PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 22.3 (2000) 19-37
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Forms of Discontent
Gary Stephan interviewed by Giles Lyon
Painter Gary Stephan has been a major contributor to the art world as an artist, lecturer, and teacher for the past 30 years. He was in the Whitney Biennials of 1969, 1971, and 1973, showed at the Bykert Gallery and at Richard Feigen Gallery in the late 60s, and had his first New York solo show at the David Whitney Gallery in 1970. He went on to become one of Mary Boone's star artists from 1978 until his last show there in 1993. Though he continued to show nationally and internationally throughout the 1990s, he had his first one-person show in Manhattan in six years at Baumgartner Gallery in the Spring of 1999. This interview was conducted by artist Giles Lyon, who recently had a one-person show at Feigen Contemporary in Manhattan.
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How did you find your path toward painting? Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
I had no idea that I wanted to be a painter. (Cat begins meowing furiously.) Here's my twenty-one-year-old cat. Come here, you little burned-out shell. Come on, you has-been. I think there were two things going on at the same time for me. By the time I was 12, I still wasn't involved in sports, and this troubled my father. He said, "If you're not into sports, why don't you at least get involved in cars?" So I thought, "Yeah, cars!" And I started getting really good at identifying cars. I could identity them on a three-lane highway coming at me. I was a very bad student, in fact I flunked seventh, eighth, and ninth grade. What they did to salvage me was put me in art class virtually all day long. And that was it. I was drawing cars all day long. The teacher said to me, "You know, you can get paid for that, it's called "industrial design." And I thought, "Wow. That's cool."
So that was the one stream. The other stream was that I used to baby-sit for some intellectuals in Levittown, where we moved to when I was eight. I ran into all their painting books--all the post-war and pre-war French paintings--Roualt, Modigliani. Modigliani was the first way I found to process my sexual appetites above ground. I could look at these nudes, which I found incredibly erotic, and it was okay. [End Page 19] [Begin Page 21]
Eventually, I went to college for industrial design. I took an art history workshop and a painting class. All of a sudden I was bumped up against painting and that's what kicked it off. Industrial design still intrigued me, but it wasn't going to satisfy me deeply. I wanted to transfer to painting, and the school said, "No way. You've got too many design credits." So I dropped out of college and went to California. I convinced the San Francisco Art Institute to let me in. So now I have a high school diploma and a Master's. I spent three years in California then I moved back to New York.
Do you think the short amount of time you spent in California influenced your sense of light?
You're right actually. Though it wasn't the light, so much as the weather. I was a mailman and I used to drive the truck--all the hippies were mailmen during the Vietnam War. I would sit in the truck, roll my cigarettes, and watch the fog roll in. You could get up above the weather systems in San Francisco and watch the whole valley transform. The other big thing was that I moved into this really cheap nowhere Romanian neighborhood called Haight-Ashbury. Within a year, it blew up going from zero to rock and roll.
What year was that?
That was 1964. I'll tell you how ground-zero it...