Arts Magazine - September 1984

A Radical Idea: An Interview with Max Coyer

by Judy K. Collischan Van Wagner

JC:Could you discuss your paintings in terms of a developmental sequence?

MC: Let me preface my answer by saying that the first works of art that I felt were important were early pencil drawings, very precise drawings that I did in 1978-79, of specific objects, such as Scotch tape dispensers and a glue container. I did not do any paintings at this time, only drawings, but I k new the next series of works would not be studies of objects but abstract paintings. So I did a series of paintings, most of which no longer exist; they’ve either been painted over or destroyed. Later, it seemed like exercises in composition even though some of them were rather nice paintings. A few of them exist because they’re owned by certain people (Edward Albee owns one, for example). The paintings as a whole did not hold together as a group.

Then, after a dream, the cone image came into my work. In the earlier works, there h ad been triangular or pyramidal forms, but never a cone until this strong and very pleasant dream about flying in a spaceship. All of a sudden, and quite subconsciously, what turned out to be a cycle of thirty paintings came from that single dream of the cone pointing downward wit what seemed to be shoulders at each side of this shape. The whole series looked like abstract portraits in a sense.

JC: These were all titled using the names of Renaissance artists.

MC: That’s right – certain things that I admired, certain artists, certain words. Then near the end of the cone painting series, I started to get tired of them They were getting too easy and too abstract. To me, abstraction started to look decorative, and I couldn’t see any way not to have abstraction be a decorative art. From the end of the cones to the beginning of the Wadsworth series, there was a six-month period when I didn’t work. I didn’t paint at all, and that time was rather rough for me.

JC: Is that when you became interested in photography?

MC: Yes. Photographs came in that interim period when I got used to the way the figure looks. Then it occurred to me that I might be able to act on what writers had observed about my work and what other people had said about it. If there were certain influences hidden underneath the surface of the cone paintings, why shouldn’t I make that my subject matter? The more I thought about it, the more valid a concern it seemed to be, and I felt liberated with this realization. If you love de Chirico and you have an instinct to paint like he did, then you’re totally liberated when you can make a facsimile. I thought back on my childhood as to which work of art had been most powerful to me then. I chose from the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum, because that’s what I had seen as a youth. Which artists made the greatest impression? De Chirico was one and Joseph Cornell has been another. Every time I see one of these artist’ works, I’m thrilled by them. They still have power.

One thing that occurred to me is that as a artist working at the end of the twentieth century, subconsciously or consciously, there is the feeling of art history weighing down upon you. Every brushstroke you make on a canvas, someone else has made before you. Oil paining, easel painting, has been explored for hundreds of years. Art history is behind everything we do today, and the only way I could see to deal with this power was to actually use art history as subject matter. I think the only w an artist can work today is to make synthetic art or art derived from the work of someone else.

JC: What do you men by “e;synthetic art”e;?

MC: Essentially, synthetic art follows a period of thesis and antithesis. The thesis was academic art or that established by the French academy. Subsequently, or during the nineteenth century, artist became involved with antithesis or a rebellious sort of disagreement with established rules of painting. The antithetical tendency continued into the twentieth century. I see the School of Paris and the development of Abstract Expressionism as a part of the antithetical grouping. Today, in the Eighties, we have entered a synthetic phase or a time of combining and incorporating various styles and images gleaned from the history of art. This is a receptive era in contrast to a period of resistance to the past or obsession with newness. Synthetic art accepts other art. This is a receptive era in contrast to a period of resistance to the past or obsession with newness. Synthetic art accepts other art, historic or present. It accepts all the aspect o four time, including art history. It is the art of our time.

JC: How has American art, in particular, evolved toward a synthetic state?

MC: Abstract Expressionism was conceived of as a reaction to tradition in art. It was followed by Pop art which accepted the nature of contemporaneous society In my view, one of the breakthroughs of Pop was the realization that artist really have no business parading their agony. It’s hilarious that someone would claim to be constantly depressed. I think it was brilliant to come to the conclusion that that’s not the purview of an artist.

JC: What is the purview of an artist?

MC: To me, it’s more intellectual. It’s a distancing from one’s own emotions. Marcel Duchamp said something to the effect of there’s no solution, because there’s no problem. He was an oddball character, a synthetic artist in the midst of antithesis. The only alternative he could come up with was just to stop making art. I think that’s a crucial point, that there were certain people, personalities, who were of the synthetic sensibility during a time of antithesis Joseph Cornell was a synthetic artist – all those motifs, postcards, other work of art – and basically he stayed totally out of the art world living in Queens with his mother and brother. these people, like Cornell, Duchamp – probably we could come up with other people working earlier in this century who were not antithetical at all in their approach to art. The zeitgeist wasn’t there. They were forerunners of the synthetic zeitgeist that we are experiencing at the present time. The idea of synthetic art explains recent art history, particularly neo-expressionism, which was really part of the synthetic art movement.

