Art In Conversation
MALCOLM MORLEY with Phong Bui
Soon after the opening reception of his survey at Yale University’s Edgewood Avenue Gallery, Malcolm Morley In A Nutshell: The Fine Art of Painting 1954–2012, curated by Robert Storr, Dean of the Yale School of Art, (January 31 – March 31, 2012), and Malcolm Morley: Another Way to Make An Image, Monotypes at Sue Scott Gallery (January 11 – February 19, 2012), publisher Phong Bui made a trip to Brookhaven Hamlet, Long Island, New York to visit the painter’s home/studio, a former church he has shared with his wife Lida Morley since 1986. They sat down in his sunlit studio to talk about his life and work.
Phong Bui (Rail): What can you tell us about one of the featured works in the show, titled “Biggles” (2011)?
Malcolm Morley: The title “Biggles” comes from the nickname of James Bigglesworth, a character from a series of children’s books created by W.E. Johns. Biggles was a fighter pilot during World War I—the forerunner of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, really. Any Englishman 50 and over has most likely read the books. At any rate, when World War I was over, Biggles was out of a job, so he and his sidekick Algy went on different adventures around the world, which was so exciting to read about when I was a young boy. Years later, when I had a show with Anthony d’Offay, who had been a book dealer, I mentioned the books to him. Before I knew it, he brought out three very rare Biggles books. One of the covers was the image I painted on the pub sign—you can see the two beers on either side of the name Biggles. I also replaced Biggles with myself, sitting on the plane. I sort of moved the alter-ego around, and it felt just terrific.
Rail: I thought it was a sign painting first, but upon closer inspection I realized you had painted it.
Morley: It’s also double-sided, and it’s coming out perpendicular from the wall. So when you get in front of it, the painting just disappears. All you see is a black line. Actually, the idea came from a poem by Wallace Stevens called “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” It occurred to me that there’s another way of looking at a painting. So that’s why I painted on both sides.
Rail: So the viewer who walks from either side sees the painting, but if he or she stands directly in front of it they see it almost like a Barnett Newman zip.
Morley: Yeah, absolutely.
Rail: Which brings me back to your last interview in BOMB with Richard Francis (Spring 1996), in which you reminisced about how you met Newman when you were a waiter in a restaurant, and then soon you both became friends. Though later when you showed him your super realist paintings you were worried that you might have betrayed him. It was in fact the contrary.
Morley: Yeah, Barney liked them very much. He liked the sense of light in them. At first I thought he was talking about the idea of light in Impressionism but he was really referring to the idea of the artist’s inner light. And I had this image of being a coal miner with a light on my head, so wherever I went, the light shone through. The scale of his thinking was something I hadn’t come across. He’d say things such as “I’m emptying Renaissance space” and I’d see him with a big shovel—emptying Renaissance space [laughs]. Barney had very wonderful, ambitious visions and it was the scale of the ambition that grabbed me. I describe it now as historical ambition that I have. I hope to sit in the pantheon of greats, but whether that happens is up for other people to decide. But that’s the level of ambition he aspires to in his thinking.
Rail: You know, when Meyer Schapiro was teaching at Columbia in the ’50s and ’60s, he would invite artists to his graduate seminar so that there’d be some sort of rapport established between his students and the artists. Tom Hess gives an account of a visit from Newman in one instance. Toward the end of class, Hess recalls that Schapiro drew four rectangles on the blackboard: one an outlined object, the second filled with dots, the third with interlocking forms, and the fourth with dissociated shapes or elements. Newman understood this to be a “typology” of modern art. The first indicated realism, the second Impressionism, the third Cubism, and the last Surrealism. Schapiro then asked Newman where he would fit in. Without any hesitation Newman immediately walked up to the blackboard and erased the dots, then put his vertical zip down quite emphatically. Later he said to Hess, “I had to think fast, so I wiped out Impressionism.” [Laughs.] The reason why I mention that story is because when you’re called upon to do something, you ought to do it with no hesitation.
Morley: Or you make a mistake with confidence.
