Interview for Modern Painters • Sunday, October 1, 2000

Luigi's Alcove

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Modern Painters
Interview by:
Karen Wright
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Since he began painting around 1982, Paul McCartney had amassed some 600-odd canvases in his Sussex home. But it was not until 1999 that he had his first exhibition, in Germany. Wolfgang Suttner, curator of the Siegen Art Centre, urged on by his daughter, an avid Beatles fan, in turn prevailed upon the more than somewhat reluctant artist to show his work. As McCartney told the editor of Modern Painters, he realised that people would really be interested and he might even give them pleasure. This autumn sees the publication of a book based on the show, which will allow a wider audience — including Paul McCartney’s legion of fans — to enjoy an original painterly talent. 

Karen Wright: Before you began painting seriously, you had already been collecting over a number of years. Can we start from there? How did it begin? 

Paul McCartney: I can’t remember the kind of thing I used to buy. First of all I came down to London and that’s when I started collecting because I had a bit of money. So I used to go round the galleries. I would like to say I am not a great expert on anything — I have fragments of knowledge but I am not a great expert. I am not a great expert on music either. I used to hang around some of the galleries in London just for fun and I bought a little Cocteau drawing, which I had on my wall. And then it started seriously when I met Robert Fraser because we became good pals and we just talked art all the time. Robert had a lot of pieces in his apartment and I said that’s nice and he’d say it’s for sale. 

KW: Why did so many music people hang around Robert Fraser? 

PM: I think he hung around with music people because he was attracted to them. It was the happening scene – it was where all the energy was coming from. A lot of artists like Peter Blake were into music and there was a kind of crossover that happened naturally. Robert would either come over to my place or we would go around to his place or we would go out to dinner. And he might say, do you know Takis? I’d say no, and he’d say, he’s a very interesting sculptor, a cool sculptor, and I’d say what kind of thing? And he’d say long tank aerials, that kind of thing, so we’d go and see him. We’d all just get in my car and drive down the Fulham Road where he used to hang out with Takis for a little while. So I got this kind of very informal education which is how I like my education. I have never been good with the formalities — in music or anything. 

KW: There’s no defensiveness in this comment? 

PM: Only in my mind, because — yeah, it is just a sort of snobby thing — because there are people who know more than I do. And I suppose the rationale is that therefore they ought to be better than I am. So I’m being defensive, and when I do an interview, particularly like this one that’s not my main field, I want to own up first that if you’re looking for exact names or titles… it’s not a defence, more a disclaimer. I don’t want people to be reading this thinking, bloody hell! That’s completely wrong, he doesn’t know. I like the primitive approach, so if I learn to sail I don’t take sailing lessons. I get into a boat and I capsize a lot. It’s actually very much my philosophy and it works equally well in painting and in music. I learnt the freedom thing through the Beatles with all the kinds of worries originally, where we would look at the music world and think would we ever be a part of that? What I was always very glad to find out later was that all those people who were the establishment weren’t necessarily any better than you. It just looked like they were. 

Back to Robert Fraser. We would go to all these painters, and that’s when I got to know Alan Jones, Paolozzi, Takis. And when I developed an interest in Magritte, for instance, which became one of my passions, Robert would say: why, I know Isoles [Magritte’s dealer]. So I’d say, great! And we’d go over to see Alexandre [Isoles] and have dinner with him. He lived over the shop so we’d go down after and there would be these beautiful Magrittes, and I bought some wonderful ones, which I still love and have. 

The definitive moment with Robert and me was when I was in London, and I was filming a singer, Mary Hopkins, in the garden. Robert arrived, got let into the house, then left. And when I came back in I found he’d propped up this little canvas by Magritte on the table where he knew I’d see it. It was a big green apple, and written in lovely cursive writing was Au revoir, and Robert had put it there like a conceptual thing — he’d just left and au revoir-ed. It was a golden moment. It’s still one of my favourite pictures of all time.

The apple logo came from that — the green apple idea came from that picture. That was Robert. The next most influential person was Linda. Linda was very knowledgeable because her father was a great collector of mainly Abstract Expressionists. He was a lawyer in New York — Lee Eastman. When you went to his house there were a lot of fine paintings — he had Rothkos, and he knew a lot of these people, that was the other exciting thing. He knew Motherwell, he knew Lindner. So I got to meet Lindner through Lee, I got to meet de Kooning through Lee. I got introduced to a wider range of things and actually I so respected him. 

