Lowell, the good folks at SFAQ have given us 2600 words to summarize your colorful life in the art world. Can we do it?
You know, Griff, I just got back from the clinic and the diagnosis doesn’t make me feel much like talking about the art world. But it does drive me to have this conversation. My work, the ART I made in caps, has always been my way of coping with the world. And so… My life has been one long art performance. I don’t remember ever being anything but an artist. My grades were bad as a kid, but I could always draw, so ART got me by. I realized since ART gave me a leg up before, I may as well make a name for myself and create a career. So, I worked hard to make Lowell Darling=ART and wanted it to be a familiar name to as many people as possible. Of course I chose to show up more outside the normal art venues rather than inside.
I built an art career by coming up with projects that involved lots of other artists, and sometimes the public at large. Primarily I used the mail and public media, although I did have one of the first alternative spaces in California in 1971, the Art Center of the World in Davis. But now, let’s face it. I’m officially old. Why deny it or even honor it? It ain’t no big deal or mystery. There is nothing special about mortality.
I don’t know what to say. I have some questions here about….
Well, today I have some questions for myself. I know myself a little better, and in a whole new way. I mean, sure, we all know we’re going to die. I’ve almost died several times. I was a wild and sometimes dangerous guy. But today, at the VA Hospital, no less, I was introduced to my real body.
Don’t tell me you’re going back to body art? Like when you fell off the museum roof in Greece…
Ha, ha. Very funny, Griff. No. But I haven’t treated my body so well. Been ruthless to it. I’ve always been a prop, you know. I use myself to make my art. I guess I am the art, though I hate the corniness of that idea and have always sort of fought against the little movements art critics give us. I’ve been called a conceptual artist, a video artist, a performance artist, a media artist, a correspondence artist you name it, even a ceramist for Christ’s sake. I think I may have even started a few. But I’ve always been only Lowell Darling. I’m not a member of anything. I’m simply just another lousy human body with a lot of ideas trying to escape. Frankly, I’m at a loss as to what to say, but if everything in my life has been raw material for my work, why not the end?
What are you saying, Lowell? I’ve got some questions that don’t seem to mean much now.
Exactly. I have this fucking heart, you know. It has these blood vessels that go in and out of it, just like in the science books. It’s so new to me, this reality that I don’t even know what it is. But I don’t have to think about suicide anymore, that’s for sure.
Have you thought about suicide before?
Always. The first time I came pretty close to success. I was twenty-one, going on three thousand. The last time was after my campaign for Governor in 1980. Nasty car wreck. I drove my famous pink and black ’57 Plymouth Plaza into a cement wall. My book “One Hand Shaking” had just come out, and I didn’t want to promote it. The campaign was over, and I thought it was going to be my swan song, a retirement from pro bono public performance. I was finished. I wanted to move on and felt trapped. I couldn’t get over myself. This is the drag with success for artists. The blessing is also a curse. I hate to admit this, but I’m not bored with Lowell Darling, that’s not what I’m saying. He was fun to be for the most part. He was great, but he’s got too much baggage. I’m tired of going through the bags with him.
This is getting a little personal, are you sure you want to do this?
Fuck it, Griff. I’m an aging successful failure. Failure has been my forte. I created a way of working that left little debris to sell to the so-called collectors, and I’m broke. I succeeded. I didn’t want to produce or end up with any ART products. I did too well with what began as this theoretical challenge and ended up becoming harsh reality. Nothing much left, a kind of delightful dead end I would say.
Meaning that you don’t have anything to sell, or that you are hesitant to sell what you have because you placed so much emphasis on being a pro bono conceptual artist most of your career?
I’ve reduced my life, the debris left in the passing, to a pile of paper that I’m copying to make a visual autobiography. An artobiography it might now be called. The denouement of my novel practice. In art I sought to practice socially moral work, work that expressed my personal beliefs. These pieces commented on our social world and our effects on the natural world, the planet we show so little kindness and respect.
I’m not sure how to respond to this. What are we really talking about?
I think my last piece of art is my artobiography. Right now it is sitting in my studio, just piles and piles. It covers years and years. A lot of artists you know are in it. Maybe it is going to be called, ”You won’t have Lowell Darling to kick around anymore.”
Is this a joke?
No. I am the Dick Nixon of art now.
But are you bitter, or pissed off or something?
I’m something, but I don’t know what. This is new for me. New turf. A new medium. I’ve always wondered what the fallout, the result of my actions would be. I’ve made art out of almost everything about my life. And knowing that I can kill myself by running down the block, yes that’s what the doctors told me, it gives me a whole new way of thinking. A new way of thinking. I like this. It’s exciting. I’ve never done anything that I wasn’t excited to see how it would end. I love doing things just to see what will happen if I do it. I’m like a scientist in this way.
Explain yourself a little clearer on this. The cause, the action, the result.
Like when I’m pissed off with politics or the stupidity of what we do to the planet, the power of money and museums on the making of art: I spout off publicly about what I think. So now I’m in this secret zone, the dirty sacred old guy shit. We all tend to keep this internalized. Well, fuck that.
