John Yau (Rail): How did the original Peace Tower, which was built in LA in 1966, and is being recreated by Rirkit Tiravanija and Mark di Suvero for the upcoming Whitney Biennial, come about?
Irving Petlin: The Artists Protest Committee’s meeting point was the Dwan Gallery, where Mark was having a show. We had already done a number of things including challenging the Rand Corporation. In 1965, members of the Rand Corporation were academics and liberals who lived in Santa Monica. Their children went to wonderful private schools, they bought art and attended all the liberal causes and were for civil rights, but they were planning and executing for the defense department—the safe hamlet concept, where you gather the peasants into a ring of barbed wire and then kill everything that moves in the country.
We organized secretly. We never sent anything through the mail because we knew that we were already being watched. We organized a demonstration by word of mouth, and hundreds came. We marched around the Rand Corporation holding up signs accusing them of genocide. They were so flustered, because they were all members of their communities and in various ways they wanted to be thought of as good people.
The president of Rand came out and asked to speak with me. He wanted to know how we could imagine that they should be a target—and I said precisely why, and they said, ‘Well, would it be a good idea if we could have debate and you could bring some of your people and we will have some of ours, and we will discus these issues.’ I said that would be a very good idea and, if you want to have a debate, we will do it only on the condition that we have a public debate. He said, “well, I don’t know” and goes back inside. Ten minutes later, he emerges and says, “yes, we agree.” But what he didn’t know was that we had a deep throat inside. Robert McNamara had sent them a telegram saying do the debate, we want to know what they are thinking because they are the radar. Six months from now, that’s what people will be criticizing. So find out what they are thinking. Hold the debate—but we knew that and that’s why I held out. We are not going to do a debate unless we can do it in public. It was hell. Both debates were hell. It’s amazing. They put all their big time people and big time psychological engineers of Vietnam against us. For the first debate we had Leon Golub, Annette Michelson, Michael McClure and myself. We took care of ourselves very well because we knew more than they thought we could possibly know. When we met in public at the Warner Theater, there were seats for 400 people, which were quickly filled. Another 400 people showed up, so we set up a sound system in the courtyard. The debate was held for almost 1000 people. There were four of us against four of them. We were not intimidated. It was a way of showing that they are capable of lying and dissembling and having terrible illusions of what’s reality. Doesn’t’ that sound like today? So the lesson of then, as opposed to now, is that in a totally hostile atmosphere, you are energized, in a certain way, by that hostility. Today, the opposition to any organized collective is subtler, more insidious and dangerous than anything we experienced during that time. The fact that there is no student movement right now is not just because there’s no draft. They don’t know how to act collectively anymore. The icon of individuality has destroyed them. They don’t know how to think collectively and the result is that there is no real collective momentum.
Rail: The Tower is being built now?
Petlin: Yes, it’s going to help rescue from memory an event that took place 40 years ago. An event that was a demonstration, a physical manifestation of artists in the public space, a kind of Situationist event.
Rail: An intervention.
Petlin: Right, the Tower made the event, and the 418 works of art that came from all over the world and were on the Tower or in the immediate area. Both had to be defended nightly. They were being attacked every night. The mood and spirit was amazing. We kept saying that we never thought we could do this. It surprised us. That people can act far better then their normal lives could indicate. That’s what the Tower did; it pierced that indifference. LA is the most indifferent place in the world. If you can do it there, you can do it anywhere. It showed, in a way, all the potential goodness, and ingenuity that is in the American public, and has been so stifled. Artists are making pictures and having shows, selling millions of dollars worth of art. But, what’s their life like—what’s the public life like? It’s deadly and suffocating.
Rail: Why were you in LA?
Petlin: I had come from Paris. Diebenkorn and I were the visiting artists at UCLA.
Rail: So the tower was a matter of coincidence because you and Mark were there.
Petlin: And Leon and Richard Hunt…
Rail: And you agree to do this project.
Petlin: Before I moved to Paris, I was stationed at Presidio in San Francisco. I knew all the LA artists because many of them slept on my floor in San Francisco. John Altoon and others would come up to San Francisco to do the Dilexi Gallery that was associated with the Ferus Gallery in LA. Jim Newman,Walter Hopps, and Ed Kienholz and later Irving Blum were partners. They didn’t know I was in the army, they just never saw me during the day. I had my first show at the Dilexi Gallery.
