Painter (and Psychedelic Furs frontman) Richard Butler on Warhol, passing “the bedroom test” and why his daughter is his muse.
For music fans of a certain age, the band the Psychedelic Furs conjures up images of a poetic insouciance backed up by an acerbic edge. A lot of its personality came from the front man, singer and lyricist Richard Butler. With a voice by turns raspy and romantic and a penchant for the telling line, Butler shaped an identity for the band that persists today, as the group continues to perform after more than thirty years. But like many famous rockers, from Keith Richards and Roger Waters to Tupac Shakur and Lady Gaga, Butler began making music in art school, and art was a passion that never went away. He studied art in the 1970s at the Epsom School of Art and Design in Surrey, England and, influenced by Andy Warhol’s work, concentrated on printmaking. Initial success with the band demanded that his interest in art take a back seat for more than a decade, but he resumed painting in the 1990s and intensified his work after his daughter, Maggie Mozart Butler, was born in 1997. She has become his primary subject. In two recent exhibitions in New York at the Chelsea gallery Freight and Volume (2011 and 2013), Butler has demonstrated a fascination for the portrait, an almost classical restraint in rendering, and a willingness to bend expectations with unsettling motifs, from false noses to rubber Mickey Mouse ears. Butler is that very rare individual who has managed to excel in music and in art. During the run of his most recent exhibition, ahatfulofrain, I asked him about his unusual career and its connections.
Lyle Rexer In the mid-1970s you were just leaving art school. I had spent a year at Oxford at about that time, and I well remember my visits to London, how much they clashed with my wild expectations of “Mods and Rockers.” In reality, England—and London especially—was still a post-war world, with coins for the gas and war widows with their candles in Westminster Abbey. And it was so drab. What was England like for you at that time, when you were just beginning to make music and make art?
Richard Butler It was changing dramatically. Art school was typically hippies when I started. Then the New York Dolls came along, and David Bowie and Roxy Music, and it was a sea change into Glam Rock. I cut my hair and shaved my eyebrows. . .
LR You didn’t wear makeup!
RB I kind of think I did, actually. No glitter though. Maybe eyeliner. By 1976, of course, punk rock had taken hold, and that was another massive shift. I went to art school south of London, in Surrey, and after school moved back up to London. But what you are talking about, that whole post-war London, was really a huge generation gap, much wider than anything we experience today. I mean, I listen to the same music as my daughter Maggie, and that was unthinkable then. One exception was probably my father. He was really into folk and blues. He turned me on to Bob Dylan. My father was research chemist; he was also a Communist and an atheist. At one point he was supposed to be the scientific ambassador to Russia, and we were slated to move to Moscow in the 1970s until a novelist friend suggested that it might not be so good for the family, since every move we made there would be watched. It was Cold War stuff. It didn’t help that my father also had a nervous breakdown.
LR You did a solo album inspired by your father, Richard Butler, in 2006.
RB It was more thinking about what I was going through at the time: a parent dying, divorce, a family breaking up. When a parent dies, you feel a bit like those mechanical ducks in a shooting gallery. The one in front of you goes down and now you’re next. It’s scary.
LR Why art school?
RB Drawing was my only talent. I didn’t want to go into an office job. But my mother was a painter. She did still lives, flower paintings mostly, and landscapes. But funnily enough, she would also do portraits and I would get called in to do the likeness, to draw it on the canvas so it looked like somebody, and she would fill it out with color. Art school sounded fantastic to me. I took the foundation course and after that opted for fine art. I basically spent all my time sitting in a studio with models.
LR Very old school.
RB : But not academic. The teachers were well aware of more radical developments in painting, people like Francis Bacon and Warhol. But after that first year, I became interested in printmaking, and that was when I discovered Warhol, as a printmaker. I spent hours poring over Rainer Crone’s book on Warhol and listening to the Velvet Underground.
LR Warhol was an influence on your work? I don’t see that.
RB No, I’m not a fan of his painting, I’m a fan of his scene. I recently visited the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and the critics will go on and on about what a great colorist he was. But it’s not true—his work is amazingly flat. I was attracted to him as an iconic figure: Edie Sedgwick, the Factory, the Velvet Underground, all of it. All the ideas of pop art were already out there, with Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake. Jasper Johns had already done his Savarin coffee cans. Warhol became the face of it because he had the personality of a star.
LR So you’re in art school and there are all these changes going on, changes in notions of art, changes in music. . .
RB Hard-edge painting, conceptualism . . .
LR Absolutely, and Warhol comes along and acts as a catalyst, even though he isn’t committed to any of these changes. He represents a decisive break, what the band NRBQ once called “the biggest generation gap around.”
