with Alex Bacon
LÉVY GORVY | FEBRUARY 28 – APRIL 14, 2018
On the occasion of Martial Raysse’s exhibition of recent work at Lévy Gorvy, Alex Bacon sat down with the artist to discuss his nearly six decades long career as an artistic pioneer, innovator, and iconoclast. Their wide-ranging conversation touches on issues including Raysse’s relationship to the Nouveau Realistes, his political activism, and his novel take on classical art and traditional techniques.
Martial Raysse: Do you have the lecture I gave at the Centre Pompidou? What I said at this time, about 20 or 25 years ago, is that I did not change ideals. Because I do not trust at all modern or so-called “contemporary art.”
Alex Bacon (Rail): So you are an artist making work in the present, but you are not a contemporary artist?
Raysse: I am contemporary because I live in a certain time—now. But I do not attach myself to this kind of thing because in my own practice as a painter the more I learn about the practice of painting, the more I find of interest in the Old Masters than in the Abstract Expressionists. It became too easy for me to only make this kind of painting, so I try to be better, to go into difficulty.
Rail: Was that always true?
Raysse: When I was young I was absolutely in the avant-garde of contemporary art. In the 1960s, in 1959 even, I made works of art engaged with popular culture two or three years before the American Pop artists. Then in 1964 I made a painting about Ingres, which I called Made in Japan. It was very subversive in the context of Pop Art to make a work with a reproduction of an Ingres painting. At this time I understood that I was using the techniques of poster-making, like other Pop Artists, and yet there was a superior technique, which was the painting technique demonstrated by Ingres, so I realized that I had to learn. I went to the museum, I spent twenty years learning, and I’m still learning, but now I am finally making progress.
Rail: You’re not formally educated as a painter, correct?
Raysse: I was a poet before—though I always drew at the same time that I wrote. Eventually I understood that there is no translating of poetry, so I decided to become a painter. Because if I write “apple” in French, a Japanese person does not understand me, but if I draw an apple, then he understands. That’s why painting is a marvelous tool for communication.
Rail: So you were always drawing from a young age?
Raysse: Yes, Yes, always. I also made some little sculptures because my parents worked in ceramics in Vallauris. I always used to take clay and mold it.
Rail: You did not start painting until 1961. At that point you had already been associated with the Nouveau Réalistes for a few years—Yves Klein and Arman, among others. You were the youngest, but the three of you were all from the South of France. How did you all meet?
Raysse: I probably met Arman in the bar where all the artists went. He was a friend of Yves Klein, and with the critic Pierre Restany. Arman came to my studio and I went to his. Restany came to my studio and he was very impressed because I was doing things that were not done elsewhere, and after that Yves Klein came, and Yves had just started to work with Virginia Dwan, who had the Dwan Gallery. He brought Virginia to my house, and that’s where it started. After that I was in the show Dylaby at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm with my Raysse Beach, and Alexander Iolas, who had a great gallery in New York, came to the museum to look at it and then he said we were going to do it in New York. That’s how I came to have a dealer in Los Angeles, and one in New York. At this time, I started spending all the winters in the United States, sometimes in New York, but most of the time I was in Los Angeles.
Rail: When you met Arman and Klein, you were making sculpture, correct?
Raysse: Yes, I was working with supermarket stuff.
Rail: What attracted you to that kind of material?
Raysse: To start I will explain why I was the first to use neon, even before American artists. Americans were born with neon everywhere, but in Nice, when I was young, it was just neon on the cinema, one or two pieces of neon in all of Nice. So they looked like icons, and the American artists weren’t interested in it because it was too common there. The same with the supermarket. When I arrived in Nice there was a new supermarket there. You need to understand that before the war, for ten or fifteen years, the people were very poor in the south of France. Everything was old fashioned. To browse the aisles of the supermarket, it was marvelous, at the same time the staff at the supermarket looked at us like “what fools!” [Laughter.] Maybe this situation, this political situation, gave me a kind of advantage because I looked at things that in America were too common to look at. At the same time I was also always a progressive spirit because I came from the Résistance and later I became friends with the artists. But at this time I also found them a little conservative. They were modern in their work but in their minds they were conservative. I was always in the modernist spirit, that’s why I was far more modern than the other Nouveau Réalistes, who liked the patina of age, who liked old-fashioned stuff, shabby posters, everything all scratched up. That was not my idea of art, which at the time was of clean, newly made objects.
Rail: Right, while Arman was presenting the trashcan, you were presenting the supermarket.
Raysse: That came from Arman’s affiliation with a certain aspect of painting in France during the post-war—like Bernard Buffet. That spirit was in the work of the Nouveau Réalistes as well. But my work was really engaged with what at that time was modern and new.
