Paul McCarthy: 'Artists are seen as one step above criminals'

The artist on his early B-movie ambitions, art schools, the pressure to move to New York and why he’ll never leave Los Angeles

Paul McCarthy © Paul McCarthy; Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Leigh Ledare

Paul McCarthy © Paul McCarthy; Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Leigh Ledare

Paul McCarthy has been a subversive and provocative presence throughout his career, attacking traditional family values, undermining notions of masculinity and inverting the ideals of the American Dream.

Born in Utah in 1945, he moved to Los Angeles in 1970, and has remained there ever since. He was initially known for his performances—which were usually wild, messy and experimental (and for which he rarely earned any money). He staged around 50 between 1970 and the mid 1980s: from early works, in which he used his body as a paintbrush, to 1974’s Whipping a Wall with Paint, which satirised the machismo of the Ab-Ex artists, his work has become steadily more sexual, violent and dark-humoured. His interest in absurd disorientation is evident from video footage of his 1976 performance Class Fool, where the naked, ketchup-smeared artist maniacally spins and falls around a university classroom while hugging a doll between his bare thighs. The piece concludes with him vomiting.

He then focused on sculpture, creating works including mechanised pieces that could perform on their own. McCarthy continued performing, although now for the camera rather than a live audience, staging works including Painter (1995) in which he plays a hysterical artist who, after heaving giant tubes of paint and throwing tantrums, uses a cleaver to hack off a finger from one of his massive fake hands.

In recent years his work has become increasingly complex and ambitious. Disturbing, carnivalesque pieces such as Caribbean Pirates (2001-05) are also filthily funny. This work uses giant sets and props through which animalistic pixie-pirates run amok while committing bestiality and torture (the audience wanders through the staged remains, and peers at the video evidence).

Very much an “artists’ artist”, McCarthy was greatly admired as a teacher (he taught at UCLA for more than 20 years, influencing a generation of artists in Los Angeles and abroad), but the art market largely ignored his work until the 1990s (he sold his first work in 1990). However, since then his career has enjoyed a late blossoming and he is now considered to be one of the most important artists of his generation. The artist spoke to us earlier this year at his warehouse-like studio in East Los Angeles.

The Art Newspaper: Why did you come to LA?

Paul McCarthy: I came with the intention of going to film school, because I was interested in experimental films in the late 60s. I had this fantasy that somehow I could enter the B-movie world and in the future there would be a new Hollywood underground. That didn’t happen. I went to the University of Southern California. I was in the film school and the art department, which was a disaster because they were conservative, especially the film school.

Eventually, I did find my way into the Hollywood film world and ended up working there, but just as a job. I worked on commercials and a few features, mostly in special effects.

How did that influence your art?

Being around sound stages affected me, in terms of deconstructing that world. I looked at it through the filter of art. The sound stage is this void, a black box that you are in. There would be a set in the middle of the sound stage, like an island surrounded by a void, with cameras peering in. It was Hollywood making a product, a commodity, but I was looking at the apparatus that made the movie product and finding another meaning. I was interested in the idea of the set as a trap, and also seeing films being made on location in the city with passers-by standing to the side and looking into this world, this street performance. I was interested in the structures of this constructed reality—I think these things affected my work.

Your art frequently references icons of Hollywood’s imagination, such as Santa Claus and Pinocchio or Disneyland rides like Pirates of the Caribbean. It seems specific to Los Angeles.

My interest in Disneyland began in the early 70s, and it’s still going on. I was really into the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland, the idea of constructing a fake mountain. I was also interested in Disneyland and cleanliness—hygiene as the religion of fascism. I did these performances using these masks that I bought on Hollywood Boulevard. They were characters, personalities related to whatever was going on politically or with celebrities and movies, whether it was Madonna, President Carter, Miss Piggy or Popeye. I was obsessed with Heidi. I didn’t need to make masks. I would go to a store and choose a mask.

From McCarthy's Caribbean Pirates series © the artist; courtesy of Hauser & Wirth

You’ve more recently been focusing on Snow White, from the drawing show at Hauser & Wirth in 2009 to the sculptures at the Hammer Museum this summer. Are you still working on that narrative?

Yes, and video tapes. It’s ongoing. I’m also working on a Western and a boat movie—not a pirate movie but a yacht movie. I loved the TV show The Yachts of the Rich and Famous. I like all the white and brass fittings. It’s so perverse. I wanted to make the art studio into something that resembled a B-movie studio. That was the plan when we got this building a couple of years ago.

"I’m working on a Western and a boat movie—not a pirate movie but a yacht movie. I loved the TV show The Yachts of the Rich and Famous. I like all the white and brass fittings. It’s so perverse"

So, you broke into the movie studios in the end—by building your own.

It’s not about making Hollywood movies, it’s about mimicking and parody. My interest and practice is art. We are building a location, like a film lot with buildings and a lake. It’s a sculpture, but yes, LA does influence my work.

How else does it influence you?

I’m affected by the landscape—the open space and the sky, and how you move through the city, which is related to 1960s and 70s minimalism in LA.

Is that the atmosphere you encountered when you arrived?

I came here in 1970. In 1960s LA, the Beat Generation was important. The Ferus Gallery and artists like John Altoon and Ed Kienholz, and also the Finish Fetish artists, John McCracken and Larry Bell. It all began before 1970. There was a marked change though in the art world in the early 1970s as a result of performance, conceptualism, and post-minimalism. The art world changed again in the 1980s. I think LA became internationally recognised in 1992 with the Helter Skelter exhibition [at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles].

