New York For more than 50 years, the Los Angeles painter and musician Llyn Foulkes has decried both art world careerism and trends in popular music. At 76, he remains a dissenting voice. Often left out of histories of art, he refers to himself, bittersweetly, as the “Zelig” of contemporary art, referring to the Woody Allen character, a pervasive and influential figure ultimately uncredited for the role he played in 20th-century history.
After attending Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts), Foulkes began showing at Ferus Gallery in 1961, joining Robert Irwin, Ed Ruscha, Ed Kienholz and Ken Price, many of whom had been his Chouinard classmates; he parted ways with the gallery the next year. His early, multipanel paintings often incorporate found objects. A Pop phase, in which he created well-received landscape paintings, lasted several years before he denounced Pop art’s flatness. After abandoning the studio for a time, Foulkes began to create portrait-style paintings that frequently include collage elements and depict either actual persons or types such as businessmen; their disfigured faces, often recalling those in works by Francis Bacon, form indictments of modern emptiness, corruption and greed. Since the 1980s, Foulkes has broadened his social satire, targeting commercialism and war and various aspects of the human condition. Writing in these pages in 1997, Michael Duncan observed that Foulkes articulates “a dark vision of American culture in trouble.” Since the beginning of his career, Foulkes has made larger, “dimensional” paintings, sometimes 8 feet tall, which may combine woodworking, found materials, dead animals and thick mounds of modeling paste built up into relief; they often require theatrical lighting in a darkened room to convey their full effect of shadowy depths. Many of Foulkes’s works include his own likeness, sometimes antagonized by Mickey Mouse, a symbol of the Disney corporation, which he loathes.
As his eyesight fades, Foulkes concentrates more on his music, another lifelong pursuit. In reaction to the increasing loudness of ’60s rock, he founded The Rubber Band (active 1973-77), a combo featuring banjo, accordion, tuba and his own “machine,” a sculptural mass of musical instruments the size of a small automobile. He now plays the machine as a one-man band. Like something out of a steampunk cartoon, the artist, squatting behind his instrument, honks on old car horns, taps cowbells, dances a walking bass line with his toes by plucking a single string attached to a plank of wood, blows into various handmade wind instruments, foots a hi-hat, and sings into a headset microphone. The sound of the one-man band is full and resonant, suggesting what pop music might have become had jazz, not rock ’n’ roll, been the dominant form.
In the next two years, Foulkes’s art and music will see considerable exposure: several of his paintings are included in the Venice Biennale; a solo show goes on view at New York’s newly reopened Kent Gallery late this month; he will give a series of “machine” performances at Documenta XIII, in Kassel in 2012; and a full retrospective is scheduled for 2013 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
Foulkes and I spoke this summer at his Los Angeles workspace and residence, tucked within a compound of warehouses near Chinatown. Downstairs, the high-ceilinged studio is filled with half-finished artworks, drawers containing tiny portraits, and slabs of wood covered in animal hides and upholstery. The balcony, where he lives, is a vast cabinet of antique wonders and dusty bones. Adjacent to his studio is a room he calls the Church of Art, his private performance venue and rehearsal space, housing the machine, a PA system and a few dozen folding chairs. During our conversation, Foulkes was impassioned and wild-eyed. He often answered questions in song, improvising wildly on three instruments at once.
ROSS SIMONINI Can you talk about your relationship with the current state of art?
LLYN FOULKES I’ve had a problem with corporate art since the beginning. I had my first exhibition nine months before Andy Warhol showed his soup cans. I just walked in and said, “Oh, that’s cute.” It’s like a joke. That’s all I could think of it. I’m looking at the paintings and, well, anybody could have done them. No reason to treat them with any value as a painting. And yet, I knew that one of my huge paintings which had recently been on display and took seven years to complete would sell for far less than one of his soup cans.
SIMONINI Should price be in proportion to the amount of work someone puts into a painting?
FOULKES Yeah. There should be work put into it. Great jazz players have to put a lot of work into their art. I respect that. I believe in the process.
SIMONINI But so much new art doesn’t hold to that set of values, right?
