How do you do your paintings?
I just do them. I do them as directly as possible. If I am working from a cartoon, photograph or whatever, I draw a small picture - the size that will fit into my opaque projector and project it onto the canvas. I don't draw a picture in order to reproduce it - I do it in order to recompose it. Nor am I trying to change it as much as possible. I try to make the minimum amount of change, although sometimes I work from two or three different original cartoons and combine them. I go all the way from having my drawing almost like the original, to making it up altogether, it depends on what it is. Anyway, I project the drawing onto the canvas and pencil it in and then I play around with the drawing until it satisfies me. For technical reasons I stencil in the dots first. I try to predict how it will come out. Then I start with the lightest colors and work my way down to the black line. It never works out quite the way I plan it because I always end up erasing half of the painting, re-doing it, and redotting it. I work in Magna color because it's soluble in turpentine, This enables me to get the paint off completely whenever I want so there is no record of the changes I have made. Then, using paint which is the same color as the canvas, I repaint areas to remove any stain marks from the erasures. I want my painting to took as if it had been programmed. I want to hide the record of my hand.
Do you like to do ever thing by hand in your painting?
Yes. I like to have full control, but I don't care if this control is obvious. For example, I am very happy when the factory takes my painting and makes an edition of enamels on steel. To be explicit, this is what I actually do: I do a full-sized cartoon on paper for the enamel people with acrylic color. They cut stencils from my cartoon and make an edition of perhaps six enamels. I have done it once and I am very happy that the six enamels all came out beautifully in their factory technique. I like the style of industrialization but not necessarily the fact. I am not against industrialization, but it must leave me something to do.
Incidentally, were you a commercial artist at anytime in your lift?
No. I have done some industrial design, but that had more to do with engineering and drafting.
Did this have any influence on your painting?
Yes. I used to do paintings with drafting and radio symbols in them. Probably the exacting requirements of drafting have had some influence on my work. It helped me to organize and simplify.
What kind of problems did you encounter when you first began working in this style?
I had difficulty in getting into this. The early work was a little "tacky" because I didn't know how to draw in a comic book style.
In your early work, that is in 1961, you seemed to be very aware of what you were up to. There is tremendous diversity of imagery. Were you plugging holes?
Yes. The first show was very diverse. I did the Roto-Broil; the Engagement Ring; a round picture The Cat, which I got from a cat food package; the Golf Ball which was a single object in black and white; In, which was just letters; and Soda, which is blue and white. I like the idea of blue and white very much because a lot of commercial artists use it to get a free color. Blue does for black as well; it is an economic thing. So I liked the idea of an apparent economic reason for making one color work as two colors. Sometimes commercial artists use blue lines with yellow or two colors overlapped in a certain way to look like three colors. Using a configuration which has arisen because of economic expediency - I like that. Of course when these things are done in painting it has another meaning because, obviously, they are not expedient. That has its humor, but it also has other aspects in that a form has been developed that is recognizable to the society. I mean that this is a picture of a girl, that is a picture of a light cord and it becomes an easily identifiable thing, but this kind of portrayal is so unreal when compared with the actual object. This is something that interests me, plus the fact that these portrayals are taken for real. I mean in the same way that a frankfurter looks nothing like the cartoon of it there are no black lines, dots, or white highlights on the original. In the picture the form becomes a purely decorative abstract object which everyone instantly recognizes as a frankfurter. It becomes a very exaggerated, a very compelling symbol that has almost nothing to do with the original. It has partly to do with the economics of printing, partly to do with the gross vision of the artist. It is very compelling for reasons that have nothing to do with art.
What about the limited range of color you use?
At the beginning I picked out four contrasting colors that would work together in a certain way. I wanted each one as complete in its own way as it could be - a kind of purplish-blue, a lemon-yellow, a green that was between the red and the blue in value (I don't use it too much because it is an intermediate color), a medium-standard red, and, of course, black and white.
You don't vary these colors?
No, and if they have varied it's because different manufacturers' products are varied. I use color in the same way as line. I want it over-simplified - anything that could be vaguely red becomes red. It is mock insensitivity. Actual color adjustment is achieved through manipulation of size, shape, and juxtaposition.
Which of your images are invented from the start?
The explosions, landscapes, and brush strokes. The heads usually come from one or two photographs.
