PRINT October 1984


DAVID McDERMOTT AND PETER McGOUGH are painters who work together. They have been painting in the past for some time and living in the past even longer. Recently they had their first one-team show at the new North Store Gallery in New York. It was a very unusual show entitled “Genuine Meiji Oil Paintings.” All of the paintings were signed 1884. McDermott and McGough look circa 1920. McDermott was living in the early ’30s when I met him ten years ago. He found it preferable to the present in every aspect.

Recently, with the boom in paintings that are pictures, McDermott and McGough took up painting pictures as a business. They didn’t have a studio, but the church they attend, the oldest congregation in New York City, had a beautiful large room on the third floor of the church house. At first they had to share it with a karate class and an aerobic dance class, but now they have it all to themselves. As you climb the stairway to this room you find it lined with their small canvases—some are scenes of Old New Amsterdam, copied from antique Dutch tiles; one is of the first edifice of their church, a Dutch Protestant church once attended by young Willem de Kooning. Other canvases, untrimmed in the McGough-McDermott style, carry religious or moral slogans in English and Dutch, such as “Love thy brother” and “Forgive us our debts, deliver us from evil.”

Their atelier is bright, with large windows on two sides. This summer one wall was occupied by a huge stretcher 22 feet long and about 10 high. At one end of the room was a huge cross of the size used for executions, if not larger, hung from the ceiling, at about a 45-degree angle to the floor. The stretcher is intended for an epic painting—Christ crucified as a teenager. It is McDermott’s contention that the age of Christ at the time of his Passion is not firmly established by scriptures. He will be painted as 16. According to McDermott the film star Matt Dillon has agreed to pose as Christ on the studio cross. “Christ will be circumcised,” says McDermott, “and the two 16-year-old criminals will be uncircumcised.” Before this painting is given a permanent home McDermott and McGough plan to tour the United States with it:

Omaha, St. Louis, Denver, Chicago, and you’ll pay five dollars to see it. We have a theory that Christ was between 14 and 16, and all the disciples likewise. We’ve gone through a lot of the stories—like Christ finding the disciples and saying “Come with me and I’ll teach you to fish for men.” And Pilate saying. “What has this boy done that he deserves to die?”. Who could care less about a 33-year-old weirdo? Christ is always shown with a beard because of the Jewish law that you’re not supposed to shave or have tattoos. But I’m going to show him young enough that it hasn’t grown yet.

There are many other religious paintings around the studio—a bearded Christ based on the Shroud of Turin, John the Baptist, and “a very handsome Lot and his wife turned to a pillar of salt.” The latter canvas is slashed diagonally across. McDermott slashed it when he and McGough had a fight but since so much work had gone into it they completed it anyway. “It’s dated 1906,” McDermott says. “We pretend that it was in the 1913 Armory show and that it was slashed by a Modernist.”

Another large canvas, a commission in progress, shows “the war between the Modern artists and the antique artists. They have palettes for shields and paintbrushes for swords. They’re fighting in the ruins of classical art. This is of course the Louvre. The Cubists are coming in and killing the antique artists. This is going to be a great masterpiece.”

In another corner is a series of saint portraits, and next to them a stately portrait of a uniformed man.

“I know who that is,” I said. “Douglas MacArthur.”

McDermott: “No, this is Calvin Coolidge, the President of the United States who said ‘The business of America is business.’”

“He also invented the word ‘normalcy,’” I said. [It was actually President Warren G. Harding, who used the phrase “a return to normalcy.”—Ed.]

“Really?” he said. “What does that mean?”

“It means the same as normality, but I guess he didn’t know that word so he invented normalcy.”

“Really?” he said again. “Well, I guess that’s what we’re all doing.”

The Meiji paintings look rather convincing, as if they were period copies in oil of the Japanese prints depicting the first stages of Westernization under the Emperor Meiji: geishas in Victorian bustle dresses, samurai in tailcoats. By dating their paintings 1884 it seems that McGough and McDermott are making a statement about the intervening century, recalling the forced acceptance of the West and its ways in our time of Sonys, Datsun’s “We are driven,” and Japanese efficiency experts teaching in American auto plants.

But McGough and McDermott do not simply refer to the Meiji period. They reinvented it. When they were invited to present their first collaborative show they were inspired by the Japanese carpentry work of the gallery, and decided to do Japanese-style paintings. McGough suggested that they paint Japanese ladies in bustle dresses. Clifton, the gallery owner, said, “Oh, the Meiji period,” and began pulling out Japanese art books. Their fancied anomaly turned out to be the real thing; it seemed like fate, so they studied it. This is a prime example of the sort of time-and-space collision they are interested in provoking.

Like the original Meiji prints, the McGough-McDermott paintings result from a complex motivation: the impulse to decorate, the drive to proselytize, and the recurrent interest in a highly comic but very serious recreation of the world. Many artists have turned to retro modes as a reaction to progress as trend. McGough and McDermott live in the manner of the past as a futurist statement. “I have seen into the future,” McDermott has said, “and I’m not going.” He and McGough are reconstructing the future in a more lifelike manner, restoring the idea of progress to a relationship with better living.

I ASKED HOW THEY MADE their paintings look old. They don’t staple the extra canvas to the back of the stretchers,they tack the canvas to the sides and unpainted canvas hangs loosely behind the tacks.

McGough: “I put mahogany stain on it. It’s linen.”

McDermott: “Actually, keeping things looking new is a very difficult process. But getting things to look old is natural; it just seems to happen. We really have time on our side. Keeping Pop art looking new, or high-tech things, is very difficult.”

Then I asked them what was the most modern period they had worked in. There was a “1948” painting near the sofa.

McDermott: “We haven’t painted in the ’60s. I have signed things in the ’70s, letters to people, insults usually.”

The earliest?

McDermott: “Ancient Roman work. Mr. Jack Dreyfus of the Dreyfus Fund—we did him as a Roman Senator and we put a very early date on it. 300 A.D. And we did another ancient painting that was like a fresco, but I suppose it was a 19th-century picture because it was done on canvas.”

I asked if they have a favorite period these days.

McDermott: “Yes, we’re through with the late 19th century. We’re in the mid 19th century now. We’re very familiar with the early 19th century and we’re getting very excited about being able to move into the late 18th. That’s why Peter has grown his hair so long. When it gets really long we’re going to cut it and take it to a peruke maker in Williamsburg. The more money you have the deeper you can live in the past. We’re really looking forward to moving into the late 18th century. We’re going to have a big Gilded Age mansion in Hudson, New York, and we’ll live in the turn of the century in Manhattan. Our guests will come up on the train. They’ll stay in our Gilded Age mansion in Hudson for several days, so that they get used to the late 19th century, and then the 18th century will come and pick them up and take them to our 18th-century estate in the country where we’ll live in the 18th century.”

If they get even richer will they go farther back?

McGough: “Maybe we’d skip some periods.”

McDermott: “No, I don’t think you can skip any periods. I think you have to go through everything.”

McGough and McDermott are a riot. It is a put-on, one with which they would change the world. They are kidding and they are dead serious about it. McDermott was once wanted by the law in connection with the destruction of some power lines crossing the property on which he lived, lived by candlelight. Living by candlelight says “No Nukes” in the most exquisite manner. I think it was Rimbaud who said, “Why not about-face?.” McGough and McDermott have devoted themselves to this proposition out of love of beauty and love of life. Futurism may be a con but past-ism has a track record.

Glenn O’Brien is a writer who lives in New York and a semiprofessional standup comedian. He writes a column, “Glenn O’Brien’s Beat,” for Interview magazine.