FREDERIC TUTEN never completely abandoned the idea of being an artist, but today we recognize him instead as a prolific writer of five experimental novels, a book of short stories, and several essays on contemporary art that range from John Baldessari to Eric Fischl. His close association with New York’s art world is perhaps best exemplified by his friendship with ROY LICHTENSTEIN, who made the covers for two of his novels: The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, and arguably the most celebrated, Tintin in the New World.
TOMMASO SPERETTA met with Frederic Tuten at Roy Lichtenstein’s Southampton studio in New York to talk about his friend’s life and work.
You’re a writer with a very strong artistic background. Where do you think this came from?
When I was in graduate school, I met a young woman named Susan Brockman, who had just come back to New York after living with de Kooning in East Hampton. Susan was an editor at Arts Magazine, and she asked me to write some reviews. I accepted because I was so bored with graduate school, not with the reading, but bored with the classes. I couldn’t stand the idea of being a student anymore. My first assignment was a feature review of the sculptor George Segal, who made plaster casts of people. George was personable and warm, and I was naïve and very impressed. Sometimes when you’re more impressed with the artist you have an exaggerated appreciation of the work.. After that review, I became more excited. I would go to the galleries every Saturday and visit artists in their studios. So by the time I met Roy, I was already involved in the art world. It was a small world.
I can’t even imagine how small.
Unlike today, where everything is so expensive, artists—young and old—could live and work in Manhattan.I got to know Eva Hesse, Claes Oldenburg, Susan Sontag, Paul Thek. Everyone knew everyone, and some of us would go dancing together at a place on St. Mark’s Place that doesn’t exist anymore called The Dom, which in Polish means “the home.” There was a club in the basement. Someone would call you at midnight and say, “Fred, we’re going to The Dom, call 5 people.” All of a sudden there were about a hundred people dancing that we all knew. Oldenburg was always leaning against the wall, not dancing.
When did you first meet Roy Lichtenstein?
In the fall of 1964 I was in Provincetown, in a place called the Atlantic Bar. They had a big painting of his there. I was amazed. I had never seen anything like that before. It was like a panel from a comic book. When I came back to New York, I spoke to some friends about it. “Oh yeah,” one said, “It’s called Pop Art. And the painter you’re talking about is Roy Lichtenstein.” One of my friends, Diane Waldman, was a young curator at the Guggenheim. She organized a dinner in her loft, and that’s where I met Roy and Dorothy. I adored both of them right away. I thought Roy was kind, sweet, and unpretentious. We became friends, and continued to be until his death in 1997.
Was he already living in Southampton?
No, he didn’t leave New York until 1970, or 1971. I think their last place in the city was a former bank on the Bowery, which is now a totally chic neighborhood of condos, expensive hotels, and contemporary art museums. But at that time, the Bowery was mostly for drunks who lived on the street and crashed for a dime or quarter in a flophouse. The bank was owned by a guy who knew several artists, and he rented a whole floor to Roy and Dorothy. It was fantastic. Roy had his studio there, too. The doors to the rooms still had their original office numbers, so that the bedroom might have been 501, and the bathroom, 505. It was very funny and whimsical, in keeping with the spirit of Roy’s work—and his personality.
Why did Roy and Dorothy Lichtenstein decide to move to Southampton?
Of course, there was always the fresh air. I also think they got tired of stepping out of the bank to find drunken men sleeping in the entranceway. There were people in Southampton he knew and admired, like the painters Fairfield Porter and Larry Rivers. Larry was also a jazz musician and Roy once told me that he would travel to New York on holidays from his teaching in Ohio to hear him perform. But at that time, in the 70s, Southampton was empty, especially during the winter. It is only 90 miles from the city, but back then it could have been 1000 miles, 2000 miles deep into the interior of America. There weren’t many distractions. Roy could paint quietly, though in fact he could paint quietly anywhere, even if bombs were falling around him.
So Southampton was a place for artists.
Yes, and it had been since the nineteenth century. In Roy’s time, artists lived mostly in Springs and East Hampton. Springs was Pollock, East Hampton was De Kooning, and Ossorio too, I think. But, as I said earlier, Larry Rivers and Fairfield Porter lived in Southampton. There was a little circle of artists and poets around Porter, and Roy would sometimes go over to play chess with him. Porter had reviewed one of Roy’s early shows, and wrote a great line, “Lichtenstein does not torture the paint.”
That’s a great line.
It was true. Roy didn’t torture the paint, unlike the Abstract Expressionists with their whole messy thing, the paint, the gesture, the twirling, the dripping. His work was clean, clear, and precise.
“Hello, Southampton” by Laurie Lambrecht, 1990. Taken inside of the Southampton, NY studio of Roy Lichtenstein. Photograph © Laurie Lambrecht. Artwork © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.
Your presence in his studio here witnessed the birth of a series of masterpieces.
