JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY ART
Jutta Koether: It seems that you always stick to one theme but from different angles. Do you feel like an artist or is your work just the result of what is happening in life to you?
Larry Clark: Well, the way I work is the one theme with myself. That's the theme. The work all comes from a psychological need. See the images that I make. These were photographs that I cut out of books or magazines and whatever. It's really a psychological need. I'm just jerked around by it. I'm pulled by it.
Koether: You don't control it.
Clark: I don't control it. If I controlled it, I'd be very controlled, it would be like Mozart, I'd just turn it out. I'm not the fastest worker in the world. Takes me a long time to get rolling. It more or less just happens. I have to force myself to just sit in the corner and not do anything.
Koether: There is no end to it anyway. It doesn't look like it.
Clark: It's just trying to keep it going. I think the process of doing it is all about conquering fear. I think it's all fear-based.
Clark: Yeah, fear. Till I get to these places in myself and make something out of it, do the work. It's difficult to explain.
Koether: Maybe it also has to with the fact that you didn't use to make a living from this.
Clark: Well, that has never been a motivating factor. And it's still not. Everything has just kind of happened. If you look at it, you'll say, you did this, you published the books yourself. That was the only way I could get the work out. It was really hard for me to do even that. It was either burn it all or publish it. So I decided to publish it. It was really hard for me to put it out. It's always hard for me to put any of it out.
Koether: Really? Still?
Clark: Yeah, absolutely. I just lock myself in the studio, basically. For a couple of years I didn't come out. It's all recluse and isolated, and it got pretty crazy. I had stuff all over all the walls, like a maniac. But I got so much pleasure out of it. It was like a happiness that I very seldom experienced. I used to just lie on the floor and look at the work and just be so happy and laugh like a maniac. And I'd wake up and I'd have no idea what anybody was going to think of this, because I didn't know what other people were doing because I was working in a vacuum — just me. I wasn't looking at art. I wasn't not looking at anything.
I made a point not to look at anything because I was afraid that I'd be influenced. That's a funny way to work. I find out that artists look at other people's work and they get influenced, or they get ideas, or they get inspired. And now I look around a lot — in the last year I've been looking at art, looking at stuff — and I say to myself, "Oh, this is how they do it."
Koether: This is only in the last year?
Clark: Really looking, yeah. Since I joined the gallery. And Lawrence Luhring and Roland [Augustine] would tell me all this stuff. And I'd go around and look.
Koether: And now what do you think?
Clark: I just think, this is so easy, these people have it easy. They just look at other people's work and everything kind of roll along. One person does something and then someone else takes it, does something else, "Oh, that's what art is."
Koether: It's all inside one context. Whereas you had to make up your own context.
Clark: I said, "God, that must be so easy." But of course it's not easy, but it looked easy to me. "Oh, that's how you do it," I said, "Gee, man." Maybe I was straitjacketing myself because even back when I was doing Tulsa or Teenage Lust. I wouldn't go see movies about teenagers. I wouldn't look at books if they were about teenagers, because I was afraid that either I would be influenced or that someone had already done something that I had done, or someone was doing it better. I was just afraid to look at anything, because I didn't want any ideas. I don't know why, but I didn't. Just frightened. Scared to death.
Koether: But if you had any ideas, did you share them with anybody?
Clark: No. When I was doing the collages, nobody saw what I was doing. And finally
I let someone in the door, because I had all this stuff, and I said, "Gee, what am I going to do with all this stuff? I should get a gallery to show them." Then it was like, "How does one get a gallery? Well, you invite people over from a gallery." It just kind of happened.
Koether: But that was the work of four or five years? When did you decide that?
Clark: I decided that a year ago, in the beginning of 1990. I had a couple of people come over. A lady asked to come over, and she brought someone, so they came over and looked. And someone else came, they didn't know what to think. And then I invited a friend over who was concerned about me. It wasn't the kind of reaction I wanted. And then Thea [Westreich] called me. She had seen the books, and she thought, "Gee, I'd like to do a book with this guy." No one would even give her my number. They were saying, "I don't know if you can even call him up." So she was brave enough to say, "Well, I'll just call him." So she called me up and said, "Let's do a book." And I thought, "Oh, some crazy woman." So she came over, and then a week later she said, "Can I bring a couple of people down?" She brought Roland and Lawrence. And they knew my work, the books and stuff, and they wanted to see what I was doing. They came down and asked me to join their gallery. It happened very fast.
