PRINT January 1964

An Interview with Robert Mallary

Q: I DON’T THINK many people are familiar with your work prior to the well-known corrugated carton series. Can you tell us something about what interested you and the kind of work you were doing prior to your connection with the neo-Dada movement?

Mallary: I have always had a secondary interest in sculpture but my current primary interest is the result of a stage-by-stage evolution over the last ten years from painting, through relief painting, works combining painting and relief, relief sculpture, wall sculpture to sculpture in the round. Prior to coming to New York in 1959 I lived for four years in New Mexico and reacted strongly to the place. The sandy and stone-like surfaces of my paintings and relief panels were influenced by the topography of the area. Almost every year I went through a different phase, and to make sense of it all I would have to show you and discuss a sequence of photos of this work.

Q: What are you trying to do in your work? How do you distinguish yourself from other artists?

Mallary: The answer will have to be brief and therefore inadequate. To summarize or categorize anything in art is to distort and disparage it, at least to some degree. But I will make the attempt.

My present use of discarded, or “junk,” materials (mainly clothing) gives me some kind of continuing connection with neo-Dada art. My use of the figure and human gesture may give me a distant connection with the “new figure” (if this has any meaning outside of painting) but my ties with the “new image of man” (tagged by Lawrence Alloway in a recent issue of Artforum as the “monster” school) are certainly more pertinent. The references to slapstick in the “Cliffhanger” group I am currently doing for the New York World’s Fair may have faint “pop” overtones, though its expressionism is a far cry from the cool blandness of Pop Art.

You could rightly infer from this that I like to draw upon what is at hand and identify myself to some degree with the “scene,” but at the same time I like to stand somewhat apart and use what I appropriate in my own way. I do not want to be an organization man. My current probe into bronze casting is an effort to strengthen my connections with tradition without losing too much of what may still be avant-garde in my work. I seek the strongest, and even the most improbable, dichotomies—the “resolution of opposites”—and feel that now is the strategic moment to emphasize whatever connections my approach may have with older traditions. In part this is a negative reaction to the Pop Art eruption. For a more comprehensive presentation of what I think my work is about I refer your readers to my recent self-interview in the magazine Location.

Q: Emphasizing your connection with tradition as a negative reaction to Pop Art? Isn’t there something stuffy about this? Do you mean to imply by this that what is weak about Pop Art is its failure to connect with a tradition?

Mallary: Pop Art connects with a tradition—in fact, several of them—even if remotely. It connects with an anti-aristocratic, anti-“high” culture tradition in Western art even as it simultaneously links up with another tradition of aristocratic, aloof estheticism. As regards the former, it relates to genre painting, to the use of vulgar or everyday subject matter in art, to a democratic and even realist tradition. I am thinking, for example, of Dutch realist painting or the turn-of-the-century ashcan school in the United States. It also has more immediate links with the “tradition of the new,” for example, to the Duchamp urinal. Neo-Dada art shares these same links. One of my objections to Pop Art is not that it fails to link with traditions but what it does, or fails to do, with this inheritance. As for being stuffy—I don’t mind seeming a little stuffy. I don’t believe in avant-gardism as an end in itself. It just happens that up to now avant-garde art has been the significant art of a revolutionary century. The ever-accelerating pace of change may slow down a bit; I believe it will have to. We simply cannot adjust to such rapid change. This will have repercussions in art. Maybe this is a “stuffy” point of view.

Q: Apparently you do not think much of Pop Art.

Mallary: As I previously suggested Pop Art has multiple roots as well as being something quite novel, but its immediate precursor is neo-Dada; in fact, my own affiliation with neo-Dada, or assemblage, gives me a sense of remote complicity. The Pop artist makes use of ready-made images derived from commercial art while the neo-Dada artist makes use of found objects from, say, the junk pile. That the found objects (images) of Pop Art are not use objects (or discarded and dilapidated use objects) but are a special kind of art (images derived from mass culture art) makes for a queer stew which is hard for many people to swallow, particularly considering the long-standing hostility of most intellectuals and art lovers to almost all of the efflorescences of mass commercial culture. The Pop artist also seems to want to narrow, or even close, the gap between art and life in the spirit of the “happenings,” and, like Jasper Johns, to examine afresh the meaning and potential of signs and symbols in painting. Beyond the strain of democratic, popular realism I have already mentioned there is even a taint of American chauvinism and sentimentalism. Pop Art has yet other connections with various issues which have persistently intrigued artists in recent years. But it has also challenged so much that has been taken for granted even within the avant-garde—assumptions about originality, expression, commitment, plastic transformation, subject matter, etc.) that it has miraculously managed to provoke once again a question that many of us thought had been asked (in an intelligent way, that is) for the last time—is it art? And yet, if it is not art, what is it? I am still coming to terms with Pop Art, both intellectually and emotionally, but tentatively, at least, I am of the opinion that, because of the limitations of its raw materials (i.e. its sources of imagery) and the reluctance of the more simon-pure Pop artists to exercise in any great degree their prerogative to transform these materials, to develop and combine them in interesting ways, it is already something of a bore. Once the dust has settled and you grasp the idea of it there seems very little reason to visit galleries and museums in order to see more. Pop Art is too much involved on the one hand with various of the more convoluted and inbred esthetic issues of the current “scene” (which incidentally makes it an extremely popular subject for art writers) and on the other with references to transitory psychological and sociological aspects of American life to have much classical, or enduring, potential. Yet, it will reverberate throughout the world because conditions of modern life in which America has pioneered will be repeated over the whole globe. But finally the boredom too will be universal.

