I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
It’s late summer and we’re in the Hamptons. Billy Sullivan’s studio is in the less fashionable North Woods—scrubby pines and scrappy indigenous houses—an isolated suburbia. In the back, glass doors open onto voluptuous hibiscus and hydrangea bushes. The garden invades the woods, and much like Billy’s paintings, its civilization looks wilder than the forest. His paintings line the studio’s walls: the ardent insistence of friends, birds in flight, gardens teetering on decay, slaughtered pigs, sailors jerking off … You hear them in the color, see them in his markings.
Saul Ostrow I was going to jokingly start this interview with the question “Have you been to any good parties lately?” because of that split in your work between the pastoral images and the “scene” images, cafe society mise-en-scènes and portraits.
Billy Sullivan Well, this group of painting’s got flesh and fauna. (laughter) And this will be a big portrait of me.
SO The first?
BS Well, no. But this is going to be à la Marsden Hartley’s lifeguard painting, middle-aged me in a bathing suit.
SO So Marsden Hartley was the male cheesecake of his day?
BS I was easing into figuring out how I could use pornography in my work. The first were still lifes including gay porn magazines, an art book opened to Hartley, and a Balinese makeup box shaped like a dick. The Hartley made me want to do this self-portrait.
SO Lush. Do you use oil rather than acrylic paint for its sensuousness?
BS I remember being dragged into Fourcade to look at those minimal, slow de Kooning paintings in the early ’80s. You know how slow, how heavy that paint moves? It was really hard for me to accept that. I was looking for the figure painting and he abbreviated the figures toward the end. But then I started seeing them. There was this little show out here this summer—those last killer paintings. The biggest, heaviest paint and this calligraphy flies out. I’ve been thinking about those, and the Manet flower paintings … Also, I got friendly with Joan Mitchell a few years ago. Talking to her, watching her stroke and her languages. She got freer and freer. And then her body gave out, she had hip replacements, all these things went wrong with her, so she had to eliminate some of the gesture in her painting. Her pastel show at the Whitney was minimal but the strokes and the movement in the works were incredible. And the last painting show before she died had a lot of different languages in it. It figures, you know, these influences, through Paris, through Joan who was American but lived in France, come back to New York, then are filtered through me and my painting.
SO Is that the influence of being an American tourist in Paris?
BS I spend a lot of time in the L’Orangerie when I’m in Paris. I find myself going from Manet to Soutine. There’s a balcony in the museum with some of the best portraits and flower paintings of that time. Red gladiola paintings … and downstairs, big gardens. The last time I was in Paris I was staying across the street from L’Orangerie, so I’d go there every day, walking around looking at art. Instead of walking through the Tuileries as an excuse to get to the shops to buy clothes, the museums really became the purpose.
SO That pickup of the late 19th-century European tradition of cafe society that even takes place in your self-portrait paintings is you as a latter-day Flaneur, as a public voyeur like Lautrec.
BS Well, I’ve always been a voyeur. Who sometimes gets confused and gets involved.
SO It’s like Robert Frank’s photographs of the Americans.
BS Those are my favorite photographs.
SO So you went out to find America, or in your case, went off to find this other America. There is a weird split between the European tradition and your subjects which are typically American.
BS I can’t avoid cross-referencing. And my influences are definitely from Paris.
SO How did that come about? You grew up in Brooklyn.
BS Well, there was Toulouse Lautrec. And the camera. Photographs were being used in art as a reference for painting starting in France with the Impressionists.
SO Yeah, but you hung around Warhol’s factory.
BS Sort of. I was really a fringe, fringe player. And his was a later version of all that. And there isn’t a day that I don’t think about, “And Andy said …”
SO (laughter) It’s the Velvet Underground song …
BS Well, it’s true!
SO Yeah, but what I meant is that Warhol used photography as the basis for his paintings …
BS He brought it to a really quick, flat method. He did the best plastic surgery portraits anyone’s ever done. They’re brilliant and they’re beautiful. And then his disaster paintings, the repetition … It’s hard to come after that. In art, he’s a major influence. There are more paintings upstairs, the drawings of Brooks’s and Lisa’s wedding. You want to look at those? (The room Billy takes Saul to is sunny and furnished with only a bed under which are flat files for drawings. An entire wall is covered by a painting of three men swimming. It looks as if it were shot underwater, looking up at flailing legs from the pool’s bottom.)
