An interview with Dennis Cooper

This interview took place in september 2020. I just asked Dennis Cooper on his blog if he would talk for an hour or so about his relationship with the visual arts. He accepted immediately. Here’s the recording of this interview. You’ll find a transcript of it below. You can also download a little booklet I made, which includes a more concise version of the interview + some pictures.

The interview starts at 4:00, the introduction is in French :

The booklet / zine (in English). Click on the image in order to download it

Dennis Cooper and the visual arts :

1. The papers DC wrote for Artforum for a column called « Openings », about Ryan Trecartin, Frances Stark, Richard Hawkins, Vincent Fecteau and Torbjörn Vejvi, were collected in Smothered in Hugs. Essays, Interviews, Feedback, and Obituaries, HarperCollins, 2010

2. An interview with Gisèle Vienne and Dennis Cooper about a show they curated at the Centre Pompidou in 2012 :

Short introductions to the work of some artists quoted in the discussion

Robert Breer
Torbjörn Vejvi
Vincent Fecteau

Some posts from DC’s blog
About art

Galerie Dennis Cooper presents Tom Friedman
Galerie Dennis Cooper presents Robert Breer
Galerie Dennis Cooper presents Frances Stark
« They also paint »


How to build a parade float
Japanese roller-coasters
28 abandoned theme parks
Scaffolding day
168 piñatas
Scale model
147 fake foods
DC’s ostensibly favorite animated props for Halloween season 2020
153 stages
Skywriting Day
DC’s annual bûche de Noël beauty pageant

Permanent Green Light, a film by Dennis Cooper and Zac Farley

Roman about the sound he recorded of a building being imploded : « I don’t know how to draw this yet »

The pinata collector : « I don’t like how they weigh so little »

Roman sleeping underneath a pinata in his friend’s garden


ANTIMUSEE i.e. CONRAD : I read that the first artwork that really got to you was John Baldessari’s work entitled Wrong. What did strike in this particular artwork?

DENNIS COOPER : I knew little bit about contemporary art, but like most people in the USA that where my age I only knew Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol and obvious things that got a lot of publicity. That was the first time I went to an actual museum and I saw a lot of actual, what was going on, what was being made. I hadn’t really thought about conceptual art. So that was really huge to me, because most of the work that were in that show our school took us to was this kind of conceptual art. In general, I was pretty blown away. The Baldessari got to me because it was like nothing, and it was really funny. It was really layered. It was doing more that what it seemed to be doing. It seemed like something very simple. But then if you thought about it, it had this very complicated relationship to the viewer. So that was very huge to me, because I never thought that art could be that complicated, and that funny, and that smart, I just thought it was like paintings, or sculpture. So that really had a huge impact on me because I wanted to be a writer and I was thinking : writing could do that too, writing doesn’t have to be some boring thriller or whatever. It can be something really strange and complicated. And…. I was doing a lot of drugs, so that helped too.

AM : You thought it was funny ?

DC : Yes, super funny. Because it’s just this stupid picture anybody could take with their camera of some guy standing against a telephone pole. It’s a photo somebody would put in their drawer, like your uncle. It’s a stupid photo and then it said “Wrong” underneath it. It’s “Wrong” because it’s just a stupid photo and you wonder why it is art. So, it’s just telling : yes I know this is a stupid photo, and why is it so huge. I just thought it was hilarious.

AM : Did it make you laugh ?

AC : I don’t remember. Probably smiled knowingly.

AM : Did you start going to art galleries by yourself?

DC : With some friends. My friends were all pretty cool people. And we were all into experimental film, and books, and music. I don’t we would actually go to see art that much. Not galleries, because I was only sixteen and I didn’t really know where the galleries were. But we would go to museums. There was not that many museums in LA at that time. Art became part of the menu. I started paying a lot of attention to art and what art could be at that point.

AM : How did art changed the way you were writing ?

DC : It changed the way I thought about writing. I was a terrible writer. When I was sixteen-year-old I was a terrible, terrible writer. It took me a long time to become an OK writer. I thought I can start from this. I don’t have to start from: I have to tell a really good story with a plot, a good plot, and all that crap. Because I didn’t know how to to do that, I’ve never studied writing fiction in my life. So, I can start just here, I can have an idea, and I can try to make it clever. I started seeing it that way. Try to write things that were complicated. Music and films were also influencing me, they were doing something similar. And I go look at art more than anything else, and I always have, going to galleries, reading magazines and I ended up writing about art for a really long time for magazines.

