INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT DELFORD BROWN By Mark Bloch, Whitehot Magazine, New York
Robert Delford Brown. 2007. Official portrait of the artist/religious leader. “Robert Delford Brown : Meat, Maps and Militant Metaphysics” at the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, North Carolina from March 28 to August 3, 2008 will be a museum exhibition to celebrate this extraordinary artist’s lifetime of social, political and aesthetic activism with a selection of his creative production over the past several decades. Robert Delford Brown was born in Colorado in 1930 and received his B.A. and M.A. from U.C.L.A., then in 1959 he moved to New York City, engaged in many of the period’s major (and fringe) art activities and movements–Pop Art, Happenings, Correspondence Art, Performance and Fluxus–while formulating his own, unique vision and aesthetic. In 1964, he “founded” the “First National Church of the Exquisite Panic, Inc.” and established its headquarters within an ongoing architectural experiment he entitled “The Great Building Crack Up” On West 13th Street. “The idea for the creation of a church began when Allan Kaprow asked me to play the role of The Painter in Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Originale”. I decided that I would wear a firefighter’s suit and drop eggs and red powder from a ladder. I suddenly realized that I was coming up with a creation myth that had similarly occurred to people for millions of years. At the same time I was also preparing to do an environment which I entitled MEAT SHOW. It entailed the use of thousands of pounds of meat. It was a work of desperation and rage. . . which took place in a refrigerated room 14 feet wide and 90 feet long in the
Washington Meat Market in New York City…. I proclaimed that “the MEAT SHOW” was The First Grand Opening Service of The First National Church of the Exquisite Panic, Inc.” Thus began Brown’s contribution to the American art scene. In this interview Brown talks not about his own work but about the New York art world he found when he arrived here in the late 1950s. — BLOCH: Tell me about the art world of the 1950s. You say it was small. BROWN: Tiny, it was tiny. Teeny-weeny. BLOCH: There weren’t a lot of people? Now there’s thousands of people… BROWN: When I was at UCLA, I would go into the book stacks, and I would read through all these bound copies of art magazines. In the 1940s, mostly they had full page ads for fur coats and that kind of thing. There was no… BLOCH: Really, art magazines? BROWN: Oh yeah, art magazines, the art world, and it was just… Like in the 1950s, there were about three galleries. There was Pierre Mattise, he had a gallery I guess, but it was very tiny, and artists would just go to one another’s openings. But it was like… there was nothing, when I went and decided to become an artist in the 1940s, it was mostly taking a vow of poverty. My goal was to just be a good painter, and have a reputation for being a good painter, a good craftsman, and there was no money. And if you were an artist, you were a communist or a pervert or something. I mean… BLOCH: Where did you get that idea of a vow of poverty? Where did it actually come from? BROWN: That was the way it was. In 1959, word got out Mark Rothko made ten thousand dollars selling a painting. So all the little boys who were going to be dentists, politicians, all this stuff… they said “Wow, I’ll become an artist.” In the 1960s, that’s where the baloney came in with the artist. There was no celebrity. Celebrity didn’t exist. If you were an artist in the 1940s and 50s, you worked as a carpenter and a stone mason or something, or maybe got a little job teaching someplace, and that was it. The people who knew what you were doing… maybe there were fifty people who knew. It was tiny, tiny, the art world. In 1960, the entire international art world could fit in this room. It was just… BLOCH: There was a hand full of artists, a hand full of collectors. BROWN: No, fuck collectors! They didn’t exist. Artists… BLOCH: Did they have openings? BROWN: Well, little openings, and artists would go to these little openings, and then they would always have a couple of loft parties after the opening. If you wanted to see the entire art world, on Tuesday you’d go uptown, on Friday you’d go downtown. You would see Raymond Duncan, who was Isadora Duncan’s brother. He wore a long gown with sandals, and maybe you would see Marcel Duchamp, and you would see Huelsenbeck, who was one of the founders of Dada.
