Frank Gaard’s got a show up at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Jonathan Thomas sat down with Gaard recently to reflect on the artist’s retrospective and a career of panties and provocation.
A self-styled “sado-picturist,” Frank Gaard (born in 1944), is having the largest institutional exhibition of his career in the sprawling if somewhat selective retrospective, Poison & Candy, currently on view at the Walker Art Center. From 1974 to 1994, Gaard published and distributed the incendiary underground art magazine, Artpolice, where he perpetrated a cartoony profusion of art historical preoccupations mingled with Kabbalistic iconography and political-philosophical concerns, before turning his hand to the more contraband qualities of his and Stu Mead’s pornographic art publication, Man Bag. A time-tested provocateur, Gaard’s work as a painter and teacher has incited protest and secured him a position as something of a local legend. I was able to sit down with the artist in his Minneapolis home to talk about aesthetics and politics, Chicago Imagism and Funk movements, the rise of the Christian right, Lolita, and the darkness of laughter.
Jonathan Thomas I thought maybe we could start in Chicago. You were a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1966 and 1967. You had the Museum there, but I’m wondering what kinds of conversations were going on around contemporary practices at the time.
Frank Gaard Well, the guy who was the curator of modern and contemporary art, A. James Speyer, was a major figure in contemporary art because of having the checking account of the Art Institute of Chicago to go to New York with. So they had extraordinary collections. And they did extraordinary shows of contemporary art. They would often bring whole chunks of the Whitney Biennial, or they put together an American show at the Whitney, so we saw a lot of the Pop and Abstract painting. I was exposed to a lot of really radical big paintings, and, you know, I have to admit that Lichtenstein and Warhol, that work was really close to home, because a lot of us were doing silkscreen. Silkscreen was the cheapest medium and it was also the most popular at the time because you could get colors, and cover areas, you could make signs. So the connection between our silkscreen in the art school and seeing it in the bigger art world with Rauschenberg and Warhol was a big deal. It made us feel a certain camaraderie, like we were in the right groove, you know?
JT But you were also part of a significant generation of artists in Chicago, I mean the people you went to school with, I’m thinking of The Hairy Who: Jim Nutt and Gladys Nil—
JT And the work that was emerging there and the exhibitions that were taking place at the Hyde Park Art Center, for instance, seemed to have a sensibility that was different than that of the New York artists you mentioned, and this is something I see in your work as well: it’s subjective, scatological, in a kind of cartoon style with odd and sometimes grotesque narrative qualities. I’m wondering what your contact was with the artists associated with The Hairy Who or False Image?
FG I met Jim [Nutt] a couple times and I don’t know if I met anyone else from that bunch. I remember going to that show at the Hyde Park Art Center, and they had made a little comic—I have a copy of it someplace—and that made a big impression on me: to have a comic made by the artist in the show as the catalog. I don’t know. I like Jim’s work the best of that gang. I like [Karl] Wirsum too, but I like Jim. He wound up in Sacramento after that year, in ’67 I think, and we were both working on plastic. I was working on a flexible vinyl and he was working on plexiglass. But the mediating figure was Peter Saul. The same with Mike Kelley, I knew Mike through Peter Saul. So there was a connectedness between the scene that was coming on in Chicago and a West Coast Funk scene.
JT Exactly. How about H.C. Westermann? Was he still around Chicago?
FG He was an older guy. He was a favorite of Jim Speyer, the curator. They had some of his most beautiful pieces in the Art Institute’s collection; the abandoned spaceship, a wooden spaceship with people inside clamoring to go. We had some contact with Westermann through the Artpolice, because he was a subscriber. He was interested in this crazy arts magazine, with comics and sex. So yeah, there was the influence of those guys when we were young, or when I was at least very young, because they were so off-the-wall; they were so out-of-sync with this drive your car into a tree stuff in New York.
JT So you graduated in 1967. Why did you decide to go to California?
