Ken Jacobs and Art Spiegelman in Conversation

We are in the process of finally making a little catalogue of the King Kong exhibition of art from LA. It'll include trascriptions of a bunch of the artists in conversation we hosted in NY. Here's an abridged version of Ken Jacobs and Art Spiegelman.

(Photos by Bryan Derballa)

Ken Jacobs and Art Spiegelman both grew up in dysfunctional Jewish households in New York City, and attended the same technical high school, though Jacobs finished 10 years earlier. They became friends in the mid 1960s, when Spiegelman sat-in on Jacobs’ film lectures at SUNY Binghamton. Jacobs’ abandonment of conventional narrative in early films like Little Stabs at Happiness (1960) and Tom, Tom, The Piper’s Son (1969), became a major influence on Spiegelman’s early non-narrative Breakdowns comics.

Dropping out of college, Spiegelman went on to invent the Garbage Pail Kids bubblegum card series, and found the avant-garde comics anthology, RAW (1980 - 91) which serialized his graphic novel Maus –a retelling of his parents’ holocaust experiences that earned him a Pulitzer-prize in 1992. Spiegelman has also created many iconic covers for the New Yorker, like the image of a Hasidic man making out with a black woman, and Bill Clinton having his groin interviewed.
Lately Jacobs has been developing his Nervous System performances, a live show incorporating two film projectors, a propeller, and individual filters through which audience members view the double image. It's a return to cinema’s most essential roots: light in a dark room, without actual film or electronics.

Jacobs and Spiegelman have been meeting in Soho for coffee every week for the last 10 years. The following are excerpts from their conversation at Family NYC. It lasted over two hours, continuing among themselves after the lights were turned on, and microphones turned off.

Ken Jacobs: We went to see this movie Exit Through the Gift Store last night. The theatre was empty except for three people.

Art Spiegelman: Not quite the best movie in town.

KJ: We suffered it from beginning to end.

AS: I know you wanted to talk about the economy of attention and the way it plays out in the art world, and that’s what the movie is about. I actually enjoyed it. (To audience) Do you all know this film? It’s about this guy, Baxie, or Bansky, or someone. (Audience correct his pronunciation of Banksy)

KJ: What do you think of the work that is shown? The ‘street art’?

AS: I like Banksy’s work, having stumbled on it on the street. I’m not so interested in it though.

KJ: But it doesn’t offend you?

AS: I’ve gotten used to it as part of my urban landscape.

KJ: I suffer this stuff. My wife and I pass through this urban landscape and we can’t contain ourselves. It’s just horrific, brutal. We feel assaulted almost all the time. And now I actually went and paid money to see this movie that was also an assault from beginning to end: The music. The visuals. The ‘art’. And the truth that it reveals is also horrific, that the galleries go for this stuff, and now are selling this shit that other people are producing for this nitwit. His work is junk. I appreciate that it is more or less attacking the regime and power. I like that about it. But the art?

AS: I got stopped by it on the street, not knowing what it was. I thought it was interesting in that I couldn’t understand how it was made.

KJ: He is communicating, but that communication is not enough for me. That communication didn’t make up for it being one more fucking ugly thing that I’ve got to see.

AS: But, get used to it.

KJ: I refuse to get used to it.

AS: I like this four-story gestural drawing I saw of his. I can’t understand how it was made. It was a giant rat on its hind legs probably wearing some capitalist hat or something, but what I liked was that it was like a sketch, marks that’d be used to find a form. It looked like a very large person had sketched on a building. The marks were very nice to look at. My son showed me Banksy’s book and I liked the works where he’d sneak his own paintings into museums.

KJ: His grotesque comic parodies of paintings. I like the Marx Brothers gesture of putting paintings in museums, but the work itself is awful. It’s funny in the context of a lampoon, but the work itself, I don’t want to see. It’s one more thing - I have to live in a country that is murderously insane!

AS: It’s funny because when we meet for coffee each week, you’re brimming over with anger at the stuff that’s assaulting you.

KJ: That’s why I make a lot of work. I escape into the work.