BLOCH: You would see them at these parties? BROWN: Yeah, at the openings, but you would see everything from the founders of Dada up through little art students. And then there would be these parties, they had these loft parties, they would dance. And the floor… they would jump up and down, and honest to God… it’s a wonder the floor didn’t collapse. They would just go nuts. I mean the floor… yeah, there would be booze… but the poverty, I mean it was really poor. Like you see, just poverty. When I came in the New York City, you could, I guess get a cold water flat for around eighteen dollars a month. BLOCH: You say loft parties, but they didn’t have lofts then, did they, in the 1950s? BROWN: An artist would go into a cold water flat like DeKooning on Tenth Street, that building is still there. DeKooning, Franz Kline, they’d take a railroad flat, knock a wall down, and that was the first loft. Now lofts are like a joke… BLOCH: There’re an entire block. BROWN: Then when I came into town, they also moved into stables, and they had little horses. You could walk into buildings around here, and you’d smell the manure. BLOCH: Really? So when they say the Stable Gallery, it was really the stable? BROWN: Oh the Stable Gallery was a stable. Yeah, that was on Sixth Avenue. BLOCH: And she (Eleanor Ward who owned the Stable Gallery) was part of the new wave, right? After what you were talking about, then who came in? Richard Bellamy and her and… BROWN: Richard Bellamy, he had the Green Gallery and that was the taxi tycoon, Scull. Robert Scull backed the Green Gallery. BLOCH: Before that, it was just Sidney Janis and a couple of other guys, and then like some younger people started opening galleries. Were you there when that happened? BROWN: In the late fifties, everybody was talking about comic strips, that was in the air, comic strips. Then Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol ran away with it. And then there was ragged pop art, but it took about 2 years for it to get slick and clean. And it was commodified. Business wanted to go into it. They’d go into art and make millions. Like with cars, you’d have to have a new model, a new style of painting. Every year you’d have to get your latest model. By 1970 that whole thing collapsed. But the art world is very tiny, even still compared to other industries. But the art world was the forerunner of that, and so by 1970, 1972, Robert Scull, he sold out his collection at the top of the art market at about 1970, 1972. BLOCH: He was a collector? Did he own taxis? BROWN: Yes, he was a taxi tycoon. It was Scull’s Angels. His taxis were called Scull’s Angels. Instead of Hell’s Angels. BLOCH: And how did he wind up in the art world? BROWN: Leo Castelli was in the shirt business. He became an art dealer when he was in his fifties, the same thing with Sidney Janis. He was a businessman, something or other, and then he got into art in his fifties.
BLOCH: And what about Ivan Karp. He worked for Castelli? BROWN: He worked for Castelli. the first day, when I came into NYC, 1959, I walked into this gallery down on Third Avenue and it was all… Alan Kaprow had already set it up. His 18 happenings and 18 parts or whatever it was. And I asked this little girl, I said: “What is this?” She said: “It’s group participation.”
Robert Delford Brown in Stockhausen’s Originale, 2nd Avant Garde Festival, New York, 1964 BLOCH: Audience participation? BROWN: Yes. When I heard that I just left. It just turned me off. I didn’t want anything to do with it. I was totally working in the studio and was a lone artist, and that kind of crap. BLOCH: So you were more in the Abstract Expressionist mode of the lone artist… BROWN: Yeah, working in the studio. And the thing is, in the sixties, suddenly 1960/1961, Abstract Expressionism became a joke, and Pop Art was in. And for me, art was art. All these fashion shit just revolted me. Art is art. In the 20’s, they had Purism which it was called, then in the 60’s Purism became Hard Edge. And Non-objective art became Color Field. Like everything was merchandising. It was just the same old thing repeated with new names. Nothing was done. I mean, when World War II ended, the United States… we had beaten everybody so we had to have a great… it was all merchandising. They put together a varied group of artists and said “These are abstract expressionists.” So it’s all merchandising. They just took Ad Reinhardt and
