The great mass of pictures left behind by history has become a kind of second nature for many contemporary artists. Lawrence Gipe has been an intrepid painter from this archive, selecting, representing, and recontextualizing second and third hand sources. With a keen eye for authoritarian rhetorics, Gipe refigures period photographs as paintings, while slyly balancing connoisseurship and interrogation. In his show at Blum Helman, the rearview mirror of Gipe’s gaze is focused on New York power broker Robert Moses. I spoke with Gipe in my studio on a recent visit from Los Angeles.
David Humphrey There’s something about doing an interview that requires one to wear a mask of oneself. You have to be both yourself and an image of yourself. I’m wondering if making paintings has theatrical aspects for you?
Lawrence Gipe Every artist plays a role, that’s what it’s about, being seen—as someone who plays a number of different parts within the practice of being an artist. I had a theatrical background as a youngster. My parents wanted me to be an actor. If you can imagine parents wanting to wish that on a person. Artists like Gerhart Richter or Jiri Georg Dokupil change constantly. They can paint, they can write, they can teach … I find maintaining your personality within those different roles to be very exciting.
DH Part of your work involves a critique of this modernist idea of originality. And in some ways, you mime these parts.
LG I do have an axe to grind with modernism, one being the notion of originality. But not in the way that Sherrie Levine deals with that concept. Mine plugs in more to the dogmatism that can occur through this obsessive repetition, like Barnett Newman or Mark Rothko. As beautiful as some of that work can be, it’s a self-mythologizing process: “If I continue to do what I do, I’ll reach nirvana.” That religious kind of obsession is something that I steer away from like the plague.
DH But you’ve absorbed into your practice the methods, the discipline, the practice of history.
LG I like to use history as a tool; of course, it’s for my own agenda. For instance, I’m considering a show about versions of history. The main idea is eight different versions of the composer Richard Strauss’ life during World War II. It’s amazing how differently each biographer has interpreted him. Some of it’s condemning, some of it’s apologetic.
DH You’re using the score of his life to rewrite this body of material, making it into a theatrical performance.
LG Exactly. Writing, painting, these are the instruments that we play here. And to delve into the texture of someone’s life, to find the truth, to try to be almost a journalist—that’s a very difficult, but exhilarating, task.
DH I think this is part of the challenge of history: you need a certain amount of sympathetic identification.
LG I love Richard Strauss’ music, it’s beautiful, but it’s this apolitical entity. It just floats there. And yet he composed this music throughout the Nazi regime. He was an apolitical person from the upper class—it was very hard to pin down his opinions. Consequently, it’s difficult to make a historical judgement about him, unlike someone like Mussolini, or even Teddy Roosevelt … We tend to judge Strauss by his music, whether we like it or not, how it fits into modernism, this formal analysis. I like to stir that up and say, yeah, well, what about him?
DH There’s something inconvenient about him.
LG So what is the responsibility of the artist? Are we supposed to be political? Is our work supposed to be political? My identification with Strauss is that his work was concerned with pleasure. Pleasure of the music. At the same time, I’m repelled by his lack of responsibility to the politics that washed around him, but that’s easy to say in hindsight. You know, it’s always the question: what would we do?
DH This might be a technical distinction, but rather than your work being political, you seem to be anticipating others’ politicization of your work.
LG Well, I wouldn’t say that. My work is politicized, but how it gets interpreted is something I have very little control over. I’m interested in making paintings and installations that struggle to make a judgment and yet really end up talking about how those judgments are made.
DH There is a playful side to the work. For instance, gender-oriented interpretations are anticipated in your texts and some of the images …
LG Certainly my work deals with the patriarchy, deals with authority. But I wanted to be deeper than just dealing with the father or the political father.
DH Would you say that perhaps feminism has come to function as almost a superego figure, as a certain conscience? Replacing the traditional Mr. Dad.