JC: Are there other artists working in the synthetic mode?

MC: Yes. The synthetic vision doesn’t necessarily have to be expressed by quoting from art history. I think the beginning of the synthetic vision was with Pop artists and their recognition of the relationship between popular and high culture. Previously, comic books and television were viewed as very low on the scale of cultural achievements, whereas Pollock and de Kooning were rated very high. The two grouping had two separate sets of followers, and the two did not mix. I just read an account by Warhol of his trip to the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal, where high and low were mixed in the United States Pavilion. He realized that the dichotomy of culture was going away – it was healing itself. With the advent of television or a worldwide communication system, there’s no more space between “Us” and “Them.”

JC: Do you feel, then , that television – the media in general – has had an influential effect upon the creating of artists’ imagery.

MC: I think so. The notion of better images and not-so-good images is breaking down. Lichtenstein is crucially important her for his early Pop works that drew attention to areas of graphic art that were considered vulgar.

JC: Comic strips?

MC: Comic strips, golf balls, kitchen appliances – he made all these references to low cultural things. It’s amazing to me that there was such good critical response to his work, that critics could realize how profound those paintings really were.

JC: What will you say to critics who may attack synthetic art or art that utilizes ready-made imagery as lacking in imagination?

MC: I think Lawrence Alloway calls it the student/teacher mentality of do not copy, do not do this, do not do that. That attitude should pass away. That for one artist to quote the work of another artist compromises the originality of the artist who’s doing the quoting is totally personal feeling on the part of the critic. Art history itself is full of quotations. Sir Joshua Reynolds painted a member of his society in the same pose as the Apollo Belvedere. That was perfectly acceptable. It was his way of saying that between Greek and English cultures there was a connection – that images are interchangeable, still usable. With synthetic art it’s not so much a continuity of images but a digestion of imagery – a digestion of all that’s gone before us. If an artist today paints a copy of a Picasso painting it’s not derivative. It is as radical an idea for an artist to paint a Picasso copy as it is for Picasso to have done an original painting. The same force is there But Picasso, acting in the antithetical period, did it to overwhelm the thesis or the accepted idea.

JC: You mentioned the relative unimportance of technique to synthetic art, at one point in your development, you decided to give up using a brush and to use a variety of methods in applying paint.

JC: I’ve never had a formal art training, so all my knowledge of paint handling is somehow natural or second nature. It could be a trap when people react only to your handling of paint, which is easy for me. It seems cheap in some ways – that this is what they react to – a beautiful, luscious paint handling. I felt that I have to put an aggressive philosophy behind tat Beautiful paint quality has enormous power to it, and I try to use it, but brushes have become ineffective for me. With a brush, you deal with smaller areas. You get a wider field of activity with a piece of cardboard or a big sponge, and you get much better effects.

JC: How do your individual paintings evolve?

MC: I work with a series of images just as I work with a series of paintings Let’s say the design of a Dutch coffee container appeals to me. That can be used in many different paintings – in the border of Madame de Sade and in a piece called Dutch Coffee. One chooses the image most important to the overall composition. As a synthetic art work evolves, images over images, the firs part is lost in the act of applying the next layer. It’s losing something in a passionate e way. I was talking to a college professor who teaches a studio class He said the only way he could get students really emotionally interested in painting was to assign them to do five paintings, five different subjects all on the same canvas, one right after the other. So their first might em a landscape, then a still life, and after that a portrait. They were constantly losing a painting, and feeling hurt about it seemed to crystallize their emotions I think that is a pretty close expression of the nature of our experience of things that in turn is important to the realization of art work today.

JC: An individual or an image becomes less precious, less sacred.

MC: There’s a lot of critical judgments involved in making synthetic art as to what the artist can allow to be lost and what must not be lost., A considerable amount of the geisha in Dutch coffee is lost, but you can still see her outline. She’s sandwiched underneath. I have to decide whether I’m going to somehow trade a part of her to reveal more of her. It’s a very personal type of choice. The color of the new Picasso series is from my memory, since the only reproduction is a black and white one. It has a few words, “plain” printed on the forehead and “double” across the stomach, It says “plain double.”

JC: What does that mean?

MC: It’s a double of a Picasso, but also a double the size of the original; this is the first in the series so it is less elaborate.

JC: Could “plain” also be a pun referring to the flat “plane”?

MC: Could be.

Red Madame de Sade, 1984, oil on canvas, 50 x 48″
Madame de Sade, 1984, oil on canvas, 42 x 36″
Oedipus, 1984, oil on canvas, 60 x 48″
Alien Culture, 1984, oil on canvas, 60 x 48″