I asked him, “What’s your idea of a good picture?” He said, “If it lives on the wall” — which I think is a good one. He’d put up a Guston and if it paled after a couple of weeks it would come down. There was a lot of stuff that would just stay up. The Rothkos I thought were great. He had a de Kooning, and French Impressionists that he’d bought in the ’30s. People said he’d paid too much for them — even the dealer, that’s his story. He was full of these stories, which fascinated me because I had had this love of art since school. I won a little school art prize once; I must have been 15, but I never really studied. I didn’t go to art school and that had become a block for me. I thought, it’s only people who go to art school who can or should be allowed to paint. It is only the upper classes that ought to be able to ride horses — people like me do not do that. It was only when I was 40 that I decided to do something about it. And I did. 

So Linda was the next major influence. One of my chat-up lines was “Would you like to see my Magrittes?” 

KW: Did it work? 

PM: Yeah! She said, “What! you’ve got Magrittes?” The thing is most of the other girls I was talking to wouldn’t have known what I was talking about, but Linda did know all that so we shared some loves in painters. She had known the Warhol crowd and Brigid Polk, so she could fill me in. I had never wanted to get in with the Warhol crowd. I sensed a danger so I just never went down there. She’d go down to Max’s, Kansas City, and all that. She didn’t get too in with them — like me, she wanted to get out before it got too crazy. And you had to judge it all in the ’60s. At the same time as being wildly stoned you had to retain some sense of balance. 

Linda helped a lot in collecting. We decided we wouldn’t have any themes — they just had to be pictures we really liked. So there were over the years artists like Redon. We liked Redon’s flowers more than his dreams — the dreams just didn’t appeal. Linda bought me Magritte’s easel when he was selling the contents of his studio, and with it came a little table and, most importantly for me, his spectacles. Magritte’s spectacles, which is very poignant, and there’s all this stuff in these drawers. I like these connections, I like to feel a part of him — although using the easel was very intimidating and I sat for days thinking, it’s got to be men in bowler hats, it’s got to be apples, it’s got to be skies, it’s got to be clouds, it’s got to be word plays. But in the end I just thought sod it, and just attacked it and one of my pictures came out… 

With her eye which was trained by her dad’s collecting, and she’d studied history of art in Arizona, and with my limited knowledge acquired through my friends in London, we were a good team. We built up a very personal collection. I fell madly in love with Tiepolo’s drawings. We had stayed at Oliver Meissel’s house — the stage designer, the uncle of Armstrong Jones, Lord Snowdon. All his personal effects were still there in the house — he had only died the year before — even down to his toupée, which I found very strange. There was a beautiful book on Tiepolo, so Linda occasionally would buy me a Tiepolo drawing. 

KW: Looking at your work, the strongest influence seems to be de Kooning. 

PM: He was the great influence because through Linda’s dad, who was his lawyer, we got to go to his studio in Amagansett. Lee had encouraged Willem to build that studio and he had done a lot of his great work there. When we were on holiday we’d just ring him, and we’d go over and have coffee and sit in these two big chairs and just look at his new work, and just wander around and chat to him about it. What happened was, someone said Bill would like to give you and Linda a picture. Bill had known Linda since she was a kid and he’d always liked her because she was a free spirit. She liked him too — they got on really well. Faced with this gift Linda and I thought we can’t have one of those big million-pound canvases. We wouldn’t have anywhere to hang it. So we chose one of his pulls. He used to take the New York Times and when he had too much paint on the surface he would put the Times on it and pull the paint off. So he’d get like a print from it. He would lay it on the floor and sometimes he would like it as much or even better than the picture, and he’d frame it up in a little pine frame of its own. So not wanting to be too grabby, we said we’d like that one, and he said, “I’d love to give you that one.” It was a beautiful one of his. We propped it up and I loved it, all that freedom — and I suddenly got an urge. 