SO Remember when I did that show called Psychodrama?
BS Yeah, you put me in it.
SO It was one of the underwater pictures.
BS It was my son.
SO It reminded me of somebody who had drowned.
SO What did you think of Jack Pierson’s little piece on you in Artforum? It made you seem like such a party boy.
BS It was fine for what it was. I am an old bullfrog in a frog pond. I liked how it was summer reading. (Saul’s looking at drawings Billy did of art critics Lisa Liebman and Brooks Adams’s wedding party which was held in Phillip Taaffe’s studio, an old school gymnasium hidden away in Manhattan’s flower district.)
SO I can recognize some voyeurism in these …
BS This was the bachelor party. That’s Donald Baechler and Paul Kasmin. Oh, here’s some of my favorite pictures of Rene Ricard.
SO When you came across the bridge from Brooklyn did you think you’d end up this way?
BS You know, La Dolce Vita was the first time I took a breath. I snuck into Lowe’s as a kid to see it. That was the first time I figured out there was a world out there I would fit into, that there existed something I wanted.
SO Is there something about La Dolce Vita and being Catholic?
BS Well, I remember going to see Mondo Carne. It was on the taboo list for Catholics because it showed bare breasts. Trying to convince friends of mine to go see it with me was hard.
SO You didn’t go to Catholic school, did you?
BS Catholic grammar school. Then I went straight to high school, Art and Design. (pointing to a drawing) That’s Brooks’s mother and aunt. It’s this great little upper-WASP family. I installed them on a corner wall.
SO Celebs and pin-ups?
BS If you could call this part of the art world celebrities.
SO Well, the players are unimportant. You’re better than a wedding photographer, Billy.
BS I had fun.
SO What occasionally confuses people is that there’s no ready reading. Pierson depicted you as a society gadfly which can become: “He’s a retrograde painter, either in love with paint or in love with the weirdness of the images.”
BS (still looking at the drawings) That’s Mary Heilmann. Look, she’s even dressed in white.
SO Do you eventually see the range of it as just a big social portrait?
BS No, not at all. But I’ve always been a chronicler.
SO Back to the Robert Frank photos as social portrait.
BS Oh, I’ll go back further than that. Some of my favorite social portraits are those little Goyas. They’re heaven, so minimal … The subjects range from the totally insane to the totally aristocratic. It’s the spectrum of where people like you and I get to hang out. One day you’re in the castle and the next day you’re on the street. We’re allowed to go back and forth. (flipping through more drawings)
SO Do you see this as the court?
BS One of many. That’s the art of it.
SO A slightly deranged and inbred court.
BS Definitely inbred. Tiny little world. It’s up there with the Goyas.
SO Do people like seeing themselves this way?
BS Some do, some don’t.
SO Has anybody said, “No Billy, you can’t show that?”
BS Well, the mother of the bride had a hard time with it. She was supposed to call me and never did. I found out that she wasn’t really happy with it.
SO What’s funny is that these don’t seem as glamorous as your club scenes or as exotic as your travel drawings. It all seems so middle class …
BS Well, that’s what you get.
SO I think it has more to do with the observer … (silence as both unwrap and pour over more drawings) That’s grotesque!
BS That’s why it’s Goya. Do you know Gericault’s Heads of the Mad?
SO They’re beautiful. He looks like he’s emerging out of Brooks’s chest, like an alien … This one looks like gangsters.
BS Some sort of a mafia.
SO It’s curious where you push yourself. Never by chance.
BS This is Sam-bo, my son. That’s youth.
SO There’s a hell of a lot of affection in that portrait.
BS Oh, there’s true love there. And here’s the Rosenblum portrait.
SO That’s cool.
BS And that’s the Rifat Ozbek, you can see why it was discussed at dinner, it’s major go-go.
SO The fact that you know the brand name …
BS It’s a paint color in my business.
SO It’s a book title in mine.
BS (showing Saul a self-portrait) I’m getting ready for this middle-aged portrait.
SO You really are. For a self-portrait, this almost looks as if somebody else did it, it’s that objective.
BS That’s what we want to get, flesh and Billy.
SO This isn’t you now. This is years of wear and tear from before. You don’t look like this anymore. This is from when you were drinking.
BS Though, I wasn’t anymore.
SO But the effects of it are there. There’s no focus in the eyes … that’s what makes it a scary self-portrait. It’s really honest.