Rail: That’s another good way of putting it. That’s something you have consistently done your whole career. You’ve received plenty of praise, but there have been many negative reviews written on your work. How do you deal with the negative ones?
Morley: Well—I’m not an artist who says I never read my criticism, because I do, and I suspect most artists do, too. Anyway, it can be very upsetting, but I am always able to turn it into a positive energy. It may have evolved over time but I always felt that I have the ability to deal with all sort of negative situations.
Rail: That’s good. In an interview with Robert Storr in the catalogue for the show, you said when you came to New York in 1958 the two important artists to you were Pollock and Balthus.
Morley: Yes, there were two simultaneous shows, one of Pollock, the other of Balthus at the Museum of Modern Art soon after I came to the city. It struck me, as if I’ve been doing a synthesis of the two ever since, on some level.
Rail: Because of the all-overness of this image and the even distribution of paint material. I understand the Pollock reference, but I don’t see how Balthus has a presence in your work.
Morley: Well, the painting’s surface in Balthus penetrates directly to your central nervous system, similar to the way Pollock’s does, in spite of his paint surface being so different. It’s got nothing to do with what you know. It’s more to do with being open to the sensation of a surface. After all, the whole painted thing is a surface. So that’s what the paint is doing, making a surface. And I’ve noticed that people are very shy about looking at surfaces of paintings; they tend to look just at the image. Therefore they’re missing out on a lot of sensation. Of course, the whole idea of sensation comes, for me, from Cézanne, who’s the quintessential sensationalist. When he said, “I paint what I see, not what I know,” he meant that behind a still life set-up there’s a wall, but he doesn’t see it, therefore in terms of the truth of eye, it’s not there until he actually looks at it. Every part that appears in his painting is essentially patched or joined together. He even said that he felt his eye bleed when he took it off of one area like a suction cup being taken off of a bottle top. That was a huge revelation for me. It’s always stayed with me. And it’s in every painting for me.
Rail: When did you have that revelation, Malcolm? While you were in art school or after?
Morley: After art school, but it wasn’t a one-day situation; it gradually built up over time.
Rail: Like the way you make your painting.
Morley: Exactly. And Cézanne is a painter that you can mature with as you age. There’s so much more in his paintings, and the problem he took on was so huge. He said to himself that the audience of his painting does not exist yet, and that the painting will create it steadily in the future. I feel the same way with myself, that I’ve somehow created a particular type of audience, and I’m sure that if I had conversations with that audience, I could talk about psychoanalysis very easily and the whole idea of evolution of your own mind, consciousness, which is all part of a continuous process.
Rail: It’s the process, which first requires one to identify one’s own fear and anxiety, like Cézanne did in his early paintings, then to depersonalize oneself so that the painting can be personal. I like what you once said in one interview: “You can’t achieve happiness unless you can tolerate a certain amount of uncertainty.”
Morley: It’s absolutely true.
Rail: Do you think that has deep roots in your early upbringing?
Morley: For sure. My life early on was very, very uncertain. I was eight years old when the war began in 1939, and 14 when the war ended in 1945. In addition, my personal experience of being separated from my mother when I was five was very, very severe. I was in a train carriage going down to Devon in the southern part of England, with a bunch of other kids and suddenly my mother disappeared and it was a big shock. I just bawled non-stop for the eight hours. This anxiety that I’d always had was made clear to me when I saw Donald Klein, a famous psychiatrist, who analyzed it and said it was referred to as “massive separation anxiety.” And the moment he said it I felt so much better.
Rail: And when was this?
Morley: Twenty-something years ago. He’s since retired. I felt better because now I had a clear term for this feeling that I never had a name for. So besides this source of massive separation anxiety, my whole house was blown up by a jet-propelled bomb that landed in the street opposite me at 3:00 in the morning. We were homeless for a while. We were essentially billeted from one to the next person’s house. So I’ve had a long history of separation anxiety in different forms. It even crept into my five marriages—I’ve been married five times. I never had girlfriends, I just got married.
Rail: [Laughs.] Just straight to the matter.
