My friends Nancy Spero and Leon Golub told me about Monster Roster and Chicago when I met them in the early nineties. It’s through Spero and Golub that I discovered the work of Dominick Di Meo. When we started working on an Interview Marathon for Chicago my first idea was to interview Di Meo on his pioneering work and the Monster Roster movement. As Di Meo cannot travel and attend the marathon, I interviewed him in New York. I am grateful to Jasmin Tsou from JTT and John Corbett and Jim Dempsey who made this interview possible. (Hans Ulrich Obrist)
How did you initially come to art? Was there an epiphany? What brought you to art?
Well, I guess in part it was that I was limited physically. Because I have a crippled arm and leg, I couldn’t indulge in sports like other people. I don’t know if this is apocryphal or not, but I went into the Crippled Children’s Guild with polio. We were bound in plaster casts. I’m lying down, and there’s a Christmas party, and they gave out free toys, right? And I was given a set of Tinkertoys. But I was having a lot of trouble, because this arm was in a cast and I couldn’t put things together. One of the nurses or aides saw that and she immediately picked it all up and took it away. And that broke my heart. It was a challenge that I was working at, and by her taking it away, it did something to me.
So something happened there.
Right. And later, in school, you know, one of the few things I could do was art classes, so I was encouraged by the art teachers. I wasn’t good academically, you know. And curiously enough, one of my fixations as a student was to do heads [chuckling]. And then to come to Chicago, my ambition was to become a landscape painter; naive idea [to be a] landscape painter. But in Chicago there was a big movement… those brothers who did the famous paintings of corroded flesh and all… Ivan Albright and his brother Malvin. They were a big influence, especially Ivan, being an internationally known artist in Chicago.
Ivan Albright was an influence?
I think on everyone in Chicago, because he was a big star, and was still alive, and had a studio. This was like in the mid-forties. And I think that’s what was behind the Monster School, in part. And then while we were in school, The Arts Club of Chicago put on a big [Jean] Dubuffet show. We were all really impressed with that stuff, and the Art Institute acquired one of the big heads; a curator named Katharine Kuh acquired that for the Art Institute. That was a big, powerful thing.
You are one of the protagonists of the Monster Roster. How was that name found, and how did it begin?
Well, Chicago culturally was kind of a dead city. You know, it wasn’t a very exciting city. It had one really good gallery at one time under Katharine Kuh who then became a curator at the Art Institute, before or after, I don’t remember which now. So it was kind of dead creatively, except for the Albrights and a few others.
So Leon Golub and some of the older artists formed an organization called Exhibition Momentum, and we put on big shows, mainly by the more mature men who had just returned from the Second World War. And that created a lot of excitement. And then within that organization was kind of a nucleus that were doing similar work, like Fred Berger, Leon, George Cohen, Cosmo Campoli as far as I know—that was a tight group, really—and Franz Schulz at some point. [Schulz] was a critic, he had been an artist, and he knew everyone. He’s the one who coined the term Monster Roster, in one of his articles.
So he found it, he coined it.
Yeah, he coined it. But it was a loose thing, like, I supposedly am part of the Monster, [and] you know there was a second generation of people, but the heart of it was those people I just mentioned.
How did he find that name; why are you Monster Roster?
Well, you have to ask Franz Schulz that, if he’s still alive. Mainly because it wasn’t aesthetic, it wasn’t like the New York abstraction schools. There was a MoMA exhibition by Peter Selz called “New Images of Man,” in which a few Chicagoans were in, including Leon Golub and Cosmo Campoli. In the review of that show the critic referred to the “monsters from Chicago.” I think Franz saw that, and came up with the “Monster Roster” moniker. Franz liked the idea that “monsters” sounded tough and gritty, and that reminded him of Chicago, so there’s a lot of stuff going on in there.
And how would you describe Chicago at that time? Because obviously, retrospectively we have the feeling that something happened there, it was a very feverish moment, what are your memories of Chicago?
Well, outside of institutions like the Arts Club and the Art Institute, and the Institute of Design, it was kind of culturally dead, as far as the physical, the visual arts. So the artists formed their own organization to put on shows. And then later I was involved with the younger artists, putting on shows called Phalanx. At the Institute of Design, at Illinois Institute of Technology, they had a big show in the lobby in one of the Mies van der Rohe buildings. But the reason the artists had to form these shows was that it was culturally dead there. We brought in people to judge the show. Yves Klein was one. We brought in curators from the Whitney, famous people from New York who juried the shows, but then through Phalanx we didn’t have juried shows. The artists, the younger artists and I chose the artists from Chicago. We picked the show and put everyone that we thought was important in the Chicago scene into those shows.