FG I thought Chicago was kind of a dead end, artistically. The contemporary museum even then . . . . you know, Hugh Hefner had a property on Ontario Street on North Michigan that he eventually gave to the Contemporary Art Museum to start off, to have a place to have galleries, and I thought that was pathetic: they couldn’t get their acts together. They’re building a museum up here [in Minneapolis], a really big one, and it just seemed to me that there was some disparity, that there was already an established international contemporary arts museum eight hours away by car. So I thought they were playing catch-up and they weren’t playing it very well. I thought I’d go out West.
JT Did you go there to study with Peter Saul?
FG No. He had just come back from Europe and he was teaching seminars at the San Francisco Art Institute and the California College of the Arts at the same time. He was just becoming acquainted with American life. He was living in Mill Valley with his wife and his kid. It was a sweet time, although the pressure of the draft, and the war, you know, plus Oakland at that time was kind of the Black Panther headquarters, and that was distressing because it was like. . . . it’s kind of like what happens in Israel, with Hamas or Hezbollah. There are neighborhoods that are friendly and then neighborhoods that aren’t friendly. Oakland was a kind of a bourgeois, middle-class [and] working-class city for the most part, but had enclaves that were at-your-own-risk. It was an exciting time to be alive, as the Chinese might say.
JT But when you were there, what impact did [Peter] Saul have on you? You eventually studied with him. What was it about his work that you found interesting?
FG Well I had known his work from growing up in Chicago. There was a New York dealer who had an outlet in Chicago, so the New York shows would come to Chicago. I had seen a lot of his painting, and I was very intrigued and interested by it. Meeting him was a different thing, because his personality is much more perplexing than his work. His work seems to just be an out-and-out explosion of discontent. But his personality is extremely layered and complex. I was just a young man, 22 or something, and I had never confronted somebody with such a peculiar way of seeing the world. I always tell the story of meeting him at the University in Berkeley in the gallery. He was having a show and it was selling really well and he was gleeful about selling these giant pictures of mayhem in Vietnam and pictures of Black Panthers with their weapons to these upper-middle class, rich folks in Northern California. I thought there was an odd paradox there, I mean there was a hypocrisy. But he was even enjoying being hypocritical, because it was like all of this was grist for it continuing . . . and that’s kind of what his work did. It was always at a certain pitch of intensity which, for most people, was too much. I thought it seemed more inventive when he was younger, especially in ’63 [and] ’64, he was . . . probably he and Twombly were the best painters in the world right then. But it’s hard to maintain that level, of having that edge.
JT Did you visit San Francisco much? Did you have any contact with the people around Zap and the emergence of underground comix?
FG I had more contact with that crew later, when I was doing Artpolice. Artpolice was publishing comics in the ’70s and that’s when we were first making contact with Bill Griffith, Art Spiegelman, and some of the others. There were connections all the time, and it was interesting. Their turn of mind was different than ours, but there was a camaraderie, because of the books. Essentially there was an admiration for the autre-ness of the Artpolice and later the Man Bag. In fact, I think when Crumb really becomes vivid for us is when he embraces Stu Mead’s work. He really thought Stu could have been in Weirdo and been one of the gang, you know?
(Gaard takes a telephone call. He returns and hands me a book by Bill Griffith.)
Bill sent me this catalog from years and years of these crazy-ass comics. It’s like an alternative mythology to the Katzenjammer Kids, and I like the style: it’s sort of half-assed and plain. When they started running his strip in the Saint Paul paper, I met him here. He came to my studio and we had a nice conversation. He was saying, you know, those guys look at artists who have a comic character to their work as really pulling off the big trick, because that’s the most loathsome type of art to the abstract, conceptual crowd. Any photograph is better than a painting, any video. This antipathy plays out even with the cartoonists.
JT Right. That’s partly why I was asking about the Imagism in Chicago, and Funk and Peter Saul in San Francisco and the Bay Area, and your work. That’s why I’m wondering how your style emerged through contact with these different ideas that were circulating, which were completely at odds with what was going on, for example, in New York, with the dominant dialog around the emergence of Conceptualism and the legacy of Minimalism and so on.
