STRANGE HAZE: DRUGS, ARTISTS AND ART
Interviews with Richard Prince, Fred Tomaselli, Motohiko Tokuta, and Stephen Pesce, M.S.W.
by Dike Blair
I've always thought that the influence of drugs on visual artists and what they produce is a topic that gets less than its due-especially when compared with the topic of drugs and popular music. There are some good reasons for this. Some pop musicians, or bands, overtly link their personas to specific psychotropic drugs. Visual artists, by contrast, are generally loath to go on record as using drugs, although occasionally an artist's drug use is publicized in much the same way that a rock star's is (Martin Kippenberger's alcoholism and Jean-Michel Basquiat's heroin addiction come to mind1). Many visual artists have used drugs as a subject, but the relationship of the artist to the object2 is often different from that of the musician to music. Even if the subject or spirit of visual artworks is Dionysian, their making is usually Apollonian; most visual artists find intoxication problematic, at best, when it comes to the making of objects. The Dionysian/Apollonian relationship applies to the audience's contemplation of these respective art forms as well. There's a long tradition of listeners using drugs (particularly at live performances) to enhance the experience of music, but most people don't snort, swig, shoot, pop or puff before a gallery-go-round or a visit to a museum.
Other reasons why the relationship of visual art and drugs gets little play include the enormity of the subject and its chicken-and-eggness. Do artists (the chickens) use drugs to help them access particular kinds of imagery and emotions already seated in their imagination, or are the drugs (the eggs) responsible for hatching particular images and emotions? Clearly, it's stuff better suited to the scale of doctoral dissertations, cognitive scientists' studies or insinuating coffee table books than to the glancing approach that I'm attempting here.
History and hindsight do reveal some hard evidence of artists' drug use, and a sociological overview mapping the patterns of a period's consciousness, including its drugs of choice, helps to bring some clarity to this murky topic. When analyzing the relationship between drugs and art, however, there is always the danger that one will project onto an artwork the presence of an intoxicant that may not have been there. The connection of absinthe to the artists who consumed it is a good example. Absinthe was a subject for Degas, Gauguin, van Gogh, Lautrec, Manet, Monticelli and Picasso.3 Where I believe it went beyond subject and entered the work as a participant is in the paintings of Degas, van Gogh, Lautrec, and Monticelli. Why? Well, my sense of it is intuitive. It has something to do with the haze that, while common to the atmosphere of the café (the setting for the absinthe subjects), is also common to a drinker's vision. In many instances there's a yellowish green glow in the work, consciously employed by the painters to echo the color of the drug, but sometimes I feel a particular synesthesia of palette and paint handling with a physical sensation that goes beyond the conscious. The abstract expressionists, to give another example, were a notoriously pickled group, but I find alcohol worth considering when looking at de Kooning and Pollock but not Kline and Motherwell. Again, my intuition.
So I'm offering something of a barroom argument, based more on intuition than on logic and with the aim of provoking thought rather than arriving at an indisputable outcome or even a practical working hypothesis. What follows are brief interviews with artists in whose work drugs are sometimes a subject and, I think, a palpable presence. I've chosen these three artists in part because each represents a different kind of connection that can be made between the artist, art and drugs (I'll come back to this at the end of the piece). The final interview is with a psychotherapist whose specialty is substance abuse.
To anyone familiar with the art of the last couple of decades, Prince's work needs little introduction. His haunting photographs from the late 1970s and early 1980s are through-the-glass-darkly reflections of mediated consciousness. Likewise, in his "joke" paintings, made from the mid-1980s to the present, he mulches our cultural obsessions with a hesitant and canny autobiography. In the past, Richard and I have had more than one martini together (we made a collaborative piece celebrating the beverage). I spoke to him in his studio in upstate New York.
Dike Blair: What are, or have been, your favorite drugs?
Richard Prince: Do you consider white wine a drug? Absolutely. That's the only thing I do at the moment and something that I have a bit of a problem with . . . certainly last night. Before the wine it was the gin martini, which was a really powerful drug. Alcohol was, at some point, a fairly important part of the day. Not so much anymore. Your art has made a lot of alcohol references. Well, there have been a lot of drunk and bar jokes in the work, like "A horse walks into a bar. The bartender says 'Hey buddy, why the long face?'"