Koether: Have things changed now? Do you consider yourself a so-called professional artist? That does have an effect on your life?
Clark: Yeah. I hated photography. I never liked photography that much. I always wished I was making films. Always wanted to be a filmmaker. The work was always structured that way, kind of like a film, narrative kind of thing. I always wished I could be a painter or a filmmaker, anything but a fucking photographer. I certainly didn't want to be in a photography gallery. There is no way I would have shown this work in a photography gallery. Even though I did invite Peter MacGill down, from Pace MacGill, because everybody told me I should invite him down. Which was a good thing I did, because he inspired that collage in the recent show.
Koether: What did he say about it?
Clark: He pretended not to understand it. He pretended not to get it.
Koether: That's an unsolved problem.
Clark: I said, "Peter, it's a joke."
Koether: You said that you tried to avoid other artists, so you wouldn't be influenced by their work.
Clark: I don't think that was a good idea, but that's what I did.
Koether: But that didn't include music. It wasn't that you were a hermit.
Clark: No. When I started in photography I was in territory that I knew nothing about. I didn't know how to make a collage, I was just doing what I was doing. I didn't go out to see who was doing collages or get some books on it.
Koether: At least you read newspapers.
Clark: Oh, sure, absolutely.
Koether: There is always something a person is doing, and even if you say that it's a decision of trying not to see too much, you're still doing something. You're going to movies, you're reading newspapers, or you hang out in a bar.
Clark: I knew what I wanted to do, read teenage magazines and buy newspapers and look around.
Koether: And that's kind of how you are shaping your life. That always ends up being the things that you're influenced by.
Koether: It's the ground from which you take things.
Clark: Right. And still I was out photographing stuff. And I certainly have been inspired by a lot of people, you know? I was certainly inspired by what Robert Frank and Eugene Metz did, and inspired by Bob Dylan and Lenny Bruce. I think the big influences of my work are Bob Dylan and Lenny Bruce — both of them influenced me. There's a lot of Lenny Bruce in my work.
[. . .]
Clark: When I did the Tulsa book — and I've talked about this before — I'd never seen anything like that. Drugs weren't . . . you know, nothing like that had been done.
Clark: And people didn't know about drugs, but they were starting to take them.
Koether: It wasn't visible.
Clark: It wasn't that visible, and no one had really, you know, done something like that at all. People could have said, "You're talking about a bunch of stupid people putting needles in their arms. . . . What a stupid life. . . . What a bunch of idiots." I didn't know what people were going to say, and it was really scary to do that book because I didn't know how people were going to take it. And it turns out that people started living that story, you know? And they're still living it. You know, from the beginning, you can take that book and you can find people living out the book still today — every day.
I just had no idea if people were going to laugh at me and say, "Who cares?" Or not, you know. And in fact, I've gotten nothing but great reviews about that book and incredibly great response from people who have seen it — the critics and everybody. They all say it's the greatest thing. But just before I published the book — just before I went down to LA to the printer — I was in San Francisco for a week, and I put photographs up on the wall at the San Francisco Art Institute. And a guy from the newspaper reviewed the show and said, "Who cares? So what? This is dull and boring and not exciting."
Koether: That was just before publication?
Clark: Just before I went in the printing plant. And I wanted to shoot myself in the head and burn all the fucking pictures and the negatives.
Koether: When was that?
Clark: In 1971. But I went down to LA and did the book. . . . He was a reviewer for the San Francisco paper and his name was Frankenstein, of all names. He was the art critic. I was in a two-man show, the other person was Imogene Cunningham. So me and Imogene. Imogene got a great review. [laughs] He loved her; hated me. But for him to say that this was just boring and dull and, "Who cares?" I mean, that was like . . . you know, I said, "Oh, my God. What have I done?" And then when I did Teenage Lust, after I finished the book and wrote the text, I said, "Ah, man, everybody's going to hate me. No one's ever going to like me again. I'm going to lose all my friends, I'm going to lose my wife, and no one's ever going to speak to me again. They're going to say, I'm the most horrible person in the world." But then I said, "But it's pretty good." [laughs] "This text is pretty good. You know, if it wasn't me, it would be pretty good." So that was another thing — I was just scared to death. But I went ahead and did it. I said, "Well, fuck it. I'm going to do it anyway." Because, once again, you either burn it or you publish it.
Clark: And then I showed it to a couple of people and I got bad reactions.
Clark: Yeah. I showed it to my wife who freaked out — freaked the fuck out. But we got passed that.
