Alex Isreal Talks to Gary Panter About His Interdisciplinary Practice of Painting, Comic Books, and Designing the Sets of PeeWee’s Playhouse.
FYA loves the uncategorizable, and surely Gary Panter is one of a kind. He is a great example of an artist at home in many different worlds. He moves between art, entertainment and comics with grace and ease. Artist Alex Israel interviewed Panter when he was in L.A. for a talk at the Hammer.
Alex Israel: Ever since Pop Art, interdisciplinary practices have become the norm for many artists. Does this way of working have something to do with feeling contemporary? Do artists need to participate in mass culture?
Gary Panter: How do you find your way around Picasso? Duchamp found his way around Picasso. But, how do you find your way around Duchamp? Well, people haven’t really found their way around Duchamp. When I started making underground comics, or doing light shows, or making music, I considered all of these practices to be a part of my painting. And I still do in a way. Painting, in theory, really informs everything that I do, but I’m really not that theoretical.
Israel: Do you think you’re able to affect a viewer at the same level across the various media you engage with?
Panter: Each medium has different things that they do – strengths and weaknesses. I’m really fascinated by the tiny things that people can do that affect a big change. People read my comics and everyday I receive letters about them from fans all over the world.
Israel: When you set out in search of the moving and inspiring art experience, where do you generally look?
Panter: Everywhere. Duchamp made it so confusing to determine what’s art and what’s not, so you can really find it everywhere, even on the street.
Israel: Looking at the various forms your work has inhabited: the light show, the architectural models, the ephemera and comic books, the work you’ve done for television, and even in the paintings-specifically the ones with the vaporous grounds-there seems to be a consistent theme of immateriality running through your practice.
Panter: I like making objects, the craft of making things, especially in cartooning. But I like how these things go into the world, and go away in a sense, whether they’re ephemeral or not. With the light show especially, it’s a temporary visual interpretation of music, which ends and goes away – but to take the idea even further, the light show is impossible to truly document.
Israel: Where does the desire to create this thing that ‘goes away’ come from?
Panter: My friend Leonard Koren, who used to be the editor of Wet magazine and wrote the book Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers, is an influence – his writing addresses the aesthetics of decay and temporality. Of course I’m also very aware of my mortality, having been raised in a religious environment – that life is short, and it’s only a matter of time before it becomes too painful for me to draw.
Panter: Not directly, but there are elements of the new stage set that come out of my original designs for the show; in all of the current publicity material I am still getting credit for it.
Israel: In looking at the original set for Pee-wee’s Playhouse I can see a strong relationship to your paintings: the way a viewer navigates your collage of imagery in order to construct a kind of fragmented narrative.
Panter: My paintings certainly had a lot of influence on the set. A lot of the set was designed to work with the scripts that had been written, but Paul Reubens asked me to design them because he liked my paintings. I was interested in Pee-wee as a concept because it related to the work I had done in a performance art group that I was a part of in Dallas. The set is more garish and disturbing than my paintings—I think because of the organizational needs of the set. It looks like my work, but it’s orchestrated for a real function, and a lot of other people worked on it.
Israel: So what brings you to L.A.?
Panter: I’m here to lecture in conjunction with the R. Crumb show at the Hammer. Since it’s a cartoon related show, they asked me to talk about whatever I’d like to talk about.
Israel: And what would that be?
Panter: I love his work, but my lecture’s not really going to have much to do with R. Crumb. The lecture will be about 20th century painters that are relevant to 21st century cartoonists. That’s kind of the idea.
Israel: You mean painters that you’ve talked about in previous interviews: Oyvind Fahlstrom, Jim Nutt, Peter Saul?
Panter: Yeah, it’ll definitely be that. A lot of people aren’t so aware of that history.
Israel: I think L.A. might be a little more in tune. What was it that compelled you to move here in the seventies?
Panter: I went to New York first, and it was kind of scary. In the fifties I had lived in Brownsville, Texas, and there were palm trees there; so I figured I’d go to where the palm trees are. I have a story about New York that I’ve told a number of times – I went to the city to visit some friends who were going to The School of Visual Arts and so I thought, ‘Why don’t I look for an apartment, if I can find a cheap apartment maybe I’ll move to New York. I looked through the Village Voice with a friend and we found an ad for a $300 a month place in Greenwich Village. We went to the place and knocked on the door and these two girls answered – they were bald, wearing robes, and tattooed with these blue arabesques – this was ’73. So my friend and I went in and were looking around and we were really impressed – we thought, ‘this place is great for $300 a month’ – but sensing our interest the girls informed us that it was the back room that was actually available for rent. They took us back there and opened the door; there was a cage in the middle of the room, a gorilla in the cage, and shit all over the walls and ceiling and floor. One of the girls said, ‘We don’t think he’s very happy. We’re getting rid of him and we’re going to rent out his room.’
Israel: No joke?
