When photographer and film director Larry Clark published his first photobook in 1971, it wasn’t Tulsa’s frank depiction of drug-use, sexuality, and violence that caused a stir. Photography had long looked at the disaffected. It was the collapse of any objective distance. Clark wasn’t an passive observer, he was one of them. (Clark also directed the controversial 1995 movie Kids, written by Harmony Korine.) Published with help from his friend Ralph Gibson, a former assistant to Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank, Tulsa instilled photography with a seedy intimacy a full fourteen years before Nan Goldin’s A Ballad of Sexual Dependency.
There’s a way in which Clark’s private art collection, which began sometime in the 1960s, also reflects a deeply personal attachment to art and images. With most of the works currently on view at Luhring Augustine in Bushwick, Clark’s collection encompasses works by friends who possess a similarly profane ethos—Mike Kelley, Richard Prince, and Christopher Wool—and young artists whose work exudes an irresistible vitality.
When Artspace’s Will Fenstermaker spoke with Clark about his collection, the artist noted his is the kind of collection that would be difficult to assemble today without a readily available fortune. Many of the works were acquired through swaps. And yet, despite Clark’s direct engagement with the artists he collects—and, in many cases, their collecting of Clark’s own works—he resists speculating on any sort of philosophical exchange. The swaps were purely material. They’re simply works he just had to have because they spoke to him in some way, or inspired him to make something of his own. It’s never been about anything more than that.
I wanted to start by asking you about Ralph Gibson, who has a couple photos in the exhibition. Are they from Somnambulist?
Yeah, it’s a part of his earlier work. I’ve known Ralph since 1967. It’s been a long run here—what is that, 50 years?
Yeah. He’s such a photographer’s photographer in a lot of ways.
Yeah, he’s a good one.
I would imagine that he doesn't make an appearance in too many private collections that also include Warhol and Gaugin. But you worked with him a little bit. I imagine that Somnambulist was influential for you, as it was underway at the same time that you were working on Tulsa.
What happened was Ralph couldn’t get anybody to publish his book. It was very hard to get a book published back then. They always wanted to come over and edit with you and re-edit your work. Ralph wanted to be autonomous, so he came up with this idea and he raised a couple thousand dollars and created his own book.
He had a little publishing house come out of that too, right?
Well, what happened was that he wanted to put a publishing company on the spine. So, he just came up with Lustrum Press. There was no Lustrum Press, but he just put the words on his book. Then, a guy named Danny Seymour, who did a book called A Loud Song, was this kid with money, and he wanted my Tulsa book published, so he paid for it. Ralph published the second book of his trilogy, Deja-Vu, and we all went out to Los Angeles, where we had Tulsa and A Loud Song printed. Then, they ended up publishing Neal Slavin’s book, Portugal. So, all of a sudden Lustrum Press had four titles, which turned people on to self-publishing. He was really one of the first big guys in self-publishing.
Did you get involved in Lustrum, or was that always Ralph’s thing?
No, no, no. It was Ralph’s thing. There was never really a publishing company. After the books were done, we just put “Lustrum” on all the spines. That was it.
The reason why I’m curious about all of this is because seeing Ralph’s work in the show changed things for me. It feels different from the typical collector-artist relationship, which is often more like a patronage stemming from the collector to the artist—if it’s ever that intimate at all. But in this case you’re showing works in your collection made by someone who’s very close to you and was influential to your own practice, right? Do you think about that dynamic at all?
When you say “influential,” what do you mean?
I mean, I’m asking was Somnambulist influential to you? I know that he was working on Somnambulist at the same time you were working on Tulsa, but I don’t know how much you guys were looking at each others’ work at the time or anything like that.
Well, we were certainly aware of each others’ work, but the influence was just that he had put this publishing company’s name on the spine of the book. His self-publishing became a really big influence for getting our work out there.
Ralph and I traded work way back then. He has some work of mine and I have some work of his. I’ve always collected, but it’s always been work that spoke to me, that has inspired me.
Is it often this kind of exchange between people who you’ve worked with or who resonate with you in some way?
A lot of it, you know. With people like Richard Prince and Christopher Wool, who I’ve known a long time, I like their work and they like my work. I’ve bought a lot of work off the walls of shows. So, I got the work quite early. I got the work when it was made. Now, all of these years later, it’s a different ballgame.
How has it changed?
You couldn’t afford to buy their work now. Or, I couldn’t. Back in the day, you could afford it. You could barely afford it, but maybe you could raise money.
I read somewhere that you basically went into massive debt purchasing a couple Mike Kelley photographs.
Tell me about that craving for a work that buries everything else, like the need to buy food and pay rent. What was it about those photographs that you needed to have them that badly?
You know, that’s an interesting question. Why does one want something like that? It’s almost like I have to have it, I can’t live without it. And then, everyday that I look at it I’m inspired by it. It helps me keep plugging away as an artist, like an inspiration. Making work because you see other people making work. It helps me as I go along working to see other people working. It’s a very personal thing.
