The fantasy of art objects having lives of their own has a long history, encompassing everything from the story of Pygmalion to the Hollywood franchise Night at the Museum. Painter Russell Connor has made a career of speculating about what characters from various iconic art historical masterpieces might do if allowed to mingle and interact. His witty paintings of a reimagined art history have graced the covers of the New Yorker and the books of philosopher and critic Arthur Danto. Recently, they have been brought together in a new book titled Masters in Pieces: The Art of Russell Connor which provides back stories and commentaries on such scenarios as the marriage of Blue Boy and Pinky, or the response of Leonardo da Vinci to Duchamp’s alterations of the Mona Lisa. At once gently humorous and imbued with a deep love of art, Connor’s paintings owe a great deal to his own background as a museum educator. Masters in Pieces, with an introduction by Connor’s longtime friend and supporter Irving Sandler, offers a sampling of thirty years of fractured art history. Here Eleanor Heartney speaks with Connor about his evolution as an artist, his inadvertent membership in the fraternity of postmodernism, and his playful interactions in what he refers to as “the muddled mental museum we all carry around.”
Eleanor Heartney (Rail): Although you are now known for your witty mashups of old master paintings, you started out as an abstract painter. What kind of work did you do?
Russell Connor: In a way, it was like today—I imitated art I admired, adding something of my own. I became an abstract painter in Japan after the Korean War. My inspiration was a show of modern Japanese calligraphy. When I saw that wonderful black ink on white rice paper, all my resistance to abstraction collapsed. I went home and started to paint illiterate Japanese calligraphy in oil paint. I had my first show in Tokyo in 1955. It was probably pretty awful, and the best thing about that show was the three story long sign with my name in Japanese in front of the building.
Rail: Interesting that your inspiration for abstraction was Japanese, since the work you do now is pretty much all in the Western canon. What brought you back to that?
Connor: At the Massachusetts College of Art, where I studied before my military service, I had some training as a sort of sixth-generation Impressionist. When I came back to the States after Japan, I knew I needed more education. I went to Yale on the GI Bill to study with Josef Albers (to the refrain: “Connor, you’re not Japanese”) and learned something about the interaction of color. Then I spent a year in Paris. But my major exposure to art history came with a job in the 1960s at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, as the writer/host of a weekly WGBH series called “Museum Open House&rdquo:. I had appalling freedom to choose my subjects, and submerging myself in their collection was a great revelation. I was trained as a painter, not an art historian, but I was enough of a ham to enjoy playing Instant Expert on the Art of the World for four years.
There was a surrealist element. Try to imagine talking about art on black and white television. Once I found myself standing in front of an Albers, a square inside of a squares. I thought, what can I say about this on black and white TV? So I quoted Shakespeare in Henry V, where an actor in the Globe Theater, trying to evoke the scene of a fleet preparing to invade France, says, “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.” So I repeated that in front of the Albers, quoted my old teacher, and moved quickly to the next painting.
Researching and writing scripts moved my painting to the back seat. I quit before it moved to the trunk. I was then invited to join the staff of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University as Assistant Director, under the great Bill Seitz, who gave me liberty to do what I wanted. I had met Nam June Paik at WBGH and was interested in video art, so in 1970 I put on the first museum show of video art, called Vision and Television. From that came an invitation to join the New York State Council on the Arts. They had just gone from a budget of two million dollars a year to twenty million and were inundated with applications from budding video artists. They needed someone to help process them, so I was charged with video art and public television. That’s how I came to New York.
Rail: Somehow this immersion in video art led you back to painting. How do you go from curating video art to painting the old masters of art history?
Connor: I was helping get grants for artists I admired, like Nam June and Bill Viola and Bill Wegman. Hanging around and collaborating with creative people through the seventies reminded me, Russell, it’s fine to help other artists, but what about yourself? So I went back and started trying to mine those years I had spent at the Boston Museum. That meant going through art history books, even copying a Degas. That’s useful study but boring, so I said to myself, what if I put two figures from different paintings together to make a new story, a new composition? That would also be a way to revive the humor gene conspicuously missing from my abstract painting. I began to make things that amused me and might have a serious undertone. That’s how Masters in Pieces got started.
Rail: What happens when you put characters from different paintings together? Do they take on their own life for you? As you paint them over and over, do you feel you are getting to know them better?
