PRINT March 2003

’80s THEN

McDermott & McGough

BOB NICKAS: If you were to make a panoramic history painting that would represent you in the ’80s, what would you paint?

PETER McGOUGH: We already made that painting, in 1985. It’s the two of us, and it says NOTORIETY. And on one side there are positive minds, temples to fame, success . . .

McDermott & McGough, 1989.

DAVID McDERMOTT: We’re in tailcoats at the very top, and all the other people are trying to climb up.

PM: We took it from an illustration in Hollywood Babylon. It has a huge eye and says PUBLIC EYE. It was about the art world.

DM: Hubert Burda, the publishing heir, has it hanging in his cafeteria to inspire the workers.

BN: What if I commissioned you to make a companion painting? Since your career is about looking back in time, how would you paint that scene today?

DM: In the beginning we were peripheral in the art world. We were like decorative oddities that were allowed to be there. Julian [Schnabel] took us out of bohemia and the downtown scene and put us up with all the big artists. They didn’t like us, but Julian championed us.

PM: He supported us by buying our work, and just pushed us on people.

DM: You’d have this whole powerhouse circle, and we would be there with Julian.

BN: That’s the image?

DM: Yes. Picture us as little parrots on Julian’s shoulders.

PM: I wouldn’t paint that.

BN: Describe your painting.

PM: Mine would include Schnabel, Salle, and Clemente, and then this whole younger group of artists that came in, Philip Taaffe, us, Donald Baechler. And I would paint all those older artists sitting on a big bag of money.

DM: A big bag of money. And you know what? Coming out of their eyeballs would be more money. Right, Peter?

BN: It’s easy to look at the ’80s for their excess. I love quoting Mario Diacono, who showed you early on. He once said, “People back then, they thought it was going to be this never-ending feast.”

PM: In 1989 a rich friend of mine was driving with an art dealer from Austria. They were in a convertible speeding along some beautiful coastline. They’re laughing and saying, “The ’80s were fabulous! Oh, weren’t they great. And the ’90s are going to get even better for us!” Then 1990 came, and bang! They were out of business.

BN: I thought you were going to say the car flew off the cliff.

PM: Well, it did for them. But you know what was interesting about the ’80s? The East Village. You had all these people who saw SoHo and thought, “We can do that.” They made their own little game in the East Village. There were some awful galleries, but even they sort of added to it.

BN: That’s where we all started. And a big part of the motivation was an art world that was closed off. “Okay, they won’t let us in, so we’ll do it ourselves.” Everybody I knew came out of performing and playing in bands after punk and No Wave.

DM: That’s absolutely true. They made up their own art world. It was completely fake. There were fake critics. Fake dealers. Fake artists. The whole thing was fake. They were all pretending back then. “Let’s play art world. They won’t let us, so we’ll play over here in the dirt.”

PM: Rene Ricard wrote about Fun Gallery and said that Patti Astor was the new Mary Boone. He was saying, “Don’t go after these big galleries. Start your own war.” That’s what they did in the East Village. I tell you it was really fun. We lived on Avenue C, and they opened all these galleries, and on Sundays everybody came to look around.

McDermott & McGough with Notoriety (far left), 1985.

BN: I think of you back in the early East Village days onstage at the Pyramid, before you began making art. I also remember walking down Houston Street, past the big car wash—remember Carz-a-Poppin’?—and I see this old roadster with the top down, and you’re in the back with a driver in front. The car looked like you had to turn a crank to start it up.

PM: Right, 1913.

BN: I’d never seen anything like it. You were in raccoon coats, and people were doing triple takes. You had a very particular appearance, always in period dress. I certainly never saw you at an opening in jeans.

PM: No.

BN: Did the art world become this larger stage on which you could perform?

PM: We took all the money that we made in the ’80s and threw it into our lives. We bought china, we bought furniture . . .

DM: We put it into our time experiment. That was our art as much as our paintings were.

PM: We had three different time machines, and the cars were part of it. Julian would come and see a bookcase with all these busts on it and he would say, “Make a painting of that.” Our paintings were our ideas about homoeroticism and time travel. And then our photography became a record of the way we lived.

DM: What was interesting about photography was that we had to change reality in order to create the pictures. With painting we could be in a fantasy world. But in order to get a photograph, we first had to put up the wallpaper, bring in the furniture . . . Photography encouraged us to buy more old stuff and to get more involved in re-creating the past. It was a wonderful excuse to buy, buy, buy.

BN: Despite Julian’s support, there must have been some resistance.

McDermott & McGough, Double Time Spiral, 1986, oil on linen, 36 x 18".

PM: People thought we were just Victorian queens who wanted to make little kitten paintings on pillows and be kitschy. That’s when we switched to making “Time Maps” and “Time Spirals.”

DM: We wanted to show that all time was “now time.” That was always our goal. To show that it was completely stupid that everybody was living in this single corporate time when we could have all the times going simultaneously. We wanted to show that all time was lived at the same time, that we had a wealth of culture in every single year. In our paintings we were constantly trying to show how rich the past was and how foolish it was to abandon it all.

