, even though you work in sunny Los Angeles.

DL: Even if they’re dark, there’s humour in them. I like absurd things. This painting is pretty absurd.

TAN: Do you think the humour makes your work less threatening?

DL: Yes, I think it does. But once you name something, people often become upset. If you take the name away and you just see a visual, it can be quite beautiful.

TAN: Which artists would you say have influenced your work?

DL: I think Francis Bacon is my biggest inspiration. The organic phenomenon in his paintings and his use of space is incredible. I also like Basquiat, Schnabel, Kiefer, Baselitz and Freud. There are so many great painters.

TAN: In 1966 you left with fellow artist Jack Fisk for Europe, where you planned to study art with Austrian expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka. Originally you planned to stay for three years. Why did you return after only 15 days?

DL: We wanted to study with Kokoschka, who had some sort of school in Salzburg. As soon as I got there I realised it was the wrong place to be. It was clean and fresh, in this famous castle—it was just not conducive to painting in my mind at all. Most of the 15 days were spent on the train, and finally we said, we’ve got to go back home. That’s when I came to Philadelphia.

TAN: What kind of paintings were you making at this time?

DL: I always say that Philadelphia was my biggest influence. On one hand it was great because at the art academy there were some serious painters, and it was really thrilling. But Philadelphia itself was such a sick city and there was so much fear and absurdity there that it just seeped into me. At the time, I began making figurative paintings of mechanical women.

TAN: While at the academy you also made your first moving painting, Six Men Getting Sick, using animation projected onto six casts of your own head. What was the inspiration behind this work?

DL: I was making a painting of a garden at night that was mostly black, but it also had some green coming out of the black. Suddenly I saw the green start to move and a wind came from it. That’s when I said, “Oh, a moving painting”, and that started it.

TAN: Did you script it out conventionally like you would a film?

DL: No, I didn’t know anything about film and cameras. I was starting totally from scratch. Most of what we do is common sense. It was a beautiful experience.

TAN: How many moving paintings did you make?

DL: I tried to make one more, but my camera was broken. So when I finished two months of animation, I got the film back from the lab and it was a continuous blur. That was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me, because I had been getting other ideas during that time. I took the money that I had left and made a film called “The Alphabet”.

TAN: Can you tell us about your installation at the Cartier Dome in Miami?

DL: I worked with John Chalfant, who is a 3-D artist, and we built the imagery entirely on a computer. The seven-minute movie will run every hour and in between there will be projected images of slowly moving diamonds. There’s also a soundtrack; it’s a beautiful mood piece. A dome is such a great shape to project a movie on. I think one day people will have domes in their homes. They’re magical.