AM : Were you drawing ? Collecting things, stamps, pinatas ?

DC : No, not pinatas. I did collect stamps when I was really young. I was drawing. I went to this private boys school, I didn’t go to a normal high school. I was writing and doing art. In there I was thought of being the school artist. I made psychedelic posters, and I put them around the school. I painted up psychedelic mural on the wall. And most people there thought of me as a visual artist. Most people thought I was going to end up being a painter. But there was a certain point where I had to stop. I just realized I didn’t have it to be an artist. But I was trying to fool around with stuff and do things.

AM : At that point, was painting considered outdated in LA ?

DC : No, it wasn’t considered outdated. I didn’t paint, I did drawings. I don’t think I painted. I did things with colour markers. I made some sculptures. And then I started making films because I started seeing video art and I was really interested in video art. But I wasn’t good at making films. No one liked them. So, I quit that. I couldn’t draw. I just didn’t have the skill to draw. It’s true that at that point it you can’t draw you can’t be an artist. Now it doesn’t matter whether you draw to be an artist. But at that point it was important. I gave up, and just thought I’m going to work on my writing instead. And just be a fan, a fan of art.

AM : Were there many painters or was it mostly performance art, installation art ?

DC : At that point… that’s pretty early. There were some painters. There was Ed Ruscha, Baldessari, and Chris Burden was starting to do his things which was really impactful. And there was also Robert…. (Smithson?) People doing things with the earth art. I really like that kind of things people making things that were trippy. Like just the light in the room. James Turrell became really famous. So I was really interested in that kind of work. There wasn’t a lot of painters, it’s true. I just think it was too intimidating for me. I just realized I was a writer and not a visual artist or something. At a certain point people would really like the writing and people weren’t that excited by my drawings. I thought ok I should just write.

DC : LA has a good history of artists who are very good writers. Mike Kelley is an extremely good writer. I think it’s all borrowed but Pettibon uses writing in his art. So, there was a very strong relationship between writing [and art]. In the late 70s early 80s there was a very exciting scene because the writers and the artists like Mike Kelley and Pettibon were very close. We were all hanging out together, collaborating. And we were all very influential on each other. The LA artists were really interested in writing in the same we were in the visual arts. So, I think that’s one of the reasons why the visual art in LA is so distinctive, because they do read. There is this strong connexion.

AM : Mike Kelley was a very acute thinker

DC : He was like the god. In 1980 I was running this reading performance series in la. He was away. He was teaching in Detroit.  Everybody was like : Mike Kelley he is the god. the finally came back to LA, and I went to see one of performances and I thought : yeah he is a god. He was a great very brilliant guy. It was great to have him around. He was hugely influential on everybody. We were going to do a collaboration, but It never happened: a goth rock opera. He got so successful, he just didn’t have time anymore.

AM : When did you become interested in more abstract artists, like Robert Breer, for example, who is one of the artists I have discovered on your blog ? (16:00)

DC : They’re funny. They are abstract. They also feel like they are things in your living room too. That’s the funny thing about them. They’re abstract but they feel like something you could have in your house. The slowly slowly moving things. They have a couple at the Louis Vuitton, big ones. I found him through his films, because I’m really interested in experimental film. And it was only later that I realized that he made objects too. That was much later, in the 1990s or something.

AM : Do you like the pace of his films ?

DC : I really like abstract, experimental films a lot. It has always been influential on me. I like that kind of nothing happening a lot. A lot of my favourite films are films where nothing happens.

AM : When did you start writing papers about art ? (17:50)

DC : I don’t think people know him here, but Peter Schjeldahl, who is probably the most respected art critic in the USA. He writes for the New Yorker. At that time, he didn’t write for the New Yorker. But I knew him because he was a poet. He took me under his wing. He really thought I should I write about art, because I was talking about art all the time. he got me early gigs. He got me gigs writing for Art In America which is a big magazine. And he introduced me to the people and I started writing art catalogues. It was in the early 1980s. I started writing about art more than anything else, at that point. I was living in Amsterdam. I was writing for catalogues and magazines. And then Artforum asked me if I wanted to be a regular writer for them. And I said yes. I ended up being a contributor editor for a long time.  At that point, it became a big part of what I do. I don’t write nonfiction anymore. I quit. But Artforum was my favourite magazine to write for. They would let you write about anything: you could write about movies, music. You don’t have to compromise. They don’t ask you to make it stupid. You can write strangely. Because it’s art. People allow the writing to be become more surprising. The whole about visual art is that you want to be surprised. You walk into the gallery and you see something and: oh what’s that ! that’s the best thing of all. So they allow you to do that with the writing too.  