How do you connect to the historic avant garde? Because looking at your early work, there are collages, which one can somehow link maybe to Dada, or Hannah Höch.
Those were important factors, you know, because it was on everybody’s lips, who were pretending to be creative, visual artists. Like I used to look at Paul Klee a lot, you know, I was heavily into all that. And they were big influences on me, and I would assume on the others, a lot of the others.
But what glued you together? What did you have in common? There was no manifesto; you didn’t have a manifesto.
No, no, no. It wasn’t a movement where we all together decided this is a movement, it wasn’t like—it was looser. If there was any manifesto, it had to be between Leon Golub and George Cohen, because they were intellectuals, they talked about it all the time. But, then Don Baum was putting on these shows at the Hyde Park Art Center, again because Chicago was such a deadly art scene, you know. And, I remember Jim Nutt was a student and lived in my neighborhood, and he saw me as a serious artist who was spending his whole life making art. So he became a little influenced by me, he wanted to work in my studio, help me out, as an assistant. I didn’t like that idea because I liked to be private. But we used to play chess together. And he, he would get angry when he lost, he would throw the chair, and I said, this guy is gonna make it big [laughs]. He was so serious, even about chess, he had to be a winner.
So I had to put that in, it was very funny…
Looking at your books, there is a recurrent theme of the sea. There are seasides, there is liquid, there are, you know, humid landscapes… what’s the connection to water, to the liquid?
Well, I can tell you when I was in Italy, I was impressed by the fact that I saw constructions of a highway up in the hills, about 2,000 kilometers above sea level, and they’re excavating the hills to make this road and there were seashells way up there, 2,000 kilometers above sea level. Stuff like that would make a big impression on me. And then, because my folks were immigrants, you know, their stories about how they came over on the ship. But I don’t know why, what the connection with water and the sea was. I can’t answer that.
What’s the role of drawing in your practice? Because when we did the Hairy Who interviews, a lot of these artists are doodlers. What’s the role of drawing in your practice?
Teachers like Kathleen Blackshear would take us to the Field Museum. All the artists: Golub, me, you name it, we all went to the Field Museum. We spent as much time at the Field Museum, drawing, looking at artifacts from the past, you know, Paleolithic, whatever, animals, blah, blah, blah. We were there all the time, it wasn’t far from the Art Institute when we were students.
I wanted to ask you that. Because the other day I saw Betye Saar and David Hammons. And they came to Chicago I think in the sixties or seventies at some point, and the Field Museum was a really important museum for them. And Leon Golub also always mentioned the Field Museum. Can you tell me a little bit about your memories and what was so important about the Chicago Field Museum?
It’s just that it was one of the learning tools, or the experiences with past cultures, like Mayan, there’d be, you know, like Aztec, African sculptures were there, and earlier periods, all of this intermixed with artifacts from all these cultures, like so-called primitive and earlier cultures. We were all turned on by it, it was a big learning experience, it was an exciting thing to go there all the time.
Did music play a role in your work? Dan Graham always says we can only understand an artist if we know what kind of music he or she is listening to.
I was heavily into early jazz. I played trumpet for a while, and I gave it up because I couldn’t devote enough time to it. If I was going to do visual art, I had to choose one, so I did the visual art, and gave up the trumpet. And partly because of the Field Museum experiences, I was interested in all kinds of ethnic music, like Cajun music, African music of all kinds, you name it. And classical music, too.
Do you know Studs Terkel?
I met him a few times. Yeah, I used to listen to his program on the air. Once we were in a record store, and I was looking at some stuff, this was the LP days, the shellac days of the old 78s, and he started talking to me, and he suggested something or other. I’d see him at demonstrations, too. Because a lot of us were politically active, too. Like I was very important in the anti-Vietnam war activity, and was one of the instigators in Chicago where we collected work to send to the Peace Tower in L.A.—you know, that famous, anti-war thing, partially started by Irving Petlin. It was my studio that collected the work to ship out there. We made banners for demonstrations. And we did silkscreens for anti-war groups, you know, for nothing.
So in a way, some of the Monster Roster artists like Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, you had that political aspect. Politics are a common ground, is that correct?