FG There was a guy in that book on Artpolice who was saying that I was like a conceptual artist who was also an imagist. And I think that’s not bad. I mean he’s a writer who doesn’t write about art, but I thought that was pretty close to a way of explaining the common theme, in the same way you would explain a lot of artists who had a graphic style, like Daumier, who have a political side that’s embedded in the image.
JT Since you mention Daumier, I wonder how caricature operates in your work? Is that something you think about?
FG Yeah, I think caricature is a way of bringing attention to the way that we look odd. There’s something about us as beings, whether we’re dogs or cats or people … I think that attention to exaggeration is also a political technique.
JT How so?
FG Well, because you try to demystify the way that somebody chooses to look. My work comes out of that formalist tradition of Hans Hoffman and painting, and even Cézanne in the past: I was trained intellectually to think of the painting as an object that I’m designing using colors and forms, but by adding the element of the caricature to the image I was playing that middle-ground of abstraction. The figure is abstracted but it is still recognizable as a figure. I think that the element of abstraction in my work is where the caricature arises.
JT So you moved to Minneapolis in 1969 to teach at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design [(MCAD)], and in 1974 you started Artpolice, a magazine you published and distributed for 20 years. I read that it was formed, as a collective, in the context of protest.
FG Oh yeah. The students were trying to have a newspaper, because they had a fee they paid in their tuition towards student activities, and part of that was supposed to be for a publication, and that money was supposed to be set aside. Well, they produced a paper that the school’s administration just couldn’t take, and so they censored it. They took away the money. So what the students did then is they found an old press in the basement of the old school, and they resuscitated this old AB Deck press and started publishing their own fucking newspaper. And then the things they were saying about the administration were even more extreme. Artpolice had preceded them in a sense in terms of describing the situation there as being a bit fascistic, and maybe a little more than fascistic. (laughter)
I mean, just in the general sense that the student was a client that was to be milked by the school to pay these other antecedent creatures who lived off this host. It was done as if the survival of the school was the paramount thing, I mean the survival of the institution, the cash cow, as opposed to the givers of milk, the students. And so the students, especially once they started publishing their complaints about what was going on, how victimized they felt, that they were paying for this new building on their backs [the school was being rebuilt at the time], with tuition increases, and with less free speech. So there was a tumult there about speech. And it had something to do with Minimalism as well, in the sense that the school was being put into this Minimalist box as a concession to styles of the times. As a result, the fine arts seemed to be getting squeezed out of the picture, especially any kind of evocative, or Imagistic, or political socialistic tendencies. What they wanted was a nice German art school where everybody pit-pats down the hall with their T-square, you know? It was an alarming moment for me to see happening. It was like a corporate take-over of the art school. Somehow it was going to save the art school to look more like a design school, but I had my doubts. I mean they were tearing down the very buildings the students were living and working in to build this school. Now there was a school with laboratories with no sinks because they were in a hurry to get it up and running so they could start collecting.
JT In one of the issues of Artpolice you write that the motto of the magazine was to “philosophize with a comic,” a spin on Nietzsche’s philosophizing with a hammer.
JT What did that mean for you?
FG Well the comic had become a very available motif within which to insert the thing you wanted to say. They didn’t have advertising. And you use what you got. It’s a black-and-white medium so you can make quite an impact without the addition of much color. Traditionally, with Hogarth or something, they were prints that were reprinted and reprinted, and so lots of people had seen them. That was part of it. And all speech is philosophical to the extent that it deals with our ideas about life, about examining life. So even Nancy, which was a very popular strip, in some light, even unadulterated, there was something about Nancy which was more about post-atomic children than it was about the children of the Depression. There were a number of comics like that that had a philosophical core about them. Henry is one I can think of offhand. I think in general that the sequencing of comics, which I’ve never been very good at, is part of what made me think of it as the poor man’s film.