Connor: When I have figures standing in front if other artworks, as in the “Docent” series, I recognize them as my surrogates—I was a TV docent. When I join two together they are like characters in my play and I’m the casting director. I decide what role they are going to play. One painting, The Spanish Visitors (1986), sums up what I’ve been trying to do all these years. Manet loved tradition, especially Spanish painters. Goya made a famous balcony scene with two Majas in front and two mysterious guys in the background. Manet must have had Goya’s painting in mind sixty years later when he began his own balcony scene. He placed the artist Berthe Morisot in front with three friends. I joined my versions of both paintings together by replacing Berthe’s companions with phantoms from the Goya. It represents for me the way artists in varying degrees are haunted or inspired by their great predecessors. I guess this is the central subject of all my work.
Rail: In a way these works are about creating a community of artists that transcends time and place.
Connor: I like that idea—they flow into one another. When I was in art school at Yale with Albers, I would spend summers back in Arlington with my family. I had a job at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard as a night watchman, and it was easy when walking around in the dark with a flashlight to imagine figures from one painting socializing with others. It was a brief fantasy at the time, but later I realized it must have planted a certain seed in my mind about the fluidity, the time travel of figures in art.
Rail: You’ve mentioned that another inspiration for the paintings you do now was the chroma key technique popular with video artists.
Connor: Chroma key is an electronic masking technique, now known as green screen, and ubiquitous in feature films, television and video games. The video artist Peter Campus used it brilliantly. It allows you to change any background, to meld anything together seamlessly. When I began joining figures from different paintings together, I soon realized where I got the idea.
Rail: In the introduction to your new book, Irving Sandler calls you a postmodernist. Do you think that’s accurate?
Connor: The first mention I got in the art press involved a show in 1985 called The Art of Appropriation at the old Alternative Museum. Joan Marter wrote about it and singled me out as a “brilliant example of Postmodernism.” It was the first time I’d known I was part of that group. I was very late in discovering what a large throng I was part of. If you dip into any of the readings about the beginnings of postmodernism and the inspiration they got from the Frankfurt School and Barthes and Foucault, you can see why I might be linked with that whole movement. All the talk about art being a kind of collage drawn from past art and literature and music seems to describe my work. But just as I was getting into it, I read in an art magazine that, “Fortunately, Appropriation is over.” I thought, well that’s a relief. I don’t have to worry about being fashionable.
Rail: Speaking about being over, your work is very associated with the philosopher and critic Arthur Danto, because he used your paintings as the cover of many of his books. How did you feel about being associated with his notion of the end of art?
Connor: I worried a bit that Arthur might think about me as the conclusion to grand centuries of art, all of them ending up with Russell. I modestly decline the honor.
Rail: You’ve mentioned that one of the ways you set up paintings is to start with someone looking at something and then change what they are looking at. It’s especially noticeable in your series “The Art Lover” where the same figure flings his arms open as he stares in amazement at various iconic works of art.
Connor: I based that series on a wonderful Caravaggio painting at the National Gallery in London called The Supper at Emmaus (1601). I was always struck by the astonishment of the disciple who discovers he’s having supper with the resurrected Jesus Christ. That wonder looked to me like the kind of reaction I would love to have for my work, so I decided to appoint him The Art Lover and take him on a tour. He sees everything from Japanese prints, to Picasso’s Dora Maar, to a Jeff Koons, and he’s astonished by everything.
Rail: In particular, he looks at a lot of female nudes. If we want to turn to another theoretical framework, it strikes me that a lot of the works in this series could be said to address the feminist issue of the male gaze.
Connor: You are being very nice. Another way to say it is that there are a lot of dirty old men in my paintings. I recognize that, it’s concerned me a little. Actually there was a historian, John Paoletti, who taught at Wesleyan, who wrote an essay on me in Arts Magazine in which he singled me out, not as a male chauvinist pig, but the opposite—as someone concerned about how women were treated in art.
Rail: What did you think of that?
Connor: I liked the idea of it. I wished to identify with it but I’m not so sure. I suspect myself of the worst. When I have the Art Lover lingering over a Modigliani nude, it’s hard to suggest he’s thinking of some lofty philosophical question.
Rail: Another recurring figure, as you mentioned, is the Docent, cribbed from Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Connor: That was the next series. When that painting came to town a few years ago, to the Frick Museum, someone quoted an old line and called her the Mona Lisa of the North. When I read that I thought, who better to introduce those two famous ladies than me. In the Vermeer, she is turning toward us as if to share something. That reminded me of a docent in a museum, so I made her a docent at the Louvre where she is explaining the Mona Lisa to tourists. The next day Alan Alda came by—he is an old fan of my work—and he bought it. After he was gone I thought, there are docents everywhere. Why couldn’t she guide us to the museums of the world? She’s been to the Van Gogh museum, the Guggenheim, the Musée Matisse, everywhere. I identify with her, but I’m envious because she gets to talk about art in color.
