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IDEA 011: Allan McCollum Interview by Alex Gartenfeld

Allan McCollum, <i>If Love Had Wings: A Perpetual Canon</i>, 1972. Canvas, lacquer stain, varnish, silicone adhesive caulking. Courtesy the artist and Petzel, New York. Photo: Jason Mandella.

IDEA 011: Allan McCollum Interview by Alex Gartenfeld

Read an interview excerpt between Allan McCollum and Alex Gartenfeld from the forthcoming catalogue for ICA Miami’s latest exhibition, “Allan McCollum: Works Since 1969.”

Alex Gartenfeld: One of the aspects of your biography you have cited as formative is that you did not have art training—

Allan McCollum: I had no traditional art training.

AG: Instead you studied restaurant management and went to trade school. My interpretation of these experiences will inevitably be reductive, but they appear to me as a mix of administrative and skills-based training that reflect the systems built into your art.

AM: It’s an unconscious thing. One of the pleasures of my childhood was being with my mother when she was cooking. She always had a full-time job and she was busy doing this and that. But when she was cooking, I could go in the kitchen and talk with her. I was very enchanted by molds—cupcake molds, or cookie cutters, or Jell-O molds. I had two siblings at the time––later on I had three––and we would often get together to decorate cookies or to make candies and wrap them. There were a lot of group tasks. It was sort of a happy time, helping my mother . . . and she would organize these events for fun!

So then I went on to work in kitchens later, and I had already become interested in mold making way before life as an artist. There was a long period in my teenage years when I wanted to be a special effects man in the film industry. The idea of industry, factory work, and film affected all artists in LA.

AG: How did you relate to artists working during that time—Claes Oldenburg with his Store, or Edward Kienholz, who had an impact on LA.

AM: I didn’t encounter them until I was twenty-four years old. Oldenburg was no longer living there. Kienholz I learned about when I was working as an art handler and truck driver. When I decided I wanted to be an artist, the artists I learned about and was influenced by were, say, Wallace Berman, John Cage. But I took art classes in high school and learned nothing about that kind of stuff. Later, I was amazed by artists like Roy Lichtenstein, for instance, or Vija Celmins, who referenced reproduction. You’re too young to remember, but when I was in high school, there was no such thing as a photocopy machine.

AG: Right, Wallace Berman used a Verifax, an early copy machine.

AM: And in those days you had to buy one of those machines for, like, 150 dollars. And they were complicated to use. You would turn on this heat and put it over a piece of paper and glass and then expose it and then take it out and lay it on another piece of paper and run it through another thing and then it would come out as an image. And then they faded after a while. I had a job at the time, working at an industrial kitchen. I was able to afford spending 150 dollars at a certain point by saving it up.

Image of Allan McCollum, Untitled (Blown-Up Newspaper Print), 1968
Allan McCollum, Untitled (Blown-Up Newspaper Print), 1968. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy the artist and Petzel Gallery, New York.


Alex Gartenfeld: During the late 1960s you made a rather unique large-scale painting (exhibited for the first time in “Works: 1968–1977,” Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York, 2017), which is black and white and is the only painting I am aware of to take a photographic approach to the image.

Allan McCollum: Yes! The one that looks like a crumpled magazine. That work was influenced by John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg. I made a whole bunch of those paintings that I eventually threw away. I wish I had kept them.

AG: I am only aware of that one.

AM: My brother has one in his apartment. I would take a magazine, close my eyes, open the magazine, tear out a random page, crumple it up, push it down onto the Verifax machine, and then do the photocopy and see what it looked like. And then I would photocopy it again and again and again, until it was all just plain back and white. No grays, nothing. So it was random. Clearly John Cage was an influence on me.

AG: Because you were coming to art without an art history background, how were you coming across artists like Wallace Berman? How were you meeting these people and entering the gallery circuit?

AM: Well, when I went to restaurant management training I met a girl who was studying fashion design, studying how to make patterns. She had been married in the past to an artist, and because of her background, she earned money by modeling for artists sometimes. She was a model for John Altoon. Through her, I learned about certain artists.

AG: You have cited as inspiration an installation by Billy Al Bengston at LACMA from 1968, where he installed not only his paintings, but also the living rooms from which they were loaned.