BS Thank you.
SO Like Remembrances of Things Past.
BS Well how can it not be, with all the references that these muster up. They might be done quickly, in terms of execution but …
SO These are fast, directly observed, the paint is thinner. The landscapes are where the paint gets gooey
BS Well, that’s what we’re going to see with the new portraits. This is the beginning of that.
SO But the paintings of people always seem to be more economical.
BS There’s always the concern of representing the portrait of the person and playing that. I’m having more and more fun turning the person into drawing.
SO The landscapes and flowers and animals give you more freedom.
BS The landscapes, flowers, and animals are about me and me, not about … it’s less about chronicling and more about the mark that I’ve been building through the bird drawings. One of the reasons I wanted a studio out here in the country is because I started drawing those birds. It wasn’t about relying on a photograph anymore, but on what I was seeing, and memory. The paintings wind up being memories because they take longer than the drawings. Pastels are so fast, there’s no way that can take long, and the ink is fast. There are all those balances.
SO But the landscape paintings look fast too.
BS Well, they are getting fast …
SO In terms of the fluidity of the marks. The Hollyhock painting … That is what you call them? (yeah) My relationship to nature goes back to high school when Central Park was nature.
BS We went to the Rambles, remember? That was field day. I mean, what high school goes for field day in the Rambles?
BS And with bongo drums.
SO And a lot of dope.
BS Did you graduate in Central Park?
SO My class graduated in Central Park. If I went to graduation, I’ve totally blocked it.
BS Oh, I went. I stood behind it and smoked lots of dope. We graduated in the Band Shell.
SO Mine too, it was just a year later. Either I wasn’t present or my mind wasn’t. I know I spent prom night on the Staten Island Ferry.
BS That’s required. We did that after the prom.
SO This was in place of the prom.
BS I went to the prom. I did the big Forest Hills number. I had this beautiful Hungarian girlfriend, Julie Howlin. The big fancy gowns and the hairpieces.
SO I was going with this woman, Monique Breif.
BS Who wasn’t even in school. Was she in school?
SO She dropped out. (Billy runs downstairs to answer the door.)
BS That was UPS. I was flipping through W magazine and there were a pair of motorcycle boots in the back of the men’s supplement with a 1-800 number, and I dialed it. It was to Gucci so I ordered these boots and they came here and they were hideous. They were $338 and they looked like Durangos. I feel like I made $380 by sending them back. I had never done anything so tacky as that.
SO Not the look you wanted for fall.
BS I have a few things from Gucci that make a sensible joke, and they happen to be a good shoe. I have these walking boots that are just great. Another day, I was high on novocaine. My dentist is right up the street from Gucci, so afterwards I went in there and came out with a pair of pink Gucci loafers! I mean, how many people can use those?
SO I don’t know a hell of a lot of people who get high on novocaine.
BS I’ve talked to a lot of people who go shopping after they go to the dentist.
SO Oh, really? Do any of them like what they buy? (laughter)
BS I wear these pink shoes, it’s a joke. I wore them last night and I almost wore them to your house.
SO These decisions … You were talking about all the artists who used gouache you had to call.
BS I didn’t know how to do the wash, I didn’t have a book and there’s lots of painters I know who use gouaches. But I couldn’t remember what anyone had told me from one day to the next, so I had to keep calling different people. This is when I was doing that big mural. Did you ever see it? I’ll have to show you the postcard. I’d been doing murals for Sonesta Hotels as a sideline. I did two in Curacao and then I did one in the Purple Dolphins Room at the Sonesta in Miami. It was just when I was starting this swimming thing.
SO Bonnard or Vuillard did wall paintings … dining rooms.
BS I love doing rooms. It’s really nice to be told what to do. I mean, I had to do purple dolphins.
SO Whatever we have to do to survive. Talking, dinner … I never held that against anybody.
BS Oh no, it always turns out to be a learning experience.
SO As long as they don’t tell you how to paint.
BS They try sometimes. I once did a portrait of this mature woman who was going to a clinic to lose weight and she wanted me to paint her as she was going to be when she got back. I don’t know if she was talking off the top of her head or what, but it was a definite request. Like going to the barber with a picture: “Can you make me look like Troy Donahue?”
SO Is that a fantasy?
BS No, that would be James Dean. I’m not a fool.
SO I can’t see you in a blond crewcut.