AS: the other day you indicated that it was taking you over. You described film work as baleful.

KJ: Yes, and I regret that. I wish that the work was delicious. I want the workto to feel miraculous.
AS: I find the graffiti stuff no worse than Cy Twombly, frankly.

KJ: We are plagued with advertising and the graffiti stuff is supposed to be counter to it. Yet it invades you and your serenity.

AS: Like antibodies, invaded by the same thing.

KJ: Street art is just another horrible advertisement. A big rat! The same picture over and over and over again! And there’s that stupid wrestler!

AS: Andre the Giant.

KJ: Yes! This guy over and over! Who’s the guy who sticks him everywhere? (Audience member says Shephard Fairey)

KJ: Yes. To do it he defies death, so that when you see it, you think, how the heck did he get it up there? He had to risk his life! This picture everywhere, over and over. He’s a fucking idiot, man!

AS: He did the Obama thing.

KJ: He sucks.

AS: When I was in Poland doing research for Maus, when it was still a commie country, it began to drive me nuts that there was no signage. I grew up with it. I remember seeing a neon light and being hypnotized, so grateful for it being there. It’s taken me years to be happy in the countryside. We have a cabin in the wilds of Connecticut, and what I like about it as that when I’m conceptualizing a project I like to walk. It’s the muscular activity of walking that helps thought. But in the city you can’t think because you’re assaulted by interesting things, and horrible things. I love the country because I’m so bored by trees. I have no names for them and I have no interest in looking at them. They’re like white noise.

KJ: I see the space in between the trees as volume and I have an ecstatic experience in the world of space. I don’t have to see things all the time. I just want space. ‘Things’ are only of interest to me because they limit space.

AS: I feel like (proto-graphic novelist) Lynn Ward dealt with these in-between spaces in making woodcuts, in chopping into something to make it happen.

KJ: No. Cezanne sees volume. He worked with these proximities and intense spaces. Ward’s work is blind. It’s subject matter. You can only see with one eye.

AS: True. That’s fine for painting.

KJ: But you don’t see depth. You understand it, but you don’t see a three dimensional world.

AS: That’s why I became a cartoonist. I’m amblyopic, which means I have a lazy eye. Actually, I believe the only time I’ve ever experienced 3D was a shadow play you put on that utilized people silhouetted behind a screen with two lenses and a light filter. No story, but chairs were involved and your kids were involved. Your very young son was playing with a bolo ball behind the screen and because of the phenomenon you’d set up, I had to duck when the shadow of the ball came up. It was totally visceral. It’s because the degree of resolution of a shadow is so much greater than a pink ball surrounded by colors. At least it let me see what you do that I can’t see.

KJ: Seeing 2D has been useful for you, like it was for Stan Brakhage. He was making movies that had a depth consistent with the world around him. He had an operation when he was 50 so that his eyes would be parallel, but I don’t think he ever understood the 3D world until then. He couldn’t comprehend it.

AS: When you see a painting, do you see it in 3D?

KJ: Yes. It’s not that I see it in 3D, but I bring my understanding of the 3D world to it.

AS: I do that. I’m aware there’s something I should watch out for. Maybe it’s paintings that move like later [Phillip] Guston work that are easier for me because I understand dimensional tricks. I never had trouble with a painter like [Georges] Seurat, because depending on how far you stand from the canvas, you’re either looking at diffused dots or visual composition, which I understand very clearly as a picture of a park or whatever. I’m seeing it as something and what that something is made up of. I’ve learned to be able to appreciate Cy Twombly but I still don’t like his stuff. I prefer when work resolves into an image and then I can look at the marks that made up that image.

AS: We went to the same high school, though Ken’s 10 years older than me.

KJ: High school of Industrial Arts.

AS: And for me it was Art and Design. Which wasn’t to be confused with music and art.

KJ: No, that’s where the smart kids went.

AS: This was a vocational school similar in the sense of studying automotive repair. I went to MOMA for the first time as a student there.

KJ: I did have a broke sculpture teacher there who was really an artist. Mr Cavallito. He offended everybody.