they took all these people, they called them Abstract Expressionists. BLOCH: What was the thing with Hans Hoffman? BROWN: He came to this country and he opened a school. BLOCH: But then like Allan Kaprow ended up in the Hansa Gallery. Tell me about that. BROWN: Hansa Gallery, on Third Avenue. And that’s where he had his 18 Happenings or whatever it was, 18 Happenings in 16 Parts or something. BLOCH: I guess it was because of something to do with Hoffman. What did he teach? What was his message? BROWN: He had push and pull. He was a painting teacher. He was a painting teacher and all these young artists… BLOCH: What’s push and pull? What did that have to do with Happenings? BROWN: Well, that’s what he was talking about. I don’t know what he was talking about. And then I met Edward Dickenson who had a gallery over here. He had a studio over here on 14th Street. That building was demolished. Edward Dickenson was a very fine painter and I met Stuart Davis in his place. BLOCH: Where was that? BROWN: They built a lot of studios on the west side. So he had a studio… BLOCH: What category was he in? BROWN: Stuart Davis? BLOCH: Was he considered more European? Was he European-influenced, do you think? BROWN: Oh yeah… A modern, Cubist… all of America is European-influenced. BLOCH: But you came right into that, huh? You came in 1959? BROWN: Yeah. I came in the spring of 1959. BLOCH: So you came after The Club and all that. BROWN: The club was pissing out when I came in. BLOCH: Did you used to go to the Cedar Tavern? BROWN: The Cedar Bar, yeah, I used to eat veal parmagian in the Cedar Bar. And I saw Franz Kline a couple of times. I saw de Kooning, once, maybe a couple of times. He was the star. My wife Rhett and I, we later went and saw DeKooning, I think in 1966. He built a studio out on Long Island. And he kept apologizing, he kept apologizing. He had… he lived in absolute, abject poverty until he was… then he had his first show at 45. BLOCH: What was he apologizing for? BROWN: For the fact that he had some success. He was apologizing for the fact that he had all this paint and material. He’d worked his butt off to get where he was. BLOCH: Did you make an appointment or did you just go? BROWN: I guess we made an appointment. But it was very impressive. BLOCH: What about Ad Reinardt?
BROWN: Oh, Ad Reinhardt, he was funny… black on black. One of his black on blacks got restored. They wanted to retouch it; they wanted to restore it. One of his paintings was damaged so they gave it to him and he just repainted it. “I can make it better; I can make another one that looks better than that one…” (laughs) BLOCH: From scratch or on top of that one? BROWN: He just repainted it. Restoring is a whole bunch of shit. If you live long enough, paintings become movies… you go to the Museum of Modern Art. When they first bought the Francis Bacon, it had oil stains and cracks–all this kind of shit–and now its all been retouched. You can’t see anything. And there was a collage by Robert Motherwell and I read somewhere they said it wouldn’t last for another five years. Well you go see it now and it, they just… its worth money so its repainted. BLOCH: Uh huh. BROWN: I was up there one day and there was this big Matisse dancer and it looked like a herd of elephants had been dancing on it. It was beaten totally to shit. You look at that now and it’s all repainted. BLOCH: Hmmm. BROWN: Restore my ass. It’s… they just repaint. There was a Pousette-Dart in the Museum, and sometimes, when he was working on it, he poked 2 holes in the canvas, and those holes have disappeared. Just horseshit. Its like, back in the sixties, “THE SURFACE OF THE PAINTING!…” the surface was very important. Essential. Well, now they’re all under glass. So there’s no surface, they’re all under glass.