Morley: I wanted the idea of family, which probably confirms the desire for stability, but it never worked out because of my own neuroses. I hadn’t up to that point resolved my “massive separation anxiety” so I would create the separation: leaving them before they left me instead. All of my past wives were all very, very good people and I could have stayed with any one of them. I’m blessed now with Lida who is the most terrific and smart person. We’ve been together for 23 years.
Morley: Thank you. I was, as I’m now, lucky to have married a very smart woman. My last two wives, for instance, had gone to Bennington, which was, in those days, the crème de la crème.
Rail: The Greenbergian headquarters.
Morley: Right. And you know they’ll take the whole summer off to read just Proust. You may say that I’ve been educated through the women I have been married to.
Rail: Speaking of Proust, I’m now reminded again of Balthus. The two most beautiful essays I have read on his paintings are by Albert Camus and Guy Davenport. Camus felt that Balthus’s painting is an inseparable part of the process in which his figures are trying to suspend their “paradise of childhood,” as he put, “green for Balthus as for Baudelaire.” Whereas Davenport identifies Balthus’s paintings with the tradition of modern French culture for which the world and imagination of children are well respected, and understood, unlike the puritanical value ingrained in American culture that certainly lessens the appreciation of Balthus’s vision.
Morley: I couldn’t agree more with you.
Rail: So you appreciate Balthus’s enigmatic, erotic vision, but you make bright, action-packed paintings—quite the opposite. It’s cool. I remember seeing your painting, “The Day of the Locust” (1977), at MoMA in the late ’80s, and I kept thinking whoever made this painting must be a very colorful, and joyous person.
Morley: Well, the title, first of all, was culled from Nathanael West’s novel The Day of the Locust. In fact, the first scene, a bunch of 18th-century soldiers walking through a Hollywood set, delighted me, and I painted the whole scene in the lower part of the painting. The above image, however, is a segment from the film Suddenly (1954), in which Frank Sinatra played an assassin, especially the segment when he shoots a rifle through a window and the window cracks. I also took the still of the screaming nanny with her left punctured eye and the glass broken below from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). So it’s cross-fertilization, as with my other paintings.
Rail: And you hate the term “photorealism.”
Morley: That’s right. I prefer my own term, “superrealism.” In any case, what led me to the ships was that the abstract paintings I was doing early on, the Twomblyesque scribbles, were very much like the superstructures on the ocean-going liner.
Rail: With stacked-up windows.
Morley: And decks in rows. With that association, plus my visit to the studio of Richard Artschwager, who’s been very important to me, where I saw him using a grid.
Rail: You both were credited as being among the first contemporary artists to make paintings from photographic sources, as well as for your use of the grid. But let me confirm this fact, Malcolm: after your first show of abstract paintings at Jill Kornblee in 1964, you met Roy Lichtenstein through Ivan Karp. And it was through Roy that you were invited to teach at Ohio State University?
Morley: Yes, Roy got me a job there in Columbus, Ohio. In fact, the early ship paintings like “Amsterdam In Front Of Rotterdam” (1966), were painted in a small, little room in Columbus, Ohio, very far away from the ocean [laughs].
Rail: How long did the job last?
Morley: Two or three years.
Rail: What was your teaching experience like?
Morley: I put a lot into it. I’m not a teacher who believes in doing your own thing. Because if you can do your own thing you don’t need to be in a class, you don’t need to be in a school. So I gave specific problems that the whole class would address. Only afterwards we would look at the result and discuss what was successful or not. I treated it like the way you would teach somebody who was going to be a great concert pianist. You just have to do endless exercises and learn how to listen to good criticism.
Rail: Did you get to know Tom Doyle while you were there?
Morley: Tom must have already left when I came. But I did meet Tom and Eva (Hesse) later in New York.
Rail: Tom told me in my last interview with him (May 2008) that Roy didn’t get the tenured job, so he would just stay and spend a lot of time at home painting. Can you imagine if Roy Lichtenstein got the tenured job? [Laughs.] What would his work be like as a result?