[DC’s anecdote about him writing an essay for Jorg Immendorf]

AM : You’re not a painting guy? (21:46)

DC : No. I’m not drawn to it. They are painters I really like. But I’m much more drawn to sculpture and installation, and video. It’s rare that I care about painting. If I go to the louvre, I’m just bored to death. I have no interest. I don’t want to luck at this fucking shit. Who cares about this fucking old paintings? The gesture, all that stuff, I don’t care. But people love paintings. That’s what people want to see, that’s what people want to buy. Even now, painting is huge. Whereas sculpture, installation and video is not nearly as huge. It’s note huge at all.

AM : Mike Kelley did some paintings…

DC : They’re not about painting. Paintings are about : look at the way he uses the brush. He just made them like his sculptures, his videos. They’re exactly like his sculpture or his videos. That’s fine. That Wrong piece was a painting. But whatever process they used, they just wrote “Wrong” beneath the photo. It wasn’t a painting. It wasn’t a painting where you’re like : “oh ! the soul of humanity”, or whatever that people say when they look at paintings.

AM : In Artforum you’ve introduced many young artists, like Tom Friedman, Torbjörn Vejvi, Vincent Fecteau. They’re quite different from Mike Kelley’s work, for example. Their work is quite elegant, graceful, beautiful maybe  ? (23:30)

DC : Tom Friedman’s work is really funny. It’s always funny.

AM : For example, the sculpture made with toothpicks…

DC : It’s about the absurdity. Just realizing someone took a long time to make this, it’s funny. it’s part of the deal. He has a piece: it’s a just a blank piece of paper, and he just says he stared at it for a thousand hours. It’s just a piece of paper but because he says he stared at it for a thousand hours, it becomes art. He’s very funny. Torbjorn [Vejvi’s] stuff is very witty but also very melancholic. He’s one of my very favourites. His stuff is very complicated. But it is funny. He’s a very funny guy. It’s kind of sad, and funny, and making fun of itself.

AM : All these artists, we can’t put them into boxes, we can’t link them to precise trends…

DC : That’s the stuff that is the best. It also makes it the hardest for the artists. Because people want everything to fit into a box. I love confusion. And if an artist does something that confuses me I’m really excited by it. It works. It’s very skilful, and you know this person knows what they are doing. And at the same That’s my favourite thing : why would someone make this. And you get that with all of those guys. […] Torbjörn [Vejvi] was a student of mine. I taught at UCLA. In the early 2000S, UCLA art school was the best art school in the country. The people teaching there were : Charles Ray, Paul McCarthy, Chris Burden. Charles Ray, who is a friend of mine got to to hire me to come in and to do studio visits. It’s really exciting to see him [Torbjörn Vejvi] develop. He changed his work quite a bit. He has gone through a lot of changes. But it’s always coming from the same place […] Vince [Fecteau] used to do these cat heads. His work has really radically changed.

AM : In 2001, you’ve curated an exhibition in London which you called “Smallish” with just small things… (28:45)

DC : I curated a bunch of shows, so I always forget who was in which one. Oh, yes. I remember the show. Those are photographs from Russian porn that I just put up there. I don’t think that was an artist. That was a cool show.

AM : Russian porn. You like when the boundary between art and what is not considered art is blurred…

DC : I guess so. Russian twink porn was a thing for a while. It was so depressing and so melancholic. I just love that about it. They couldn’t even get the models to pretend to be happy. They just look so miserable. You knew they were these poor kids who were being payed money, and they did just because they needed the money. It wasn’t hiding anything and I thought it was so beautiful and so transparent. Depressing too but very transparent. The guys would look so unhappy while having sex. It was really like opera. This deep, powerful, overwhelming emotion, or whatever opera is supposed to do.