FOULKES What gives an artist the right to act this way? I know it comes from the whole Duchamp tradition, but suddenly any old piece of shit has value. I get tired of that. And then in the ’70s, because of this whole thing, they declare painting dead! Then all this installation art comes about. And it’s still all going that way. I heard from people who went to the Venice Biennale that the majority of work was installation art. I get tired of installation art because it takes up a lot of room. So many artists can’t show their work because of one installation.
SIMONINI I would say that your work, like Pop , which I saw at the Geffen [at L.A. MOCA], was a kind of installation. It was in a room with a particular lighting and particularly dark cinematic environment. Isn’t that what an installation is? Controlling the whole environment of a work—not just a framed square on a wall?
FOULKES It did not start as an installation, but considering its complexity
it ended as one.
SIMONINI That’s an important distinction?
FOULKES Of course! I remember when I went to the Claremont schools and visited all these artists in their studios. There was a girl with all feathers in a room. That’s too easy. That’s not right.
SIMONINI Because it’s easy?
FOULKES Anybody can think.
Anybody can imagine. Not everybody can do it.
SIMONINI Couldn’t you say the
same thing about painting?
FOULKES Did I say all paintings
SIMONINI Well, you’re making a claim about the overblown profundity of installation art. But it’s also true of every kind of art, including painting.
FOULKES I just don’t think the art world is open enough to artists these days. It should be open. I’m lucky—the only reason I’m showing new work is because the curator at the Hammer
[Ali Subotnick] showed my work [in the 2009 exhibition “Nine Lives: Visionary Artists from L.A.”] and it caused a stir. I’ve never had someone stand behind me like she has.
SIMONINI I saw some of those Hammer pieces. They looked great.
FOULKES No you didn’t.
SIMONINI Not in person, but . . .
FOULKES Well, you have a three-dimensional painting like The Lost Frontier [1997-2005]. You stand in a black room and look at that thing and you say, “That’s the deepest painting I’ve ever seen.” That’s important. You don’t get that in a photo reproduction, like you saw.
SIMONINI So do you think reproduction serves your work poorly?
FOULKES You can see the image, but not the dimension, not the light. There’s just a big difference with seeing these works in person. [Documenta XIII curator] Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev visited my studio and after seeing my new work in progress along with the machine asked me immediately to participate in Documenta. I don’t know if that would have happened from just seeing reproductions.
SIMONINI What was your connection with the artists who showed at Ferus Gallery?
FOULKES My only connection to the people at Ferus is that I went to school with them. Larry Bell, Ed Ruscha, Joe Goode. Robert Irwin started to teach at Chouinard. Ed got into Irwin’s class. Emerson Woelffer was influential. Richards Ruben had two shows at Ferus, but was totally ostracized after I was kicked out. He was the one who got me in. I had taken some drawings over to Ferus that had won me some prizes and I got into a group show with Kenny Price. Then I had a one-man show in 1961 which included the burned blackboards and chair now owned by the Norton Simon Museum. I never got along with Irwin. Because Ferus was changing. Ed Kienholz left because Irving Blum took it over. So, really there were two Ferus galleries. It eventually became more of a Light and Space gallery. So many artists left, including me. I was kicked out because Irwin, Bengston and I did not get along. But I was at a different place then. I was painting with tar and even had a painting with dead possums in it—real dead possums. All that will come back out again, though, with the retrospective.
SIMONINI How do you preserve those pieces with carcasses?
FOULKES I had to throw that painting out.
SIMONINI You have a dead cat in your very large, mixed-medium painting The Lost Frontier. Did you preserve that?
FOULKES I soaked it in salt, dried it all out and then plasticized it with acrylic medium. In fact, I almost thought I’d lost it. It was stiff and then it got all limp and soft and wrinkled. But I saved it. It’s weird because the way I positioned it, it looks like a cougar.
SIMONINI Is that a reference to the mountain lions that roam Los Angeles County?
FOULKES Yeah. It’s a Southern California thing. So are all the rocks I depict. Los Angeles used to be known for its rocks.