Morley: That would not have been good. We would have had no Roy Lichtenstein. The same thing happened to me. When my tenure came up they turned me down because the so-called modern people really hoped that I could get them galleries in New York and of course I couldn’t. Anyway, I was happy to have moved back to New York, and soon got a job teaching at the School of Visual Arts, where I taught for quite a while.
Rail: And then you had your second show also at Kornblee, where you showed your super-realist paintings for the first time in 1967.
Morley: That’s right.
Rail: And what sort of reception did you get?
Morley: I was sort of naïve on a certain level. I didn’t know that I had hit a nerve, even though I was always comfortable with post-pop. The truth was at that point whenever I felt compelled to use images, the question wasn’t wanting to paint but what to paint. The general consensus was all the images had been used up by Roy or Rauschenberg or Johns, and what was left?
Rail: So we’re talking about ’68, ’69?
Morley: You kill me with the dates.
Rail: But roughly about that time!
Morley: Okay, if you say so [laughs]. I was told by Jean-Claude Liebenstein that I have an oceanic sense of time [laughs].
Rail: He is the author of the comprehensive monograph of your work (Malcolm Morley: Itineraries, Reaktion Books, 2001).
Morley: Yes. I once talked to Jean-Claude about my thoughts on the career of an artist, which, in some ways, is involved with the idea of skins, being we all have five layers, as they say. The first skin for the artist might be establishing his identity as an artist, getting an exhibition. I’d die a thousand deaths when people would say, “Oh, you’re a painter, where do you show?” “Well, at the moment, I don’t show.” [Laughs]. That seemed to be the most important thing, to get a gallery to show. And it is. So that’s the first skin. Yet not quite that surprising actually, very often artists don’t always get down to the second skin, which is regarded as an occupational hazard.
Rail: What is the second skin?
Morley: Well, the second skin means consolidating what that first skin was and then being prepared to let it go. I remember once walking down Fifth Avenue with $20,000 in my pockets, 10 in the left, and 10 in the right, and I thought, this is all because I took a risk with the first super-realist paintings. So what would be the best second risk to disqualify the value of the first risk? That’s when the paint started going all over the place and then people who had collected the early paintings lost confidence, so they sold all of them. Meanwhile, I couldn’t sell the newer work at all. But I remember Roy telling me one day that he painted a painting that was impossible to sell; yet later he sold it for more money than he had ever sold before. So it’s like gamesmanship, or upping the ante; I learned that very early on. So on a certain level I was pushed from behind. Because Ivan Karp had taken my slides all over America and at the end of the year there was 100 photorealists. One specialized in racehorses; another guy did diners, using an airbrush. Critics somehow tended to put my work in the mix, which was quite annoying. The problem is most of those paintings have no real surfaces, no touch.
Rail: So it’s good that you called your painting superrealist.
Morley: Yeah, partly because I’m crazy about Malevich’s term “suprematism.”
Rail: That makes sense.
Morley: And in France they call it hyperrealism.
Rail: So how would you describe the third, the fourth, and the fifth skin?
Morley: After the first and second skin, I think the third, fourth, and fifth are about maintaining the flow and being even more flexible. A big influence on me was a book called Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History, by the philosopher Norman O. Brown, which I’ve read four times, and each time it has different meaning. The book is essentially a psychoanalytic analysis of Freud. The first chapter is called “The Disease Called Man,” which is brilliant. He explores Freud’s concept of “polymorphous infancy,” which deals with the early stage of an infant who doesn’t make a hierarchy of touch, sensation—it’s the same all over. But later during puberty the focus becomes genitally organized and Brown’s saying that society or culture itself is genitally organized. It’s like, for example, before dinner you have foreplay, you have a cocktail and hors d’oeuvres, then dessert is climax. He also wrote a book called Love’s Body, which contains only verse, no chapters, which I also loved. His chapter headings were great. One was called “The Excremental Vision,” in which he talks about Jonathan Swift’s famous poem, “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” about how Celia’s beautiful and she’s gorgeous and the end line is “Celia shits.”
