The Pioneers series aims to shed new light on artists who have created truly innovative work, trailblazers whose legacy lives and reverberates in the current generation. In this issue, Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen talk to William Leavitt.
This summer, I re-read The Long Good-Bye by Raymond Chandler. You once mentioned that he is a big influence on you, how he works on a literary portrait of modern Los Angeles.
I think that he helped me to see the LA of the past, the ‘30s and ‘40s, but he also helped me look at present-day LA better. I like his writing, but his work is more dramatic than mine. I think my work is dramatic but not necessarily about suspense, except perhaps Arctic Earth (2014), which is that fragment of a mansion floating in space. It’s sort of a dramatic situation without a story.
You have a very specific and unique way of storytelling, in that it doesn’t take use of elements that create suspense or dramatizing moments.
I think I’m interested in the tension between the banal everyday and the pervasive technology. I think we have a lot of good technology but it always tends to dramatize stakes that are trivial. I’m thinking more of a phenomenological approach, a kind of bracketing to set the mood apart from the condition that the object or the situation is in. It’s probably hard to give up early philosophical influences. For me, these are still essential!
Perhaps there’s something else at work that’s not suspense but still involves emotion. Also I think there’s the question of melodrama. I mean, even though one could say, “Well OK, it’s dramatic,” it’s kind of overly dramatic when you look at the form of it instead of the actual drama, if that makes sense.
Would you say the same about Los Angeles? Like LA is uncanny and melodramatic in that way?
That’s a good way of putting it—it’s certainly uncanny. I also think it has a different time frame. Sometimes you feel like there’s no time. Maybe it’s because of the distances and traffic, but something kind of slows down…
Getting back to Raymond Chandler, I’m trying to picture LA back then. I was wondering if it really was the same as it is today or if it’s changed over time.
I don’t think it’s changed. People come here from someplace else and then you see only this little part of the city because it’s so fast. You can’t take it in when you first get here; all you know is this little neighborhood. I think that’s still happening, finding these little places. The other thing about it is multiplicity. The city is kind of broken up into bits, with all of these little parts that are different from each other. It doesn’t have a homogenous character, but maybe that’s what makes for this pervasive existential feeling.
And maybe this is why LA always strikes me with its stage-like character. There’s no homogenous urban image, no sense of neighborhoods. Every house with its front yard looks like a stage of its own, existing in its own bubble.
Right, you can go down the street and see five or six different styles of houses. Also you feel like there is a temporary quality. When you see buildings in other parts of the US, they’re made out of real stone and seem very solid. It’s not that way in Los Angeles. There’s always something not quite permanent about the way things are done here. Maybe it’s just the vegetation, I’m not sure.
Los Angeles is uncanny. There’s always something not quite permanent about the way things are done here.
Maybe there’s also a kind of nostalgia nowadays in LA—and maybe in your work, too—for this LA of the ’70s.
Yeah, maybe nostalgia for the future past…
This is what I feel in America, especially in LA: the nostalgia for the future past. Even as a child, pictures of LA or Las Vegas seemed to me like pictures of the future, the promise of freedom. But going there now feels nostalgic, like a time travel into the past. Was there anyone else who inspired you with this notion of a “city portrait” of LA?
I think that I had ideas along these lines before, even though they weren’t specifically of portraying LA. Edward Kienholz certainly influenced me in terms of methods, the idea that you could take a fragment of something and use it to represent a larger whole.
Your approach, particularly how you define the stage tableau, is a specific methodology that works with different fragments and elements of theatricality.
I think it comes from LA feeling temporary. The theater is kind of evanescent and the stage set is actually isolated from the play itself. It does have more permanence, but it’s a kind of divided permanence. You have the materials that are permanent.
But sometimes there is an actual play that activates your sculptural stages! This was really surprising to us because we could relate to your work, coming from Venturi and Ed Ruscha and this portrait of LA that we knew, but we’d never seen it in this methodology of the stage tableau. You use all of these fragments in different ways—sometimes it’s a painting, sometimes it’s a ready-made. There’s a level of complexity we weren’t familiar with before. And then there’s the actual play. How did it get into your work?
When I did California Patio in 1972, it had little stage directions that said, “While these people are outside on the patio, their hostess is inside, preparing their buffet.” I thought “Well, oh my gosh, this is practically a theater piece anyway.” My interest in social situations led me to write things and put people into situations. Some could interpret them as plays: as we said already, they’re not that dramatic. People are talking to each other and they’re talking about something. They’re engaging with each other in various ways. Maybe I use the stage set as a basis to write these plays.