Others could explain more precisely about his process. It started with an outline on the canvas for what would become the painting. He would fill in the spaces with colored paper cutouts, and tape them in place to see how they would look. He’d move the cutouts around until he decided what worked. There was a template for the dots too. So even before the actual painting process began there was a collage of how it would eventually look. His was the exact opposite of the Abstract Expressionists’ aesthetic, which was supposedly the personality of the artist declared on the canvas. His personality was in paintings, but certainly not bombastically so. Roy’s work was very organized, systematic, and intelligent. Nothing left to chance. It was all deliberate, like when he made the “Brushstroke” series. These paintings are a bit of a joke about Abstract Expressionism, because the brush stroke, the rhythm, the swipe, all that was premeditated—as if to say, this is how spontaneity can be engineered.
I saw a big mirror in his studio. What did he use if for?
Roy had two systems. Sometimes he turned a painting upside down in order to see it from a different perspective. The mirror served the same purpose. If you look at a painting directly you see the content, which could influence your idea of the formal structure. Seeing the work upside down, or in the mirror, allows you to only see the formal components.
What was inspiration for the subject of his paintings?
Before he became well known as an artist, he taught art in Ohio, and he had a firm grasp on art history—including, of course, comic strips, as well as Egyptian and Chinese art. Don’t forget, he made a whole series of Chinese landscape paintings. They’re the most beautiful things you can imagine. Roy’s genius was to synthesize the essential elements of a work and recapitulate it in his own style.
Did your friendship influence your writing as a storywriter and novelist?
Roy was a very big influence. My first novel, Adventures of Mao on the Long March, which I finished in 1969, was rejected by every publishing house in America. I became very discouraged and decided to publish the book myself. I don’t know where I got the crazy idea to go to Gibraltar and have it printed there. I had heard that I could get my book printed for only a couple of hundred dollars and that a pirated edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been printed there, although I don’t know what influence that had on me going there. I guess I thought at least I would have a book to send to friends. Better that than have an unpublished manuscript crying alone in my drawer. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I went to Roy and said, “Roy, you know, I want to publish Mao myself, would you make a cover for it?” He read the manuscript and agreed to do it. I told a friend who knew a small publisher who said to me, “If Lichtenstein will do a lithograph and let us sell it, we’ll make a special edition of the book to go with the print, and then we will also do a trade edition.” That is what I really wanted in the first place. And Roy, as ever generous, agreed.
I assume when Warhol did his “Mao” series that he knew about Roy’s image of Mao, which preceded his.
Yes, Roy’s Mao appeared two years before. Not only did he know it, Andy wanted to do an exchange with me. He said, “Fred, I’ll give you a drawing and you give me the lithograph.” We all knew each other. It was a small world.
After this, Roy helped you again by making a book jacket for Tintin in the New World.
Yes. When I told my editor at William Morrow, “Lichtenstein’s going to do the jacket for me” he said, “What do you mean? We can’t afford that!” “Of course, you can’t afford it,” I said. “You’d never be able to afford it, but it is a gift.”
Lichtenstein was a profound influence on you.
People were so shocked by Roy’s paintings in the beginning—it was almost as if he had committed a sacrilege. Are you trying to insult art? Are you making a joke of art? But the point was, if you make what you think is a work of art, you’re going to do what everyone does. If you make a painting as good as Cezanne or Picasso, so what? Nothing has been added, nothing has been brought forward, nothing has been made to change our conception of painting. This is what I, as a young writer—I was 13-years younger than him—thought I had learned from Roy. No writer I knew personally at that time gave me the feeling that there was something yet fresh to be done in fiction.
How did you put his idea into practice?
Roy’s message to me was do what you believe in, do what you care for, and that’s it. No fuss. I tried seeing the novel in a new way and one that was not autobiographical, as most debut novels are. I thought that there was nothing to lose in taking risks, so I tried to write as though no one was looking over my shoulder. But risk taking doesn’t ensure the work’s acceptance. After all, what would Roy’s art look like if he hadn’t taken risks? The Pop paintings were not welcomed with open arms. When Mao was being sent to publishers, I would get letters from editors forwarded to me by my agent saying things like, “Why are you sending me this book? This is not a novel.”
Why did they think that?
Because they couldn’t understand the radical structure, the appropriations ranging from texts by Jack London to Walter Pater that I sliced into the narrative of Mao’s Long March. Not that you have to be a genius to understand my book, but you just had to have patience to see what it was made of.
How was Lichtenstein’s relationship with the art world and the artists of his time?
When I delivered an eulogy for Roy at the MoMA, I wanted to explain his serenity, and at the end I asked, “Was he the Buddha?” Because Roy never judged. I would say to him, “Roy, what do you think of this artist?” and he would say, “That’s very interesting.” He never made enemies because he never said things like “That’s a shitty painter.” He never did the kind of stuff that I was always prone to do.
Tommaso Speretta is a curator based in Venice. His book Rebels Rebel on the history of art and AIDS activism in New York is available through MER. Paper Kunsthalle.
Laurie Lambrecht is an artist based in New York City and Bridgehampton, NY