AM: That show was very exciting for me. He collaborated with Frank Gehry on that installation. The idea of presenting paintings in the context of a “home” as opposed to a “museum” was so brilliant to me at the time. It still is now!


AG: Your work, because it involves such quantity of objects, invokes perception but also the way that we as communities make things. And I am struck that with projects like Over Ten Thousand Individual Works, where the objects therein suggest sameness, comprehension, familiarity—in fact they are all different, even if these differences cannot always be readily perceived.

AM: My theory is that it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that we drifted into thinking about the unique versus the copy. There was also this feeling that things were “natural” or “cultural.” Culturally produced objects were commonly made in factories; these things were copies. That influenced the way artists thought––it influenced the way everybody thinks.

Making Over Ten Thousand Individual Works, when I finally finished ten thousand of them, each one hand-painted, I figured out the costs were something like five dollars each. You didn’t have to be a genius to do it; anyone could. I was just using the formula “A + B, A + C, A + D” to come up with a system for producing unique works.

AG: From this point forward in your work you also moved to producing works that blur the line between “naturally occurring” and “culturally produced” objects.

AM: Well, the cliché was that nature produced things that were naturally unique. During my lifetime, the interest in DNA and RNA systems made it clear that nature worked by making copies. There are, like, thousands and millions of pieces of sand. I think the commonplace distinction had to do with cultural nervousness.


AG: With The Dog from Pompei (1991) you start to reflect on the specific conditions of site. You found an iconic fossilized form (and a symbol of decay, even decadence) and produced it in multiples, not unlike a souvenir. In this work, the tension between the multiple and the complexities and contexts of site starts to emerge, as it would subsequently with your “regional projects.”

AM: For years I’ve been thinking, “How can a copy signify old age?” When we look at things, like a painting on the wall, it’s already something old. Sometimes it’s three hundred years old, if you’re in a museum. But how do you create the feeling of something being old if you’re just making copies?

It occurred to me that fossils are copies. A fossilized dinosaur bone is not made of bone, it’s made of rock. It takes sixty million years for a fossil to form, as the molecules of the bone dissolve and are replaced with stone. When I was invited to do a project at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, I discovered that the Carnegie Museum of Natural History was in the same building. I was able to work with Lynne Cooke, the curator, in order to meet the people in the natural history department. And they never visit each other, even though they’re in the same building. I was able to have molds made from the Carnegie collection. In a way, you could call that regional.

AG: As you just suggested, Lost Objects is your first project that foregrounds the roles of the people who inhabit institutions. Not incidentally, the work references modes of museum display that are distinct from those of contemporary art.

AM: I had never worked with a natural history museum before, or any other kind of museum that wasn’t an art museum, although I’ve always been interested in the “context” of an artwork. In my earliest paintings, for instance, I was thinking about the fact that a painting draws its significance in relation to other paintings, or the history of paintings, or the painting that it isn’t.

AG: What was it, then, that triggered this shift toward the “regional projects”?

AM: Well, I was out in Utah. When I was thinking about dinosaur bones for Lost Objects I decided to go out to Utah to look at the colors of that region. There are certain colors you associate with the Jurassic period, and you can see all those colors in the rocks and landscape of Utah. So I drove out, because I really wanted the dinosaur bones to have similar colors.

I stopped in the town of Vernal to get a motel room. Vernal is a small town but it’s the gateway to the national park. It was founded, in a way, by Carnegie. The woman at the motel desk asked me, “So, what are you doing here? Where are you from?” And I said, “Well, I’m from New York. I’m doing a project for the Carnegie Art Museum in Pittsburgh and I wanted to visit the Dinosaur National Monument, which was founded by Andrew Carnegie.” She gave me a look and said, “Oh, we don’t think much of Carnegie out here.”

I asked her why and she said, “He came out here before anybody knew the valley or of the dinosaur bones and he stole our heritage.” I thought that was one of the weirdest things I’d heard anybody say, describing dinosaurs as their heritage. And because I’m from out West, I started thinking about that: How does a town or community define itself? In New England, you’ve got New Hampshire, “new” this, and “new” that. They named things after British towns and so forth. But certainly not in Utah. Instead, there were big statues of dinosaurs when you drive in the town of Vernal. This suddenly intrigued me, the way small towns identify themselves through something no one would even think of if you were from a big city.