Last night's art talk at Seattle Art Museum goes down as one of the greats. It should have been a feature film. The physical comedy alone was off the charts.

Paul McCarthy and Richard Jackson had flown up from LA to do it. (They're part of the SAM show Target Practice). Earlier in the day I met them at an upstairs conference room to record a podcast (to be posted next week). McCarthy crashed the podcast—he'd turned it down and it was supposed to be Jackson alone, but then all of a sudden there was McCarthy in the doorway, ready to go.

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Paul McCarthy
  • Hauser & Wirth
  • Paul McCarthy
McCarthy is an art hero; he sort of took the soul of of conceptualism and put it in a deeply messy and yet Hollywooded body, and he's been written about and emulated for years. In person he comes across as a regal dwarf. It's not that he's that short; he's just shaped dwarfishly. And it is impossible not to notice that his hands are so thick that they are obscene. ("They're penises on palms," someone said to me. "How were they when you shook them? Succulent?" They were. They were succulent. Yes, it is all magnificently disturbing. This is the guy who, wearing women's clothes, humped raw hamburger and ketchup in a 1975 performance.)

Richard Jackson
  • Hauser & Wirth
  • Richard Jackson
Jackson, meanwhile, is less well-known and, in person, sort of an aged version of a baseball-playing 19-year-old from the 1950s. (Jackson is 70; McCarthy is 65.) Jackson reminds me of Robert Irwin. He's a guy's guy who cracks wise. At SAM, he wore plaid shorts and leaned low in his chair, legs all sprawled (one long, one wide), while McCarthy sat upright in his chair with his hands folded in his lap like a weeble that has found its unalterable center of balance.

McCarthy is a little bit imperious. Or a little bit absent-minded. He creates awkward pauses—all over the place. Also, he has not met a question he would like to answer in a quick manner. Everything takes an hour. (Mostly it's totally worth listening to, actually, but there's a lulling effect. Until an awkward pause begins suddenly and, also, lasts forever.)

Meanwhile, Jackson was at the tail end of losing his voice, which created extreme moments of hysterical genderfuck. His rat-a-tat tough-guy baritone would be going along—"I always thought of myself as a painter"—and then all of a sudden it would break into tiny-harried-old-lady talk—"but the painters never thought so." This caused fits of laughter.

All this unintended comedy was heightened by the fact that curator Michael Darling, who was moderating the talk, did not once crack a smile. He was the ultimate straight man, which began to be hilarious before long.

And lastly, for some reason McCarthy's chair was stationed slightly out of the halo of the spotlight meant to cover all three men on the stage. By the end of the night a giant shadow was eating his entire face. As he talked about the deconstruction of Disneyland, he looked like one of those ashamed adults confessing a love for Frosted Flakes with Tony the Tiger over their shoulders in the '80s commercials. AWESOME.

It was all unintentional, really, but the bizarre (and non-ingratiating) theatricality of the evening fit perfectly with these two artists. At times they seemed like polar opposites—like when Jackson made the Palin-like observation that "Minimalism is a bunch of bullshit I attribute to the fact that drugs were cheap back then. People who can sit in a room and talk about something being blue? I came from a small town, and that shit wouldn't play"—but other times they seemed perfectly in tune, albeit completely different. McCarthy is an (art-world) establishment figure at this point, and from that position he doesn't seem to see things in terms of inside or out; Jackson positions himself oppositionally, against both the academic and the decorative art worlds. Though both of them have taught for years, Jackson is more like a cowboy, McCarthy more like a professor.

They first met back when both of them moved to LA (Jackson originally from Sacramento, McCarthy originally from Salt Lake City) in the 1960s, but you didn't get the sense they were friends, just maybe slightly distant colleagues. (That could be wrong, but it's how it felt.)

They equally savaged conventional ideas about painting, though. "I think painting has become a craft: It's like ceramics, glassblowing, painting," Jackson said. Ouch.

McCarthy followed up with a description of himself on all fours on top of his paintings as a young man, using dirty motor oil he'd drained from his car. Any liquid, to him, became paint. The surface and the rectangle weren't what was important. What was important was the liquid and the action.

The question of originality popped up like a Whack-a-Mole that went right back down. McCarthy told the story of being in a collector's house in Switzerland recently and running into a drawing by Jackson ordering paint to be poured down a staircase. "I have that same drawing," McCarthy said flatly. "We couldn't have known." "Sometimes I use everybody's work," Jackson declared. "Sometimes I just copy it."