Robert Delford Brown preparing for The Meat Show, New York. 1964 BLOCH: Did you used to see Harold Rosenberg and all them? BROWN: He was around. And the other one. Greenberg. He was around. I saw Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler at a party once. BLOCH: Were they together? BROWN: They were married, I think. Her father was a judge, and then she lived with Clement Greenberg. BLOCH: She did? before she was with Motherwell? BROWN: It’s all conducting careers. I mean, I had no idea, I just didn’t know. like Nancy Graves. Her father was a Museum official. So she knew how to conduct a career. She had an exhibition of camels. She was obsessed by camels, she couldn’t think of anything but camels. Then she had a second show, obsessed with camels. After the obsessed with camels show, she just dropped camels. BLOCH: And that made a big impression on you? BROWN: like Claus Oldenberg, his father was a diplomat so he knew how to finagle. He knew how to do all this shit. He always dressed like a clown. He was the artist… the collector is well-dressed. The artist is supposed to be a clown, supposed to dress shabbily. It’s very clear. The artist is inferior to the businessman. I used to joke around like that. I used to dress in tailored suits. I thought it was funny. I didn’t know I was bending anybody’s noses out of shape. BLOCH: Really? BROWN: Oh, yes. Rhett and I, we did not know what we were doing. We would storm into places. We were just nuts. We knew we were doing something wrong, we didn’t know what it was. BLOCH: Really? BROWN: And Walter Hopps would say, “Cool it.” I didn’t know what he meant. BLOCH: How did you meet Walter Hopps? BROWN: We were babies together in UCLA, southern California. I was the hard charging young artist, and he was a couple of years younger than I was, and we had a lot in common. We were equally crazy. You know, he loved to pontificate, he was like a big talker, BLOCH: Were you in art classes, or what? BROWN: I was in art classes, he was kind of wandering around, he would change, he would do this, and he would do that, he was changing majors. But I didn’t find this out until I was in Houston, Texas the last time I saw him: He was in the Korean War. He was drafted, and he said, “I’m not going to kill anybody” so they let him go through boot camp and then they just gave him an honorable discharge so he got a G.I. Bill of Rights. BLOCH: Oh really, and that’s how he went to UCLA? BROWN: Yeah.
BLOCH: He was like a pacifist? Did they draft him, or he signed up? BROWN: They drafted him, but he said “I’m not going to kill anyone.” BLOCH: We skipped over your being L.A. and going to Jazz clubs and all that stuff. BROWN: Oh, my friend Bill would find these places. We used to go to see Gerry Mulligan. There was a little house… Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, and there was a drummer. There was this place called The Lightning Room, that had a little stage about 3 feet by 3 feet and then the strip teaser would do this dance on this little platform. And then there was a blind drummer who played the saxophone. But he would find these goofy places. BLOCH: And where were these places? Santa Monica? Downtown L.A. or what? BROWN: Downtown Los Angeles, and there was Glen’s on Webster, and that was a little café, so we’d go there. I saw Art Tatum, he was there. BLOCH: Performing, or… BROWN: Well, passing through. But he had fingers like he was a spider. Fingers like this, so… BLOCH: Did you see other guys, other black guys? You mentioned all the White guys, Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker. Did you see the Black guys too? BROWN: I saw Lionel Hampton. Back in those days the…there would be an ad in the Los Angeles Times about like this BLOCH: Like an inch square? BROWN: It was tiny, and it would say “Jazz Concert,” that’s it. At the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and that was all it was… and whoever was in town showed up. In the Second World War everybody had money so all the musicians were busy, so they would get together, it was like you’d have 50 musicians showing up at a jazz concert: Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, they all showed up. And I was like 15 years old. My mother would drive me to the jazz concert and sit outside while I was in there. A little white boy with all these black people. And the black guys… they’d be passing quarts of vodka around. BLOCH: And who were you with? BROWN: Myself. BLOCH: And how’d you get onto that? BROWN: I have no idea. I don’t know how a little boy in Southern California would find jazz. BLOCH: Did you have 78s? BROWN: Oh yeah, yeah. But in those days you could go into a record store and listen to it before you bought it. They had listening rooms. I guess I found Jazz through two books about white musicians in the library… biographies of white musicians, Frank Teschmacher, and Muffy Spangler, and Peewee Russell. I think I found these books in the Junior High School library. BLOCH: That’s interesting. But even though they were white, it was still the “Devil’s Music,” huh? BROWN: Devil’s music, oh in the 40s nice people did not listen to jazz. The so-called Golden Age of