Dike Blair: Does the white wine help you access your creativity?
Richard Prince: Maybe at night I'll go into the studio, and if I've been drinking, that can loosen me up. You use it as a technique for making mistakes? Yeah. I've done things like making a swipe with four brushes, each with a different color, in my hand. It looked as if a machine made that pass or as if it was labor-intensive. But I'll always come to the studio the next day and decide if that looks good, and maybe I'll keep a little part of it. But when a painting's finished, I have no idea what gestures were made when, and maybe nothing but a trace of that gesture will remain. That's especially true of the way I make a painting now, which is really about many generations of adding and subtracting.
Dike Blair: Do you make any associations between things like sloppy painting and intoxication, or double vision and your double silk-screening process?
Richard Prince: I suppose that's a possible interpretation but not one that I make. I consider the sloppy painting something that's very pleasurable, an excuse not to have to be so precise. It also allows me to take advantage of mistakes, which, hopefully, don't look like mistakes. But double silk-screening and double vision is kind of a stretch. For the most part, drinking is about shutting down after working. You once told me that the Sunset pictures were done during a bleak time in your life, which was also a time when you were experiencing Quaalude withdrawal. For the Sunsets, I was trying to make pictures that looked "sent away" for. Quaaludes were very popular at one point, and if you mixed them with other drugs, they were a very pleasant way to spend some time. You had to be very careful because they could make you very depressed. In hindsight it's possible that the mood of the Sunsets had something to do with the Quaalude problem simply because that's what I was doing at the time. Look at the white paintings; they almost look as if someone could have been doing cocaine at the time.
Dike Blair: Someone?
Richard Prince: [Laughter.] Those paintings were done at a time when coke was popular. Those were the only things I may have done when I was actually on a hard drug-and that was a very short period of time. I've never been good at controlling those types of substances, and the fact that I couldn't control them probably saved me. It didn't take very long for me to take a look in the mirror and say, "What are you doing?" I associate coke with a physical sensation, and I'd sometimes come home in the evening, feeling euphoric, and do some very loose and flowing painting. Usually the next day I'd paint over it. But I think you can look at those paintings and see a crispness, an almost metallic quality to them. They could also be seen as depressive paintings . . . but I think that's always been one side of the jokes. I'm very attracted to the type of subject matter with a flip side, seemingly pleasant things that are simultaneously disturbing. That has something to do with the taking of drugs.
Dike Blair: You always pay.
Richard Prince: Right. You can't control them, and that's very appealing-and, at the same time, very unappealing.
Drugs and art are literally inseparable in Fred Tomaselli's work. His well-known and well-received paintings contain the entire spectrum of drugs, legal or not, refined or in their raw state (like cannabis and jimsonweed leaves), embedded in seductive layers of paint and resin. I spoke to him in his Brooklyn studio.
Dike Blair: Do you take recreational drugs?
Fred Tomaselli: At this point in my life I take nicotine and caffeine, and the occasional joint. But I rarely drink. I was a stoner throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s and did as many varieties of drugs as possible. Any addictive problems? I had an unhealthy relationship with opiates for a while, but I never got addicted. I channeled a lot of the fetishism that surrounds drugs into the paintings. That, and my Calvinist work ethic, saved me from having any major problems.
Dike Blair: Did you use drugs to access your creativity?
Fred Tomaselli: I think that people have this mistaken notion that drugs open up doors to creativity. In my case I would say that my vision of the world has been altered appreciably by the visionary states of psychedelic drugs. Sometimes when I'm smoking pot, I'll get into a good state where I free-associate and things start to flow in the studio, but mostly it makes me tired and I just want to watch TV.
Dike Blair: When I think of your painting, I think of patterning-repeated forms that tend to be geometrically symmetric. Do psychedelics lead to an attraction to pattern?
Fred Tomaselli: Yeah. I would say the paintings are partly influenced by travels in psychedelic consciousness. But you see these same patterns exhibited in the worlds of science and nature. Symmetry in nature, the shape of nature itself, insinuates itself into the psychedelic and vice versa.
