PRINT April 2003

’80s THEN

Mike Bidlo

ROBERT ROSENBLUM: Today you’re thought of as the artist who makes replicas of twentieth-century old masters, from Cézanne and Picasso to Warhol and Lichtenstein. But at the beginning of the ’80s, you could’ve been billed as a performance artist, with your Jackson Pollock performance piece at P.S. 1 and your public re-creation of Guernica in Los Angeles in 1984.

MIKE BIDLO: I don’t see a dichotomy between performance and artmaking. For me performance adds another component to the work; it’s a way to create a context for my paintings and sculptures. For instance, the story about Jackson Pollock peeing in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace—which was the basis for Jack the Dripper at Peg’s Place—offered some interesting insights into Pollock’s drip technique. The performative element of the installation was there to help illustrate the connection I was making between urinating and action painting. It also helps the viewer relate to the art on a more visceral level.

RR: And later you were involved with the Jackson Pollock movie.

MB: Right, the film directed by Ed Harris. They asked me to be a consultant, to talk Ed through the process of painting a Pollock.

RR: Was he hard to teach?

MB: No, not at all, he was a natural. I’m sure the connection between action painting and method acting had something to do with it. I was particularly impressed with his scene where Pollock paints Mural.

RR: And how did you learn to paint like Pollock?

MB: It’s not as easy as it seems. I practiced a lot after seeing the Namuth film. I also tracked down as many actual Pollocks as I could find so that I could closely examine how they were made. In trying to replicate his gesture, I discovered his line is a kind of cursive penmanship that could be learned like the Palmer method. After a year of trial and error, I learned to control viscosity, layering, and the different ways paint hits and is absorbed into the surface of the canvas.

RR: You used the same kind of paint and colors as Pollock?

MB: Since Duco is no longer available commercially, I had to use enamel paint from the hardware store and approximate Pollock’s palette for each painting.

RR: And then in ’84 you replicated the making of Guernica in public.

MB: Yes, I wanted to show Guernica as a work in progress, but I needed a space large enough to accommodate the twelve-by-twenty-five-foot canvas, so Larry Gagosian generously offered his LA gallery for the project. It was a great experience. We rented scaffolding and mounted the canvas directly on the wall and started to paint my version of Picasso’s masterpiece right in the gallery. People would walk or drive by and see the painting lit up like a diorama through the double garage doors. They could watch the development of the painting, almost like a time-lapse photograph.

RR: How many weeks did it take?

MB: Four weeks—about the same time it took Picasso.

RR: After it was done and your performance was over, what happened to the picture you made? Were people interested in the finished painting then, or were they more interested in watching you do it?

MB: I don’t know. I just remember I was kind of relieved to have finally finished it, and exhausted from synthesizing this masterpiece. I remember we hired two guards to stand on either end of the painting for the opening. That was kind of funny.

RR: What other performance pieces did you do in that decade?

MB: Well, the one that was the most exciting was the re-creation of Andy Warhol’s Factory in the attic of P.S. 1 in ’84. It was my version of a dada ball, in which invited guests were asked to impersonate their favorite Warhol “superstars.” David Wojnarowicz as Lou Reed sang an amazing version of “Heroin.” The previous year I reconstructed Julian Schnabel’s plate painting Death of Fashion [1978].

RR: Of all the artists you copied, was Schnabel the closest to you in age? Because the artists you copy are usually from earlier generations. Was it because of the superstardom of the ’80s that you chose him?

MB: That may have been part of it. Also the fact that recently Schnabel himself had copied a Rodchenko as part of a larger piece. I thought it would be interesting to appropriate a work by another appropriator, so in a way I just kept the proverbial snowball rolling. In fact, the working title of the piece was The Original Schnabel Simulacrum [1983].

RR: And didn’t you also do some kind of performance/installation piece about a mythical Clyfford Still?