But what has truly appalled so many artists, including myself, has been the noisy razzmattaz—the Madison Avenue style, show-biz promotion of Pop Art in a smoothly coordinated operation involving museum personnel, collectors, dealers, art writers and editors of mass circulation magazines. The abstract expressionists fashioned their movement largely themselves, perhaps with some help from a few sympathetic poets and critics—the same can be said of all the important movements of the last seventy or eighty years. Resistance had to be overcome in order to gain recognition and acceptance. In retrospect we can see that these struggles, while they worked an economic hardship on the artists, were mainly for the best—it was the more healthy way in the long run. While I would not go so far as to say that these museum people et al have manufactured Pop Art out of whole cloth, tailoring it to their own conceptions of the course which modern art should take, they have so precipitously and totally gotten into the act as to arouse suspicion that the movement may be ersatz. In fact, it is more authentic than the razzmattaz has allowed it to appear to be.

Q: Your remark about further elaboration of Pop Art imagery being a bore after the idea of it is grasped seems strange when thought of in connection with the continued elaboration of a single image or gesture that we associate with Rothko or Kline or Guston or Tworkov.

Mallary: In my self-interview in Location I wrote something to the effect: “formal values—finally they are everything.” What I meant is this: formal values infuse the work with its ultimate classical durability in terms of art history; they are what we grasp in the art of other times and places while the “content” (historically for the most part religious, magic or mythic) can only be dimly understood by us. But formal values and qualities cannot be sought or arrived at directly as a kind of technical problem or in a spirit of scientific, abstract analysis a la Clive Bell or in the dry manner these are presented in art schools and universities. They are achieved only through the intensity generated by an authentic feeling (i.e. “content”). Formal values imply creative elaboration and transformation and these can undergo endless permutations despite the constancy of the “image” (as in Rothko, Kline, Guston and Tworkov) or the constancy of the “sound” (as in Johann Sebastian Bach). I consider the Pop artists par excellence to be Warhol and Lichtenstein—these are the pristine pure specimens. And they do the least in the way of formal transformation and elaboration, although Warhol varies his approach and I like some of his things—or more exactly, somewhat like some of his things. On the other hand, I think the talk of transformation and “subtle and meaningful alterations” in relation to the Lichtenstein comics is sheer baloney. He alters scale and medium, he selects and isolates the found image, and he removes it from its normal context and presents it in a gallery or museum; this is enough to make it art (which, after all, it was in the first place—comic strip art), but not art of a high order or of lasting interest. Other Pop artists are more interesting to the extent that they are less pure; for example, Dine and Rosenquist.

Q: When the razzmattaz dies down, and the wheat is finally separated from the chaff, do you think Pop Art will leave anything behind it which will be of value to the artists of the future?

Mallary: Pop Art has already made an impact and therefore will influence the future. Its dilutions and modifications may prove to be more enduring than its “pure” manifestations—this is to say, by providing an element, ingredient, or “catalytic factor” in composite styles which also draw upon other resources in the “tradition of the new.” I believe I may have already witnessed intimations of this in some work by graduate students at U.C. Davis (though it may be, unfortunately, that I am seeing this more clearly than these students themselves). It could serve to encourage frank sentiment and “genre” in painting. Painters might begin to “copy” even the slick magazine illustrators; this would be interesting because these same illustrators (whose skill, if nothing else, I continue to admire) are busy assimilating the dynamic brushwork of abstract expressionism. I have already admitted there is a “pop” element in my own sculpture—I mean the references to the old slapstick movies, vaudeville and the like and the use of parody and self-parody for its multiple ambiguities.

Q: It is always interesting to know which artists of the past era are most interesting to a contemporary artist.

Mallary: I am not a name dropper. My taste is catholic and I admire perfection in art whenever it is to be found. My relation to the art of the past is more that of a consumer, or connoisseur, rather than a producer, or creator. I prefer to encounter a master of the past on his terms rather than mine. What I would emulate is the standard set by the masters—all of them. I concede that the expressionism of Gruenwald is closer to what I am about than, say, the formal classicism of Piero della Francesca—but I admire them equally. I can’t find any tricks or devices in Gruenwald, or, for that matter, even in Baroque sculpture—that I can use in any conscious or strategic way. But the standard of performance is always there. As a producer, or creator, of art I am more responsive to and influenced by the current scene, or by the immediate past.

Q: What are you going to do on returning to New York?

A: My “Cliffhanger” group for the Fair is perhaps ninety percent completed, and so I must finish it and see it through the ordeal of installation. I want to clean up the bronze castings I have made here, see what I have, and decide where to go from there. I have to return to Pratt Institute, from which I have a leave of absence, and pick up my classes there.

Much of the original material in this interview was taken by Miss Natalie Robb for the University of California Davis Campus publication, “Motley.” Mr. Mallary has kindly provided his views on additional questions for Artforum.