Dike Blair: I'm curious whether people select their drugs because that drug is sympathetic to who they are or because it makes them someone they wish they were.
Fred Tomaselli: I think that everyone's neurobiology is different and that people find the drugs that are right for them. I can't figure out if assholes are attracted to cocaine or whether cocaine turns people into assholes, but there's a direct correlation. For me, certain drugs are sympathetic to my existing brain chemistry. Drugs like pot and nicotine plug into little receptors in my brain and make me feel good probably because I'm a little bit hyper.
Dike Blair: Does your resin surface create a distanced buffer that is an analog to drug use?
Fred Tomaselli: Some people think of the resin as distancing, but I don't see it that way. I do think that it produces a seductive surface, and since I'm interested in the mechanics of seduction and desire, it plays into that. Initially there was this flatfooted reason to use the resin, which was to encapsulate and make stable ephemeral, water-soluble material. These paintings are meant to be ingested into your consciousness, only visually instead of through your bloodstream, and the resin is the agent for this.
Dike Blair: You want the viewer to ingest the drugs visually. Are you going for another effect or flavor that has nothing to do with drugs?
Fred Tomaselli: I think that the work uses drugs to talk about complicated issues. Drugs are a launching point to talk about perception, beauty and the sublime-and ideals about painting as windows to other realities. Those are much more interesting issues than, "Those works will get you high, man." But I don't want to diminish the idea of a painting as a transportational reality for people. I want to deliver a substantially sublime experience while trafficking in a language that reflects the times we live in. Most of the people I know who have accessed the sublime have done so chemically.
Dike Blair: You talk about the sublime. Is there also an escapist element?
Fred Tomaselli: It used to be that the worst thing an artwork could be called was escapist. Escapism is one of the dominant aspects of our culture, and it seems pertinent and important to me.
Dike Blair: Are drugs a zero sum game?
Fred Tomaselli: In my case I seem to have come through more or less unscathed. As I said before, my sense of reality has been permanently altered, but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. Drugs have provided me with some interesting and some harrowing experiences. I got a lot out of drugs.
Tokuta is the least known of the artists included in this piece. I first saw his paintings at Feature, Inc., in New York City close to two years ago. They are totally trippy. Although Tokuta occasionally relies on conventions that may have some precedent in psychedelic illustrations from the past, he intensifies the experience beyond anything I've seen. The flat surfaces of his acrylic and oil paintings are subtly textured with pattern, fastidiously executed, and extremely detailed. I've taken enough acid myself to recognize how accurately Tokuta captures the experience. Tokuta moved to New York City from his native Japan six years ago. He's self-taught and is a relative outsider in terms of the art world. In talking with him, it became clear that the history and shared vocabulary of painting are not his concern. He doesn't read much or go to the movies-those kinds of fictions pale when compared to what he sees when he closes his eyes. I spoke to him in his Brooklyn apartment and studio, which he's gradually filled with his fantastic canvases.
Dike Blair: What are your favorite drugs?
Motohiko Tokuta: Acid. If I can find good mushrooms, I like those, but it's hard to find good ones.
Dike Blair: Why is acid a favorite?
Motohiko Tokuta: The things I see and feel are very interesting. In this world we see only things that are useful. We have filters to cut the information that isn't useful to our lives. On acid the filters are broken.
Dike Blair: Sounds like a definition of art, "That which is useless." Do you paint while on drugs?
Motohiko Tokuta: I tried to paint while on acid, but the ideas come too fast for me to paint. So I try to memorize the visions.
Dike Blair: Your stuff seems very labor-intensive. Do you use speed?
Motohiko Tokuta: I have to do the opposite. I have to slow myself down.
Dike Blair: Do you think you've been changed by the drugs you've taken?
Motohiko Tokuta: I think so.
Dike Blair: You appear to use a graphic vocabulary that was developed by 1960s drug culture. Do you think the previous graphic interpretations of the psychedelic experience inform these visions?