BS If there was somebody I wanted with a blond crewcut … (laughter) My favorite song was “Two Lovers” by Mary Wells; I took it literally.
SO We grew up at a good time.
BS It was a good time.
SO Everything was do-able.
BS The answer was penicillin. I’d hate to be my kids growing up now. It’s a whole other ball game out there, horrible …
SO Yeah, it’s scary … Woodstock II.
BS I went to Woodstock I.
SO Did you?
BS Yeah. I went up there with Amy Sullivan, Susan Kaplow, and Stephen Mueller. We drove up, everyone was hanging out of cars. You could see they were wearing underwear. That was not a good sign in those days. People who were cool did not wear underwear. (laughter) We figured out that we were on the wrong side of this fence, the other side is where Jim Ferrat was and Helen Marden. I didn’t know Helen then, but I knew who she was. So we turned around and came back to New York, I dropped acid, and we drove down to Max’s—in those days, Steven had a portable tape recorder the size of a huge Webster’s dictionary—and we did a running monologue about going down 42nd Street, gave the Woodstock tickets to Brigette Polk at Max’s that very night. I mean Bridgette Berlin, that’s her name now.
SO Right, I forgot. She lives in the same building as Sue Woodruff. Sue called me just the other day, mutual friends of ours are here from Germany, the guy curating the show of Keith Sonnier’s in Nuremberg. Nuremberg is weird because it still has some of the Nazi architecture.
BS That’s where the trial was.
SO The trial, the rallies … It’s where Albert Speer built the party headquarters.
BS I’m dying to see that architecture. There’s a man who understood scale.
SO (laughter) I thought Vienna would be more your taste. Or Prague.
BS So I hear, Prague keeps coming up.
SO Well, you love Paris. And Prague and Vienna, and Paris are the 19th-century cities that weren’t destroyed by the war. The imperial cities.
BS It’s funny, I never think of Rome as being destroyed. But it was, wasn’t it? It was bombed. (silence) There’s such a warmth in Paris, I’ve got all these friends in Paris. But there’s no reason why I can’t go somewhere else. I’ve never been to Spain, unfortunately.
SO Neither have I.
BS Or North Africa.
SO Or Turkey.
BS It’s the horror of flying.
SO You’re afraid to fly?
BS No. It’s that you never see these places because you fly over them going someplace else.
SO Shirley and I keep talking about going to India.
BS India. Now there’s a place I’ll always go back to. Because it’s never the same. It totally unravels in front of you. My favorite is Diana Vreeland’s, “Pink is the national color of India.” There are the most colorful, beautiful people. Khajuarho has the most sensual art. And the Parsi who leave their dead in trees for the birds, and Hinduism … all those religions are so sensual, the food’s amazing. Tons of light. Clothes in so many layers. Anytime you move, there is somebody flapping a piece of fabric and it just flows in the air. Saris work so well in that heat.
SO People who have gone all go into that trance-like state you just did, the eyes roll up …
BS My show of India was again about another wedding, and dancing, and bands. We were driving for eight hours, getting out of a car, and being swooped into this event. That was ten minutes in a month of pure color and ecstacy.
SO Do you find yourself envious of film? Would you like to make a documentary?
BS I’d like to be in a documentary. (laughter) No. I’m just starting to figure out painting. I’m having a really good time with it. I’m happy where I am now, and every day I edit and choose whatever I’m doing.
SO The reason I ask is the direct relationship between the camera and the art. All these weird little details in the Lisa and Brooks wedding album. How in your face the landscapes get, how the foreground is pushed up.
BS There’s that big hollyhock painting. I’ve got to go look at it. (footsteps back to the studio) I’m thinking about it.
SO (following him) I’m talking about psychological space. And in the portraits, even though they’re all close-ups, there seems to be a psychological space between subjects.
BS It’s easier to read the psychology in the portraits and the chronological stuff because that’s what they’re about. And the swimming paintings, they’re about the flesh.
SO Description of flesh?
BS The sensuousness. In the Hollyhocks I wasn’t looking for a middleground. I was playing with the stroke and the movement.
SO How much of this is preconceived and how much of it do you see after you’ve done it?
BS Oh, that’s what I love, none of it is preconceived. It’s when you go blank, you don’t really go blank, you’re working and then all of a sudden it’s there.
SO How formally can you talk about it?
BS Formal’s a really hard word for me.
