The innovator of the painting machine and video art, New York based Artist, Anton Perich, chats with Heidi Calvert about his journey from Croatia to Paris to New York, The Seventies, Underground Film, Art, Andy Warhol, Max’s Kansas City, Studio 54, and what it was like being young and free in the mecca of art and pop culture during one of it’s most important times in history, before technology took over.
Please tell us a little about your upbringing in Croatia and how you eventually made your way to Paris. What was life in Paris like at the time?
Anton Perich: I was born in Croatia, near Dubrovnik, a medieval city-state on the Adriatic Sea. There were great contradictions in my childhood. In the morning I would attend a communist school, where a large glamorous portrait of Marshal Tito hung in the classroom. In the afternoon I went to catholic school where a large glamorous, sexy picture of Virgin Mary was displayed. I thought that they were married. Briefly, there was no god in the morning and there was god in the afternoon.
As a child, I had an enormous imagination. I read a lot, wrote poetry and painted. For hours, from my house, I would stare at the 180˚ open sea horizon. The magic and otherworldly sharp line behind which was Paris and New York. I had to go there. I spent a year in Zagreb studying literature, and charted my trip to Paris. It was a trip of Ulysses. I came back some years later. My trip to Paris was not a contemporary voyage. It was a time travel to the city of thousand years earlier. As a student, I applied for an international archeological dig right in front of Notre Dame. I was working there with a group of international students, uncovering the ancient mysteries of Paris in the layers of dust, and at the same time discovering the contemporary city of flesh and blood and love. Somehow I understood then that I would chase complex mysteries all my life. Soon, I met (Isidore) Isou and (Maurice) Lemaitre, leaders of the great art revolt called Lettrism. The revolution of 1968 was made there, a short-lived freedom, never seen before. It was an uninterrupted spectacle. We spent a few nights in Odeon, the French national theatre. We thought it would never end.
I understand you also ran an underground film program in Paris.
AP: Yes, I created and ran a Cinematheque at the American Center on Boulevard Raspail, the most glamorous address in Paris. I showed French and American underground films. I met great filmmakers there: Auder, Helitzer, Bassan, Limura and many other. I also starred in one of earliest films of the French underground, Depart d’Eurydice, directed by my friend Rapfael Bassan, and also appeared in a film directed by Lemaitre.
You arrived in New York in 1970. Tell us what it was like living in New York in the seventies. How was it different there than in Paris? What was your first impression of the city?
AP: Well, the Seventies did not flourish in Paris, the Seventies flourished in New York. There was no freedom in Paris. We were arrested monthly for long hair and torn jeans.
I also noticed that New York was full of rats. You can always tell democracy by how well the rats are treated. New York was really the rat’s haven.
What did you do your first night in New York? How long did it take before you became part of New York’s famous nightlife scene your photography is now famous for?
AP: As I remember, my first night in NY I went to Max’s (Kansas City). Everyone was there, so I met everyone. Like, for years I didn’t have to go anywhere else. There was enough talent there to make a hundred movies, and to photograph forever. But, it is all in the past now.
Is that where you first met Andy Warhol?
AP: A few days later I met Warhol in his Factory in Union Square. They had just started Interview Magazine. Warhol saw that I had a camera and asked me to shoot for Interview, and I did for years.
Is that when you first began shooting NY Nightlife or had you already been doing so?
AP: My first week in NY I bought a pocket camera and started shooting anybody who would look at my lens, anybody who would make eye contact with me. It was wonderful. So much unique beauty in the NY nightlife. Yes, the unique beauty was what I was seeing everywhere. Immediately after meeting Warhol I started publishing my photos in Interview.
What was your impression of Warhol? What was it like meeting him for the first time?
AP: It was like meeting the Pope in Rome. He had as many assistants as Pope. All the cardinals were there, (Bob) Colacello, (Glenn) O’Brien, (Vincent) Fremont, (Fred) Hughes. The Factory was run like a little Vatican. I liked Warhol. He looked like he already reached sainthood, like he lost his blood in a ritual. He looked like a relic exhumed from the NY Underground.
You are mentioned in the book “The Andy Warhol Diaries” where Warhol talks about how jealous he was of you for having a painting machine.
AP: Jealousy is rampant among clergy, so in his diaries he wrote that he was jealous of my painting machine. He probably dreamed about it, or wished to be a machine, but it wasn’t made by him. It took another generation to make it. But, I was definitely inspired by his work.
Who were some of the people you enjoyed photographing and filming?
AP: For a while I worked at Max’s as a bus boy. I didn’t have much of work discipline, so I would sit with diners and talk and shoot their pictures. Some managers wanted to fire me, but Mickey Ruskin kept me. He believed that I was some East European prince. I denied it, but he was stubborn.
So in the early Seventies I had the two most glamorous jobs on the downtown punk scene: shooting for Interview magazine and working at Max’s. Everyone wanted to be at Max’s and everyone wanted to be featured in Interview. Both things were equally hard (to do). It was easier to be in Vogue than in Interview.