I’m suddenly feeling mortal, tired, my feet puff up and hurt, and I don’t like leaving the studio, so I’ve become anti-social. And I loved to party, ya know. Art was always a good reason to party. But this is the way it is: I look at the my ephemera, photos of past work, and mostly I see pictures of a sort of okay looking guy who is doing really crazy things, making a lot of jokes about serious issues, fame, name, blame, game, even the survival of life on Earth. I never made art for future historians because I didn’t think they would be around to pass it on. What a laugh….
My motto has always been, when you have a problem, use it before it uses you. Turn the problem into art. So, right now, I’m thinking, why not do this one last piece? My only worry is that once you go public about dying as a work of art, you’re sort of committed to finishing, and if I live too long, well, I hate to be boring more than anything.
How to you compare yourself then with artists who’ve died making art, like, let’s say Bas Jan Ader.
I’ve never compared myself to other artists. This is my life, you know. And I keep expecting Bas to show up anytime….
Tell the reader something about the This Is Your Life sign, for those who are new to your work.
Everyone is new to my work, including me. But to answer the question, the This Is Your Life sign hung over the stage door of the TV show with the same name, on an abandoned studio near my flat on Seward Street in Hollywood. I’ve used the TIYL sign almost like a logo for decades, more than any visual image, and it was especially poignant while still hanging. Vandals had spray painted “fuck you” on the doors, so it read, “This is your life, fuck you.” This was during a time when the government was saying I wasn’t an artist because I didn’t sell art, and it expressed my sentiments exactly: I was fucked….
Anyway, this masterpiece of irony was broken by vandals one day, and I took the pieces home and reassembled it like a frieze of the Parthenon after the Germans had blasted it to pieces. It has been a metaphor for my life since I found it in 1972.
On a historical note, the actual sign was sold to pay for my 1978 campaign, by the way, and the guy who bought it vanished, a Hollywood entertainment manager. Poof! Easy come, easy go. That’s how it’s been with me. And now the end of my life is real to me. It’s on my mind. I have to use it, or it will use me.
So you want to treat dying like another performance?
Without being maudlin, yes. Except it won’t be so public, the process I mean. I’ve become a bit of a hermit. If I can make something public without appearing in public, I will do it that way. My last campaign for governor of California (2010) was like this. I felt like spouting off about the state budget and revenues rules, so I ran to say this. Once the New York Times had covered the campaign on the front page of the Sunday Nation section (thanks to Nate Ballard), I didn’t have to campaign anymore. Everyone reads the Sunday Times, and all I wanted was that forum.
Elaborate, please, on your loose usage of the word lie. You say you lie a lot, but I don’t think you are a liar.
Well, sometimes I lied in the public media, nothing personal, but most often I could create a lie that would become as real as if I had done it. For example, do you really think I laced up the San Andreas Fault? Or would it be enough to say I had done it? Is not an idea as real as an action?
Don’t you think that copping to a lie could destroy your reputation, your credibility?
Not at all. I use the same methods that governments use to create political reality. After World War II for example, our government began talking up Germany’s recovery. Germany is bouncing back…. The rumor spread, investments were made, Germany recovered. It’s the same thing with my work. Rumors and lies, but good ones….
But you did do some of the things you said you did, yes? Or was it all just lies?
But seriously, Griff, the Hollywood Archaeology prints I did with you and Gallery 16, competes with anything any artist is putting on the walls, you know what I mean? Just look at them. Fucking masterpieces! They have all the cultural hints and obscure meaning of Baldessari’s better pieces. And I knew this when I found them.
[Lowell spent years walking the streets of the film industry’s processing district in Hollywood, and there he found small fragments of feature films that had been edited out of movies. These fragments were collaged together in a film.]
The Hollywood Archaeology prints that Gallery 16 published are the best and about the only tangible art I’ve made. And the work, the concept, it filled my need to travel light, meaning that while the source material fits into a carrying case for a flute, we could fill any art museum with the images. To tell the truth I think it competes against any art being shown. Period.
So that’s it? Period?
Yep, that’s it. And why not brag a little now? To me this work is a logical conclusion to the Found Art/Readymade begun by Duchamp and Man Ray. I was finding other artist’s art, if we consider Hollywood filmmaking Art.
When I’m gone I think Hollywood Archeology will be what I’m remembered for – unless I’m lucky enough to have a longer run than my prognosis predicts, these HA prints are about all that’s tangible, all that remains of Lowell Darling, whoever he is.
Any thoughts for the future?
I am no more optimistic about human life on Earth than I am in my ability to run the 440 today like I did in high school. This is modern art: Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers.
Okay, Lowell, here’s my last question: Where do you place yourself among your peers?
I have no peers.
Anything else to add?
Yes. I am opening my studio to the public, and if anyone wants to pop by and have a look around, hang out and talk, they are more than welcome. Groups or individuals. At sunset San Pablo Bay is beautiful, and at night the refineries glow like Disneyland on acid from my deck.