Clark: You know, she was obviously pretty well shocked by it. And then I picked a person, a guy who was kind of hip but straight at the same time — he was hip and straight — and showed him the text. And he said, "I wouldn't be friends with this guy. If this is you . . . forget it."
Clark: I said, "Oh, boy." And then I showed it to a third person who finally got it.
Clark: He said, "This is great." I think he was a psychiatrist. I can't remember. He loved it.
Koether: But not your psychiatrist? [laughs]
Clark: No. He said, "This is great." I said, "Okay, great. Somebody liked it." But it's always been that way.
Koether: But what happened in all the years between, before you started working on the collages? You didn't do anything?
Clark: Well, I've always done something.
Koether: Yeah. Taking it in.
Clark: I'm always doing something.
Clark: Like introducing a lot of work — that was doing something to get myself together — straightening myself out.
Clark: You know, trying to . . .
Koether: It takes energy.
Clark: Just trying to, you know, get well.
Clark: I'm a sick person. I'm not a bad person. I'm a sick person, getting well and better.
Koether: I'm just curious because, you know, it's a long time, when you think of it.
Clark: Mm-hmm, it's a long time.
Koether: It's a long . . . [laughs]
Clark: Long time.
[ . . . ]
Clark: We were talking about the work. There was that element in my work about innocence and the loss of innocence that I don't think we talked about.
Koether: We just talked about it a little bit when I asked you about the kids who show up in these pictures that are, at the same time, heroic images. They are maybe about the normal kid's experience in life, and then, at the same time, you could interpret them as kind of losers or outsiders or outlaws, already, at a very early age. And we talked about this moment when you said, maybe that's what they have, that is the highest point they reach in their lives, and after that it might just get worse. That is exactly that moment when one asks, is this still innocence? Is this still something they can keep, or is everything rot? We talked a lot about that boy, but is it the same with the other boys that you had in the pictures?
Clark: Well, I identify with that kid. I can understand what happened to him.
Koether: But how can you identify with it, with his life? You can apply your life to his life?
Clark: I can identify maybe how he didn't have love, didn't have a role model, didn't have a father. He had a mother who was distant; he was by himself and lost. And then when he met the woman, it was love for the first time, or what he thought was love, which was also obsession. And he was extremely vulnerable. And he was manipulated. I can see him doing almost anything to hold on to that because that was his whole life. And when you're a kid that is pretty much your whole life.
Koether: But maybe it's that moment, we talked about that a little, when there is that kind of freedom. There are for you those categories, like guilt and shame, and those exist for that moment. This particular moment when you're obsessed, or involved in something, is, at the same time, a kind of rising because there's so much energy involved. It might just erase for that moment all the pain or the old bondages, like the relations to the family or the father, because it has no value functioning anymore. I'm just curious, when you say that you identify with that, is it that you can long for that moment or do you just want to document it.
Clark: I think I can identify with how he felt, how this kid felt.
Koether: And after that he doesn't feel that he has done anything wrong.
Clark: Well, I think he did feel he had done something wrong. I think he knew he'd done something wrong, it was just he didn't have any way out. Otherwise, he would have lost the woman. The woman said, "If you don't do this, then . . ." I think a lot of the work in both of the books has to do with the loss of innocence, innocence lost and what happens.
Koether: The work doesn't appear to me as something negative. It might have a tragic side to it, but usually these pictures, for me, that this kind of loss, or the destructive side of it, has also a kind of heroic element. Is that true? Is that how you think about it?
Clark: Well, what do you mean? Give me some examples. What do you mean — that everyone is heroic in Tulsa? But then, at the end, look what happens to everybody.
Koether: Not everybody, but there's this ambiguity about it. I don't say that this all . . .
Clark: Right. Well, there's different aspects to it. Maybe you're talking about the way I make some people look, the way the kids look.
Koether: Also, how they present themselves.
Clark: That has to do with me a lot, because I always wanted to be, when I was a kid, anybody but myself. So I wanted to be any of these people but me. I would have been any of them. It would have been fine with me. I didn't want to be myself.
Koether: But have you been one of them?
Clark: Yes, but I was still myself.
Koether: But if you experience this loss of innocence yourself, is that your way out of it, how to deal with it, making these pictures?
Clark: I make the pictures because I have to make them. That's totally true.
Koether: That goes for the older work as well for the work you're doing now.