Rail: You were in Intelligence, doing lots of research, and stationed at Presidio.
Petlin: Also painting pictures and sleeping 2 hours a night
Rail: That research must have shaped some of what your subject matter was about. Could you talk about that a little?
Petlin: That’s kind of submerged in my life. For one, I was under proscription, I was warned when I left Intelligence, never to discuss anything and I was heading to France because I had a fellowship waiting for me. Four months after settling in Paris, there was a knock on the door; an anonymous looking man in a tan raincoat carrying a briefcase said: “Hello, you don’t know me, but I know you. I’m from the State Dept. and we want you to know that you are under prohibition not to discuss anything for four years.” I said, “Why, have I violated that deal?” And he said, “No, no, this is just a friendly visit.” How much, as you ask that question, filtered through the nervous system and became the basis for a political attitude? There is a certain Jewish nervousness and sensitivity to anyone who understands what happened in the Holocaust. I was probably given an extra injection of this and how it would emerge was unclear nor was it clear to me what kind of artist I was trying to be. I was shown a lot in those early years in Paris. I had one show after another. I did “Men and Dogs,” when Birmingham and the Civil Rights Movement started. I did “100 Fighting Men” after the massacre at the subway station in Paris, which I was present at, during the Algerian conflict. Little by little I was surfacing in a different form. It wasn’t the spoken or written form, but I was surfacing in another way. My work was never as polemical as Leon’s, but the subtext was always there. That subtext is what periodically comes out now. When the Kent show opens on April 22nd, there is a huge triptych where the subtext is the text: it’s called The Entry of Christ into Washington.
Rail: Originally there were 418 panels by artists attached to the panel. What happened to them?
Petlin: You have to know what happened to the tower and then we will get to the panels. We had a four-month lease on a site at La Cienega and Sunset. We began building the tower on the hill. How did we get that piece of land? I went to the owner of the land who was trying to sell it—trying to attract attention to it. I went up to him and said we would like to lease your land. We’re a group of artists and we would like to hang paintings on it. He said ‘oh great!’ Now, I did not lie to him. I find it important from a legal point of view that we do not lie. We do not give him a false idea, and we did not explain what the paintings were about. When it became evident that the tower was being built against the war in Vietnam, he was a nervous wreck. He tried to find out every way, through the city, to legally stop this. We covered our tracks legally and were in good shape, so we were able to hold onto the site for four months. When the four months were drawing to a close, there were hundreds of visitors each day. It was a breakthrough for us—we broke through the silence of the press, which began reporting on it and keeping track because there were awful events that happened nightly. The sheriffs were fascists with their Dobermans and their Porsches—that’s how they patrolled Sunset. They beat us up. We were attacked by troops from nearby bases who were told, ‘go wreck the tower.’ We had guys from Watts protecting the tower and they were tough. When the four months were over and we were trying to figure out what to do, Walter Hopps tried to bring the tower to the Pasadena Art Museum. The museum directors turned it down. Ed Janss, a great collector, was the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He wanted a helicopter to airlift it to the center, but his board turned it down. We realized the tower was doomed, and Mark came up with the idea of cutting it up into little pieces and each piece would be like a pillow, because he clipped the piece at two ends, and that’s why we’re looking desperately to find our pillow, because it would make a great photo, you know? And we gave a pillow to each one of the artists who participated, and the artists who sent paintings knew that we were going to use them to continue the struggle against the war. We auctioned them off to raise money for further events in Southern California against the war, and that was the basis for the founding of a new organization—I was leaving, Mark was leaving, and we were starting to work in New York, but that’s what happened to the tower. There were great pieces that went out into the world.
Rail: You came to New York after that?
Petlin: I did, and got involved in the Art Workers Coalition and the Artists and Writers Committee. But the separate committee, which Jon Hendricks, Frazier and I started inside Coalition was the Posters Committee. We worked very well together and did some good things.
Rail: The poster of the dead in My Lai?
Petlin: It went everywhere. There was always this dispute when we did the posters—what are we aiming at? You aim at other people, not the artists who think like you, but people you can move, and perhaps change. All the posters were based on the concept that they were for the outside; they were to be distributed democratically and put into the public space. We never signed those posters because we didn’t want people to hold on to them, we wanted them out on the walls.