I photographed a lot Warhol, Halston, Ara Gallant, Victor Hugo Rojas, Taylor Mead, Tawa, Peter Beard…
Earlier, at the Max’s scene I photographed Andrea Feldman, Cyrinda Foxe, Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, and Holly Woodlawn – all great iconic material. All (of them) had one foot deep in the fame, and the other you already know where. Well, Bowie sang about it. Loved photographing Lou Reed; he sang about it too.
A few years later, when Warhol moved out I took the Factory space with Taylor Mead, to shoot movies there. The great Cuban Movie star Tomas Milian gave us some money for the rent. After a while we spent it and moved out.
Did you know at the time you were documenting such an important time in art history and that your images would become iconic?
AP: Had no idea. No idea about history. I didn’t shoot for that reason. It was the madness inside me that (made me do) it. It was insane to shoot pictures of the same people every night. So much passion and narcissism on the both sides of the lens.
I guess I understood then how great artists work. They are doing the same thing all over again, believing that they are doing something new. Absurdities kind of take you there, and you feel at home with absurdities. Also, you don’t care if the picture is lost and gone. I lost many, many photographs. Very few are still in my mind. The importance is that they were taken. It is like love was made. You don’t think of saving that. It is for your memory only. For your sensual memory. But we live in the material world, and we try to preserve everything. We are constantly giving a second life to the things that should be lived once.
You must have some crazy stories from the seventies! Tell us a secret!
AP: No comment. In the Seventies, before Giuliani, nightlife was run by underage people. Like at Studio 54, people working there were mostly underage. The Seventies were (also) much about sex in the public spaces.
Is working for Interview what led to the inception of your own magazine, NIGHT?
AP: NIGHT was created later, in 1978, as a publication mostly dedicated to Studio 54. NIGHT expanded my photography. I had this idea to publish a giant, oversized newspaper, with hundreds of my pictures, and later other people’s pictures.
NIGHT was really the first oversized, luxurious publication.
I loved taking pictures of Apollonia van Ravenstein, Bianca Jagger, Patty Hansen, Jerry Hall, and Debbie Dickinson.
When I first met you, you offered to let me, a young emerging photographer new on the New York scene, submit my work to NIGHT. It was so thrilling for me to have my name printed on the cover, equally with every other contributor, alongside my heroes, such as Helmut Newton. Please explain how you chose content for NIGHT. It seems that you gave everyone a chance and treated emerging artists with the same respect as well-established ones.
AP: Well, publishing Heidi Calvert’s photography in the same issue with Helmut Newton was not an accident. It created a conversation between his work and your work. You were something like a teenager, right? It was a perfect example of what NIGHT should be. Your photography questioned and enhanced his work. It is really great if I can accomplish something like that.
You even once compared NIGHT to “the Facebook for Studio 54 Regulars” that “told the future over thirty years ago”. Tell us a little about your thoughts behind this.
AP: I should give the credit here to my coeditor, the great Robert H. Rubin, who is doing all those great interviews with celebrities and the secret newcomers into the fame world. We work together well. NIGHT is also a poetry magazine. Did you ever see a poem published in Vogue? Or in Interview, for that matter?
Who were the hottest artists in New York in the 70’s?
AP: Well, all the great American artists were at the bar at Max’s. I didn’t have to go to MoMa to see their work; it was all at Max’s. MoMa was full of European art. I didn’t come to America to look at European art. John Chamberlain was at Max’s, Forest Myers, Larry Poons, Neil Williams, Robert Smithson, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Michael Heizer, Carl Andre. Max’s was the best venue in the world for the American art. The owner Mickey Ruskin was the best collector and curator. A little later Julian Schnabel came through the kitchen door there. He was a cook for awhile. Warhol was there all the time, but it was before my time in the late Sixties. Then in the Seventies he moved to Studio 54.
How is the art world different today than it was in the seventies and eighties in New York, particularly when it comes to becoming famous?
AP: Warhol talked about fame and Bowie sang about it. The popular artists were always famous. People admired their works, from the caves to the Whitney. The artists in the Seventies shared their studios in Manhattan with rats. The brave ones went West, and made art from the unthinkable. They moved mountains and rivers. Those were my heroes. Some made sculptures of nonmaterial things, like Forest Myers, with the magic of the humble early laser beams descending the canyons of Park Avenue South. Heizer cut the canyons with dynamite.(Zadik) Zadikian worked with the pure gold. (Tony) Shafrazi painted on (Picasso’s) “Guernica”.
They all had guts and visions.
Today artists go to art school.
You are a Pioneer of video art, being one of the first to produce an underground TV program on public access. Please tell us a little about that. What was the program about?
AP: Yes, I started my Manhattan Cable show in January 1973. That was the dark age of TV. For some reason artists stayed away from TV. The time was perfect. The Sony company just introduced the first portable video camera. It was a true revolutionary camera. It was better than Panavision.
You could make a feature movie for $10. I did it and I took it to cable (TV). And you could make a revolution with it, and I did.