How important do you think the art schools have been for LA?

CalArts [the California Institute of the Arts] was significant to LA. Prior to 1970 and the founding of CalArts, there was no real emphasis on schools. The beginning was when CalArts opened in 1969 [the school was established by Walt and Roy Disney in 1961]. This affected the next generation of art schools.

CalArts was a magnet for so many young artists. Walt Disney bought the Chouinard Art Institute [which merged with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to become CalArts] and then somehow Allan Kaprow was hired and so was Paul Brach [who was the school’s founding dean]. They hired Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles and Nam June Paik: all these Fluxus people. John Baldessari and Wolfgang Stoerchle were hired to teach. The same thing happened with the music school at CalArts: Harold Budd, La Monte Young, Charlemagne Palestine and Morton Subotnick.

But besides CalArts, there was Irvine [the University of California, Irvine] where Chris Burden, Barbara T. Smith, Alexis Smith, Richard Newton and Nancy Buchanan studied. Irvine was not about the teachers; it was about the students. They formed F-Space which was a graduate student gallery. Irvine was an interesting place and [was established at around] the same time as CalArts, but where CalArts was about the teachers and the students, Irvine was only about the students.

How has LA maintained that standard of schooling when other cities have not managed it?

Once it starts, it’s an attitude. Teaching was part of an attitude of artists in LA. Most of the LA artists who had careers in the art world taught. I think it’s going away a little, although the schools are still significant.

I had a studio in downtown LA in 1971 and there were very few artists in the area. There were two main communities where artists in the 70s had studios—Pasadena and Venice Beach. There were probably 50 to 100 artists living in Pasadena: Nauman, Kaprow, Peter Plagens, Barbara T. Smith, Richard Jackson, and [curator, Ferus Gallery co-founder and museum director] Walter Hopps who owned a house. Old Town Pasadena had gone through a recession, so the buildings were really cheap. There were also a lot of artists working and living in Venice Beach. Venice had been an art community since the 1940s. By the late 70s-early 80s, studios in Venice were beginning to be too expensive, and in Pasadena, gentrification happened and the artists were kicked out. Pasadena ended as an art community. In 1980 you had a resurgence of artists moving into downtown LA. Now artists are wherever they can find housing and studios. They are scattered all over. Isolation is pretty real in LA for them.

"Now artists are wherever they can find housing and studios. They are scattered all over. Isolation is pretty real in LA for them"

Tell me about your practice at that time in the 70s.

The 1970s were about alternative spaces and I felt more connected to them. I did performances in my studio and in alternative spaces. I mostly did performance and video. I did a magazine and a radio programme with other artists from 1976 to 1979. Artists were given time, but there was never an interview or an explanation—they just did a piece. The Getty has the tapes in their archive. Most of the artists were from America and some were from Europe.

What about market support in LA?

There was no market for me. It wasn’t really an issue.

Did that bother you?

The idea of selling work? It just wasn’t on the radar for me. If I could have had a show in LA at Nicholas Wilder, Claire Copley or Eugenia Butler, I would have liked that. I was interested in those galleries and thought they did amazing shows. The alternative spaces had real significance. At the time they stood for something. There was federal and government money in the 1970s for alternative spaces.

Did you feel a pressure to be in New York, that you could be more commercially successful there?

There was always pressure to move to New York. A lot of artists did. I didn’t—partly because I had kids, and because we didn’t have enough money but also I wasn’t really interested in New York. I made this piece where I carried a keychain with a medallion that read: “I love New York,” and for ten years I wouldn’t go to New York. If I went to Europe, I wouldn’t fly into JFK as a type of protest against New York, a silly protest joke.

The LA Finish Fetish or the light and space artists didn’t leave—why would they? They were interested in this atmosphere and this sense of space. It affected their work. Why would I leave LA? I was interested in the landscape of media—Hollywood, television, Disneyland. Would I find that in New York? Probably not. I would have found an art world in New York. Donald Judd made sense in New York, not so much in LA. I wasn’t so successful entering the art world in LA and I probably would have been even less successful in New York. I was more successful in Europe.

Why do you think that was? Some of your biggest shows have been in Europe: LaLa Land Parody Paradise at the Haus der Kunst, Munich, in 2005 took over the entire city, and you have had major, ambitious shows in London.

"In one way, LA is a place that really isn’t interested in art. It has Hollywood and celebrities. Maybe in America, and certainly in the past, artists are seen as just one step above criminals"

There was more sympathy and more opportunities for my work in Europe. Even in the 70s, there seemed to be more sincere interest in Europe than here. My work is dirty, the abject. Maybe that’s it. In one way, LA is a place that really isn’t interested in art. It has Hollywood and celebrities. Maybe in America, and certainly in the past, artists are seen as just one step above criminals.

So, what’s next?

I’m building a town.


Background: Born in 1945, Salt Lake City; Lives and works: Los Angeles; Educated at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 1973; San Francisco Art Institute, 1969; University of Utah, Salt Lake City, 1966-68

Coming up: Paul McCarthy: The King, The Island, The Dwarves, The Train... , Hauser & Wirth, London and New York, 16 November 2011-14 January 2012

Selected solo shows: 2011: Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; 2008: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; 2003: Tate Modern, London; 2001: New Museum, New York

Selected group shows: 2012: Punta della Dogana, Venice; 2011: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao; 2010: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

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