AS: He offended me. He failed me for talking when I was out of school , sick with the mumps.

KJ: He was a drunk.

AS: I made an ashtray in his class. The school was useful to me if only for the fact that I actually worked on something for a few hours a day.

KJ: I had to quit school to go out and earn money.

AS: You didn’t go to school much anyway.

KJ: There was a pass at school for the MOMA and I was the only one who used it, so the teacher just gave it to me, and I went there everyday and followed around the talking lectures on all those mysterious paintings and films. The bathroom was a gay pick-up place and in the basement was the theatre where they showed movies. I just went to the Marina Abramovic retrospective. She sits there all day, and you can sit in front of her, and she stares at you like you’re not there.

AS: All I know is one of the guys who stands there naked by the door got fired for getting an erection.

KJ: I think it’s very effective as the art of getting attention. People are actually getting hurt doing this. I read about it the New York Times. They are suffering having to stand all day for their naked shift, everyday. Stand around not getting erections.

AS: It goes back to the Banksy movie. Attention is valued in the art world. It becomes a commodity. This is the Duchamp world. The non-retinal world. I thought we could talk about what happens when you get too much attention.

KJ: It’s a mixed blessing.

AJ: You’re not allowed to complain about it because you’re getting what everybody’s after. I sought it when I did Maus. The work I was doing early on was made without any expectation of people reading it, but soon I found myself having to decide whether to become a gallery artist or tell stories, because comics without stories weren’t what people were after. After Breakdowns sold around 4000 copies in 15 years, I knew this wasn’t going to work for me because I was trying to make published work. I like print.

KJ: You like numbers. You like being picked up by a lot of people.

AS: I like the whole dynamic of comics.

KJ: For you it’s not enough to just be making work.

AS: I didn’t want to make 20 copies and hope for the best. I wanted the work in the world. I’m aware of my obligations as a communicator. The problem with communication is that people can’t hear anything they don’t already know.

KJ: It’s difficult not to work in clichés to say something. In order to say something you have to position your clichés in a way so they can produce new thought.

AS: That’s exactly my business as a cartoonist. Cartooning is the art of moving clichés around. The pugnacious type has a big jaw. The wimp has hunched shoulders.

KJ: Sometimes one makes things just because it’s something you should do. People didn’t pick up your early work because of all the noise directed at them. That’s the economy of attention.

AS: Now I feel like I’ve worked on misunderstood work, not by everybody, but like when I occasionally see the high school papers that are being written up about Maus. It’s in schools strictly because of its content. People assume it’s crudely drawn, but that was because I didn’t want people to get lost in my hand gesture. I wanted it to seem like a typeface I’d designed, but a handwritten typeface. I sketched and prepared the entire thing before I began.

KJ: I always liked art preparations. The sketches. I used to have a very hard time with the finished work. Franz Kline was huge for me. I don’t know if I transitioned from painting. The same thinking is taking place. I’m not using paints but I’m still a painter. I start working because something has an allure for me. It could be something I see, an idea and I begin to toy with it. I’m not trying to reproduce the world that we live in. I’m more interested in making things that are impossible in the world.

posted by kramer at 8:24 PM

Blogger Isabella Fiske McFarlin said...

Nice pictures of my old friends Art and Ken. I rather enjoy Banksy's work but I see it rarely because I live in the country where there are all those boring trees that Art dislikes.

Ken, is it really so awful? I love the Marxian quality of it all. But I suppose the same image again and again could get difficult for the eyes.
I liked the film, but my tastes aren't nearly as discriminating and particular as that of Ken and Art.
I assume this was last year or 2 years ago...

7:22 AM  

Blogger Isabella Fiske McFarlin said...

Art began to sit in on Ken's classes at Harpur (Binghamton U.) in 1969-70, NOT in the Mid-Sixties. We both became close with Ken in early 1970, as I recall, when I went to Binghamton to live with Art for the second (formal householding) time. I loved Ken, Flo, and Nisi-- I don't think Aza was born yet.

12:46 PM  

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