What led you to do the temples?
A Greek restaurant I went to has a wall with repeatedly stenciled Parthenons. The wall was red with the Parthenons sprayed on through a stencil with silver paint. Because of the obviously "hokey" quality of the silver paint, and the very quick method of reproducing the Parthenons by spraying an image through a stencil, it is like a "Modern Times" duplication of a masterpiece. I tried to do that by making a stencil and spraying through it, but somehow it just didn't have the style of the restaurant mural. I think my stencil was too intricate. Anyway, I'm not very sure what it was but the original had a quality that was perfect in its environment. Later, because I had been working in a cartoon style, 1 decided to do a cartoon of it.
Where did the George Washington image come from?
It is a wood-cut version of one of Gilbert Stuart's portraits of Washington which I saw in a Hungarian national newspaper. I don't read Hungarian so I don't know what it said about Washington.
What about the various common objects you painted, for example, the ball of twine, etc. ?
I think that in these objects, the golf ball, the frankfurter, and so on, there is an anti-Cubist composition. You pick an object and put it on a blank ground. I was interested in non-Cubist composition. The idea is contrary to the major direction of art since the early Renaissance which has more and more symbolized the integration of "figure with ground."
What led you to the landscapes which, incidentally, seem to be very optical?
Well, partly it was a play on Optical Art. But optical materials might be used in commercial art, or in display, you use an optical material to make a sky, because the sky has no actual position - it's best represented by optical effects.
And the sunsets?
Well, there is something humorous about doing a sunset in a solidified way, especially the rays, because a sunset has little or no specific form. It is like the explosions. It's true that they may have some kind of form at any particular moment, but they are never really perceived as defined shape. Cartoonists have developed explosions into specific forms. That's why I also like to do them in three dimensions and in enamels on steel. It makes something ephemeral completely concrete.
Where did you get the image for the engagement ring?
It was actually a box in a comic book. It looked like an explosion.
Did you find or invent the brush stroke image?
Although I had played with the idea before, it started with a comic book image of a mad artist crossing out, with a large brush stroke "X," the face of a fiend who was haunting him. I did a painting of this. The painting included the brush stroke "X," the brush, and the artist's hand. Then I went on to do paintings of brush strokes alone. I was very interested in characterizing or caricaturing a brush stroke. The very nature of a brush stroke is anathema to outlining and filling in as used in cartoons. So I developed a form for it which is what I am trying to do in the explosions, airplanes, and people - that is, to get a standardized thing - a stamp or image. The brush stroke was particularly difficult. I got the idea very early because of the Mondrian and Picasso paintings which inevitably led to the idea of a de Kooning. The brush strokes obviously refer to Abstract Expressionism.
You have never been particularly interested in a sequence of images as in the comics?
No, although I have done a few linked-panel cartoons. There was one five-panel series that got broken up. I thought of it as two diptychs and a single painting in the middle linking them up. It was a five-panel sequence, but a sort of mysterious sequence as though you had walked into the middle of a soap opera. Although you couldn't really figure out what was going on, the story had a cohesiveness.
What gave you the idea of using war imagery?
At that time I was interested in anything I could use as a subject that was emotionally strong. Usually love, war, or something that was highly charged and emotional subject matter. Also, I wanted the subject matter to be opposite to the removed and deliberate painting techniques. Cartooning itself usually consists of very highly charged subject matter carried out in standard, obvious and removed techniques.
Why did you particularly choose a diagram from Erle Loran's book on Cézanne as a basis for a painting?
The Cézanne is such a complex painting. Taking an outline and calling it Madame Cézanne is in itself humorous, particularly the idea of diagramming a Cézanne when Cézanne said, ". . . the outline escaped me." There is nothing wrong with making outlines of paintings. I wasn't trying to berate Erle Loran because when you talk about paintings you have to do something, but it is such an oversimplification trying to explain a painting by A, B, C and arrows and so forth. I am equally guilty of this. The Man With Arms Folded is still recognizable as a Cézanne in spite of the fact it is a complete oversimplification. Cartoons are really meant for communication. You can use the same forms, almost, for a work of art.
How do you relate to the Picasso paintings?
They were intriguing to do for some reason which I think I can talk about to some extent. First of all, a Picasso has become a kind of popular object - one has the feeling there should be a reproduction of Picasso in every home.