Panter: I’ve asked a million people about this incident, trying to figure out who these women were. Finally I was talking to Robin Cembalest, who’s the editor at ArtNews and she knew about them – confirming that the whole experience wasn’t a hallucination.
Israel: Who were they?
Panter: Just a couple of German girls who’ve lived in New York on and off since the ’70s.
Israel: When you moved to L.A. what were you looking for, besides the palm trees?
Panter: I was a big fan of Ed Ruscha. When I moved here I just knocked on his door on Western Avenue and his brother Paul answered and we all became friends. Ed will actually send me a postcard now and again, I can’t believe it, and I’ll write him back.
If you were in Texas in the early ’60s the surf craze came along and you thought to yourself, ‘Oh geez! I wish I was in California.’ And then later, when the hippie thing came around there were the Southern California bands and the Northern California bands and that was all pretty exciting to me at the time.
Israel: What kind of music, specifically, were you into when you moved to L.A.?
Panter: I was into weird stuff – I was a big Frank Zappa fan and ended up doing three album covers for Zappa that were unauthorized, which I didn’t realize at the time. So there were a lot of things that brought me here.
Israel: When did you see the emergence of punk, and begin to work within that culture?
Panter: My style, as an artist, up until the early ’70s was characterized by this kind of zigzagging crummy look, and I couldn’t find a place for it even though it had really affected some of my teachers’ work and the work of some of my peers. Everything at that time, in the early ’70s, was getting slicker and slicker and my stuff wasn’t slick.
When I moved to L.A. in 1977 I used to eat at Gower Gulch (a strip mall in Hollywood) at a restaurant called The Copper Kettle. I’d go to the newsstand across the street. One day I came across Slash magazine and I thought ‘Wow! My stuff will fit right into this, whatever it is!’ It was kind of scary looking but then I asked a friend of mine, ‘Who are these people that are doing this magazine, are they scary?’ and he said ‘No, they’re all artists,’ and so then I went and met them: Claude Bessy and Steve Samioff, the founders. They gave me a half page at first, and then they gave me a full page. And the scene emerged. The first thing we saw were flyers for bands called The Dogs and The Motels – pre-punk things.
Israel: So on the one hand you were becoming invested in this punk scene – but on the other hand, I think in 1978, you had a show at the Beverly Hills Fiorucci shop, which couldn’t be more opposite in a way.
Panter: But Fiorucci was punk in a way: it was funky and weird. I was looking for stuff to do, and I thought it would be interesting to have a show in the window of a store. So I went to Fiorucci and I spoke to the director, Carolyn Zecca.
Israel: Do you remember what you showed?
Panter: I showed paintings on paper, and then I made these tinker-toy magazine racks to show my comic books. Ed Ruscha’s books were the first things I saw that made me want to do publications. I had seen them at the Dallas Museum in the ’60s.
Israel: It’s interesting to think about your occupying these two different worlds simultaneously: the punk scene via Slash magazine, and then Fiorucci in Beverly Hills. This oppositional tension is something that seems to be a recurring theme in your work: whether you’re participating in a commercial arena to an expanded audience, or making paintings to show in galleries.
Panter: Growing up in the Church of Christ, there was always this lingering question: ‘Are you with us or are you against us?’ I realized that I didn’t have to make these kinds of choices moving forward in my life. I could pursue anything I was interested in. It’s a little bit Zen—what comes between and embraces the binary. As far as my work as a commercial artist—it was all I could do to survive. My thinking was that I might be able to put images into media, rather than just cull images out of media, and that ultimately I could make a kind of Pop Art using my own commercial media as source material. But the content I generated commercially didn’t work in my paintings. I ended up having to categorize my practice: paintings, comics and commissioned work would all become separate realms. I realized that solving other people’s problems wasn’t part of my personal expression.
Israel: Looking back at your work you seem to have always inhabited each moment as it has evolved aesthetically through time. From psychedelia to punk to postmodernism and Memphis design to grunge to neo-pop. What are your thoughts about this current moment?
Panter: It’s like those little white things in Avatar. Everything’s so connected now—connected, connected, connected!
Directed by Jesse Stagg and Alex Czetwertynski
A three-time Emmy Award-winner for his production design on Pee-wee’s Playhouse and the recipient of the 2000 Chrysler Award for Design Excellence, artist Gary Panter has drawn inspiration from diverse vernacular and traditional art arenas over the course of the past four decades. Closely associated with the underground comics and music scenes on both coasts, he is responsible for designing the Screamers iconic 1970s poster, many record covers for Frank Zappa, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Residents and the ongoing comic character Jimbo. Most recently Panter has performed psychedelic light shows at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. and at New York’s Anthology Film Archives. He was a featured artist in the major 2006-2007 touring exhibition, Masters of American ComicsGary Panter, published in 2008. Gary lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
Gary Panter, 2008. Published by PictureBox
by Alex Israel
Also see Are Comic Books Dead?