JT It seems like a lot of the philosophers you mention in your work come from a kind of dark or transgressive tradition, whether it be de Sade or Nietzsche or Klossowski or Bataille: people who are interested in transgression.
FG Bataille, his dad was blind, and that always interested me . . . like, man, if my dad was blind he wouldn’t be able to find the bar so easy! (laughter)
JT Duchamp made a little magazine called The Blind Man.
FG Blind Man, yeah. You know I examined those in ’74. I was in Chicago for this big Duchamp show, and I went to the library and I looked at The Blind Man and Rong Wrong, because I had this thing in my head for about a year, to make a little zine, an art zine, and I looked at those and they were so slight, they were like little brochures, like eight page brochures with ads for liveries or whatever, and right in the midst of it was Stieglitz’s photograph of R. Mutt and stuff. I really found them thrilling, and I remember a guy I knew then, a professor, Jack Burnham, he said, “Why did you do more than a couple Artpolice? Why didn’t you just do it as a piece?” And I think part of it was that Andy Warhol had a magazine, and I wanted to have a magazine, the same way I wanted to do portraits like Warhol did. I wanted to have this sort of second version of these tendencies, because I wouldn’t be the first artist who wanted to have a book. The one thing I regret most about Artpolice is that my writing, which came a little bit later, didn’t coincide with it more so that I could have had more text. I think the thing that hurt it was that it had so little text. People didn’t know how to process it, they didn’t know what they had in their hands: it was like screaming drawings of the Sephiroth. It tended to be dismissed as anarchist or nihilist because it didn’t have that textual backing, and that was something that was hard because I wanted to keep it in calligraphy. I didn’t want it to become another type-written Xerox thing you get in the mail.
Maybe in the future when there’s more published about it and that tendency, there’ll be more text to accompany it. It’s like a book that’s not referenced, that doesn’t have the footnotes. There’s something to be said about this. It was unusual. But there was a precedent in the early-’60s and into the ’60s for this new kind of self-publishing. I think that’s important: that the freedom of expression, the freedom of speech, and the freedom of the press are kind of linked together seamlessly. If you can say something, you should be able to print it, and you should be able to transmit it. Those Big Ass Comics, and everything from Last Gasp and Crumb, they opened up a dialog that created ’zines and created in a way the pluralism we have now, because there weren’t an awful lot of alternatives in terms of where to put your material back in those days.
JT In those days a number of artists were turning to little magazines as an alternative space for disseminating ideas outside of the museums and galleries. I see what you mean, having looked through Artpolice, that it was very image dominated. Your contributions, however, are very strongly rooted in language. There are a lot of words in what you do, in the current paintings too. I want to go back to Duchamp here, because in your contribution to Artpolice over twenty years, you had a narrative that you wove, His Story, and Duchamp played a huge role in that, as a character, in a way. I’m curious to know what it was about Duchamp that interested you so much.
FG Well, there was something about it that reminded me of Everyman. Especially in the ’20s when he gets rolling. There was a certain kind of brilliance about his work that also looked like chicanery, like he was the cardinal charlatan of France, and of modernism. But it was grounded in logic: the idea of an object being an object and an idea being an idea and the way you embed an idea in an object, and the way that equations relate to modern life and technology. He kind of parsed it. It was interesting that he had this modesty and humility and he never made great claims for his things; and I think that he had one foot firmly planted in Surrealism all his life, and the other was into a future that maybe even he didn’t get. Like in the Colossus of Rhodes, with one foot over here in the 19th century, and the other foot maybe reaching in the 21st. Like Nietzsche, he did it in a way that was directed at the normal: you know, is the normal normal? How are our perceptions normal? The concept of the readymade . . . he said this thing about the readymade not being noticed, but he also said that it becomes a subject, and that one of the things he was looking for was subjects. Like a list is a kind of object, you go one [through] ten or whatever.
JT You often present lists in your drawings and paintings, and I guess a list is one form of accumulation. You mentioned Warhol before. In your early work, there’s a strong interest in accumulation, serialization, repetition—the heads, the faces, the noses, the numbers. Did that have anything to do with Warhol? Or Arman in France?