SO You talk about the mark, the gesture …
BS When I look at other people’s work, that’s what I look at, so it’s something I concentrate on. This fall, I kept going back to the Lucien Freud show because there it was, figurative painting right in front of me. So I kept going back, and things would drop away—greatness moves—and other things come in. Every time I’d leave the Met there would be this great Bonnard painting. And this Marsden Hartley landscape, which was right in front of your face too, with these blue mountains and I’m like, “Wow, that is the most difficult, hardest, and it’s a beautiful painting.” So there are all these images.
SO How much is that beauty important to you?
BS What beauty?
SO The idea that beautiful paintings mean something.
BS There’s nothing better than when I can come home after getting something out of a painting. I love it when it’s beautiful and I can get something out of it. I don’t find anything wrong with that.
SO That’s why I asked about beauty. Beauty is different than pretty or pleasing.
BS When a painting is good, it’s beautiful, and it transcends when it was done or how it was done, what its image is. I go to look at other art with a preconceived notion of what I’m going to get out of it. And, if it’s really good art you come out with an entirely different notion. I go for dialogue. I spend a lot of time looking at art. I love to look at paintings, I get a whole lot more out of paintings than I do out of conceptual art. And I get just as much from minimal painting … I’m thinking of Brice’s [Marden] paintings and how they’ve evolved for me.
SO Since the gestural stuff.
BS That was a big surprise, that I was seeing gestural things that in fact were there … I’m always amazed, like a little kid, that what you see, other people see too.
SO The psychology of this painting is the escape into the landscape. Its foreground is a mass of vegetation, a wall across the form of the painting, the background like a hole, a mass of yellowish white. So people look back into the painting and don’t always see the dead bird lying in the grass in the foreground.
BS Well, its like Moses hidden in the reeds. I had found this beautiful little oriole on my lawn. It had hit the window and died. I was trying to make it alive … so I have this whole roll of film of the oriole in all these positions as if it were alive. And as I was painting this painting—I put the butterfly in, and there was this bird that I had in my mind, so one day I just put it in.
SO That bird gives you this vista …
BS Putting a dead animal in is such a joke, cross-referencing with all these other paintings I’m not involved in … All those hummingbirds in Ross’s [Bleckner] work … Alexis Rockman … But I do draw birds, and it’s summer.
SO That layer of references in terms of the making and the images. How one painting is of slaughtered pigs in a truck in Chinatown, but it’s also Soutine. And then there’s Breugel. And Rembrandt’s side of beef …
BS Which Soutine saw. So it’s yet another cross-reference.
SO It’s also locating yourself within a tradition without being a traditionalist. It’s not tight-assed, there’s too much play in it. I keep looking at that spot of yellow, the one that draws you back, up top, next to the tree.
BS Where is it?
SO In Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe—the woman who is washing herself in the stream. I keep wanting her to be in your painting because that yellow hole reminds me of the hole that draws you back in that Manet painting.
BS That is a big hole. That’s the only passage that leads back. It does what it’s supposed to do. There’s a trip. I guess that’s your “classic triangle.” (laughter)
SO Dead bird, butterfly, yellow spot?
BS No. Woman. (laughter)
SO Realizing the range, thinking of the wall of drawings at Stux, the portraits, and then the pornography drawings… What’s funny is how much we live in a spectacle. Or live through television, or photographs, or films. There’s still an incredible problem with the sensuous. It’s what I was saying earlier about the confusion that your work sometimes sows: that your images of cafe society are only about the social, not about how the social is represented. In terms of the portrait of Nam June Paik and that glass. It doesn’t have to be Nam. It’s the way the jacket comes down on his arms, the glass that’s falling out of his hand as he cradles it. It doesn’t matter who it is, that’s the icing on the cake. It’s much more curious as a drawing than it would be in the photograph.
BS Yeah, we would hope that you’d make the transition. (laughter) There is still purpose in the eye and the hand. And that’s why we look at painting or drawing. The word calligraphy is so important, how you make the mark. My birds started me thinking about it when I started drawing them. There would be these passages, these marks that just went off on their own. First they would be about images, then they wouldn’t be about images, and that’s what I love about them.
SO We’re sitting here talking about the images in terms of the sexuality or the gesture, if there is anything anecdotal about the images, it’s little details about the person, not the person, but the quirk.
BS Yeah, the association. The little joke that makes you want to do it.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee