Courtesy Dan Nadel
Peter Saul, ‘Vietnam’, detail (1966)Courtesy Dan Nadel
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Artists Don’t Have To Be ‘For’ or ‘Against’ Something. They Can Just Make the Thing They Have to Make.

The superhero genius of Peter Saul and Jim Nutt, according to curator Dan Nadel

Jeremy Sigler
July 09, 2015
Courtesy Dan Nadel
Peter Saul, 'Vietnam', detail (1966)Courtesy Dan Nadel

I invited independent curator Dan Nadel out for a beer to discuss “What Nerve!” a big group show he is guest-curating this summer at Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea. The large exhibition promises to touch a raw nerve! How? By exposing us to “Alternative Figures in American Art, from 1960 to the Present.”

Coming from the world of underground comics, Dan admits that his interest in visual art springs from those first Marvel superheroes. His job: to rescue overlooked, marginalized, suppressed, forgotten, discarded artists from oblivion. He uses his powers to leverage against an impulse we seem to have in our culture to distance ourselves from art that is too “gnarly” (to use Dan’s favorite word), too demanding on us psychologically, too peculiar, and ultimately, as Dan asserts, too authentic.

Jeremy Sigler: Tell me what to expect from the exhibition you’ve organized for Matthew Marks gallery, “What Nerve!: Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present.”

Dan Nadel: When you get yourself to Chelsea … you’re going to walk into the first location—one of three—and you’ll come upon a black room in which Forcefield’s film Tunnel Vision is playing. It’s an 11-minute film of creatures descending into the sewers of Providence and setting fire to an organ.

You’ll also find various paintings by members of the Hairy Who, which was a Chicago group that existed from 1966 to 1969. You will find work related to the “Funk Art” exhibition in San Francisco in 1967, including works by Peter Saul—a nice big day-glo—well pre-day-glo, day-glo painting. It’s a 1967 Vietnam painting, which is extremely gnarly.

Peter Saul is one of my favorite painters. You will not be able to create a Peter Saul moment; there is never going to be a Peter Saul moment.

Peter Saul is having a moment right now.

No, he’s always been having that moment, it’s just … it never becomes more—

You mean he’s never going to have a MoMA show?

Yeah, there will always be another “mo-ment” but not a “mo-ma.”

Peter is one of the greatest artists of the post-WWII era.

And he remains a kind of weirdo.

Yeah. Peter makes things that refuse to be tamed and refuse to be polite. And he has only recently settled into the niceties of socialization. He’s in his early eighties and finally getting comfortable. That’s a long time to spend being uncomfortable.

By which you mean poor. I don’t know of any painter who doesn’t revere Peter Saul.

Oh, I do!

When you go into art schools, you can’t not talk about Peter Saul.

He remains completely underappreciated.

Who else is in the show?

Jim Nutt.

Ah, another weirdo painter who doesn’t fit in.

I think Jim would reject the term “weirdo.”

Jim Nutt, Wow, 1968. (Courtesy Dan Nadel)

Jim Nutt, Wow, 1968. (Courtesy Dan Nadel)

Robert Crumb used the term “weirdo,” didn’t he? When I say the word, I see it in these stoner Crumb letters. And I smile.

But unlike Crumb, Nutt has never been a countercultural figure.

That’s even weirder!

Yes. It’s better, actually. If there is anywhere he belongs, it’s Dutch Master painting or Max Ernst, maybe. He belongs to genuine visionaries of paint handling and of subconscious imagery and patterning, like Miró or Ernst.

Carroll Dunham was the first person who turned me on to Jim Nutt. I don’t feel like I would have stopped to consider him otherwise.

Then there’s Karl Wirsum who, along with Jim Nutt, was in the Hairy Who. As well as Jim Falconer, Suellen Rocca, Gladys Nelson, Art Green. “What Nerve!” is the largest assemblage of work by these artists since 1969.

How did a show like this come about? Was there a single moment of inspiration?

I’ve been working on these guys in various ways since 2002. To me it relates to this question I keep asking myself: Who are the artists that I feel psychologically akin to?

So, when you get this show up on the walls it will be extremely revealing to you, no?

No. The process itself has been revealing. It has refined my taste. It has made me much less patient for things that are not almost, sort of, scathingly … I keep saying, psychological.

Wow, I hear ya.

Many of these works have an almost unbearably intense psychological impact. And most importantly, they’re irreducible.

Meaning original?

No, meaning none of it can be summarized. Some people find Saul or Nutt difficult to look at. Though I’ve always found them very soothing—in the same way, you know, when you’re caring for an infant who is shitting in his diaper, and you’re changing diapers thinking, “It’s cool. This is what it’s supposed to be.”

It’s “soothing?” I’m not sure if I follow.

It’s just what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re supposed to be cleaning up your child’s shit. It is what it is.

It’s a given. In a way, it’s all fucked up and messy psychologically. Like that military term SNAFU: situation normal all fucked up. You could say there is a raunchiness in some of this art, too—no?

I’m kind of in the Carroll Dunham camp on the raunchy question. He’d probably say, “I think it’s more interesting to think of it as exploring stages of development and composition.”

Or being honest about the fact that you’re still going through one of Freud’s stages or syndromes.

Ultimately, what’s so interesting about a Jim Nutt painting is not necessarily the image right in front of you. It is so immaculately painted that somehow that surface lets you investigate all the subtleties in Jim’s rendering. You are given an allowance for your brain to open up and explore—to hallucinate.

But there’s an edge to much of the work in “What Nerve!” that turns some people on a little more than expected. And turns other people off more than expected.

Like the book I’m working on right now. I’m finishing a Jimmy DeSana book with Laurie Simmons—that work could be construed as perverse. There’s a high-heel shoe mounted on a cock.

You were the publisher of the famous press PictureBox. I consider it legendary. A lot of people do.

If they’ve heard of it. [laughs]

One of your passions that you explored in that press was graphic novels and comics. Can you talk about the crossover appeal?

For me, comics were a gateway to understanding how visuals function. When I was first getting into comics in the suburbs in the early 1980s, what was I looking at? Superheroes. Then I graduated to working at a comic-book store and the guys there were into certain fantasy artists who were also into people like N.C. Wyeth and Franklin Booth and old, late-19th-century illustrators who themselves were imitating pre-Raphaelite art. This almost “fan culture” perpetuates certain kinds of visual languages.

So, is today’s cartoonist a rock star or still an obscure outsider? Today’s cartoonist is more like today’s young novelist.

But honestly the history of comics is basically the story of neglect. Comics is all about secret histories and oddball lineages. That culture really gave me my first glimpse into the idea of marginalized histories and cross-current connections.


Up until the last 20 years, 90 percent of the best practitioners of comics died penniless and with no recognition. So, that’s worse than any other American art form. I mean even the jazz musicians had it better.

You co-edit a website that’s dedicated to reviewing cartoonists and graphic novelists. Some of them are pretty young and famous now.

Yeah, it’s a whole different thing. It started with Maus and Chris Ware and Dan Clowes. Now there is a large mainstream audience.

So, is today’s cartoonist a rock star or still an obscure outsider?

Today’s cartoonist is more like today’s young novelist.

This whole discussion of cartoons reminds me of one of my favorite subjects: Philip Guston coming down off the high horse of abstract painting and embracing the low culture of cartoons.

I’m of two minds about that moment because it’s important given who Guston was and what he did beforehand. But historically speaking, Guston gets too much credit. Peter Saul did it first. Years before, almost a decade before. Peter also came from Ab-Ex, and then he saw Mad magazine and thought, “I can do this.” So Peter, circa 1960, was already doing cartoon-based paintings.

But I think one Ab-Ex painter Saul probably grew out of was Cy Twombly, because of Twombly’s lack of composition.

Compositionally, I think that’s a really good point. But Peter, unlike Twombly, attempted to tie everything together. This really interesting thing happens where you have Donald Duck and he’s holding a gun and the bottom part of his body might turn into a toilet and his legs might turn into a car and all around him there’s some kind of scene happening. It’s a fully integrated composition.

Have you known Peter Saul for a long time?

Nah, I first met Peter maybe in 2003.

Did you approach him just as a fan? Or did you have a project in mind?

I approached him to contribute to a publication I was doing called the Ganzfeld, which he contributed to in ’04—He let me publish a series of—

I like that title: The Ganzfeld.

Have you ever seen any of those issues? I did six issues that were meant to combine art and comics and design in one place. The third issue, in 2003, has my 40-page oral history of the Hairy Who. It was the first time such a thing had been attempted. It all grew out of being fascinated by Gary Panter, who occupies a huge part of my personal and aesthetic narrative. If there’s anybody who should have a moment like Saul or Nutt or Wirsum, it’s Panter.

Is Panter in the show?

He was in the RISD version, but not in the Matthew Marks version.

Peter Saul, Black Beauty White Shame, 1966. (Courtesy Dan Nadel)

Peter Saul, Black Beauty White Shame, 1966. (Courtesy Dan Nadel)

Are there many cartoonists or graphic novelists who have refused you because they don’t want to be associated with high art?

I think there was a time when cartooning was like, anti-art.

Certainly with people like Crumb. Or Harvey Pekar.

Although now Crumb is represented by David Zwirner. I think Crumb is very happy to cash those checks. But I don’t think he cares about being in contemporary art at all. A lot of people I deal with don’t want to be in any world socially. They just want to make their work.

OK. So, can you talk about not wanting to participate in the art scene?

Well, I think that comes down to who you are. Not everyone is equipped to do everything. Certainly I work with artists who prefer to not engage with a world they view as suspect, which I totally get. They don’t want to perform for people. Others are naturally social. It’s not one size fits all. It’s about what kind of life you want to have, or can stand to have.

There’s a story Crumb told in some interview where he was at David Zwirner’s house and somebody was like, “Wow, look at that Twombly” and he was like, “It looks like garbage.”

So, he’s missing out in a way.

Yes, for sure, but it goes both ways. I’m sure Twombly didn’t have a feel for, say, Bud Fisher who drew Mutt and Jeff or John Stanley who did Little Lulu.

But what would a cartoonist dislike about the art world?

Well, for most of the 20th century cartoonists trafficked in the kind of figuration or realism that modernism more or less made obsolete. And then came Pop, which some cartoonists viewed as wholesale robbery, not “appropriation.” So, you know, if you’re spending your days drawing people and places and getting paid shit, and you look over at MoMA and its having a show of work you think your kid could do, then you might be pissed. Obviously this is not reasonable and a kind of reverse-snobbery, but that’s life.

And on the art side of things, a lot of artists don’t want to sit around and talk about what their work means. That culture doesn’t interest them. And I think that’s totally legitimate.

I assumed that comic artists would be really punk—not wanting to sell out.

Well, cartoonists need to sell comics to make a living. So, commerce is always a part of it. And underground comics were big business. I don’t think it’s punk. I don’t like the use of the work “punk” outside of music, really. Punk was a moment in music, but tagging anything radical as “punk” feels more like a marketing move than anything else.

There was a recent Peter Saul show that was titled “From Pop to Punk.” But Peter was never pop, and he was never punk.

Yes, but the attitude of punk really nailed an idea of going against the grain. Against money. It had to do with the working class. And rage, no?

Well, yeah, the pre-scenester punk was radical—before it was called punk! It makes me think of Mike Kelley, who was a huge inspiration for this show. When I was working with him on a retrospective show of Destroy All Monsters before he died, I ran the “What Nerve!” idea past him. And he said, “Yeah, that’s a history that has to be told. Do it.” And that was very meaningful, because he was an artist who had found critical and financial success but had not given up any of his tenacity.

Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw and Paul McCarthy and Raymond Pettibone have become internationally celebrated and extremely successful, but maybe they still remain a thorn in the side of culture in terms of aesthetics. Maybe they are still outsiders?

I think so. I would leave out Pettibone now. He’s pretty well tamed at this point, which maybe saved his life. Who knows. But otherwise the untamed is healthy. You can’t tame what Mike Kelley did. I think people will try, but you can’t.

So, being authentic means more than being radical or revolutionary or transgressive.

Yes. And I’m a believer in authenticity, even now. Especially now. I do think all the artists in the show are virulently authentic. Jim Nutt said it was very difficult for people to understand that you could be an artist and not be “for” something or “against” something, but just make the thing you have to make.

Gertrude Stein had these gnarly Picassos all over her walls, and her brother Leo said, “That’s not art,” and then fought her on it. Something was at stake!

Yeah. That’s a ballsy thing to do, to stand up for an artist’s authenticity. To celebrate it. That’s a beautiful thing.


What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present is on view at Matthew Marks through August 14, 2015. To read more of Jeremy Sigler’s art criticism for Tablet magazine, click here.

Jeremy Sigler’s latest book of poetry, Goodbye Letter, was published by Hunters Point Press.

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