FG Or like the skulls in the catacombs under Paris, where they’re racked up in rows and rows underground. I suppose for me though it’s also about thinking of the grid as essential to abstraction, that in order for a field to be equal, there has to be this here and this here and this here, inspired maybe for me by Larry Poons paintings of spots of color on a field. I was interested in creating something that would fill the visual field, almost like wallpaper, and satisfy the requirements of formalist art, which then was that all formalist art sort of leads to Pollock, who had been the destination of radical abstraction. So I was making all-over fields but with cartoon heads. It involved a much more labor-intensive process, but the effect I was trying to get is that when you see the painting from fifteen feet, it’s a bunch of little mushes, it’s an abstraction, and you see the abstraction reduce as you come up to it. I was, and I still remain, committed to formal issues in painting, because that’s what I know, and that’s why I am the sort of artist I am. But I’m very committed also to the idea that you have to let people in.
JT When we look at the development of your work across time, we see a major shift in scale. In the earlier work, there’s the accumulation that occurs within a single visual field, and then later you move towards more isolated images.
FG I move kind of slow. It seems like I don’t, but I do. For a long time when I was doing the little faces, I couldn’t do females—
JT The faces seem almost mechanically reproduced.
FG I think the place where they are is like a mantra that you repeat. (Gaard recites a mantra) Each little face is a mantra. I remember the one that’s at the Walker, in the Midnight Party exhibition, it looks like they’re printed. That was really obsessive. I think it’s because I go into this place and I do variations, you know like Bach’s variation, where you do one this way, one that way, so that you might have a family that’s almost the same. But it’s purposeful, and I think that purposefulness is part of the madness of those paintings. I really thought there was a way you could reconcile abstraction and figuration in a wall-sized picture. What I got in most cases was a kind of neutrality.
JT What is this pose that you reproduce in so many of your drawings and paintings, with the characters pointing, sometimes squatting and pointing, with one finger?
FG That was the Reagan thing of “One Way” that they were doing at the time. He was running for president and it was the first emergence of the Christian right as visible . . . the Christian Coalition, the whole We don’t have to worry about politics because we’re going to heaven. You know, an empty stomach down here, but a full one in heaven.
JT So they’re pointing to heaven.
FG Yeah, it’s an ecstatic image. But it’s also a political commentary on this new Christian answer. That somehow Reagan was more Christian than the last guy, because that Southern, Christian, anti-gay, anti-Jew, anti-black, anti-anything that ain’t like us, that was a big part of what was called the Reagen Democrats. They were shack-livin’ Democrats who, as the South changed, and the politics changed, and the South became Republican, became the base of the Republican party. This was the base of the Democratic party back in the ’30s. The Dixicrats.
JT Speaking of the Christian right, there seems to be a shift in tone in Artpolice around 1990: the work gets much more explicitly sexual. In a drawing that someone contributed to a 1990 issue, for instance, Jesse Helms is represented standing front stage in a strip club, with naked women in front of him and somebody pickpocketing him from behind, stealing the NEA money he holds in a hat. Was the sexual imaging in the late issues of Artpolice a reaction to this right wing attack on the arts that was happening then, in the culture wars, with the debates around obscenity?
FG I think so. That was such a vivid example, with Mapplethorpe and Serrano and his Piss Christ and everything. It was really like they were drawing the line about what the government would or would not do when under pressure from the right. And then as well, it seemed like AIDS, the AIDS epidemic, was shadowing free speech. The amount of homophobia that was inserted into that discourse, especially about Mapplethorpe, because he was dying, that’s what pushed it over the edge for me, the insensitivity of this whole situation. I mean if you’re going to have a culture, you have to publish books, you know? And then what happened very shortly after is that individual grants for artists ended. That was a victory for the right, for less information about art in America. That’s what we got whirled into.