Rail: Another favorite from a series of yours is the barmaid from Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882).
Connor: I just love Manet and I love that painting. It was his last masterpiece and it has that famous perspective confusion where the mirror reflection behind her shows her talking to a customer who is not visible in the front. I decided to rescue her from this muddle. She looked to me like she was serving at an opening in a museum. It happens to be a Manet exhibition, so behind her is his first masterpiece, The Luncheon on the Grass (1862 – 63). I was summing up his career and I hope he appreciates that. After that, I moved her elsewhere. I took her out West and she’s serving in a bar in Deadwood with Remington cowboys behind her. Later, inspired by Bush’s suggestion that we keep on partying during the Iraq war, I put her in front of Goya’s The Third of May 1808 (1814) massacre. I thought she represented the peaceful life and called the painting War and Peace, feeling free to steal from literature as well as art history.
Rail: But I notice that, although your entry into the art world involved living artists, you rarely steal from them in your paintings.
Connor: I have used images from Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Jasper Johns (whom I admire), but that is about it. I think it’s partly because my main affection is for 19th-century French and 17th-century Dutch painting. As for Koons, I don’t know why I pick on him.
Rail: We all do.
Connor: He’s such an obvious target. I interviewed him when I headed the Whitney Museum education department in the 1980s. I would make programs about their collection and the Biennials for PBS. In 1989 I interviewed Jeff for the Biennial. He was talking about what he hopes to do in his work and one of the things he said was “We need to exploit the masses.” “Hold the tape,” I said, “Jeff, do you want to think about that and maybe reword it?” He thought for a moment and said, “No, the words mean exactly what I said.” And if you look at his work, he’s still doing it.
Rail: You did a popular cover for the New Yorker. Was that a different kind of process?
Connor: That involved a little deception on my part. The art director knew my work and called me about a fashion issue, asking if I had anything related to fashion. It’s something I know nothing about, so I said, “let me look around.” I made some sketches using Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror. I began to audition fashionably dressed women from art history who might fit into the mirror and offer a contrast. I found Sargent’s Madame X, but she was facing the wrong way so I had to gently flip her, so the two great profiles are facing each other.
I did another piece for the New Yorker that started a whole series of paintings of “Artists at Work.” The subject is Rembrandt. It was a response to the Amsterdam [Research] Committee that since 1970 has been going around the world authenticating Rembrandts in museums and private collections. They had whittled down the number of Rembrandt oil paintings in the world from 500 to 250 or so. Then they got to the Frick Collection and cast doubt on The Polish Rider (ca. 1655), a painting I am very fond of. So I thought that, after all that Rembrandt had done for me, I should spring to his defense. I made a painting showing him at work on The Polish Rider.
Rail: Proving it!
Connor: Yes, absolutely proving it, and then I made a story to go with it which explained that my painting showing Rembrandt at work on the unfinished Polish Rider was actually done by a student of his who witnessed this great event. I explained that this painting was recently discovered in a basement in Pinsk. I shared this with the New Yorker and they loved it and printed the painting with my little fable. Then the President of the Frick read her New Yorker, believed it, and called the Director of the museum with the great news. This fellow somehow knew it was a hoax perpetrated by some artist on 57th Street named Connor. He had to break it to her. But he came to see it and loved it, and the Rembrandt Committee eventually changed their mind and admitted I was right all along. So Rembrandt owes me a lot, actually.
Rail: Looks like you are secretly a power behind the curtain. Do you ever feel guilty about your interventions into art history?
Connor: My paintings are my fantasy museum, my Musée Imaginaire. The original works of art are still back there safely on the museum walls, and I’m having a great time with their print progeny. And now, there is a new book1 about my work. It seems appropriate, because these paintings began in reproduction and now they are back in reproduction, illustrating my new mantra, “Copy, and Be Original—Be Serious, and Make People Smile.”
- Connor’s monograph Masters in Pieces is available via the artist’s website.
ELEANOR HEARTNEY is a New York-based art critic and the author of numerous books about contemporary art. Eleanor Heartney's Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art has just been reissued by Silver Hollow Press.