What about the relation of paintings to the stages? Sometimes a painting is part of the set as a prop, sometimes it’s just a painting for itself.
The newer drawings I’m working on for my upcoming show at Frank Elbaz in Paris have combinations of scenes, where perhaps six different things are happening on a single page. I don’t think I’ve really accomplished it yet, but I’m thinking about what people see when we have something in our mind’s eye, this kind of fleeting image that we’re thinking about. We can be really involved with it, even more than what we’re actually seeing. So I think it’s a very difficult thing to represent, but this is an attempt. Each drawing shows figures, usually engaged in what looks like a conversation, and then there are objects they could be thinking about or perhaps talking about.
Does the style of your drawings derive from a specific source?
No, it’s my own style that’s just developed. It’s the most economical for me, the fastest, and it’s kind of a generic drawing style but it’s my generic drawing style. Sometimes looser, sometimes a little more accurate, but it’s economical, it’s workmanlike. I can use it.
My drawings are a little bit like cartoons.
They tend to be naïve.
Another thing that always struck me about your drawings and paintings is the scale. It’s always rather small and domestic, which is unusual. They look more like objects than actual paintings, almost like theater props.
That’s a good thought. They could be used as props on a stage set because they’re not so big. I haven’t consciously thought about the scale, but that makes sense.
The style of the paintings is also somewhat generic. There’s nothing really expressionistic about them; they tend to be a little bit naïve, maybe unschooled. But this is just my way of working, I don’t want them to be overly finished. There’s a lot of open space. Paper represents the space for me, whereas the canvas sometimes closes that up when you put paint on it. The effect is quite different. I’m glad that I’m working on the drawings now.
That’s maybe why they have this Dalí-esque uncanniness: because of these emptied-out moments in the paintings, the drawings are often more artistic in a way.
Yes, the drawings are a little bit like cartoons. They’re stylized in a way to represent people and objects. Originally, I think, “cartoon” meant that it was a sketch for something else, but of course, we now use it in different ways.
Christopher Williams mentioned to us that when he was a student, the first performance artwork he ever saw was a piece of yours from the early ’70s, I think.
Ah, yes. He was a student at that time and he came to the Vanguard Theater and saw a play I did called Rain or Shine. It wasn’t one of my better works, but it was an experiment. It’s interesting that he was there to see that.
Another thing I’m interested in is your connection to Amsterdam. In the ’70s, you showed at the famous gallery Art & Projects.
The first time was in 1971 or 1972, some small drawings in watercolor, and then I had three or four shows after that. I think the last one was in the ’90s. That was before I moved to the north of Holland. But they were really sympathetic to my work. It was also nice to be part of Dutch culture, as many artists I admired lived there, such as Ger van Elk. I felt part of the artistic community there. It was smaller than in the US, of course.
It’s interesting to see this connection to Amsterdam because it opens up the LA context. There are so many powerful references to LA itself, as well as connections to the work of other artists. I’m reminded of when Dan Graham visited your exhibition in Zurich, as he’s such a big fan of your work. There seems to be a sort of bridge between your respective works—particularly with this notion of architectural portraits. I’m thinking here of Dan’s portraiture of New Jersey.
I love that. That’s a fantastic comparison. There’s a real everyday intensity about Dan’s work that I think I participate in as well, only in a West Coast version.
There’s also an interesting dialogue between your work and that of Guy de Quintet, who’s also worked with theatricality in distinct ways. So what is your Los Angeles DNA? Did you have a close dialogue with the CalArts scene, with artists like Michael Asher or John Baldessari?
It was quite distant. The Michael Asher correspondence was from afar; the same goes for Baldessari. Even though I did teach at CalArts for one semester, I wasn’t really part of that scene. Our group was smaller. We had Allen Ruppersberg, Jack Goldstein, Christopher Williams—people who lived in the part of town we lived in. I think Ann Goldstein called us “the big Wilshire artists” or something. Along Western Avenue was a club of maybe five or six artists. This was a big figure, because in LA everybody else was spread out. But now there are more. Things are much more social, I think. The traffic is worse too, of course, but it’s still a good place. The sun still shines.
William Leavitt (American, b. 1942) is an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. He is repre-sented by Greene Naftali, New York and Margo Leavin Gall80ery, Los Angeles.
Images: Body Space, 2012; Red Rock Palms, 2011; Roller House, 2011; Reflecting Pool, 1989; Mod Ville, 2012; Manta Ray, 1981; The Impossible, 1980. All images courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York