JT In the first issue of Artpolice you use a quotation from Wittgenstein, which recurs in your work a few times, and that is that “aesthetics and ethics are one and the same.” I wonder about your commitment to that position, and how that informs what was going on then in the early-’90s and later in your work, with the more lurid images of blow jobs and money shots, and the young girls. I wonder what the ramifications are—I mean I wonder what sort of ethical position you were staking out?
FG That came to him from Karl Krauss, who was his instructor, one of his philosophical mentors. I guess it was also colored, for me, by Heidegger and stuff, this idea that artistic practice, that aesthetic practice, was almost interchangeable with ethical practice. I mean I think that’s one of the issues with Mike Kelley, in that his work was extremely aesthetic, in the sense that he was making these arguments about what could be art or how art could be, but at the same time with an abject kind of philosophy. And not just him: there were a number of artists at the time who were in that bag. But in general I stick by that: I think that the connection between ethics and aesthetics triangulates with politics, because you can’t have good politics if you don’t have an ethical art; if the art is just for itself it’s just Damien [Hirst] making dicks out of diamonds, you know? I don’t think it has the same moral power. There is a kind of ethicism that comes with following the best human instincts you have, like Guston did. Guston was well known as one of the great Abstractionists of his period, and when he moves towards figuration, which he had done as a young man, there was hell to pay: he was castigated by his friends, he was laughed at. He should be on that list with Saul and the rest, because he had the courage to go against the grain of what was the prevailing aesthetic.
JT Exactly. It seems like that move late in his career, after he encountered the work of R. Crumb, had an impact on people like Saul, and also on what was happening in Chicago.
FG Yeah exactly. It was a move different than anyone else was capable of, maybe, because of his background. You know he actually hung around with Pollock in LA. They went to art school and hung out on the wharfs of Long Beach. I think he was a much more radical artist than people give him credit for. But man, he stung. I mean, he had some cojones.
JT You have a copy of Lolita on your table.
FG God bless.
JT In Man Bag, the “adults only” art magazine you’ve been making since the early-’90s with Stu Mead, you remark in an editorial that “Lolita’s asshole goes unwritten.” “The very thing,” as you put it, “that defines perversion in Jesusland.”
FG (laughter_) It’s true, isn’t it? It’s true. When you talk about perversion it’s always heading in that direction, the end of the elementary canal. Especially with Lolita, with that idea of a Venus. (Gaard sings: “Ohh Vee-nusss . . .”) Somebody said, you know she’s given up men, she doesn’t want to be degraded anymore. But it’s like that degradation is there for everyone to enjoy. If you’re a man and you run after some girl and then you wind up in jail, you have only yourself to blame. It’s impulse control, but it’s also the culture, the culture by which we mean the powers that be, the Christians and the good people, they’re saying these things are dreadfully wrong, (_southern accent) “dreadfully wrong”, you know? But yeah, I think the thing is that desire and the desideratum has little to say about itself. It is, like the flower is to the bee. The bee doesn’t think when looking at the flower that there’s something going on intellectually: it wants its honey. (laughter)
JT “Deeper, let’s go deeper into the darkness of laughter.” That’s the last sentence you wrote in the final issue of Artpolice.
FG (laughter) Yeah, I was thinking about, what’s his name, Bataille. You know I’ve been chewin’ on that one lately, too, thinking about not being able to talk to Kelley anymore [since he passed away in early February], not being able to show him something or send him something or see him when I go to LA. It’s numbing, you know? Because I only had a few artists that I really watched and that I was intrigued about, that were pals, and he was one of them.
JT As a note to end on, I wonder if you could say a little something about Minneapolis from the standpoint of someone who’s been working here as an artist for forty years?
FG Well, I wouldn’t recommend it as a place for people to set down roots, unless they have a tenured position at the University. (laughter) And that’s about as likely as gold coming out of your ass. America: it’s for the one percent, you know?
Jonathan Thomas is a two-time alumnus of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program and is currently based in Minneapolis as an independent curator—a hack for hire. He has contributed writings to October, Artforum, Art Journal, Contemporary Literary Criticism, and other publications.