I said, Bill is this a gauche question, but what is it? I plucked up the nerve to ask what it was in case he could answer me. And then came the most freeing moment of my painting life when he said, “I don’t know, it looks like a couch, huh?” And the way he said “huh” excited me because he like threw it open to me and it was like my head just burst. I’d been thinking about painting for a long time, but I thought they do it, we don’t. So when he said it looks like a couch and I thought it looked like a purple mountain, it was so liberating — the idea that it didn’t matter. I suddenly realised it was the freedom, the colour, it was the paint and the way it was applied. I’d been itching to apply paint to a surface, but I didn’t feel I deserved to buy a canvas. It was all very repressed behaviour. And I decided life begins at forty, so let’s do something. Just hearing him say that and looking at his work and seeing his personality really freed me, so I went into the shop where I knew he bought his supplies and they said, oh yes Mr de Kooning comes in here. I bought some Grunbackers and Fredrix canvases and some other stuff and I started painting. And I never looked back — that was the start of it. 

And then the question was what is my style? And I thought, I don’t know. I decided that it didn’t matter so I’d better just paint a lot, hoping something emerges. I’d talk to painters, and they’d say paint more — that was the only advice anyone ever gave me. It’s funny, I reminded Peter Blake recently of when I asked him for practical tips. I wanted advice on painting and he said: paint more, that’s the only advice I can give. I said to him more recently: you know, what I was looking for was how do you get hair off the canvas if it’s on there and you don’t want it? So that’s what you wanted he said, and we had a laugh about it. 

KW: Coming back to de Kooning, I think I detect a fear of total abstraction here, which interests me because the pieces in the show which were most exciting to me were the more abstract works. 

PM: I found abstracts very hard because I had seen quite a lot and none of mine matched up to them. And where I thought it would be easy enough for a chimpanzee to do, I found very quickly that it wasn’t and it was a great skill. So the kind of things I learnt from Bill were simple things like the attitude, and house-paint brushes. It had never occurred to me that I’d ever have anything bigger than a two-inch wide brush, but seeing him using a four- or six- inch brush thrilled me. 

I wanted any excuse to apply paint to a canvas so I started with my face, and then they started to be more abstract and became a bit wilder. I think I was really just trying to work through, just free paint rather than a subject, because that was what really thrilled me when de Kooning said that. 

KW: Let’s talk about some specific paintings. 

PM: This series — I just woke up one morning and I had a germ of an idea, which is all I want really. I don’t want too formed an idea, it’s just not who I am. This little series comes from this image I got of someone scratching three fingers down a wall. I woke up with this thing and I thought it would be just a black canvas and these three fingered scratches, like someone in prison and they’re either trying to get out or they’re trying to mark the dates. It’s like graffiti. That set me off on a little bunch of paintings. And things happen, like I didn’t want it to just be black, so I was going to make it blue-black. So I threw some blue on the canvas and was going to blend it. But then a shape emerged with this blue, and I still don’t know what it is. It looks vaguely phallic, or somebody’s ass bending away from you. But that’s what started to fascinate me. It’s probably an accident, but also what I like about that is the inner content, that I have no idea what my dreams are about. I’ve no idea, yet they’re every bit as real as sitting here with you. But my interior world, I think it’s not a bad idea to try and tap it. 

My view is that these things are there whether you want them or not, in your interior. You don’t call up dreams, they happen, often the exact opposite of what you want. You can be heterosexual and be having a homosexual dream and wake up, and think, “Shit, am I gay?” I like that you don’t have control over it. But there is some control — it is you dreaming, it is your mind it’s all happening in. In a way my equation would be that my computer is fully loaded by now. Maybe in younger people there’s a little bit of loading to go, but mine’s loaded pretty much, so what I try and do is allow it to print out unbeknown to me. And I’m interested to hear what it’s got in there. 

I think we must be interested as musicians as often our music arrives that way. I dreamed the song Yesterday. It was just in a dream, I woke up one morning and had a melody in my head. so I have to believe in that. 

KW: Is your painting Standing Stone Story a story-book for your music? 

PM: I was stuck with the story for a piece I was writing and I thought, paint it and see if anything comes in the painting. I knew where to start — a ball of fire — so I did that. I knew there was going to be some rain, so I did that, and I caricatured the whole thing, just so I could sit back and look at it and go oh yes there’s my story. It’s like a story-book exactly. 

KW: Did that help with the music then? 

PM: Yes, but it didn’t give me the end. I still had to find how I was going to end it. It sort of turned into a love story… 

KW: What about Oak Apple Twenties Man? Why oak apple? 