MB: Oh yeah, that was the show curated by Alan Jones. The piece was based on the time Clyfford Still was asked to take part in a museum exhibition of regional work from California. Still claimed he didn’t want to compete with other artists, so he suggested that his contribution be a six-by-ten-foot unprimed canvas. I found this story in the Metropolitan Museum’s Clyfford Still catalogue. The idea of the blank canvas fascinated me. So many other artists have used blank canvases to make aesthetic statements, but Still’s gesture seemed to be the most nihilistic, a true act of anti-art. When we installed the piece in the Philippe Briet Gallery in SoHo, I included the text from the catalogue in a frame next to the painting.

RR: Then your first shows that weren’t performances, but rather exhibitions of masterpiece replicas, were the Warhol soup cans and the Morandi series in 1986. When did you do the Warhol window display for the Grey Gallery at NYU?

MB: In 1989 Tom Sokolowski asked me to do something for their early Warhol show, “Success Is a Job in New York.” So I did the Bonwit Teller windows that Andy did in 1961. I tried to get as close to the documentary photographs as possible. Richard Martin and Harold Koda, who were then at FIT, helped dress the mannequins in the appropriate style of the ’60s.

RR: What you do is close to what a lot of artists do: namely, making replicas of, or variations on, well-known works of twentieth-century art. You could be grouped together with a predecessor like Elaine Sturtevant, who began doing this work in the ’60s, or with your contemporaries from the ’80s and ’90s like Sherrie Levine or Richard Pettibone. I’m curious to know how you feel about your relationship to these other artists. Do you feel that you’re part of a movement?

MB: I think everyone brings their own signature and personality into their work, even if they’re making replicas. I’ve always seen it as wedges of a pie that fit together in a general reaction to the times. My work is perhaps an extreme example of this strain of art which references other art because it directly mirrors the image, scale, and materials of the original. Whatever differences appear in my work are a consequence of my working method and not an attempt at projecting a personal style.

RR: It’s interesting you mention how the personality of the artist comes through. It’s a bit like a collector whose taste is defined by what he collects. My sense is that you pick well-known paintings by well-known masters—Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Mondrian, Lichtenstein, de Kooning. But then, I’ve always been curious about your Morandi show. He doesn’t seem to fit the pattern.

MB: I wanted to reevaluate Morandi because he deserves to be included in the pantheon. His still lifes may be quieter but are no less monumental. For me his images are just as iconic as Warhols or Pollocks.

RR: One choice that seemed exactly like you was de Chirico, who at the end of his life made counterfeits of his own earlier paintings, as well as replicas with variations.

MB: There is a certain clarity in a de Chirico painting. You cannot look at his painting of a young girl with a hoop without feeling a certain wonder. When I saw the de Chirico show at the Pompidou, the late works seemed just as interesting as the early ones, so I felt compelled to give them just as much attention.

RR: I remember in the MoMA de Chirico catalogue there were postage-stamp reproductions of numerous versions of The Disquieting Muses. And suddenly it looked like a Warhol. Were you aware of Warhol’s replicas of de Chirico that ended up looking like de Chirico’s replicas of himself?

MB: Yes, I remember there was a show at Marisa del Re in the ’80s, with a great catalogue, and I was thrilled that Warhol was head-on involved in art about art.

RR: Another question that’s often asked about your work is, Do you always do it from reproductions? Would you make a copy in front of the original if you could?

MB: I can’t even imagine what that might be like. I’ve just always worked with reproductions in the studio. I became a collector and then a synthesizer of reproductions. With Morandi’s surfaces, I learned to read his impasto through reproductions. Part of the task is learning to read and analyze them. When I see the original piece it’s always interesting to see how different it is from mine.

RR: Isn’t Mondrian particularly deceptive? In reproduction his paint surfaces look inert, but when you see a real one, it’s completely handmade, and there’s a rhythm to the actual brushstroke. Is that the kind of thing you would want to replicate, or do you just prefer the reproduced image?