I found all the talent at Max’s Back Room: Susan Blond, Sami Melange, Tinkerbel, Cyrinda Foxe, Taylor Mead, Candy Darling, Nancy North, Bebe Buell, Apollonia van Ravenstein, Victor Hugo Rojas, and others. I would write one-paragraph scripts, and take my stars to a borrowed SoHo loft, courtesy of Joe LoGiudice. You can only imagine what kind of video tapestry it was.
Other video artists showed their videos in galleries. I felt that the galleries were bourgeois. You could not make a revolution in galleries any more. Duchamp did it 50 years earlier.
Video’s only important outlet was TV. My show was constantly censored, but I kept it going, and eventually changed TV forever. It was like youtube today, but no one understood it.
How did this relate to you making underground films? What is the inspiration behind your films? Tell us a bit about your unique method of filmmaking.
AP: All my TV shows were like movies. In 1973 I created Reality TV. Lots of nudity, bad language and an aggressive hand-held camera. It was all based on the brilliant improvisation by my movie stars.
For a while I made a movie weekly. I ran the scene like a demented underground Hollywood. It was fueled by tons of narcissism and Shakespearean Rubik’s Cube plots. I provoked and captured it all. In “Mister Fixit” the legendary Danny Fields inserts a light bulb into an inappropriate place, and in “The Gramercy Park South” vibrators are wasting batteries.
I am still making movies, but more sensual and intimate, questioning technology and robotization of the mind.
Video art is not the only thing you were an innovator of. You also invented the “painting machine”, mentioned earlier, which was essentially an early ink jet printer. What was your inspiration behind the machine and how did it work? What interested you about painting in this unique manner?
AP: My inspiration was the old fashioned TV. I loved the TV images based on dots and lines. Dots and lines are not painterly elements. Drawings are based on them. But my idea was to import them into the paintings, to make them painting elements. This way I introduced a new brushstroke into the art. I built the first ink jet printer and scanner in 1978. I wanted to paint with electric strokes, and there was no machine to do it. So I invented the new technology.
No galleries liked my work. They said it was machine and not art. Look at young painters these days. They all run around with Epsons. They are torturing Epsons to make glitches. I painted the Original Glitch in 1978. Some universities now offer drawing machine classes. I presented my work at Sarah Lawrence with my son (Tristan Perich) who is a great new technology artist.
What are you working on most today? Please tell us a bit about any projects you’re working on, and where we can see your work.
AP: These days I mostly paint, make large machine paintings. Figurative and abstract. It is really the same for me. I am often inspired. I experiment a lot, with painting, photography, video and writing. Finally, it is all the same for me. In the past few years I made a 15 hour movie in 11 episodes. It is about a girl growing up in my studio. Hope to show it sometimes soon.
Do you remember, we made a great movie together NoSex@theGershwinHotel? It is so funny. Should probably put it on youtube.
About 2 years ago I had a giant retrospective show of my paintings and TV works at the Postmasters Gallery in New York, 54 Franklin Street. Hope to show with them again. Hope to have another show in May, at Gallery 151 in New York.
And I still publish NIGHT intermittently. I love that magazine.
I remember NoSex@theGershwinHotel was partially scripted on the spot, and part documentary style. You filmed us in the bar with night vision and in the hotel rooms catching us in the midst of some juicy “girl talk”. The Gershwin Hotel was a wild time when I lived and worked there. What are your thoughts about our time at the Gershwin Hotel?
AP: Well, at the turn of the century the Gershwin Hotel was a great shared art studio. The great Danish Curator, resident Jacob Fulgsang Mikkelsen plastered every floor with great artworks. All my friends were represented there, like Ronnie Cutrone, Billy Name, Richard Bernstein, Hiroya from Japan.
Gershwin was the new Chelsea.
I shot movies there. It was like a great underground Hollywood studio. Very glamorous international scene. For a while I was publishing NIGHT Magazine from there. The second floor was plastered with NIGHT covers and pages. The great artist Neke Carson slept there.
I remember I once said to you that I wished I was old enough to have come to New York twenty or thirty years earlier. That was when I returned to New York in 2005 and we were going to Happy Valley a lot. You said, “No, it is better to be young now”. What are your thoughts on that now?
AP: Being young is always a dilemma.
You once said “In the near future we will end up having everything at our fingertips and nothing in our arms”, which was at the time, one of your inspirations for continuing to print NIGHT. Do you believe that we have reached that point? What is your opinion about this now?
AP: Yes, I write fiction too, the science fiction that is intruding in our present everyday life. I see that the thumb is replacing our tongue. We don’t speak with our tongues, we speak with our thumbs. If we don’t use our tongues they will go extinct. In this new brave world everything is at our fingertips. Everything – but we have nothing in our arms. You cannot hug someone at ungodly distances. It all started with a humble remote control on the couch. Look, now we are under control anywhere in the universe. Now, many years later we are under absolute control of the innocent text or tweet. All we do all day is rub our fingers against the smooth skins of the instruments. Even the innocent mouse transmuted into the ferocious beast.
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