RB I went from painting from life to recording people’s conversations and writing them out on sheets of paper and then cutting out sections and printing them up in block capitals. Very sub-Warhol. After the movies and the Velvets and the excitement of all that, everything I had been doing seemed so staid. I couldn’t go back to it. And when you are young you want the energy all the time. I actually met Warhol once, briefly, a not very consequential or illuminating encounter. But I did get to see him in action, so to speak.
LR When you formed the Psychedelic Furs, did you put art on the back burner?
RB Well, it wasn’t that simple. I would go around visiting galleries—I would go to Marlborough in Bond Street, and I would say, “How the hell do you get into one of these places?” And two months before I was about to graduate one of my teachers, who clearly didn’t make it and was trying to make himself feel better, said to us, “You guys need to figure out what you’re going to do with yourselves because there are only a handful of people who can make a living from art.” It wasn’t exactly true, but what did we know? I worked in a silkscreen print shop, figuring I could steal stuff to do my own work, but I had this idea to start a band with some friends. I couldn’t actually play anything, and I still can’t play guitar, just a few chords, but I naturally figured—
LR You’ll be the front man.
RB Of course. What’s the point otherwise? Who says: “Hey, I want to start a band and be the drummer!”? It moved along well, a lot of fun and really exciting, and the next thing I knew we were under contract to Columbia after only having played 14 shows in England. When punk rock came along, the record companies didn’t have any idea what was going on. All the bands they were signing were pop rock bands that were incredibly proficient and pleasant but old school, bands like Dux Deluxe and Café Society. It just wasn’t relevant to what was going on in England, what with the Thatcher years, garbage strikes, unemployment at its height; people were angry. Punk rock underlined that, it said: This is where we are and we’re pissed off.
LR But when I think about the music you were doing with the Furs, there’s not so much anger as an undertone of melancholy.
RB With bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols, it was a bit like Pol Pot in Cambodia, declaring the Year Zero. Again, I loved the energy but I felt that political statements in music and art tend to fall flat, and you’re sort of preaching to the choir anyway. I prefer to be more introspective. I loved Bob Dylan, for example, again thanks to my father.
LR After a long hiatus, how did painting come back into your life?
RB There were two shows in New York about 1990, a Francis Bacon retrospective and an Anselm Kiefer show. I’d been aware of Bacon, and I loved his work, but Kiefer I didn’t know, and the impact of both of those was that I wanted to be making things again. They aren’t really influences but I loved the power of their work, a kind of visceral attack. I mean, you can’t imitate someone’s brushstroke—it’s peculiarly him. Anyway, I started drawing in my apartment. This was in the early 1990s. I did a horse’s head with branches coming out of it, sort of mythological, and large portraits, five feet tall. I still have one, a painting of my father, which was one of the first ones I did. The rest I left by the wayside.
LR Right. You take a second look and it’s like, “Well, nobody’s going to hire me to do that.”
RB Yeah, but what struck me was how much had happened in art. I mean I wasn’t trying to play catch-up, but in whatever town I was in, I’d go into a museum or a bookstore and look through things and I was amazed at all that had happened. I was finding my way by taking it all in, deciding what I liked and didn’t like, what hit me emotionally, not trying to follow someone’s path.
RB I continued to like Kiefer’s work and Francesco Clemente’s, although I’ve sort of walked away from it since. I also became friends with Julian Schnabel, and I would visit him in his studio and was very impressed with the scale of his work. It’s immediately arresting, but a little painting can often hold a wall just as well.
LR In your last two shows at Freight and Volume there were a lot of little paintings that could hold the wall very well. They have a classical position that gives them gravity. I was caught up by what seemed to me an obvious reference to northern European painting, especially Van Eyck and Rembrandt. It’s the idea of the portrait as an absolutely still place for contemplation.
RB I can’t say I’ve been influenced by that tradition, but I’ve had this experience at the Met of being in a room with Rembrandts and having the uncanny feeling of these people, these faces surrounded by black, looking through their windows at you. Being surrounded by these incredibly rendered characters.
LR Painted portraits produce a sense of the uncanny because there is a doubling of presence not merely as representation, unlike a photograph. How did the portrait come to be your focus?
RB As you say, a portrait has a focus and a presence, and as much as I might like to look at a picture of flowers by Chardin, it does not have the immediacy of a Rembrandt or a Holbein. The skin tones, the fact that it is a person—I want to try to do that.
LR And your daughter, Maggie, has become your occasion, your subject, your pretext and your muse. She figures in almost all your paintings.