MB: In the original Mondrians the lines have a certain handwrought emotional immediacy. I’ll never be able to make an exact facsimile, but what it might have is a shared intensity.

RR: I’m interested in the art world’s initial responses to your work. Were you accused of being a joker, or did people take you seriously?

MB: Well, there were always people who inherently understood and supported my work and others who weren’t very happy about it.

RR: It may be that by the year 2003 people have gotten so used to reproduced images having a life of their own—look at Warhol or Richter—that what you do seems familiar. Now you’re an established artist rather than a crazy rebel of the early ’80s. Or am I wrong? I mean, how upset can you still get people? I know you’ve shown in Europe. Would you say there was any difference in the response there?

MB: When the de Chiricos were shown at Daniel Templon in Paris, a strangely dressed French street artist came into the gallery while I was there, and started screaming at the top of his lungs, “This is shit, you are shit, this is awful!” I was really kind of scared. Nothing like that has ever happened in the United States.

RR: A question that must bug people about your work—it certainly does me—is, What were you making before you started painting and drawing other people’s work? Did you ever have a life as an abstract artist or a figurative artist?

MB: Yes, like every other student of art, I did all different types of work. I did body art. I made conceptual drawings and Fluxus-inspired multiples. I even dabbled in ceramics. When I graduated art school in the mid-’70s, Conceptual art was in its heyday; the work I do now comes out of that context.

RR: A lot of your work turns out to be handmade readymades, so that ups the ante, doesn’t it, because you had to remake found objects with immense care and time and knowledge?

MB: They are all about the handmade readymade. For me all masterpieces are readymades. I’ve always felt at home and not alone in claiming Duchamp’s legacy. His selection of already-made everyday objects opened new avenues for subsequent generations of artists.

RR: For the show at Tony Shafrazi’s and Bruno Bischofberger’s galleries of your Duchamp urinals, you invented what seemed like an infinite number of variations on the shape of the famous Fountain. And this immediately raised the question of your being unfaithful to your own premise. Because the assumption is that a Bidlo Duchamp is going to look exactly like the original—a urinal’s going to be a porcelain urinal. But suddenly you’re doing these freehand drawings that are often such complex variations on the urinal that you wouldn’t even recognize the source. So is this a new direction?

MB: No, in that it’s still art that references other art. And yes, in that it allowed me to combine automatic drawing with the symbolism of Duchamp’s famous icon. It brought me full circle, back down to the floor, where the Pollocks started.

RR: I had no idea you made those drawings on the floor.

MB: Yes, most of the Fountain drawings were done on the floor; I shifted back and forth from the vertical surface of the easel to the horizontal surface of the floor.

RR: That’s fascinating. I hadn’t thought about it that way. It’s then like a fusion of Pollock and Duchamp. It does have an extraordinary freedom—almost splatter—and at the same time, the source of it is a completely industrial object.

MB: What was interesting was that as I was doing them for a period of about a year and a half, they became autobiographical. My changing moods during the period would be reflected in those drawings.

RR: Are you planning now to continue doing variations on a known work, or are you going to go back to making replicas?

MB: It’s funny because you never go back. Whether pure, synthetic, or hybrid appropriation, you are always going forward, no matter what.

RR: So what are you doing right now?

MB: In the last three years I’ve worked with a Rorschach-like technique based on Duchamp’s readymades and Pollock’s drip paintings. These are large-scale, symmetrical paintings done mostly in grisaille. Right now I’m working on the floor, orchestrating Warhol’s “Oxidation” paintings.

RR: You mean you’re pissing on the canvas and it really works?

MB: Yeah, I finally got it right, but it took a long time. So it’s basically back on the floor, going back to Pollock.

RR: The Warhols, after all, are re-creations of the way Pollock painted, and you’ve merged the two of them for the twenty-first century.

MB: It’s funny, isn’t it, how I’ve come full circle?

Robert Rosenblum, a contributing editor of Artforum, is professor of fine art at New York University and a curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.