Clark: Did we talk about how if I'd seen these pictures somewhere else I wouldn't have had to make them? I always felt that when I was photographing, I had a psychic need to see this, to photograph this. And I think if somebody else had been doing this work, and if I could have seen these pictures anywhere at all, then there would have been no need to make them. I have no need to make pictures that I don't have to make. That's why maybe it takes a long time for my work to come out sometimes, and maybe for the number of years that I've worked maybe the body of work hasn't been large, but that's probably the reason. I probably have a very narrow focus. And it also had to be real. It couldn't be somebody acting or setting stuff up. It had to be real, it to be really happening.
Looking back on it now, when it was happening, it was just kind of happening. But when you look back and try to figure out what you were doing and why you were doing it, psychologically, and why you would go up and hang out for a couple of years to get a handful of photographs.
Koether: But for example, when you say there is no acting, in this one collage . . .
Clark: I'm talking about the older work. I'm not in the position now that I was then, because I'm certainly not a kid. I'm forty-eight years old. I was married with two kids and living in the country and came into the city to work. I can't be out there, hanging out and drinking and drugging with these kids. First of all, I just can't be doing that, for a number of reasons. It's not my scene, and so on and so forth. I had to find a new way to work and still deal with the issues that I'm dealing with and trying resolve them in my work. Basically the same thing, I think in some of the collages it was very evident, especially the big collage, with the letter in it and all the different images, and the thing about puberty, and all that. It was issues to resolve. And it seems that I've only been able to resolve them in my work. I've always worked that way. I would have little flashes of insight through the years. When I got out of the army, I was back in New York throughout the late sixties, and I met a lot of people in New York, and everybody was seeing shrinks, psychiatrists, figuring out their selves. I thought it was such a waste of time. I realized with the Tulsa photographs that . . .
Koether: You made them before or after that?
Clark: Before and after. I realized that it was more interesting for me to find out these things about myself through my work instead of lying on some couch and talking to someone. I thought that was a waste of time. Maybe I've paid the price for it, but I realized at one point, "Oh hey, I'm working this out in my work while other people are keeping it separate from their work." Not the way I wanted to do it. Or not the way I could do it. I always worked on such an emotional level, not an intellectual level. Just kind of feeling your way along and whatever feels right. When I was doing photography, it was like that too. Put them up and figure it out later. Same with the work. I do it and then I figure it out later. I would go in trances.
Koether: It's not like you're just pouring it out and then forget about it.
Clark: No, no, no, I see all kinds of stuff. Who knows if it's real or not?
Koether: I was interested in how this one collage came about, this piece about the teenagers and the suicide. You had one photo in there that is clearly acted, this one boy, hanging.
Koether: Did you make that picture for the collage, or was that there before? I'm just curious about the process of how that came about.
Clark: There are a lot of elements of this in the earlier work, especially in Teenage Lust. That's why I went back with the younger brothers and sisters in the neighborhood and kind of got to relive my early teenage years, when I didn't have a camera. I got to go back with them, and they were doing the same things that we were doing, and living the same kind of life. It was just the same. I was able to go back with them, they let me come with them and photograph. So I was able to relive my childhood and photograph something that I wasn't able to photograph. I was actually able to go back in time, with a camera.
Koether: I see.
Clark: And so when I started doing the collages, one of the elements of them is to photograph, since I couldn't hang out, but I'm always interested in making photographs that I haven't seen before. Here was one more element of that, of photographing things that can't be photographed. There is all this stuff in the papers about teenage murderers, kids killing their parents, a rash of teenage suicides. And then the teenage suicides, there were four or five or six of them on this one little area of Long Island. And naturally everybody was trying to figure out why these kids from this upper middle class neighborhood were dying of suicide. And then it turned out that half of them weren't suicides at all, rather accidents, caused by this auto-erotic asphyxiation process, where they were cutting off their air supply as they jerked off to get a stronger feeling when they came. Also kids killing their parents, and actual suicides. How are you going to photograph that? You can hang out with kids as much as I did, or maybe even be a kid, but how are you going to be there when that happens. So I was trying to work in the studio anyway. So in dealing with those kinds of themes I started to see if I could make some photographs that might suggest that or deal with that. And in that particular example, I was photographing that kid — there was a triptych of that same kid, where he's on the couch in the first one and he looks like Jodie Foster. And then in the second one he has the gun in his mouth.
Koether: Oh, that's the same kid.
