Nicknamed "the Fluxus cabdriver" by Nam June Paik, Jeffrey Perkins is an artist and filmmaker who has worked in relative obscurity for over four decades, having collaborated in the 1960s with Fluxus artists including George Maciunas, Yoko Ono, and Alison Knowles. Until recently he was best known for his light projection performances and his "Movies for the Blind" (based on sound recordings of interviews with passengers in his cab). He recently completed a documentary, The Painter Sam Francis, an endeavor that was itself 40 years in the making. He continues to do performance art, most recently at X-Initiative and Daniel Reich Gallery in New York, and his artwork was most recently on view at Front Desk Apparatus Space in New York. In Part One of this two-part interview, Perkins discusses his life and work in the 60s and 70s.
The Single Wing Turquoise Bird Light Show. Image from the set of a movie, The Babymaker. Starring Barbara Hershey and Sam Groom, directed by James Bridges. Courtesy of Jeff Perkins.
GILLIAN SNEED: I want to start with your background. You are an artist and filmmaker. You were also involved with Fluxus and you were a part of Yoko Ono's inner circle in the ‘60s. How did you get involved with these artists?
JEFFREY PERKINS: I volunteered to join the US Air Force in the early 60s to avoid going to Vietnam, because you could choose where you would be stationed. Eventually I was able to choose a duty station in Tokyo. When I got there, I discovered the bars of Shinjuku. I met an American journalist from New York, and I asked her if she knew anyone who had any psychedelics in Japan. She said she knew an American who was married to a famous Japanese dancer, and she gave me his phone number and I called. This guy answered the phone and he said, "Oh, you're from New York, yeah, why don't you come out and visit us." When I got there, I met this young guy, who turned out to be the artist Tony Cox. We sat there chatting about New York, when this woman with long black hair came walking down the stairs dressed in a Mumu. That was Yoko Ono... So, I became friends with them. They were my introducers to what you call "high art."
SNEED: So they took you under their wing?
PERKINS: Yeah, sort of. Yoko would tell me what was really cool in Japan. "Don't go to the Kabuki, that's for the common folk. Go to the Noh, the Noh was interesting." They would tell me all about the New York art scene: La Monte [Young], John Cage.
SNEED: Were you enamored of them, their lifestyle?
PERKINS: Totally. And Yoko was a star. I felt I had met somebody who was extraordinary. And she does make it her business to be extraordinary. She is a professional star.
SNEED: Let's fast-forward a little bit. At some point you came back to New York.
PERKINS: I got discharged in '66, and Tony and Yoko had come back to New York, and had an apartment. They invited me to come rent one of the rooms, so I moved in with them. At that point I was introduced to George Maciunas.
SNEED: Through Yoko?
PERKINS: Of course. I met George at his apartment very soon that winter. And the Fluxus Film Festival was proposed, and I made a film for that festival called "Fluxus Film No. 22, Shout" and I was the cameraperson for the film called "No. 4" also known as the "Bottoms Movie," which we shot in the living room of that apartment. Tony proposed to do an installation at the Judson Church Gallery called "The Stone" and I created a text-film for this installation, and I also met On Kawara and his wife Hiroko. I wrote something for Film Culture Magazine, the special expanded arts issue that George Maciunas edited and designed. Eventually, Tony and Yoko moved to London. And I very soon after that had met a gorgeous blond actress from Hollywood, so I moved to Hollywood... (LEFT: JEFFREY PERKINS, YOKO ONO, FILM CLIP, TOKYO, 1963)
SNEED: [LAUGHS.] Did you continue doing films there?
PERKINS: No...Well, I was shooting film a little bit. But what I was doing was more performance. I performed my own works and one of Yoko Ono's pieces. And also did a performance with a composer from Japan named Yuji Takahashi at the Schoenberg Hall at UCLA. I felt like I was doing performance work when there wasn't really any performance work going on at the time. There wasn't really a name for it.
SNEED: When did you start doing your works with projected light?
PERKINS: That was something that developed in L.A. It was a 1960s thing. We were an ensemble of artists, and we were doing light projections... It was during this period that I developed the slide projector pieces that I'm doing now. These present performances I'm doing now with projecting light are pure performances. I don't end up with an object. They just happen and they're over.
SNEED: Where did you get idea to project light and play around with it?
PERKINS: Well, actually at the time I was managing an experimental movie theater in Hollywood, and we were showing experimental movies: Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, Gregory Markopolos... I called [a] meeting and a lot of local young filmmakers came. We just agreed to put together a group to project films, liquid light projections, and slides, whatever. It was a totally improvised event. The first concert we projected at was for Cream. There were three bands: Cream, Traffic, The Yardbirds. Every week there was a new bill. Velvet Underground, Dr. John, The Who, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, all of the bands...
SNEED: So you worked all these iconic concerts?
PERKINS: Yes, we were projecting light shows for these concerts, on a 70-by-35-foot screen, and we had set up this system of multiple projectors. We were running films through three projectors, and it was extraordinary. The size, the mass of the spectacle of the whole thing was pretty extraordinary. Eventually the company went broke, and our light show moved into this very small lithograph studio in Venice where one of the members was storing equipment, and we started doing shows there.
SNEED: You continued to do the light shows, but without the music...
PERKINS: What happened was, Sam Francis was doing a series of lithographs in that same spot. He saw the work, immediately got interested in it and decided to be our patron. He gave us whatever we wanted. He bought me the machines I needed to control the strobe machines. There were five of us. He was basically supporting us all. He had a huge studio, he gave us his studio, he said, "You want it, move in, it's yours." In fact, that's how my film on him started.
CHECK BACK NEXT WEEK FOR PART TWO