LG Mr. Dad turns into Ms. Mom? My work fits into these equations only because I am involved in critiquing male power by throwing it over the top—let’s just get this so far out in the open that we have to deal with it. One of my paintings is this huge, huge phallic symbol: a missile that says, “Going Up!” in big, red letters. I mean it to be funny and self-deprecating, a parody of thrusting, expressionist painting and of WPA art of the ’30s—eras where male art really got into this groove of propulsion imagery, phallocentric imagery. So it tries to engage on a level with those genres—and have fun with them.
DH How does a white, male artist have a dialogue with these issues?
LG My way of dealing with it is to deal with the past. Call it my distancing device, call it what you will. I don’t want to make a connection between art and current events, and I would not. Nor am I in a position to deal with contemporary feminist issues, for obvious reasons. However, I can talk about how male power has been misused in the past, how the egos of certain men in power have affected how we live today. Someone like Robert Moses, or on another level, Mussolini. We’re dealing, as a whole culture, with their decisions and their egos and what those egos produced.
DH It’s curious in some ways that oil painting is the medium in which those thoughts could be expressed because oil paint has other traditional associations issuing from its ease in sustaining libidinal investment. In other words, there’s a kind of sexy, liquid life to oil painting.
LG This is “language of male power,” and there’s my own complicity within it, within the practice, within the production of the sexy …
DH Hard-bodied …
LG (laughter) A lot of my work comes from those ads in Fortune magazine from the ‘30s that are rife with such obvious sexual innuendo, phrases like, “Lubricating the wheels of commerce,” and “Up for the duration.” “Up for the duration” was about the flag being up, but the rest of the ad said, “Production’s up, everything’s up, up, up.” How can that be interpreted in any other way but sexual?
DH In terms of a psychological structure within your work, your text functions as a superego to these images, which are also superego images to the present.
LG It’s on overdrive. I call it male hysteria. Capitalism run amok, which is basically what the ‘30s were about, which is a decade I’m very obsessed with, not only for that reason, but it was the decade which spawned my father. So I work through my paternal shit in that way. It’s also my childhood, too, because I grew up watching black-and-white movies endlessly. My intimacy with my father was to sit and watch a Jimmy Cagney movie about the white hats and the black hats. His childhood became my childhood.
DH So it’s a strange, double-bonding image of his nostalgia reproduced as a leapfrog nostalgia for you.
LG Exactly. Very strange.
DH That becomes easily inserted into what I think has become the war of stereotypes. If there’s a politics of contemporary art-making, it’s a war with and over stereotypes.
LG One of the benefits of working in a historical way is that the stereotypes come into focus. It’s easier to look back at someone like Robert Moses, and sift through his life and see where it went awry. Where his notions of making a greater America turned into just making a greater Robert Moses. You can see the transitions and the shifts and where he turned, in a way, from one stereotype to another—a reformer to a Republican asshole.
DH This is part of what you mean by the Faustian bargain.
LG Of course, the Faustian bargain exists on a number of levels. But, certainly, to put myself in a place where I can deal with that information and deal with it in a way that is attractive and even be selling these paintings to people who may be part of the problem—once again, I’m ambivalent about that.
DH Well, the double agent has the most subversive role of all.
LG Right. The Trojan horse. I don’t have a lot of expectations of the Trojan horse project.
DH Every artist has their kind of productive, generative, operating fictions in which to make the best case for their own work.
LG Exactly. At least there’s something there that’s not just some formal, geometric abstraction which can be co-opted for any kind of purpose whatsoever. My work is not neutral.
DH You could say there are different connoisseurships of motivating fictions. The history of abstraction has certainly generated some nice ones. You’re interested in looking at the operating fictions of historical figures.
LG I have a piece about Alfred Krupp which is ongoing. His family made armaments throughout German history into the Nazi years. But that wasn’t the axe I had to grind with Krupp. The fact is that Krupp used slave labor during the war. He had this triangle worked out where he was supplied slave labor from Buchenwald, and he would ship them back when they became disposable. We put him up for trial in Nuremburg and sentenced him to a prison term of 10 years—and he was out in 30 months. While he was in jail, he was attending top secret meetings to get his steel factories working again. The reason being the Russian threat. Like Klaus Barbie, who was probably the most famous example of someone who had a certain talent—we were bound and determined to use it.