Clark: With the heavy metal posters in the back, when I went out and looked for heavy metal posters and I found these posters and covered a whole wall with them. And then the last one is a profile of him, because he had a great profile. I was just playing around. I had been asked to do something for an AIDS show at ICP. And it turned out that most of the people that they asked just sent in a print. But a very few actually did something specifically for it, so I was trying to do something for the show. It wasn't specifically at that moment, but it was in the back of my mind. Here I've got somebody I'm photographing, and maybe something will turn out for that, too. And I remembered a comment from a friend of mine who said that if he had AIDS, he'd go and buy one of those Bijan $10,000 solid-gold pistols and put a bullet through his head. So that was in the back of my mind. And then the sexuality of the kid. . . . So then I tried to see what it would look like if I set up a hanging. It was very hard to do. First of all, I couldn't rig it on the pipes in my studio because the pipes would fall. Anyway, we were just playing around, and we tried that, and I like that photograph even though it's obviously a set-up photograph, I just like the way the kid looked. No one ever asked me specific things, or to work on commission. And so I started making this collage, and it just fit together. And my criterion for making the collages that I've made so far is to get one of my photographs in there.
Koether: But the photograph was there before?
Clark: It was an existing photograph. So the criterion was to get one of my photographs in — at least one. And, of course, some of the bigger collages have twenty of them, but it would start like that. I would take one of my pictures and one photograph ripped out from a magazine — like the one of Karl Malden in a movie on television, and a ripped out picture of Matt Dillon. That was the first collage, and it was very simple. I had that picture, and I started doing this collage for the knife show about violence and stuff, and my wife and I had a fight, so that was in my head, and I found these pictures of the woman and the guy being hung.
Koether: How did your relation to the people that you photographed change? In former times you were, as you said, hanging out with them and so on.
Clark: I was like one of the guys. I was one of them, the only difference was that I had a camera. The portraits changed a lot.
Koether: So now you have the kids around more as models, more in a classical sense. You have them come over to your studio, you set up a scene . . .
Clark: Now it's that, for the last year and a half. I find people I want to photograph and I say, "I'd like you to model for me," and I try to explain what I'm trying to do, what I'm shooting for. I've been photographing this kid, trying to do this teenage suicide thing
Koether: A whole series?
Clark: Well, it's turned into one. I've photographed him three times. He'd just come over to the studio and we'd try different things. And they obviously look staged, because I can't make it look real, and I don't think I'm interested in making it look real. I think I'm just interested in the feeling and the suggestions.
I don't know what to make of these new photographs, but I like them. They are so different, because they are obviously staged. But all the elements are there, and they're disturbing. They're strong and they're threatening in a way but, at the same time, there's a vulnerability and an innocence. Kids are doing this.
Koether: Are you accepting the model's ideas as well?
Clark: Of course, whatever he does. I have him try stuff, I position him, and if the kid gets into it, he might try some stuff himself. Like the other day, when I was photographing this kid with a pistol, he took it and stuck it in his mouth — after he relaxed for a while. Like I said, it's the third time I photographed him, so he's getting more relaxed. I needed to find a way to work differently.
Koether: But is that okay for you? Do you feel sometimes that there is a gap now between what you are, by the history of your life, by your age, whatever, and what you are making; that you have a very different position from that of a kid, whereas it used to be identical? Do you suffer from this in any way or do you take it as it is?
Clark: I take it as it is, this is how life goes, and I suffer, too. I'm a great sufferer. I always felt that my work was always coming from a lot of pain and anger from that period of my life, my adolescence. And from shame. Not so much guilt, but from shame, anger, and pain. Those were the three areas that I felt my work was coming from. So I tried to make that more plain in my work and come to grips with it. Whereas the early work, the two books, was more physical; just by their nature, the collages are getting into these emotional areas. If you're interested in that wavelength, they really make them clear and you really deal with some of these issues and get them out there. It seems to help me to get them out there, too.
Koether: What is this element of shame? In what sense is your work dealing with shame?
Clark: Well, it is. Maybe I'll explain that in my new book. It's funny because for the last couple of days I've been writing it in my head.
[ . . . ]
Koether: I think in the pictures themselves the element of shame is much more absent. It's like you get rid of it by declaring it; whereas the element of anger is there right away, visually — you see it.
Clark: Well, there's a saying that you're only as sick as your secrets. Which I guess means that the fewer secrets you have the less sick you are. And if you get rid of all your secrets, you get them out, maybe you won't be sick any more.
Koether: Sounds easy.
Clark: So, by dealing with some of these issues, maybe there is a freeing, maybe there is a releasing factor.
Koether: Of course. What I find so interesting about it is that there is an aspect of using art as a kind of therapy.
Clark: Yes, absolutely.
Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.