After all of these years, it turns out that I have quite a large collection—for me anyway, maybe not for a big-time collector. It’s fun to be able to show a lot of it. Not all of it, but most of it. I have a little more, but it was such a fun show to hang. To take all that different work from all those different artists and put them all in one space. That was a fun week, putting that all together.
About how many of those artists are people you personally know or have worked with?
Quite a few. I don’t know if it’s most or not. I mean, I’ve met most of the artists and know them a bit, but some not as much as others.
You talk about collecting as a very personal thing, which feels different from, say, a collector getting involved just to acquire what’s already in more valuable or prestigious collections. Getting involved in a practice in way that’s possibly encouraging—even if it’s just by allowing an artist to pay rent—greater works to come about. Do you wish collectors were more involved in that early patronage stage, or are you kind of content with how things are now?
The very good collectors are involved in the beginning. But for some collectors it’s just about money. Hopefully they educate themselves, so that they have some understanding of the work and the the artists. Collectors have to put in some work to really understand what’s going on. But there’s always going to be people who just throw money at it, and when it gets to the point where it’s just big-time collectors trading work back and forth at auction houses, I don’t like that so much. I don’t think most artists like that so much. When you see work that sells at auctions overnight for millions and millions of dollars, well, that doesn’t particularly help the artist very much. He doesn’t get any money from it.
And it makes it harder for artists who collect, or considerate collectors to get in.
Yeah, because they are buying work and then holding it for a while. Then they sell it at actions, and another collector wants it and pays millions of dollars, and then that collector holds it for a few years, and then puts it at auctions, and another collector wants it and pays millions more dollars. I mean, this is a whole different game.
I can imagine it makes it very hard to nurture that intimacy that you’re talking about, too.
Yeah, I guess so. Anyway, that’s not me. I’m just looking to collect art that I like or that speaks to me. And I like to put it on my wall and look at it.
There’s one piece from the show I’m big on. I’m big on relief painting, you might call it sculpture, by Scott Myles. It’s just doors and windows and the spaces in between. He’s a Scottish artist, and he had a solo show in Tokyo. I just happened to be in Tokyo, where I saw the show and bought the piece. He’s someone who I feel is going to make more work and very good art. It’s nice to find someone that young who you haven’t seen before and have their work.
Is he someone that you’ve started developing a relationship with?
Exactly. I’m very interested in what he’s doing. It’s the same as with someone like Christopher Wool or Richard Prince way back when.
Is this show at Luhring Augustine the first one that you’ve curated?
Are you interested in doing more curating with Scott’s work, or some of these artists who you're picking up at a young age?
I haven’t really thought about that. I mean, I’m busy enough just trying to do my own work with all the projects I have going on, making films and all of that. I stay busy.
What are you working on now?
I have two new films coming out. The first is Marfa Girl 2. I made Marfa Girl a few years ago and the sequel will be out this year. Then there’s a French film, The Smell of Us, which had a theatrical release in Europe in 2014. I have a different cut of the film, which I’m going to distribute to America, Canada, England, and Japan. So, I have a couple of films coming out this year. I’m still making work.
I want to get back to your collection. What was the first piece you picked up?
That’s tough, I don’t know. When I was in art school I studied photography in the basement of the school for two years. I hung out with the artists upstairs—the painters and the sculptors, not the other photographers. My first two girlfriends were painters, so I have work from them from way back when, 1961–62. The collecting’s been going on for a long time. I’ve always done it, with no thought to even building up a collection. It wasn’t so planned out at all, it was just a natural outgrowth of my interests. As you can see in the show, it’s all over the place, which is the fun I like to bring. It’s a very unique show, I think.
Yeah, I think what I’ve been trying to discern is the through-line between all of it. I mean, with every work you get the sense that it’s something that was very important to you at some point in your life, and there isn’t necessarily some sort of thematic overview. It’s not a show about politics or whatever. It’s a show about you and your life with art. So, I don't want to make too much of a little story, but it’s interesting to see where it all started.
Yeah, exactly. And it’s just been that way throughout. No real rhyme or reason, just the work I liked. Either I knew the artist or stumbled upon their work, like with Scott Myles.
What are some of the works in the show that are important to you? Obviously all to some degree, otherwise you wouldn’t have collected them, but what are some of the ones that represent moments of your life in some way?
There’s a little Mike Kelley painting in the show that I saw in his studio while visiting. It was a work in progress on the wall that I had to have.
Did you let him finish it?
Yes. I thought it was finished and he said “No, it’s not.” We did the deal and a couple years later I still didn’t have the work yet. So, I said I was going to come over and get it. When I picked it up, it was wet. He had finished painting it just before I got there.
It was kind of made for you.
Exactly. A lot of the work is signed to me, which is nice.
Were you and Mike close?
We were friends, yeah. I didn’t see him that often because he was on the West Coast. When I would see him through the years, we started talking like we hadn’t stopped. There’s not too much more I can say about it.
The way you describe the Mike Kelley painting, it almost sounds as if it might have never been completed had you not asked for it.
Who can say? With me, I don’t think there’s that much influence, but there is a personal back-and-forth. Who knows what that does to artists?