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Interview with artist Harold Stevenson, a Jean Cocteau of Idabel, Oklahoma

The high camp survivor who was friends with all the legends

Harold Stevenson has led the exemplary, pan-international artistic life for more than a handful of decades, as painter, penseur, muse, wit and dandy. Stevenson may be an integral, star figure of that heady Manhattan-European axis from the Sixties and Seventies, flitting between the Greek islands, Paris, Rome and all points glamorous, but he has also always remained tied to his small-town Oklahoma roots, the Jean Cocteau of Idabel. He first became famous, nay notorious, with his gigantic painting “The New Adam” of 1962, a wrap-around naked portrait of the actor Sal Mineo, which filled all the walls of the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris. This enormous work had to be smuggled into America past Customs, its large male member sufficiently abstract as a detachable canvas panel in itself.

The Art Newspaper: Your current show at Mitchell Algus Gallery is almost a mini-retrospective, seven works starting in 1962, going through the 70s and 80s up until your just completed painting “The 9/11 Twins”.

Harold Stevenson: Yes, it is like a retrospective. And that painting you mention has just been finished and is probably the most scandalous painting of my life…

TAN: More so than “The New Adam”?

HS: Oh my dear "The New Adam" is classic conservative by comparison. It features eight-foot tower panels, the two front ones are military people, I’ve never painted people in clothes before, they’re in military garb and carrying guns, and the guns are wearing condoms. This is a highly charged political metaphor.

TAN: Very hard to paint a condom; are they gleaming?

HS: Yes! Ha, ha, well you asked for this, I didn’t! The two panels to the back are figures based on the ancient warriors of the Riace bronzes which I went to Reggio Calabria to see. They are of course nudes, from the back view; one is carrying a machine gun, the other ammunition. You see them rear view with their beautiful buttocks. It’s a fabulous painting, nobody’s seen it apart from Mitchell Algus and he went berserk over it. And for someone as straight as poor Mitchell to go crazy over all this is unbelievable! He said I want to open an art gallery and I want to open it with “The New Adam”. I said my dear boy you must be out of your raving mind, it’s the most non-commercial thing you can possibly do. So he showed it and then the next day in The New York Times there was a photograph, with people there hiding all the improper things, and so Mitchell Algus became a celebrated art dealer overnight! Thanks to “The New Adam”!

TAN: You burst onto the international scene in 1962 but had been painting long before that.

HS: Well I was professional at age 10. I had a downtown studio in a public building at age ten in Idabel, Oklahoma. I invented oil painting for myself and bought everything through the hardware store. Other boys delivered newspapers or milk; I had my own studio and sold my paintings little by little, and this was in the famous Thirties Depression, just before the war, World War Eleven. Then I went to New York to live in 1949 and to Paris in 1959.

TAN: So, in New York from 1949-59, this is when you knew Jackson Pollock…

HS: Yes, in the biblical sense. He was a big drinker but then so was I. Jackson had a key to Alfonso Ossorio’s little cottage we would go over there and participate with one another.

TAN: So why does Jackson Pollock have such a heterosexual reputation?

HS: Well that was all invented later by Lee Krasner and Greenberg. They invented this monster to launch Abstract Expressionism: Jackson Pollock is the most famous Jewish artist in the world but he was not Jewish. I always thought he was a great genius. I didn’t mind going to bed with him, I just didn’t want to paint like him.

TAN: So you must have known everyone…

HS: Oh everyone. I was friendly with Calder; I was very friendly with Tchelitchew. I’ve just given a lecture at the University of Oklahoma on Tchelitchew; there seems to be a revival of sorts and I’m almost the last living link who knew him. I’ll tell you, the ironic thing is, he was homosexual but I never went to bed with him!

Of course, I knew Duchamp very well. Marcel Duchamp said to me on the night I took the boat to France, and I’m afraid of boats: “Harold, when you get to Paris you’re going to meet all of these young people like yourself but who think like Marcel Duchamp. Let me advise you, think like Harold Stevenson.” He was a charming man but we had a terrible gap between us because I never played chess. Later of course I became a great friend of Magritte, Dalí, De Chirico in Rome, I met kneeling at the altar of Georges Braque.

TAN: You’ve known everyone, you’ve exhibited everywhere…

HS: I only want to be represented by those who truly love my work. Like Robert Fraser in London. He showed me first with Francis Bacon and Magritte and Bellmer in an exhibition called “Obsessive painters”.

TAN: In fact you were instrumental in giving Andy Warhol his very first exhibition?

HS: I knew David Mann who had a bookstore, the Bodley which then became gallery under my auspices. I convinced him to give Warhol a show, now nobody, nobody on earth except for me knew who he was back then. Andy was ambitious, white trash, a coal-miner’s daughter, but still my dearest friend.

TAN: You are now revered as the last link to the cultural, social life of the vanished century, an historic survivor…

HS: One morning my adorable dealer Iris Clert phoned me at my apartment in Paris and said “Oh Harold, I’ve just had the most brilliant idea. You have lived too long. You have lived too long, if you were dead I could make you famous and rich overnight.” I replied but Iris I’m hardly 30 years old! She pondered on this and then said; “In which case Harold you will have to out-live the bastards”—and so I have!

Biography

Born 1929 Idabel, Oklahoma

Currently showing: Mitchell Algus Gallery, 511 West 25th Street, 2nd floor, New York 10011, Tel: +1 212 242 2628 (13 April-25 May)

Selected exhibitions: 1949 Hugo Gallery, New York; 1962 Iris Clert, Paris, Robert Fraser, London, Whitney Annual, New York, The New Realists, Sidney Janis Gallery, New York; 1963 Iris Clert, Paris; 1964 Richard Feigen, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles; 1965 Iolas Gallery, New York, “Pop art” Palais des Beaux arts, Brussels; 1966 “Erotic Art”, Sidney Janis Galley, New York; 1968 Galerie Iris Clert, Paris; 1969 Galerie Hake, Cologne; 1970 La Medusa Gallery, Rome; 1972 Iolas Gallery, New York; 1974 Iolas Gallery, New York/Paris; 1976 Brooks Jackson-Iolas Gallery, New York; 1979 “Americans in Paris”, Musée d’art Moderne, Paris; 1982 Iolas-Jackson Gallery, New York; 1985 Keith Green Gallery, New York; 1988 Keith Green Gallery, New York; 1989 National Museum, Athens; 1992 Mitchell Algus, New York; 1994 Mitchell Algus, New York; 1996 Mitchell Algus, New York; 1998 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; 1999 Mitchell Algus, New York

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A Jean Cocteau of Idabel, Oklahoma'