Motohiko Tokuta: Unconsciously, maybe. But I really just try to capture my experiences of LSD.
Dike Blair: I see you have antennae attached to that painting. What's that about?
Motohiko Tokuta: We watch a TV set, which receives radio waves. Without the TV there are still the radio waves all around us. There are so many things going on that we don't see and which I don't claim to understand. But I'm attracted to the idea, so I've made the canvas a receiver.
Dike Blair: I see some imagery that reminds me of the American Southwest. Have you visited?
Motohiko Tokuta: I've been there three times. I go to take acid in the desert. Whenever I used to take acid in the apartment, I'd imagine how great it would be to be outside. I thought I'd be frightened by tripping in the woods because so many things could be hidden in the trees-I've never tripped in the woods, so I don't know that for a fact. But in the desert there's nowhere for things to hide, so I'm relaxed.
Dike Blair: Are dreams part of this work?
Motohiko Tokuta: I love dreams, but I don't paint them. I sometimes paint the things I see when I close my eyes and I'm awake and sober.
STEPHEN PESCE, M.S.W.
Stephen Pesce has been practicing psychotherapy for more than a decade. I spoke to him in his Manhattan offices.
Dike Blair: I know you treat a number of artists. Do you see a link between drug use and creativity?
Stephen Pesce: They're both kind of the same thing. Using one's creativity and using drugs can both be explorations of self. What can happen is a confusion between the two approaches. Sometimes drugs allow the artist to get to a place faster, but ultimately, and no matter what the drug, long-term abuse will impair the artist's judgment and senses, including the visual, and the work will suffer. Almost all the artists I've treated say their work is better after a varying period of abstinence.
Dike Blair: So drugs provide an ersatz access to creativity?
Stephen Pesce: Yes, and what happens with artists, including some fairly famous examples, is that they either can't or won't stop using a substance, like alcohol, because of the fear of losing their muse.
Dike Blair: Have you noticed any pattern of specific artistic disciplines and specific drugs?
Stephen Pesce: Every time I think I see a pattern, somebody comes along and breaks it. Different types of personalities are attracted to different substances. People with anxiety disorders are usually the ones who are doing the depressants, and depressed people use the stimulants. I find that people who use drugs tend to be self-medicating. Very few people with what would be considered a well-balanced neurobiology develop substance abuse problems simply because they are looking for ways to enhance reality.
Dike Blair: Would artists self-medicate because of some lack that we can generalize about?
Stephen Pesce: Possibly. The creative process itself can be painful and frustrating. Very generally I've noticed that artists tend to be perfectionists and they have an inability to deal with frustration.
Dike Blair: Inability to deal with frustration sounds like infantile behavior.
Stephen Pesce: If we look at what it means to be an artist, it includes the idea of sublimation. Artists take childish impulses, or socially unacceptable urges, and convert them into creations that are acceptable to the world and themselves. Children tend to freely access their creativity, but people who stay in that period of development tend to have problems dealing with the outside world. Using drugs can help them tolerate being different. Sometimes artists find that the same drugs that help them deal with the world also help them access the creative process, so there's an overlap.
Dike Blair: Do you have any observations about visual artists, specifically, and drug use?
Stephen Pesce: I've noticed that visual artists ritualize their art making process in ways that are similar to drug users' preparations with paraphernalia. I think it's an artist's way of setting the stage for the act of creativity to happen.
Dike Blair: Is there a connection between art making, self-destructive behavior and drug use?
Stephen Pesce: I think there are connections, but I don't claim to understand them. It probably has something to do with that pain of the creative process. On a more practical level, the whole idea of exhibiting and being part of the art community brings up painful issues of self-worth and self-esteem. On the other hand, some artists cultivate a "live fast and die young" mystique. That kind of narcissism is not uncommon in artists-dying young is the ultimate avoidance of adult responsibility. There's also an element of risk taking that is applicable to both the creative process and the taking of drugs. Sometimes artists go over the edge. That brings up the question of whether artists take drugs to numb the fear of that.
Dike Blair: I know you look at art. Do you ever see evidence of drug use?