BN: Once you established what you were doing, did people have certain expectations? That sense of “This is what we want from you”?

PM: Massimo Audiello was a great dealer for us. He gave us money when he got paid. He supported us, took care of us.

DM: He understood the work. But the “Time Map” show was very difficult. I think we sold one painting out of the whole show.

BN: It’s my favorite show of yours, actually.

PM: Thank you. He said, “Stop painting these paintings. Paint me some scenery, some flowers, some landscapes. Give me something that I can sell, if you need money.” We were like, “Oh, how dare you.” We got all huffy and puffy. So we painted a flower arrangement on a pedestal with the landscape out the window and the drapery. But the whole painting was a dollar sign. The flowers made a dollar sign. Then we sold it to someone else, and he became furious.

BN: Were artists collecting your work?

DM: They all wanted to trade with us. We weren’t interested. We could have had the most fabulous art collection, but we didn’t want any other work.

BN: Why?

DM: Because our money was for our time experiment. Not to play in the fabulous ’80s art world. We could give a shit about the ’80s. We were interested in 1925. We were interested in 1850. We had a whole clique of people who lived in the past. We were connected all over New York State with antique automobile people, people who had plans to put in horse-drawn trolleys . . .

PM: We did a painting called Rub-a-Dub-Dub [1986]. Keith Haring wanted that painting so much. He said, “I’ll paint you a painting.” We said, “What are we going to do with a Keith Haring in a Victorian interior?”

The thing about the ’80s is that we went to all those parties and we knew all those artists. That was a lot of fun. That whole society of artists—it is much more interesting than if you go to Upper East Side society. I mean, I have been to those parties. They’re just dreadful. But that whole crowd of art people, they were really interesting. Everybody was young, so they had a lot of energy. They all threw great parties. Julian would have these big movie-star parties. The society of the artist was great.

DM: The collectors, they had to buy in order to go to those parties. Otherwise, they didn’t get into that scene. If they wanted to have a great social life, they had to buy art.

PM: It seemed to me like the ’90s became more corporate even though there wasn’t as much money. The ’80s were like the ’20s. It was flappers and hot jazz and all that. Then the ’90s came and it was the ’30s and everyone was depressed.

DM: But when that crash occurred, they weren’t buying anything. We used all our art money to make a scene. Then we had to leave town because the millionaires didn’t back us. We had to close everything down. They didn’t give a shit. They just wanted to go to their black-and-white disco parties.

PM: At Xenon.

DM: They just used us for extra decoration on their fabulous plastic lives.

BN: In the ’80s, I was initially drawn to your work because of appropriation, even though I knew you were up to something else.

PM: We once went to the Niarchoses’ and we were like, “Oh my god, these people are so rich.” The room was just filled with Picassos.

BN: Well, it’s a giant shipping fortune, second only to Onassis.

PM: But they weren’t Picassos. They were all by Mike Bidlo.

DM: Same thing happened when we went to Barbara Jakobson’s. There was a huge Jackson Pollock and we thought, “Now we’re in the home of a real collector.” She said, “Of course, it’s a Bidlo.” And we thought, “Oh, the power of Bidlo, to be able to get people to have that kind of feeling.”

BN: Had you taken note of Sherrie Levine’s work?

DM: She’s the one who dresses up in old-fashioned clothes?

BN: No, you’re the one who dresses up in old-fashioned clothes.

PM: One of the things she did that was interesting was the sculpture of the pool table from the Man Ray painting. But we didn’t really look at her work that much. When we did our first show, we made gigantic eight-foot-tall paintings of naked boys, all these classical images. We thought we were doing something really radical. We thought we were reviving classical art. We didn’t even know how to paint classically.

BN: Collectors, take note. [Laughter.] Don’t you have a funny story about being discovered?

PM: We would do little paintings, say, a teacup or a boy on a chaise. Like Elizabeth Peyton, kind of scratchy, just the size of them, but more detailed than hers. We didn’t have any money. We were living on the Bowery across from a homeless shelter. So we took our little paintings and went to see all of our rich friends who had jobs. Those were rich people. They had jobs. We would go around and say, “Paintings for sale. Fifty dollars, one hundred dollars, a boy on ice skates on a pond.” We would say, “Cash only.” One day we were in SoHo and ran into Massimo. So we put our canvases on the sidewalk and said, “Massimo, buy a painting.” He told Diego Cortez to come meet us, and Diego began to introduce us to collectors.

DM: We didn’t know who anybody was.

BN: And now, twenty years later . . .

PM: We went to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, about a month ago, and people were coming up to us in stores and on the street, telling us they loved our work. It was like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, when she goes to the studio to see Cecil B. DeMille and they’re like, “Oh, Miss Desmond, it’s so great to have you back.”

Bob Nickas is a New York–based critic and the curator of more than forty exhibitions since 1984.