Interviews

Art History with Clark Fox

By David Jenison

Clark V. Fox is a revolutionary-minded artist with works in museums, private collections and galleries around the world. Still, one of his greatest contributions to the scene came from directing and curating his own alternative spaces like the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA-DC) for 14 years in Washington, D.C., and a gallery in his Manhattan apartment called Flat—both of which were known for diverse, multi-cultural and experiential programs that attracted national and regional press. Clark's disenchantment with the direction of the commercial galleries and museums gave him the impetus to create these venues. The artistic world he created allowed artists to control their own development and included such future greats as Mark Lombardi, Shepard Fairey, Anthony Ausgang, Daniel Johnston, Ron English, Roger Gastman, Cool Disco Dan, Camille Paglia, ORLAN, Steve Powers Espo, Rob Pruitt, David Lynch, Big Al Carter, Kaz, Sam Gilliam and more than 3,000 others. This led to Clark’s unofficial title as The Godfather of Modern Underground Art. PRØHBTD previously featured an in-depth interview with Clark about his artwork, but we talked with him further about other art scenes throughout history and his fascinating first-person accounts of the Andy Warhol scene in the 1960s. 

You once studied under a Japanese master. In what ways did the influence of Asian art give you a different style than other artists coming up at the same time?

Yup, I studied under Un'ichi Hiratsuka at the Japan Society in Washington in 1962. After studying with him, my style flatten out a lot and that is one reason why I did abstraction. I saw a simplicity in Asian art that really appealed to me. I became a second generation Washington Color School painter when I was 21 years old. All the other artist were in their 40s and 50s. The Impressionist, that whole style, came from seeing Japanese prints in the 1860s.  There was a bunch of stuff coming from Japan and China. That's when art started getting flatter and flatter, Western art. When they had the shows, the Classical artists were coming more out of, what do you call it? Like Jacques-Louis David—that is Neoclassicism.  

What was happening in European art before this?

The classical guys came out of the French revolution, and the Impressionists were kind of a combination of Classical and Romanticism. After Rococo [in the 18th century], there was a movement, Neoclassicism, but they were modeling it after Roman art. So everything was really blah blah blah, and all of a sudden these guys like [Édouard] Manet and [Claude] Monet started flattening stuff out and doing all this stuff using vivid color. The academy people from the old days were going nuts. They were like, "What the hell is this shit?" They had a really hard time, and Impressionist paintings were going for chump change. They were really popular with American collectors for some weird reason, but it took a while before it all changed.Then you started getting people in the late 1800s like [Paul] Cézanne, who had a huge influence on Pablo Picasso, and then Picasso influenced probably thousands of artists. Art has been an evolution, but now it's really moving away from painting. You can just go buy a movie camera and become an artist or do performance art. Real kooky stuff passes for art now, or get a camera and just become a photographer because photography was invented by two artists.

As far as your original paintings and portraits, was there a particular piece you created that really set the tone for the style that you would develop over the years that followed?

I liked to copy Rembrandt at the National Gallery, and I studied anatomy and pretty much taught myself. Politically speaking, my stuff with the dots on it looks a lot like Georges Seurat, the French post-Impressionist. Then there was a school of guys who came after him. They were like anarchists in Italy who painted in that style. I’m just continuing the tradition of the anarchist style from France and Italy. Seurat was like an anarchist, but he’s from a well-to-do family so he didn’t have to suffer like a lot of the people in France. He died in his early 30s so he only had a 10-year career.

If you really look at it, all his work is about, like A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte in the park was one of the first times that workers ever had any leisure time. A lot of his paintings were just paintings of workers. He didn’t really paint the bourgeoisie like everybody else. The outfits that they wear in the paintings and even their hats signified what class they were from. His work was very left wing, but you never really hear about that. He was really with the proletariat. I think he may have only sold two paintings during his lifetime. He was like [Vincent] van Gogh.

Meaning he became famous after his death?

Yeah. It was really crummy. He got some kind of thing—they had a funny name for it, some kind of a pneumonia. They did this protest art fair outside, and it was raining, and he caught this weird influenza-type thing. Not only did it kill him, but it killed his baby. He had a mistress, Madeline Block, who was actually a circus performer with Cirque Medrano, and she was German. She inherited all his stuff, and she sold it all to this art critic and then just completely disappeared. They figure she may have gone back to Germany, but nobody ever heard of her again.

What are some of your current goals in the art world?

We have so many issues slamming us today. I feel like art has to say something and should not just be a decoration on the wall. The show Corpocracy that I am in right now is a prime example of the direction of my work. We are actually in the process of taking Corpocracy to the next level nationally. We will be working with David Cobb at movetoamend.org to help bring awareness to the ruling on January 21, 2010—Citizens United v. Federal Election Commision. Stay tuned for how we roll it out to get the word out that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights. We will be getting a lot of artists involved around the county to curate a massive statement. It is one of Bernie Sanders' main objectives to get the money out of politics.

Also, I think people should be aware that Wall Street is trying to hijack the art market. They're trying to turn art into a stock commodity-type thing, which I don't think is such a good idea.

How recent of a trend is this?