Ma Bell, 1971, by McCarthy
  • Hauser & Wirth
  • 'Ma Bell,' 1971, by McCarthy
The two had cued up videos and photographs of their work to show on the big screen behind them. First came McCarthy's Ma Bell, a black-and-white video of an early performance in which he takes on that maniacal/retarded persona of his. In this one, he creates a horribly visceral painting-sculpture by going through the phone book dumping motor oil from a bucket into the crease between the pages, then adding flour and cotton, then turning a bunch of pages until he gets all the way through the book and pressing down the stuff until the entire thing is like a morbidly obese sandwich of ooze. (As disgusting as it is, the thing has a strange, lardy Beuysian power even onscreen.)

In the next video, McCarthy is shirtless and bearded inside a storefront along a strip where cars are driving by continuously. He's looking all hippie-macho and whipping a wall and the storefront window with a heavy piece of fabric dipped in paint. We only saw a few minutes of it; it was just okay. Nothing too unusual (given the burly experiments of Pollock, Serra, Matta-Clark, etc. etc.) compared to Ma Bell, which worked simultaneously as a painting, a sculpture, a performance, and a video. He said afterward that he threw the huge ooze sandwich of black-and-cotton-and-flour-and-phone-book out the window onto Broadway (in LA) after the filmmaker stopped taping.

For Jackson's turn, he showed an old photograph of an installation of a thousand paintings stacked on top of each other up against a gallery wall, only their drippy edges showing. "This is what painters do: they have one idea, and then they paint a thousand pictures," he said. "I try to make each thing its own idea, and that's when it gets hard. I think painting has become pretty boring because painters tend to get real stylized and then you're not surprised very often."

Jacksons Whos Afraid of Red Blue & Yellow
  • Hauser & Wirth
  • Jackson's Who's Afraid of Red Blue & Yellow
Then he showed a video of paint pouring through the propeller of a model airplane—something I didn't entirely understand called Accidents in Abstract Painting, which also includes another performance/painting of a car loaded with paint and then crashed into a wall before a show so that visitors see the results (kind of like the secret performance Jackson did at SAM for Target Practice, which involved turning canvases loaded with paint toward the wall and smearing the colors on, then leaving the backwards-turned canvases on the wall with the paint). Jackson's making fun of the way the abstract expressionists glorified accidents as the only true expressions (something Rauschenberg took aim at in works like Factum I and II), but in a sunny way. After the video of the paint splattering all over the place through the propeller stopped, Jackson paused, then said, "That's how I make a living."

Jackson also took this opportunity to tell the audience that the painting made upstairs at SAM—which the museum still stands to acquire, which means that Jackson still stands to make money off of it, which means he probably shouldn't talk shit about it—wasn't a particularly good one.

"After a while, you get so good at it that it's no good anymore," he said.

During the Q&A, McCarthy explained something that I wondered: How did he feel about depicting de Kooning as a bumbling idiot in his famous video The Painter (here!) while de Kooning himself was suffering from dementia?

"I'd bought a blond wig and planned to be Warhol in that video, and then I put the wig on and looked in the mirror and said, Oh. De Kooning. It happened 10 minutes before the thing started. At the time, de Kooning was sick, but I had no idea. It got related that way, but at the time I made it it wasn't that," McCarthy said.

McCarthy talked some more, about the influence of Dieter Roth's cheese installation in LA in 1970, about Robert Mallary's sculptures of clothes dipped in resin (here, tuxedoes "impregnated" with resin), and about how for Sailor's Meat (the 1975 performance with the raw-hamburger-humping), he'd been inspired by a still from the B-porn movie Europe Raw, and that his mind at the time had been taken up with (the dirty/clean) thought of "a ship going into the void."

Yes, yes, but would they fight?

"Walt Disney is the greatest artist of the 20th century," Jackson announced, unprompted, sending a shot across McCarthy's bow. "I mean, it's true, whether you like it or not." Ominously, his voice dropped into baritone on "whether you like it or not."

McCarthy took the bait.

"Mickey Mouse is perfect: the proportions, it's the David," he said. Everyone laughed. "At the same time I see it as something to attack. The corporateness of it. I remember once being in the back of Disneyland where there were these squirrel characters with their heads off, like, having a cigarette. The tour guide said, 'They're breaking the dream!' I said, 'Like Walter Benjamin.' [Nerdy theory reference that drew a few lonely laughs.] It's this Shangri-La, this controlled space. And I come from a controlled space, this city beyond the mountains: Salt Lake City. I've always been interested in control and conditioning. So for me, it's about the deconstruction of Disneyland. ...I prefer to take the position of critiquing Disneyland."

You couldn't help loving them both, especially together. It was an extremely American night.