Sometimes when an artist’s work is particularly complex, it will go ignored for a few decades because the audience and especially the market do not know what to think about it or, or even worse (or better, depending on how you see these things) doesn’t even want to acknowledge when it is in the room.
While there is great injustice to this (especially as one’s peers are receiving recognition), it will likely transpire to have been a lucky turn. For an artist with the fortitude to persevere, the lack of attention and appreciation affords them freedom and time to evolve, to deepen their capacity to fully develop their vision—all without pressures from, and compromises for, the almighty market, whose impact on what art we look at (and how) is so much more profound than most would expect.
This has especially been the case with the work of Paul McCarthy, and not for his lack of presence or voice. Especially during the 1970s, when performance was so central to his work, I guess it is understandable that it might have gone somewhat unseen beyond Los Angeles. But ever since then, his potent video installations and sculptures—some of the most important and essential of the past 50 years—have been so physically aggressive and shockingly blunt in how they tackled such forbidden subjects as sex and scatology, that for so long the work was either ignored, like a gauche dinner party guest, or elicited actual rage from offended viewers.
(Of course, the ability to elicit such outrage is a feat in itself, given how old-fashioned the artistic cultivation of aggressive confrontation or spectacular offense has been for decades, since the 1990S.)
It has always been embarrassing to me how misunderstood Paul McCarthy’s work has been. I remember reading an article around 20 or so years ago in which a respected critic vilified the artist for making what he perceived to be offensively sexist art; a not-uncommon response to the artist’s work. I remember wondering whether we were looking at the same works?
There is a lot of sex depicted in Paul’s work, but in such an anti-heroic way that the male character comes out looking pathetically bad—obsessively, compulsively, ineffectually performing his manhood. As the artist himself has said, “Some people object to my work for being so sexually aggressive, but it’s not about male sexual prowess; it’s about impotence.”
This isn’t so hard to see if you really look at the work. Let it speak for itself, and its sentiments and anxieties are usually quite apparent. Of course, Paul’s work doesn’t just talk. It chatters, shouts, chortles and screams, with big belly laughs, at the cockeyed caravan of the human condition. His work has never been more relevant in its confrontation with the obscenity of the world than now.
Naturally, when the artist finally started to get some serious market attention more than 30 years into his mature artistic practice, somewhere around the age of 60, the work just as quickly became attacked for its costly sense of spectacle. I don’t think the work really changed in any substantive, primal way. What money enabled was even greater scale and advanced technology, to play out even more elaborately outrageous larger-than-life tableaux of the laughably desperate tragedy of human compulsion and the powers that drive them to obscene levels.
Through this all, drawing has remained central to the artist’s practice. And so, while everyone was in Los Angeles last week for the Frieze and Felix art fairs, I was dreaming of the McCarthy drawing retrospective that just opened at the Hammer Museum (“Paul McCarthy: Head Space, Drawings 1963–2019” until 10 May), while I was fading in and out of consciousness thanks to a particularly debilitating virus. It turned out to be a pretty good frame of mind for thinking about the great range of this artist’s drawings and how the medium has functioned as a central nervous system of sorts for McCarthy.
There are the hypnotically proto-surreal drawings he made while tripping on acid; drawings as performances; masterfully rendered figurative drawings; massive collage-like drawings that are both painterly and sculptural; drawings that are plans for works; drawings that are intimate.
Perhaps surprisingly, for many, McCarthy speaks of his work as coming out of Minimalism. And this will start to make sense in the drawings from the late 1960s and 1970s that are renderings of architectural spaces, tunnels, and three-dimensional mazes. I think of these as a structural diagramming of architectural crawl spaces that create elaborate pathways, somewhat like the tunnels of Cù Chi, or the veins and arteries of the body.
Most of these were indeed diagrams for spaces the artist built or desired to build. Part of what I find especially interesting about these drawings is how McCarthy’s beginnings are quite similar to those of Bruce Nauman, who also lived in the Los Angeles area around the same time.
What both artists share—and what separated them from Minimalism—is the psychological undercurrent of these spaces, whether drawn or built. For both artists, these were spaces for bodies and sets for performance, whether of the artist or a viewer. Both artists would ultimately find their way from the geometric and abstract to the figurative and real through psychological content, use of their of bodies, and through making sculpture. While inherently remaining distinctly different sensibilities, I think their developments are more parallel than might initially seem.
But, for me, the most fascinating aspect of Paul McCarthy’s drawings is one I have had the privilege to experience in person. As anyone who has had the good fortune of sitting with the artist in his studio, or at his dining room table, knows that when he talks about his work, he is most usually also drawing scribbly layered mazes, many of which recall these early drawings of boxed-in paths. Paul talks while drawing, and your gaze, like his, inevitably focuses on this continuous process of drawing, as though these sketches will depict what he is elaborately explaining.
While the process is hypnotic, it may take a while, if it happens at all, to realize that what he is drawing has no visible relationship to the work he is describing. But it seems as though the artist cannot talk about his art without drawing. Talking and drawing become a symbiotic process. For many years I would visit the artist when I went to Los Angeles, and I came to treasure these times. Drawing bound us; he in making as communication, and me in watching this very focused performance. I came to think of these drawings as pathways of the artist’s mind, and were somehow related to these sometimes elaborate tunnels he envisioned early in his life.
Paul McCarthy is one of the most remarkable portrayers of the human condition in the history of art, primarily through elaborately constructed, boldly colored, heavily gestural, outrageous, fantastical epic spectacles. For him, drawing is as essential as breathing.