Born in 1944 in Los Angeles, Allan McCollum has lived in the heart of Manhattan since the 1960s. He is represented by the Mitterrand, Thomas Schulte and MFC-Michèle Didier galleries. An in-studio encounter.
Your work, based on the repetition of forms, is a continuation of your first series dating back to the 1970s…
Having been an artist for nearly fifty years, I’ve done a lot of research in my time, but at my age, it becomes important, and even necessary, to look back and see what all your work has in common. I haven’t finished thinking about it yet, even if some unifying themes recur, such as mass production and unique objects. Since the very start of my career, I’ve explored these distinctions, I’ve mixed them up, and while I’m not the only artist to be doing this, I’ve always systematically worked in enormous quantities! I don’t make fifty but ten thousand pieces, and each one is unique. All of my investigations have also considered the space of the gallery or museum, as opposed to that of a store. I always try to contextualise the different ways we have of showing objects with meaning for us. I’ve also made some “souvenirs” and collaborated with small towns to create pieces relating to their own craftsmanship.
Did you originally intend for this multiplicity and this notion of quantity to go against a certain fetishisation of art and the art world?
I never use this word “fetishisation” but I agree with the idea. I was born during World War II and I grew up at a time when we discovered the horrors of Nazis and millions of people killed just because they were Jewish, Communists, homosexuals, gypsies… It was a nightmare. Of course I’m expressing my own view, but I feel that many artists who grew up during this period got the impression that the figure of the hero could bring about appalling circumstances. This led many people to query the idea of idolatry whereas the art of the 1950s or the end of the 1940s was more about individuality and the figures of the genius or the master… This was incidentally fairly European as an idea, but in the United States, there was a type of rebellion against this hegemony, which determined my reflection on the fact that art should be unique and special. Added to this was the question of “good taste” and the observation that wealthy upper classes used certain words to describe their masterpieces and wanted to show that they owned objects belonging to a different level from those of middle classes. This condescending gaze was terrifying for me because I grew up in a family where we didn’t own any objects or have a big house, and we were always put down because of this class difference. Just like how in the art world, the great masters hold power over those who just make craftworks or are classified as only making drawings or postcards…
So you wanted to combine art and craftsmanship very early on?
For me, crafts are also magical and can prove to be a very personal work. But I’ve also worked in factories and felt real pleasure in collaborating with fifty other people, talking, laughing and seeing who can make which piece the quickest… I find that this is missing from our artistic perspective, this collaboration which cannot coexist with the idea of a work being original or unique, and it’s true that very quickly, I wanted to mix up the different ways of making things.
Is producing in quantity also a way to criticise the art market, given that you started getting interested in this world through the Fluxus movement?
In one way, this approach could only be followed by going against what was being done in art, but we didn’t talk about the market so much at the time… It’s true that for 5,000 years, artists have always produced creations to exchange or monetize them, and even if I wouldn’t call these creations “goods”, which could imply a Marxist point of view, the act of making something and selling it remains the history of our culture. I’ve chosen quantity to mix up ways in which people look at different types of work, and this is how the Surrogate Paintings started in 1978, or the Plaster Surrogates, starting from 1982. I made thirty thousand small plaster objects, each of which is completely unique, whereas the artist, according to certain implicit rules, is not allowed to make thousands of things, or else they’re no longer called artworks, but industrial fabrications. How about things that cost nothing, but that hold value and meaning? I’ve always been haunted by the way this has been taught at school, where we also distinguish pupils on the basis of their school results or social levels. The idea of quantity was therefore based on a desire to create confusion and to question the categories that we’re accustomed to living with.
Is this also why you decided to use archetypal forms such as the Chinese vase developed for the Perfect Vehicles series?
After the Plaster Surrogates, I wanted to take on three dimensions following the same principle as this series, so I chose an object that we see everywhere in whatever film we watch. Rich people have big ones, poor people smaller ones, but it remains a collection classic, like most things that interest me. Many people bring meaning to their lives by collecting, whether it’s a matter of dinosaur bones or postcards, from souvenirs to artworks… But I really don’t make things easier for myself, believe me, and the first time I wanted to make ten-thousand copies of a work, which I thought I could sell individually at $25 each, a gallerist said to me: “You can’t do that! Allan, you’re crazy!” So I asked why and the main reason was that it’s as time-consuming to sell a work at $25 as at $25,000. Today, this piece, Over Ten Thousand Individual Works, from 1987-1988, belongs to a museum, and I soon realised that I couldn’t make a living from selling my works individually, so I thought of constructing a collection myself, which I’d name as such, before selling the lot as a collection. As I combined the idea of souvenirs and centrepieces, this initially cut me off from the attention of 99 % of collectors who only want something unique. My objects are unique, but when you have this uniqueness numbering several thousand…
Is this also a type of performance practice? I’m also referring to the São Paulo Biennale where you showed a series of 1,800 drawings…
When I was a child, my parents were both actors, my uncle a folk singer who made records, and my brothers and sisters tried to get into show business. I myself performed in school plays, and then joined a troupe, which also led me to discovering Fluxus and its performances. I learned to approach art by bringing a gaze that introduced a discrepancy at an era in when most theatres weren’t doing this. This idea of doing a play while constantly reminding the public that it was only an illusion, either by wearing strange costumes or directly addressing the audience, had a great influence on me. While we can watch plays or performances to forget ourselves, Fluxus never allowed this, and I think that I’ve displaced this integrity to art.
You’ve also collaborated with a certain number of artists, which isn’t common. Can you tell us about this?
I like to have fun, and the collaborations that I’ve done have always been with artists that I admire a lot or are friends. Louise Lawler, for example, and I really work well together and we’ve collaborated on several projects because we aim for the same results, in the relationship between the work and its fabrication process. I also did a project with Andrea Zittel, with whom I have less in common even if I think that she’s a fantastic artist – this was more for us to have fun! As for Matt Mullican, I admire him so much that I wanted to construct something with him. But it’s just as interesting to make buttons with a lady who lives in Oregon, who runs a souvenir shop for tourists – together we made 6,000 buttons! I’ve developed numerous projects in different US states, such as Florida, Southern California or Kansas… with people I meet online and who make things such as trinkets, decorative objects or stamps…
Is this a way to show what America is today?
Not just America, because it’s a way to show how people construct their identities by shapes, which refer either to an identifiable landscape or an archaeology… I like the idea of mixing artworks with everything that’s collected, and I include the notion of exchange, inherent to that of possession. For me there’s no such thing as the magic of creation that makes us lose ourselves before sending us to Heaven! Artworks are goods that go from one set of hands to another, and Yves Klein was one of the first people to conceptualise art as an object of exchange. In the 1960s, I looked a great deal at what was coming from France: structuralist thought, the idea that the world was only a construction and that our beliefs could be transformed. In this respect, our culture is very different from French analysis and its notion of facing more than a single reality. In New York, in the 1960s, we saw a lot of French New Wave films that played with the idea of narration. Sometimes, there was no beginning or end and the story didn’t follow a logic. I’m also passionate about the Nouveau Roman, especially Alain Robbe-Grillet. This movement questioned how to construct a story or how to establish a temporal impression, and also, how to elaborate the meaning of things. As a result, what could be considered as art or not could be challenged, and French theorists and linguists were the ones who helped me to reason this way.