DH You had used the notion of a Faustian contract to describe some of the relationships between industrialists and their culture. But also, in a way, some of your practices have perhaps an analogy with that Faustian contract.
LG Right. Well, there’s always a danger of being misunderstood. You have to place the information out there in a seductive way and allow people to deal with the information. These paintings about Krupp had phrases on them in Middle German, which is an archaic German that even people who consider themselves bilingual can’t translate completely. And there is this balance between what the picture shows, which is to say, the interior of a factory, a very religious feeling, honey-colored sun coming in through dust, dust coming up from the cauldrons and smoke and …
DH Kind of a romantic, sublime …
LG Yeah, which to American audiences would be a beautiful factory painting with a German phrase. But the translation, which is readily available at the desk, would turn that around. “Noth/kennt/kein/gebot,” “Necessity knows no law,” which was the Krupp family slogan. Contrast that to how it was turned into action, gruesome, murderous action …
DH You’ve found a way of negotiating or managing a relationship between fascination and ambivalence.
LG Ambivalence is a major concern of mine. It’s a major way of life. Writing and looking at history is an ambivalent exercise. You’re interpreting. As a historian, you’re interviewing people who lived through a certain experience. Oftentimes, that information is taken as fact, where in reality it is another version and could be just another fabrication.
DH For some people that understanding is a license to kill, especially in the context of political struggles. Information becomes a handy weapon. Paintings, of course, can never be trusted.
LG No, paintings can never be trusted, you’re right. I just got back from the Heartfield show. I was deeply affected because here is a man who was … he so strongly believed in his cause and the work was at such a service to that cause. I enjoyed the show so much, but it made me very nervous. I wondered what he did after the war. I know he died in 1968 and lived in East Germany—I mean, how did he feel after all that work? Anyway, I’m digressing, but I think you’re talking about propaganda and how painting or photography can be constructed. But to me, painting is something special. To me, it’s something I’m trying to insert into this discourse, and sometimes it’s just this blunt instrument. (laughter) Like trying to jam this round peg in a square hole.
It’s not an easy thing to reconcile information that is essentially moralistic or didactic. Painting has this romance, it’s there to be acquired, it’s there to be beautiful, luscious, and sexy. This layer is already in place and you can use it as a textual element …
DH I guess it constitutes a built-in memory to the practice, a kind of odd consciousness. Part of the language is this memory of its previous uses.
LG I use painting to tell a story. I use painting as a veneer, as a sheen on top of a story. This show about Robert Moses, the city planner in New York, has a wainscot of information on the wall and the paintings hang above that. The paintings are these hyper-romanticized visions of postwar New York, you know, idealized images.
DH Sounds like a civics class, an illustrated time line.
LG But underneath is the life of Robert Moses. He built Jones Beach, but then he made sure that the bridges, which went over the parkway that he built to get to Jones Beach, were too low for buses, and he refused to put in public transportation. Basically, he built a park for people of his class, middle class or upper middle class people, to enjoy. This information is literally a subtext under these paintings, so you get this physical and conceptual tension …
LG Frisson. Mais oui.
DH He is written all over our habitat.
LG Absolutely. Almost every bridge—of course, he hated tunnels ‘cause you couldn’t see them—loved big phallic bridges, but hated those tunnels. (laughter)
We can thank him for the parks, but at the same time, he’s an ambivalent character, extremely slippery. So, let’s just bring him up and talk about him again, and by doing that maybe we’ll learn something.
DH He was untouchable, right?
LG He was untouchable. And so that lack of accountability, that’s a theme for me.
DH It’s an amplified and twisted version of what artists are.
LG (laughter) Oops! Of course, we’re all control freaks. There are reasons why we all want to work alone in our studio and manipulate our fate in the world.
DH More than any other discipline, we’re masters of our own little fictional universes.
LG Our own little pathetic universe. But Moses was master of a lot, and it just begs to be talked about, somehow. Most of my work is generated from reading autobiography like the William Manchester book, The Arms of Krupp. This was an incredible family, five hundred years of mayhem. So they’re interesting characters; maybe I have a muckraking streak.