Rail: So what led you to take up painting in 1961? Because up until then, as you have been describing, you had been making readymade sculptural works.
Raysse: In 1961 I made, as my contribution to that year’s Biennale de Paris, something that I called a “display.” It was like a portion of a supermarket with all the stuff that you would find there, and it included a photograph of a young woman, with a plastic body, a hat, and this and that. When I saw this I started to make a little painting of the girl in the hat, and that was my first portrait. But at this time, as I was very young, I was still impressed by the New Realists, it was still interesting to me to be in this context. But when we had the show in 1962 at Sidney Janis—the New Realists show—they forbid me to show this little portrait. They fought with me because they thought that I had touched the object too much, and they were fanatics about Marcel Duchamp’s “readymade.” So they forbid me to show this portrait. When I arrived at the show, maybe one hour before it opened, suddenly Andy Warhol’s accumulation of Marilyn Monroes showed up. The paint was still wet, it was extraordinary. It’s too bad that I have no documentation, because that was the first time I saw a Warhol, and for a long time everybody thought I was a follower of Warhol, which is not the case. We arrived at this way of working at around the same time, and unaware of one another.
Rail: Right, because you actually started these paintings before seeing his.
Raysse: Two years before, you can see that.
Rail: Of course your work is also different because you have the collaged photo element, rather than using a silkscreen of a photograph, as Warhol did.
Raysse: And my color has the color of “today.”
Rail: Yes, you were using the garish colors of that period’s photomechanical reproduction techniques, which sets you aside from the still rather painterly colors of Warhol, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, etc. Also, at that point you were composing with found materials, rather than painting in the traditional sense. But then obviously there’s however many years until we come to the present exhibition, and in that time you have become quite skilled at painting in a more traditional sense.
Raysse: By going to the museum. I have spent my life to going to museums to learn from the masters, and people think naïvely that they know painting. For instance, people in the 1970s said “Martial Raysse returned to painting,” but I did not return because I didn’t know about painting before this. And in reality nobody returns to painting. For instance, if you think about Raphael’s historical time, it’s far behind us, but the spirit of his work is far ahead of us, so it’s very important to understand that the spirit of art has no age. The historian of art gives meaning to dates, but when you are with a painting it has no age. It’s just a painting. And there is no painter, there is no history of art, there is just painting.
Rail: So when you see an El Greco painting…
Raysse: You forget everything… you don’t care if it is from 300 years ago, or from two minutes ago, it’s just a painting. Its intelligence is conserved, like energy in a battery. You can plug into it. When you see a painting you plug into a long history, the intelligence is put by the artist into the painting forever. So everybody can plug into it. There are several aspects: first, the emotional, and second, the story that the painting tells. Most parts of painting today are just supposed to be decorative: they do nothing at all. For instance they say sometimes a painting is like the sky, the infinity of universe, it’s like yoga, etc. But it’s just talking. The universe is far different from that. That is actually a painting about nothing, that’s why they have 200 meters of discourse under the painting or in the pages of the catalogue.
Rail: But did you feel this way, even in the ‘60s? Because it seems that it took you a long time to come to a kind of painting that we might think of in this classical sense?
Raysse: In the ‘60s I understood that Pop Art was not the real answer to art for me, but that I have lots of tools with which to make my ideas.
Rail: What made you want to live in the United States? Because you lived here for, what, five or so years?
Raysse: I could not make a living with my paintings in Nice. It’s weird that artists like Yves Klein were in Nice, because there was nothing, it was just naïf painting, it was a desert. So I came to the States because I have to eat.
Rail: Did you enjoy living here?
Raysse: I love the States very much because it embodied modern ideas that I have about the future, and I love Los Angeles because it’s a bigger Nice. It has the same palm trees, the sea, the beach, etc. And the people are nice.
Rail: Were you friendly with other artists?
Raysse: Yes. Ed Ruscha, Dennis Hopper, Edward Kienholz, I was very friendly with a lot of them—because we went to the same parties, the same openings.
Rail: But then you moved back to France in 1968 because of the political situation.
Raysse: It was a revolution. I could not stay here when there was a revolution in France.
Rail: What did you do when you arrived back in Paris during May ‘68?
Raysse: I went to the École des Beaux-Arts to make political posters. But at this time I was already far away, not only from Pop Art, because I made all this work with plexiglas, which was a means for me to get out of my own image, my own discourse. At this time I was also very disappointed by the commercial situation, I was disappointed at the Biennale of Venice in 1966 because they gave the prize to a very shabby painter, and from this time I said “I quit.”
Rail: So by the end of the ‘60s you had removed yourself from the art world.
Raysse: In ‘69 I made a movie, and in ‘71 I was out.
Rail: And you moved out of Paris?
Raysse: Yes, I moved to the countryside.
Rail: So you began making art in the late 1950s, very much embracing and excited about the new commercial culture, but it sounds like by the end of the 1960s, you had rejected that same culture.
Raysse: Yes, but at the same time, it’s not exactly that. I saw that I don’t need to get in fights with people. I thought, “maybe there is another way,” so I went out to the country. At this time we were hippies. We made some films, and after a certain time, I started making artworks with my hands again. It was very impressive for me at this time, that all the time I was considered part of Pop Art I was quite successful, but when people spoke about my paintings, they didn’t say what they really think. But in this little group, when I made things they had reactions—human reactions—and from that time, I understood that art should act physically, spiritually, on the people who look at it. That’s why I make paintings that tell stories, that is why I make history paintings.
Rail: It seems even early on you were engaging with art history, which for you operated like a template or matrix, because you would appropriate reproductions of certain historical artworks, and then you would render them in the unnatural, acidic coloration of cheap photomechanical copies, like color Xerox, and other similar technologies, which were new at the time.
Raysse: You know, at that time I was not in possession of all the tools of painting, I used to render perspective incorrectly, for example, now the real problem, which is fantastic, with the paintings, is to use the least number of tools possible, you explore what is possible with just this pencil. If I was really a fantastic artist, I could change the world with just a pencil, and that’s why painting is great. Working with hands and the spirit is very important, especially now that everything is becoming mechanical.
Rail: There’s a Matissian element in some of your work, in the color.
Raysse: Yes, sometimes I make pastiche of Matisse. All this explains how I arrive at what I do now. In terms of color, I have always been, and am still, impressed by Warhol’s color. It is strident, a little acidic, like vinegar, which is quite impressive. But, there is an important distinction between Marilyn Monroe and the Mona Lisa: the difference between idol and icon. Da Vinci was commissioned to paint Madame Jaconda. He starts the painting and suddenly by chance—in the great paintings there is always a happy moment, a happy stroke of the brush [un coup de pinceaux heureux]. Suddenly you do something and the miracle appears. He understands this and ends up with a painting of Wisdom, and later Raphael does a portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, and this becomes an image of Wisdom as well. So la Joconde goes back to a universal archetype. Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, on the other hand, she’s an idol, and I have always tried to make icons, not idols.
Rail: To make a portrait of someone who has a striking appearance, but is not known by the masses, like a celebrity is…
Raysse: If I paint you, you will look like you, but I will try to make you into a universal archetype, timeless.
Rail: It does seem that one of the most continuous things in all your work—and it’s still present in this recent work—is the color palette, which I would say is the most contemporary aspect of your work. I’ve read people compare the color to that of Xerox, of advertising. But I read that you consider your color to come from the color of Nice, of the south of France. Do you feel that the color in your work has anything to do with advertising and technology, with commercial culture?
Raysse: At that time, sure. But now, no.
Rail: [Laughs]. But it does seem interesting, for example, here we have a painting from 1964 with a green figure, and then, in the current show there is a recent painting, also with a green figure.
Raysse: I cannot change myself, you know? The sense of color is in me, and of course it is always the same, but what is interesting is the way it changes over time.
Rail: The figures in the recent paintings are mostly people you know. Does it help to have that intimacy with your subjects?
Raysse: This is a question of focus. When you are focused, you look at people, you look at the possibilities offered to you to make a painting and certain desires give you to travel to another world, another situation, some people I look at them and I think “Ah, I would like to do something with this.”
Rail: Who are these people?
Raysse: Who are they? They’re friends, but it’s funny because through my work I give them immortality.
Rail: Do you still work from photographs?
Raysse: Not at all. Though sometimes I take a photograph to be sure I’m not wrong. But in fact I always draw. Before painting there are always a lot of preparatory drawings
Rail: I’m curious because the portraits are more ambiguous, but there’s a painting downstairs, which I feel is on the level of a history painting, as you were discussing before, and it has a very dark theme. The floor is crumbling away and there’s this woman who seems totally disconnected from the men who surround her, but are not interacting with her in any way.
Raysse: Yes, that is about our contemporary situation. The sun is coming up, Matisse’s sort of eternal sun, but it is off. Everything goes wrong and is falling apart. It was always like that but now it gets worse, people aren’t aware of what’s going on around them.
Rail: It must be nice where you live in the countryside. In a way, you have removed yourself from being politically active, at least in a direct way, as you were during in May ‘68. What was your reaction when you saw the failure of the political situation then?
Raysse: In 1968 I was engaged but I understood that you cannot change people, you can’t change their minds. After a while I understood that all revolutionaries just want to take the place of those in power, that’s all. That disappointed me too. I vote on the left, but I don’t trust politicians anymore.
Rail: Is painting political for you?
Raysse: Absolutely, because you know what is very important? The most important revolutionary act is to do something well. Because the powers that be try to make sure people are not very clever, so that they can use them however they like. They teach you just enough so that you can be at this post, and then maybe you can go up one notch, but you can never go up several. Meanwhile, they just tell you what they want you to hear.
Rail: Do you feel that today there is a renewed public interest in your work? Do you think that your work is tapping in or connecting with something people want to see, is that why in the last fifteen years it has been rediscovered and reconsidered by a younger generation?
Raysse: I think that in these difficult times, more and more we cannot fake people out. For me, I want young painters to see my work and understand that there is an alternative, that there is something else to do.
Rail: More recently, androgynous figures have appeared in your work.
Raysse: Yes, a lot of people have told me that. But it’s just because I met a girl and two boys who have this androgyne look.
Rail: So it wasn’t a conscious? And for you, the androgyne can still be an archetype?
Raysse: Oh yes. One without social context or politics, because beauty is beauty.
Rail: What about the clothing? Is this the clothing that these people wear in everyday life? Or is it part of your fantasy of them as a certain archetype?
Raysse: The clothing is intended to be timeless, so that the painting is not too anecdotal. The most difficult thing in painting is to make sure your painting is not too tied to the moment it was painted. For instance, at the end of the Nineteenth Century, there were all these paintings of doctors surrounded by the medical tools of their day, which now look very old fashioned. That’s why Poussin painted his figures in togas. So, in my work I try to make the costume not too significant. I want to make a painting that wouldn’t shame Poussin if he came back.
Rail: I understand titles are quite important to you. I think you’ve even said that you have a fear of paintings being untitled.
Raysse: Because that’s the story, you know and, as I am before all a poet, it is always quite poetic. All through history a title gives the viewer a step with which to enter the painting, and they serve this purpose, even if the title seems esoteric. Because at the same time, a painting, like a poem, should not give away all the keys to understanding the work. You have to discover the keys yourself, because if you don’t make the effort and the work gives you the key already, then you learn nothing. You should understand that there is a complex of archetypes that you have to discover to think about, which enriches you. So the title is just something to provoke you to understanding.
Rail: Have you ever taught?
Raysse: Yes. In ‘68, I was kicked out of the Iolas gallery because of my political views. The right wing people in Greece said to Alexander Iolas, we promise that we will make a museum for you. He had no idea of politics. So I quit. I didn’t want to show with him, even though it meant that I was very poor. I had to sell hashish for more than one year. [Laughter]. At this time I saw that at the École des Beaux Arts the student can choose the teacher. So I became a teacher at the night school there. But I was not paid much and it was too expensive in Paris, so I went to the country and bought cows.
Rail: So you were a farmer?
Raysse: Quite the farmer.
Raysse: No, no. I’m too old to take care of cattle. But ten years ago, I still had one cow, just for fun. [Laughter].
Rail: I read that you practice meditation? Every day?
Raysse: You should understand that behind all this work, there is a lot of constant and precise work on myself. It’s been about thirty five years that I’ve practiced meditation. It’s the only thing I am really proud of. For some thirty years I meditate each morning around four o’clock in the morning.
Rail: Wow, that is dedication.
Raysse: Each morning. And you know, it’s part of painting because in painting the main problem is to focus. You can’t really concentrate if you don’t work on yourself and practice how to concentrate.
Rail: Some of your titles are descriptive, while others are more abstract.
Raysse: It’s not systematic. It depends on my focus right now, one morning you look at your girl, she looks like that, then another morning she is different.
Rail: So, Comme C’est Triste la Tristesse, is that an allegory of sadness?
Raysse: Yes, it was a young lady who was crying, and it seemed to be all the sadness of the world. The same as in Africa, or Syria, or next door.
Rail: When you happen upon something inspiring like that do you reach for your sketchbook, or do you take a photograph to remember what you saw, or what?
Raysse: I sketch. We get so used to photography, but nobody looks like their photograph, it’s just an idea of what they look like.
Rail: Do you travel a lot to see paintings?
Raysse: My wife is also a painter, a very good painter, and we have no holidays. Our holiday is to go to Prague, to go to Dresden, to go to Florence, and we go to see the museums. While we are here we spend our time at the Met. Tomorrow, I will go to the Met again. The more painting I see the more I learn, and the more I understand how they do it.
Rail: In most professions people retire, but many artists never retire. They’re on their deathbed painting the next painting.
Raysse: Because it’s such a pleasure to paint. Just like it’s a pleasure to write and it’s a pleasure to look at paintings. I always say that I stay working for future generations. They deserve to have good information about art, because most of the time they receive fake news.
ALEX BACON is a critic, curator, scholar based in New York. Most recently, with Harrison Tenzer, he curated Correspondences: Ad Reinhardt at 100.