You mean he is a popular hero and everyone thinks he represents art today?
Yes. I think Picasso the best artist of this century, but it is interesting to do an oversimplified Picasso - to misconstrue the meaning of his shapes and still produce art. Cézanne's work is really diametrically opposed to something like a diagram, but Picasso's isn't, nor is Mondrian's. Mondrian used primary colors and Picasso used basic kinds of colors - earth colors - although that's not even true most of the time. But there is a kind of emphasis on outline, and a diagrammatic or schematic rendering which related to my work. It's a kind of "plain-pipe-racks Picasso" I want to do - one that looks misunderstood and yet has its own validity. A lot of it is just plain humor.
How much difference is there in the drawing, placement, etc., between the real Picasso and yours?
Quite a bit. Usually I just simplify the whole thing in color as well as in shape. Anything slightly red becomes red, anything slightly yellow becomes yellow, and the shapes become simplified, although in some paintings Picasso simplified to a greater extent than I often do. I don't think simplification is good or bad - it is just what I want to do just now. Picasso made the Femme D'Algiers from Delacroix's painting and then I did my painting from his.
Why didn't you ever do a Léger?
It's funny, Léger is someone I didn't understand. I used to think he was just doing clichés. Later I understood the sensibility. I realized that he did it for reasons that have to do with industrialization and "hardness." Recently I have been tempted to do a Léger; it's something I may yet do. I like the idea. He really isn't someone I think I am like, yet everyone else thinks I am like him. I can see a superficial relationship, for obviously there is the same kind of simplification and the same kind of industrial overtones and cliches. My work relates to Léger's, but I admire Picasso more than I do Léger.
What about Stuart Davis?
I like his work. He is as good a precursor of Pop art as anyone. He had the gas station idea, but it was linked to a Cubist esthetic - which mine is to a degree, but not as much. Mine is linked to Cubism to the extent that cartooning is. There is a relationship between cartooning and people like Miro and Picasso which may not be understood by the cartoonist, but it definitely is related even in the early Disney. However, I think what led the American cartoonists into their particular style was much more the economics of the printing process than Cubism. It was much cheaper for the artist to color separately by hand. The reason for the heavy outlines, of course, was partially for visibility and partially because the colors didn't separate very well. You could use the outlines to "fudge" over the incorrect color registration.
What about the very marked difference between your early unsophisticated girls and the later sophisticated ones?
Well, I think that may be because I couldn't draw cartoons very well after years of abstract painting.
You didn't get more interested in sophisticated girls and notice hair styles, makeup and so on?
Yes. In the early ones I was looking for a tawdry type of commercialism as found in the yellow pages of the telephone directory. They were a great source of inspiration. Then another archetypical beauty became more interesting to me.
You mean the highly confectioned woman?
Yes, it's another kind of unreality; but the drawings of them by commercial artists seem to be much more skillful.
It relates to the way women present themselves or the way they would like to be?
Yes. Women draw themselves this way - that is what makeup really is. They put their lips on in a certain shape and do their hair to resemble a certain ideal. There is an interaction that is very intriguing. I've always wanted to make up someone as a cartoon. That's what led to my ceramic sculptures of girls. I was going to do this for some fashion magazine. I was going to make up a model with black lines around her lips, dots on her face, and a yellow dyed wig with black lines drawn on it, and so forth. This developed into the ceramic sculpture heads. I was interested in putting two-dimensional symbols on a three-dimensional object.
In many of your paintings, you make various references to past styles or particular painters.
Yes. I often transfer a cartoon style into an art style. For example, the Art Nouveau flames at the nozzle of the machine gun. It is a stylistic way of presenting the lights and darks. In the Drowning Girl the water is not only Art Nouveau, but it can also be seen as Hokusai. I don't do it just because it is another reference. Cartooning itself sometimes resembles other periods in art - perhaps unknowingly.
You mean cartoon artists are not very aware of their stylistic source?
I really don't know. I suppose some are. They do things like the little Hokusai waves in the Drowning Girl. But the original wasn't very clear in this regard - why should it be? I saw it and then pushed it a little further until it was a reference that most people will get. I don't think it is terribly significant, but it is a way of crystallizing the style by exaggeration.
Artforum, May 1967: 34-39, © John Coplans