Jazz was not… nice people didn’t do that. Even colored people didn’t listen to it. You weren’t supposed to listen to jazz. It was whore house music. BLOCH: Did you used to listen to the radio? BROWN: Friday and Saturday, I think there was about an hour of jazz on 12 o’clock Saturday night or something like that. And I would sit there listening in my bedroom to one hour of jazz maybe 2 hours of jazz. That was it. BLOCH: Didn’t you live by the Santa Monica Pier or something? BROWN: I lived at the Santa Monica Pier for 2 or 3 years. The second floor. I was in Apartment 5. BLOCH: What was it? BROWN: It was a Merry-go-round. I would sleep and these two clowns figured they’d make a lot of money, and they’d play that mother-fucking thing until 2 in the morning. “I’m looking over a 4 leaf clover” over and over again. BLOCH: Where were you? You were inside it? BROWN: Oh yeah, I lived in Apartment 5. I lived and painted in Apartment 5. The merry-go-round was on the first floor, then there were apartments around the building, and I got Apartment 5 from a multi-millionaire, multi-millionaire, and I had to pay her half a month’s rent when I took over that apartment. I had to pay her $12. She was a multi-millionaire, she had the Dwan Gallery. BLOCH: Oh really? BROWN: The Dwan Gallery was in Los Angeles, and one day Ed Moses and I were banging around, he said let’s go up and visit Virginia. So we went up to see Virginia Dwan. BLOCH: And what was Ed Moses doing then? BROWN: He was painting, I was the tear ass when he was not yet a tear ass. I was a precocious tear ass. I was a precocious fuck-up. BLOCH: Where did you meet him? BROWN: He’d been in the Army, so we met at the Long Beach State College. He was older than I was. I thought these kids who had been in the Army, I thought they knew everything. They were like… I was 17-18 years old, they were in their 20s. I thought they really knew what the hell was going on. BLOCH: Did you ever meet Ed Kienholz back then? BROWN: Oh yeah, I saw his Barney’s Beanery in his studio. BLOCH: Really? BROWN: Yeah, everybody had clock faces. It was in the 50s and then I saw his Roxy’s, and there was an exhibition, I forget the name of the gallery, but there was an exhibition of Roxy’s, it was a whore house in the 50s, it was incredible. BLOCH: So you didn’t go to New York completely not knowing about what was going to come? The end of painting and all that, that must have been a hint that something was going on, right? Wasn’t that a radical departure?
BROWN: No, no, no. Kurt Schwitters was doing environmental art in the 20s. BLOCH: You went and saw Cornell once you moved to New York? BROWN: Joseph Cornell back in the 30s, he was practically the only Surrealist American artist, you know, that could be put in that category. And then Julian Levy caught onto Cornell, and then Duchamps and Cornell knew one another. But Cornell was threatened by Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp was obscene. He made dirty jokes. BLOCH: Bawdy. BROWN: Bawdy. And I figured Cornell would be bawdy. Well Cornell was just Miss Priss. I mean he was just… He was like the guy who wrote Alice in Wonderland. BLOCH: Yeah, Lewis Carroll. BROWN: I mean very Victorian. He just had this tremendous passion for little girls and we were all concerned that he would end up arrested because he had this tremendous passion for little girls and he would call Rhett and he would say, “Rhett, I have a delivery to make,” so Rhett would go, pick him up, and deliver a box to some little girl he met. She was working in a dime store or something. So there’s probably still Cornells out in Queens. BLOCH: You went and saw him a number of times? BROWN: Oh yeah. He had all of his work in the attic, and he kept track of his prices. He said, I have $2 million worth of work in the attic. Oh yeah. He knew. Cornell had 3 price classes, A, B and C. He didn’t want to sell the A’s… he wanted to sell B and C.