In the '70s there was no art market like today. Artists were making art that they never thought they would sell, but slowly the relentless commodification of art began. I don't know if you've heard the term "zombie formalism," but there are all these guys... you almost have to go to either UCLA, CalArts or Yale University. You almost have to be upper middle class at least to go to these schools. It's a system they have, sort of a farm system, like the Major Leagues. Big galleries in New York go up to these schools and see the studios, these graduate students, and most of them are doing stuff that's really hot. They’re doing these take-offs of Clement Greenberg’s art philosophies, from the abstract, from lyrical abstraction, making, I guess, tasty abstractions, and they're trading them like baseball cards or something. They're pretty soulless. They don't say anything.

Some of the guys are selling stuff for millions. It's hard if the art doesn't say anything. Actually, it could say something if it was at least good, but most of this stuff is soulless. It's huge money now, but they say the market's been cooling off because people are wising up that they're getting conned. You're either making a ton of dough, or most of the people today are not making much money doing art because [Wall Street] screwed the middle class up so bad. A lot of the people that could afford stuff for a couple thousand bucks can't even afford that anymore, and then you've got all these people that are scrambling to pay millions for... I don't know what the psychology is, how they got them to pay so much money for people that basically have only been painting for four or five years.

From your early days in New York, do you have any good stories involving Andy Warhol and The Factory?

Yeah. When I went to school, there was this girl that looked like a Madonna in a Renaissance master Raphael painting. Her name was Cathy, and she became my girlfriend. A lot of people didn’t want to go out with her because she looked so religious. Her parents were from Sicily, and they spoke Italian. It turned out, we were hanging out together, and she'd been the president of Andy Warhol’s fan club when she was in high school. Then she got a job with Andy. You know, Gore Vidal said Andy Warhol was the first genius he ever met with an IQ of 60. He was a devout Catholic, so I think Andy liked that she looked so religious.

I was 19 in the summer of 1966, and I was able to go over to his studio a number of times and hang out because of her. I think that was one of the most inspiring things. I think I got more out of that than anything. Andy asked me to be in one of his movies. I guess Cathy said he liked me, but she told me that I would have to take my clothes off for the movie. I just took a pass on the offer, which, in hindsight, was not a good move. You make a lot of dumb decisions when you are young and from a small place in Texas. I did not see him shooting the movie Chelsea Girls. I saw a lot of movies at his studio.

My parents thought I was getting wacky, so they didn't want me to go back to Pratt Institute in New York. They dragged me back to D.C., which was really a super bummer. From there, I guess I was at age... holy cow. By 1967, I was already a professional artist. Just in one year, boom, I just figured it all out.

It turned out people in the '60s were so much cooler than what you have today, the jaded 2000s. The sky was the limit. Andy Warhol opened a lot of doors. Some people really hate Warhol, but he revolutionized art in a funny way. It needed some kind of something, I guess. If it hadn't been him, somebody else would've done it. I saw the Velvet Underground, and they were playing on St. Mark’s Place, and it was just great.

It was funny because I'd go over and hang out at Cathy’s pad, and she had this whole wall covered with small Andy Warhol paintings. It was like, "Whoa! Wow!" He wasn't anything compared to today. He was pretty big, but I wouldn't think that anybody could've gotten any bigger than he was at the time. I was like, "Oh, wow! Look at all those paintings!" She goes, "Yeah, but Clark, I got to eat, and Andy says he's broke all the time. He says, ‘Oh, Cathy, why don't you take one of my paintings?'" She'd go like, "Oh, Andy, I love your work, but I've got to eat."

About a year ago, I was laying in bed with my girlfriend, and she said, "What's that story about that girl you were going out with at Andy Warhol? What's her name?" I told her. She looks her up. Turned out that Warhol gave her a two-foot-by-two-foot self-portrait. The story was that he hadn't paid her in a long time, and so he goes, "Oh, Cathy, I got a painting for you." She goes over and picks it up. She said she basically had it in a closet for most of her life, and about four years ago, she sent it to auction and got about six and a half million bucks. Her payday finally came in, with interest!

You have so many great stories that I have to ask: Do you have a super classic story that is specifically about art?

The '60s or an exact day?

It doesn't matter.

For an art story, one of the best was this show that I curated at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston, Texas in July 2006. It was the first big museum show that Daniel Johnston and Gibby Haynes had done at the time. We also had Anthony Ausgang. It was the dream show. The show was called Power of Pathos. Ron [English] was down there for three or four weeks, and I was down there for over a month. At the opening, what's his name... Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys showed up. He was running for governor at the time. That was a wild time, really one of the great art moments that I've ever had. Also, Gibby is such a wild man. I lived with him for two weeks at the director’s house, which nearly killed all of us because he is so intense and funny. We were up until past 3 a.m. every night. Just to be able to pull that together and have somebody like James Harithas pay for it was incredible. They said it was one of the biggest, most inspiring shows that Houston's seen, and it really got people cranked up. It was really super. Ron got to do this Guernica painting that was one foot bigger than the real Guernica, like 26 feet long. It’s hard to find a piece of canvas that long, but they did it. Anthony created a new style of painting for the show. Daniel played at the opening with his amazing band. My painting was 24' to compliment Ron's painting. It had a Stuka JU87—the exact plane that bombed Guernica!! The show really defined Pop Surrealism at its best.

David Jenison (david@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.

 

 

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