Right. Leon, yeah, was heavily into stuff that I was, too. As were other Chicago artists, you know.
Of course Leon did these napalm paintings. Did these political aspects also enter your painting?
Well, no, I didn’t put it in my painting.
So you kept it separate.
Yeah, it might have crept in, you know, because I don’t think so much about it. I tended to work when I was prolific, I tend to work instinctively. I didn’t think about it too much. That’s why all my pieces tend to have the images of some of the other works.
So is it like a stream-of-consciousness? Is it like an automatism?
I figure each piece is a piece of the one work. You know, just one stage of the work I’m trying to express.
So it’s almost like biologically evolving.
Yeah, an organic thing that just keeps on going, you know.
And where is it now? What’s the last piece you’ve done, the most recent work, what are you working on right now?
I’m not doing much work now because I have to do everything with this arm. And I’ve gotten very weak, so I can’t even stretch a little canvas. I’m just finishing a very few things now. And I can’t even stand up, actually, I can’t bend too long because of my back. I’ve got all of these physical problems. And then I’ve got macular degeneration—I can’t see too well, especially out of this eye. So…
How old are you now?
I’m ninety. I’ll be ninety-one in February [2018. This interview was conducted in 2017].
A few last questions. I wanted to ask you, I’m always interested in unrealized projects, because we know a lot about architects’ unrealized projects. But we don’t know much about artists’ unrealized projects. What are your unrealized projects?
Yeah, I wanted to make a monument here in New York of renting, when the rentals were cheaper, renting a lot here in SoHo, and build a monument with arches of heads, you know, like a little park, uh, pyramid of heads.
Beautiful. Did you make drawings for that?
No, but the things are running around in my head all of the time, which I never, you know, every now and then I’m laying back, oh boy, it would have been nice. I even had the lot picked out. I didn’t ask them how much, but it was between two loft buildings, you know. When things were very cheap here.
I have images in my head, now.
But you never drew it.
No, I never drew it, or made the studies for it, no. Because I knew it would never be realized, I didn’t have the funds, or…
How do you see Chicago, now? Have you been there recently?
I have no idea what’s going on there. And I’m not in touch, most of my friends have died, my peers have died.
Now, what would be your advice to a young artist?
Don’t do it, man [laughter]. Unless you have income, don’t do it. It’s too rough. No, I’m making a joke. I don’t know what I’d say to a young artist. You see, I’ve been so disconnected from the art world, especially here in New York. I felt once I do the work, the work has to speak for itself. Of course, in this commercial world, it doesn’t work that way. I would have been a made artist, if I promoted myself, and had gone to openings, you know, did all of the stuff you’re supposed to do. But I didn’t do any of that.
So Gerhard Richter says art is the highest form of hope. What is art for you? Do you have a definition for art?
I don’t think in those terms. I’m not anti-intellectual, I just don’t intellectualize about most of these things, you know. All I can say is, you know, I had to be an artist. I don’t know what drove me there, what pushed me in that direction, except for that incident I told you about, and the encouragement in public schools, for my drawings, you know, paintings of heads and all that. Which is, in a way, one of the reasons I became so interested in Dubuffet—not that my heads were gross, like his, but here I was doing them as a young high-school kid, or even younger, before, you know, I saw a guy who legitimized my, my whole life of making heads.
So there was a necessity to do it, you had to do it.
Right, I was driven to do it. Mainly because it was something I could do and I got encouragement, and respect for it.
I just want you to describe for me again, this unrealized project, for me to understand better. It’s the most exciting thing for me of the whole interview, your unrealized project.
Yeah, well they would be life size, my gaping heads, you know, that are in a lot of my work… Not quite skulls, and not quite heads, in between. With open mouths and socket eyes.
And so what would you have done with these gaping heads?
They would be turned into architectural elements, like arches that you could walk through, or pyramids of piles of these heads, or, uhhhhhh, benches that you could sit on, made of heads, but just a garden of sort of a… what you call that art of so-called primitive people… Outsider. Like an outsider art thing. Just…
Just an environment of my heads in architectural forms, like a garden.
This was an amazing interview, thank you very, very much.
Creative Chicago: An Interview Marathon with Hans Ulrich Obrist takes place Saturday, September 29 from 1-6PM in the Aon Grand Ballroom on Navy Pier as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival’s kickoff to their fall festival Graphic! in partnership with EXPO CHICAGO. This event is free and open to the public.