One of Robert Delford Brown’s works Sacred Ikonobile, 2006, 26” x 18” x 14” BLOCH: But you were saying that the art world was small. When did it start to grow and change? BROWN: Well the 60s. Mid 60s and it just exploded. BLOCH: So Joseph Cornel? So you’d go out there, you’d hang out… BROWN: Yeah, sit in his kitchen and talk. The first time we met, he brought out two bottles of soft
drinks, raspberry soda pop and club soda. And he had these little juice glasses you’d get at Woolworth’s, and he poured the glasses half full of this rasberry shit, and he said, “If that’s too sweet, you can cut it with the soda,” you know? And my wife would bring him quart jars of spaghetti sauce. We took him out to the Great Neck several times, and he would eat… BLOCH: You’d go pick him up? BROWN: Yeah. If the food was in front of him, he would eat it, but he would just start… he would eat like… in his own house he would keep the temperature around 45̊ and he thought the reason he felt cold was he didn’t have the right attitude. If he had the proper attitude, he wouldn’t feel cold. He was a fuckin’ nut. BLOCH: He was living in deprivation. BROWN: He lived in deprivation. When he was alone, he would take these dehydrated potatoes, and he would eat mashed potatoes. But when you put him in front of food, he’d eat it. BLOCH: And would he get out his work and show it to you? BROWN: Oh yes, and I told you, he would let me go in the attic for a couple of hours at a time. I looked through everything he did. BLOCH: How did he glue all that shit down? Did he have like a little studio? BROWN: With library paste, and, you know… white library paste. There was Lepage’s glue, which was an acetone kind of a thing, and then there was horsehide glue that you had to heat. I mean the adhesives that exist today are just beyond belief. Like this goddamned epoxy, you know. I mix these two things together and it’s like rock. BLOCH: So he had a studio out there? BROWN: He had a little studio, about as… like a closet in the basement, and every once in a while he’d get pissed off and take a hammer and beat up one of his boxes. BLOCH: Really? BLOCH: What was he pissed off about? BROWN: Well it just didn’t work right so he got rid of it. BLOCH: Did he… where did he get all that shit? Did he drive? BROWN: No, he got it and bought it in Manhattan. He had this sun you see in a lot of his work. And that’s off an anchovy can. But he wouldn’t tell you. He wouldn’t tell you where he got this shit. It was a big secret, and then those little ceramic pipes. But all this was a big secret… Before I met Cornel, I thought he was like Duchamp, so I took a bottle of wine, and I wrapped it up like a fetish, with hair and lingerie fabric and just a gruesome mix. And you know, he didn’t know what to do with it. He was totally unlike Duchamp. But Duchamp’s last work was like Cornell’s first work. He took a doll that belonged to his mother and put it into a box with twigs and Duchamps last work… you know, it’s in Philadelphia. BLOCH: Did you used to go down to the Lower East Side? BROWN: Yeah. like Oldenberg had his Store down there on 3rd Street. They were always sold out.
The performance took place in a room smaller than this. Tiny. BLOCH: So all you had to have was 10 people it was sold out. Did you ever go down to Coenties Slip? Down there by the South Street Seaport? BROWN: Rauchenberg and Johns both lived on White Street. BLOCH: On the East side or the West Side? BROWN: Down near Wall Street. I think Rauchenberg had one floor and Johns had the other floor. BLOCH: Did you ever visit Ray Johnson when he lived down under the Brooklyn Bridge on Dover Street? BROWN: No. We used to correspond. One day Ray said, “Let’s go see Jasper Johns.” I used to send Ray boxes of hair. They used to have wig places. You could get hair sweepings. Then I would get pillows, I’d get acrylic and then I’d glue hair to it, flaring out… So I would send him gruesome pieces of shit. Then whenever I sent him something he’d tear it up and rearrange it and send it back. So one day Ray Johnson said, “Let’s go see Jasper Johns.” So on the way to see Jasper Johns we saw this big roll of stuff that you put under rugs, that foam stuff, and so we took that up to Jasper Johns and he wasn’t thrilled with our gift. BLOCH: What was his reaction? Did he seem to be friends with Jasper Johns? BROWN: Well, Ray loved throwing people off balance. Ray liked to engage in bizarre, quirky behavior. He knew that Jasper Johns is very meticulous, and taking a rug up there… You don’t take a piece of used crap into somebody’s apartment. BLOCH: How long did you stay there? BROWN: Oh, we had a conversation, a few drinks. Jasper Johns was there, and then the woman… a very famous woman writer was there. Susan Sontag. BLOCH: So wait – Susan Sontag was sitting there with Jasper Johns? You just sat around chatting? BROWN: Having a conversation. Trivial, like people chat. Chat, chat, chat. But he lived in a very sparse, neat apartment. BLOCH: Do you remember where that was? BROWN: Somewhere on the West Side. West 60s or something. I don’t know why you’re so excited by that. BLOCH: I’m excited by all of it. This is great stuff, Bob. —
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manahattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYUâ€™s Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Blochâ€™s papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for the ABC News.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.