RB She’s been all of those things since she was a baby and I started painting her. Francesco Clemente once said that he had done so many self-portraits that by now it was like looking at a cipher. You see it so much that you don’t really read it. I think I’ve been doing something like that with Maggie. I started when she was a just a small child, a blank slate, really. The feeling I’m after is a melancholy, a void we have in ourselves, and I’m trying to portray that through her. I don’t go up to a canvas and say, “Now I’m going to paint the void that exists in people, and I’m going to avert the gaze.” I notice after the fact that they all have this sentiment, and they all have a consistent palette.
LR Lots of blacks, browns, and deep reds, with that northern European darkness.
RB I was listening to a book on tape by Alan Bennett [humorist and member of the comedy group Beyond the Fringe, with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore] and he mentioned that he tended to prefer paintings that all looked like a bit of gray had been put into the color. He suggested it had something to do with the English part of him, and I thought maybe there’s something to that. I mean there are exceptions, like David Hockney and Ivon Hitchens, but for the most part the English tend toward muted colors because we grow up in a very muted landscape.
LR I want to return to Maggie. You focus this intense gaze on her and it’s almost as if you are looking for something in or with her, some sign. Perhaps it’s the evidence of change, with a sense that that change is also a loss, even for someone her age. I felt that very poignantly now that she is a teenager when I saw her at your opening.
RB If you have a child, it’s a miracle, and it seems crazy not to paint that, because it remains a wonder as their life unfolds. I mean I do paint other people, I don’t want to sound overly obsessive, it’s just that—
LR It’s just that you’re not really interested in anyone else.
RB (laughter) Okay, there is an obsessive component. I’ll do two paintings and I’ll say to Erika, my companion, “What do you think of this one?” and she’ll say, “It looks a lot like the last one you painted.”
LR Like Kafka’s artist Titorelli in The Trial, who has an apartment full of paintings that are all the same: Wild Nature—A Heathscape. And Joseph K can’t figure out what to do except offer to buy them all.
RB Except that they’re really different, each one. It’s like I’m aiming to get something I didn’t quite get with the last one, but I’m going to try again.
LR You work from photographs, but do you manipulate them before you paint?
RB Sometimes. I’ll put them in Photoshop and perhaps chop them up. I have done that with the motif of the confessional recently, the face seen through a confessional screen. Being an atheist it seems so pointless, the idea of sitting in a booth confessing your sins. Yet there was something intriguing about this abstract shape behind a screen. Still, overall it was kind of a dull image, so I thought, What if I moved closer to the screen, then moved back and over here or there? Broken into fragments, the image became more like a riff on Cubism.
LR I find it compelling that you reference a painting tradition even as you use the tools of the contemporary media artist. I think of a painter like Gerhard Richter, who is given so much credit for being a “painter” when he has done so much to move the practice away from the decisions of the painter, to take painting out of his or her hands, so to speak, and relieve the artist of the burden of imagining. His most recent exhibition was based on an algorithm developed by a computer which outputs digitally as stripes. And what do people appreciate? The paintings that display his so-called technique, his precise fidelity to a photographic source. It’s projection and copying.
RB I like Richter abstractions, but it’s like people at the Tate going on about how Dali could paint those tiny figures so precisely. It’s a kind of draftsmanship they appreciate.
LR Apropos of technique, do you feel that you’ve improved as painter? Can that be measured technically, or is there some other way you’ve grown as an artist?
RB There’s more a feeling that I want in a painting—I can be alone in a room with one of them and it has a kind of silence that I’m after. It’s not like I’m taking a photograph of my daughter and messing around with it in Photoshop and then copying that image. It’s something that paint has and paint brings to the table, and problems that making a painting has. You have to respond to paint on canvas or to whatever materials you are using and the problems inherent to that, and if you’re not responding then you’re going to make crappy work. Or maybe you should be a photographer.
LR So how do you judge your own work in the midst of this process? How do you know when it’s good and when the painting’s done?
RB In the movie about Richter, someone asks him how he knows when a painting is finished and he basically says, when nothing about it irritates him. I’m not a Dave Matthews fan but years ago he said I’m not a lyricist, I just mess around with the words until I’m not embarrassed. It’s the same thing in both those statements. I’ll take a painting from the studio and hang it in the bedroom and live with it for a week, and if nothing seems lacking or it’s fine, if it passes the bedroom test, it’s done, it’s good to go.
For more on Richard Butler, visit his website.
Lyle Rexer is a critic, curator, and the author of many books and articles on art and photography, including most recently The Drawings of the Electric Pencil.