PM: This is made of oak apple, that’s why. I was in the post office trying to buy some ink one day, and they said, “We don’t sell ink any more in this modern day and age.” I was on the way out and there was just an old geezer and he said, if you want some ink, you know those little oak apples, you put them in water for two weeks and you’ll get a nice ink. So that’s what I did, and that’s the ink you get, beautiful brown ink. And Allen Ginsberg said to me, does it hold? Because I filled the pen for Allen and he wanted to know will it stay, is it like invisible ink? And I said no, as far as I know it holds well, and it has done.

KW: There’s a lovely twenties feel to the work. 

PM: I think its just the guy, this little moustache, he’s very twenties. 

If I had to use one word about my paintings it would be free, and I think the freedom came from that moment with de Kooning. And that’s what I like about it, I don’t mind that. Things arrive, little things arrive. 

KW: Do you think that’s how painting works often? 

PM: Well, it seems to be the road I’m going along. When I said I was looking for a style…you’ll see my early stuff, there’re faces there’s this, there’s that, so and so, but gradually it starts to get a little bit of its own feel because I realise what excited me as I was doing it. I have millions of little ways to get over blocks because for me — because I don’t do it for a living — it’s important I enjoy it. But every artist that I’ve ever talked to gets a moment in a painting of what the fuck am I doing? What the hell is this? You get that scary feeling I used to get at school just doing anything virtually: you suddenly think, Oh my god! this could go horribly wrong at any second — you get actually scared. So I developed tricks. In my mind I have a friend who is Luigi. Luigi owns a restaurant and he’s got an alcove rather like this, and he always needs a painting for it. So whatever I’m doing, if ever I get that terrifying moment I say it’s for Luigi’s alcove, Luigi will like this. And he just lets me off — it frees my head for two seconds and then I’m over the hurdle and I can carry on. So Luigi’s alcove is one of my huge saviours. And then I like blending paint, so I have an alter ego called Mr. Blendini. He often paints for Luigi. I’ll show you some Blendini moments: that’s Blendini, it gets pure and I like that little picture, it’s one of my favourites. You see normally those drips there would get Blendinied, but I like them — it looked like a harp or something, so they just stayed. 

When I started painting, one thing I really liked, wherever I was, was the earth. So if I was at the beach, if I would be at Long Island, I’d try and get the colour of the sand. I really do like doing that. So often, when I start doing a painting, I will get a certain colour. The sand out West in America is a different colour, it’s more pink. So this is just me trying to get the sand. You’ll see it’s dirty here and that’s often Blendini. 

KW: This painting is more reminiscent of Tiepolo’s style. 

PM: He was such a great draughtsman, to me he seems modern. A nostril is just a little squiggle, and I love the fact that he isn’t modern and it looks just like a little modern cartoon to me. I just love that coming through the ages. There’s an expression, “Life is what happens on your way to doing other things.” That’s a bit what happens in my pictures. I often will start out to try and do something else, but I’m not strict about that and if something arrives that I like better then it takes over — a new driver on the engine, so I’m going with him. This picture, John’s Room, was going to be my attempt to do folds in clothing, which I love, the great traditional thing. I thought, I’ll see if I can do that. And I got the under-painting done and I painted this character in, and suddenly I thought, gosh! That reminds me of Linda a bit, and this little character reminds me of John Lennon, so that little face became John Lennon — his cloak or whatever he’s wearing. I lost interest in the folds. I thought, I’ll do that another time, and this became one of John’s little caricatures that he used to draw, so I just scratched the stuff in. These weird faces hanging out of the frame, that’s a sort of Tiepolo reference, you know the way he often had little legs hanging over frames — which I loved — and his friend Bellini the architect is supposed to have made special frames to let the legs come over. 

KW: Are you in the middle of a lot of new work at the moment? 

PM: No, I’ve done a few things in the past couple of years. Not an awful lot. I think some of them were just therapy, but again I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Yeah, It’s been quite grief-laden, the last couple of years, so anything I’ve done has picked up a tinge of that. A bit stark. A bit sad, dark perhaps. But it was good to do them. I’m glad I did.

KW: Do you feel you’ve laid the ghost of not having gone to art school with the show and now the book? 

PM: Yeah, I definitely got over that when I started painting. Because, you know, I wouldn’t paint before because of that; so the moment I could paint I got rid of that. I allowed myself to paint because I realised it wasn’t a problem that I hadn’t been to art school. After all, I hadn’t gone to music college.

Last updated on August 30, 2020


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