Stephen Pesce: Well, I hypothesize, but there are too many factors for a simple quantification. I don't think you can distinguish whether the art object reflects drug use or who that person, the artist, is.
Dike Blair: Probably not, but that's what I'm postulating.
As I mentioned, each of the artists interviewed is representative of a different relationship between drugs, artists and art. Richard Prince, while acknowledging that drug use could be an occasional technique for generating mistakes, uses drug references as shorthand for poignant cultural and personal revelations. But it is the extremely subtle presence of drugs in Prince's work that I find most intriguing and elusive in terms of the connection I'm suggesting between drugs and art. Conversely, I find it fascinating that Fred Tomaselli's paintings, with their overt use of radical arrays of mind-bending drugs, aspire to the somewhat traditional artistic values of beauty and the sublime. The drugs are not the ultimate substance of his vision; they are the springboard. Every aspect of Motohiko Tokuta's paintings is informed by LSD; his preoccupation is with capturing the effects of the drug. Tokuta's approach is highly illustrative, but paradoxically the intensity he brings to simply reproducing his hallucinatory visions allows his work to transcend the banal.
When Dalí was asked about his drug use and his surreal visions, he responded, "I am drugs." That statement reflects more than his megalomania; it may encapsulate any artist's relationship to creativity and drugs. It unabashedly asserts the artist's dominion over all aspects of the creative act and the power of the artwork over its inspiration, whatever the particulars of that inspiration. I am sympathetic to that assertion, so I would like to note that I didn't include the interview with Stephen Pesce to provide some kind of moral lesson. I am interested more in Pesce's comments about the dovetailing of the creative mentality with drug use than in his warnings (which I do take quite seriously) about the perils of addiction. Although all three of the artists mention that they have substantially cut back their drug use over the years, they all feel they have profited from it in some way.4 Pesce notes that the artist's attraction to drugs is a part of the process of exploration that is intrinsic to a creative temperament. History bears this out, and I can't imagine that the future will be any different.
Speaking of the future, I have one last thought. If one equates decades with specific drugs, the 1990s will probably equal antidepressants. I know (and count myself among) a large number of artists who are currently taking antidepressants5 (granted, we all live in New York City, with its above-the-norm medicated and therapized populace). And this leads me to wonder whether future art historians will see less anxiety and depression in the art of this time. Of course, I have no idea what a future historian will find relevant, but the art-of-the-moment has been (very generally) media-cool, user-friendly and extrospective. Will those future historians attribute any of this to antidepressants? Maybe. But if they do, it's likely that they still won't have an easy time untangling the complex patterns that form in the interstices between drugs, artists, and art.
I would like to thank Karen Jacobson for her thoughts and considerable assistance with this piece.
1 We have become a culture of confession, and artists are no longer less marketable because of a drug problem. (Movie stars remain a problem because of insurance.) Basquiat's postmortem market probably makes collectors want to be pushers rather than nannies.
2 Like musicians, performance artists have used drugs in more direct ways-for example, in Gilbert and George's 1972 video piece Gordons Makes Us Drunk, in which the artists get sloshed on camera. My concern here, however, is with the art object.
3 See Barnaby Conrad III, Absinthe: History in a Bottle (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1988), for an informative discussion of the drink and the artists who imbibed it. Although thujone (one of the active ingredients of distilled wormwood) bears some resemblance to the THC molecule (the intoxicant in marijuana) and other ingredients in absinthe could have convulsant properties, the jury is still out on whether absinthe is anything other than a particularly strong spirit (130 proof).
4 If you've read this far, you've probably noticed that my interest in the subject of drugs, artists and art is more than casual. Until a few years ago my own work sometimes dealt with drugs, particularly alcohol, as a subject and theme. I've described the "message" of that work as the sadness and confusion that result from the confusion between the urge to transcend and the urge to escape. Although drugs are no longer my subject and I've quit drinking, the romanticism of those related urges still hangs over the work.
5 Many artists I've spoken with about antidepressants have shared the fear that manipulating their serotonin levels over a long period of time would diminish the edge in their art. Yet the same artists had little problem with ingesting drugs that temporarily messed with their serotonin levels.