Rail: [Laughs.] That’s fantastic.
Morley: And then he talks about how Martin Luther had his best visions shitting on the john and he associates shit with the devil [laughs]—I mean this guy is fearless, not highbrow even though he was trained as a Latin scholar, and then he got turned on to Freud. Brown’s critique of Freud was that Freud could not deal with art like Otto Rank. Rank’s The Artist and Art and Artist, I think, are absolutely beyond brilliant. I think that artists should know a lot of things besides making art. I actually think of art very often as a branch of natural science, which I’ve said before. Once I was at a seminar and someone asked me, “What do you do?” And I said, “I’m a natural scientist.” “Oh, what do natural scientists do?” this someone continued. “Oh, well, I study mass, linearity, tonality, hue, chromatics, etc., etc.” He then said, “Oh, that sounds like being an artist.”
Rail: [Laughs.] He got it. Finally.
Morley: Yeah. We tend to forget that philosophy in and of itself doesn’t have a medium. The fact is that people choose to write their thoughts, and a thought is a thought, it’s not manifest, it’s gotta be manifest in something. As Nietzsche says, “Philosophy begins in the marketplace.” So, what is of value? What are levels of value? I could probably incorporate that thought into different layers of the skin.
Rail: Which layer of skin are you now?
Morley: The fifth and last one.
Rail: No wonder why it sounded so wise [laughs]. Anyway, how did you deal with the dominance of minimalism in the late ’60s?
Morley: I wasn’t threatened by what minimalist artists were doing. In fact, I lived above Agnes Martin earlier on and I love what she did.
Rail: Similar to how Newman liked your supperrealist paintings, and you his. So there’s no problem there.
Morley: Right. And, you know, it’s not even a question of liking, because you don’t necessarily have to like something in order to admire it. For example, there’s something nihilistic and grim about Artschwager’s style, but his work is serious and important. The same thing can be said of Lucian Freud, whose work gives me the creeps. Every time I see his paintings I feel my flesh is being decayed, getting rotten. Yet there is some psychedelic power of realism in it that can be very hypnotic.
Rail: I can only agree with you all day long [laughs]. Anyway, how did the show come about?
Morley: Rob Storr came and said he wanted to do a show. I thought it was to be in a year but he meant to do it in six weeks. It was a tight schedule. What Robbie did was select works that were reasonably accessible and organized as a cross-section of different times, like a small survey so to speak.
Rail: Can you tell us a bit about the other painting installation, “The Spitfire” (2012)?
Morley: The image of a young Palestinian man jumping over the wall was initially from another painting, “Wall Jumpers” (2002). What I did was put him right above a painting of a bomber. Then I had a friend of mine shoot through the spitfire “sign” with a gun. And I put the painted cutout of a naval officer in the middle of the sidewalk, right next to the bulldog with the British flag, which refers to Winston Churchill and the Royal Navy. Actually, I’ve been reading several books on World War II. Many of them seem to blame Theodore Roosevelt for having sent missionaries to the Far East, between 1901 to 1909, which led to the Japanese feeling threatened. That consequently gave rise to this war monger generation that was in reaction to Roosevelt wanting to turn all the Asians into Christians. He really did. I’ve been learning all about the big mistakes that the West has made in really misunderstanding the Asiatic mind. It’s been quite an experience. Now I’m just finishing H. G. Wells’s autobiography, called Experiment in Autobiography, which is astonishing. He actually has this concept of basing the value of money on a different system altogether, which is a system of energy; you would delegate a certain amount of energy to something, and that would represent itself in money. So that money couldn’t be manipulated so easily. Fantastic.
Rail: Keynes would have agreed with that theory. At any rate, I like the way you painted the bulldog.
Morley: Have I ever told you the story about the dog?
Rail: I don’t think so.
Morley: Oh, as soon as I finished painting the dog I remembered that when I was a small boy I was taking a violin lesson and I went down into the village and a dog came out of a pub and bit me right through the nose. I had completely forgotten that until I finished the dog. So much for the unconscious.