AM : In a way, the blog is like your little gallery ? (32:20)

DC : Yes, I like just putting things in there. I never write anything, I just share stuff. Here is some stuff that I’m interested in and here is some interesting people writing interesting things about it. It’s so much work. For some reasons I keep doing it. It’s an education. It’s also really old fashioned. The posts are big. Nobody spends that much time on anything anymore. Blogs are the past. You have to make a commitment to that blog. It forces to spend time on the internet. Everybody wants to scroll through everything. And it’s like a secret hideaway. People just find it. It’s kind of secret. I don’t do any king of push for it at all.

AM : The first time I landed on one of the slaves posts. I came back later and I discovered that it was more than that…

DC : The slaves post it’s only two days a month. The rest is not like that. The texts are the best part.

AM : First, I thought you were writing them…

DC : No, I edit them. I find it very interesting. The way they use language. But I do edit them. Because they are not writers. Some of them are really disturbing, really sad and disturbing. People think I’m their pimp. I’m not a fucking pimp. I hide them. So they’re not real. You couldn’t find them. People do try.

AM : Don’t you feel the urge to write about art ?

DC : I’ve never liked writing non-fiction. I’ve never thought I was really good at it. […] You have to write non-fiction fast. And I don’t do that, I’m not that kind of writer. It takes me forever. You also have to really want to give your opinion about stuff. I don’t do that. I resist it. The only thing I really liked doing were the “Openings” columns [for Artforum] : I could help a new artist to be discovered.

AM : Do you collect art ?

DC : All lot of my art was given to me. I used to buy some art. I had a Baldessari, a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph. I don’t like Robert Mapplethorpe, but this was a very different kind of photo. And a few other things… Jim Shaw. I had to sell them, because I had no money.

AM : Permanent Green Light is a film about art also. The main character, Roman, is doing drawings… (40:14)

DC : You would what he is trying to do as an artwork. He is trying to do this impossible thing. In a way you can see him as an artist, like a magician. I don’t think he thinks of it that way. I think what he’s doing it is a kind of conceptual artwork.

AM : And the one that is collecting pinatas?

DC : He’s very aesthetic about it. He is a weirdo. But he’s into them, he has all this ideas about them : “I don’t like how they weight so little” But you could see the guy Roman as an artist.

AM : There is scene where the main character, Roman, hangs a pinata on a tree, and he sleeps beneath it. It looks like an installation…

DC : Nobody ever notices it. The pinatas he looks at when he falls asleep is a different pinata than the one that is there when he wakes up. It becomes magic in his eyes. No one ever notices it. It’s too subtle. It becomes this magic thing. That’s the scene where everything transforms in the movie.

AM : You don’t like going to the Louvre ? You prefer haunted houses ?

DC : Not really. Our new film is about a family that makes their home into a haunted house. Obviously, I’m very obsessed about haunted houses. That’s an art form. There is this phenom that is called home haunt. Every people turn their home into a haunted house. It is a total art form. So, our new movie is about art also. I don’t care about the louvre.  The d’Orsay. I just go there because the building is so beautiful. I just love being in that building. I don’t care about this fucking impressionist shit. It’s my problem, not the art’s. It just doesn’t do anything for me. I want to be blown away. That stuff doesn’t blow me away. Oh! They made that 200 years ago. I don’t care.

AM : When you see a painting, you don’t start to build narratives

DC : No, I don’t do that kind of stuff. I do narratives but I don’t care about them. They are just servicing my ideas. But I went with a friend recently and he was trying to explain to me at the Louvre. I got why he liked them so much. It’s so dramatic. You saw Permanent Green Light. I like when things are really inside. When people are hiding everything, you have to search them to see what they are feeling. That’s what interests me.  I like things when you have to search them and pay a lot of attention to get it.  

AM : I never see people laughing at art shows…

DC : They chuckle.

AM : What was the last art show that made you smile or laugh ?

DC : There is a show by Ed and Nancy Kienholz [their show at Galerie Templon]. It’s really old fashioned. It’s really funny and ridiculous. Those kind of made me laugh. I’ve seen things that were supposed to make be laugh and that weren’t funny at all, like Erwin Wurm photographs. It’s hard to do funny work. [ + Bertrand Dezoteux + Grégoire Beil, Roman National]

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