Robert Delford Brown. 2007. Official portrait of the artist/religious leader.
An interview with Robert Delford Brown
by Mark Bloch, Whitehot Magazine, New York
"Robert Delford Brown : Meat, Maps and Militant Metaphysics" at the Cameron
Art Museum in Wilmington, North Carolina from March 28 to August 3, 2008
will be a museum exhibition to celebrate this extraordinary artist’s
lifetime of social, political and aesthetic activism with a selection of
his creative production over the past several decades. Robert Delford Brown
was born in Colorado in 1930 and received his B.A. and M.A. from U.C.L.A.,
then in 1959 he moved to New York City, engaged in many of the period’s
major (and fringe) art activities and movements--Pop Art, Happenings,
Correspondence Art, Performance and Fluxus--while formulating his own,
unique vision and aesthetic. In 1964, he “founded” the “First National
Church of the Exquisite Panic, Inc.” and established its headquarters
within an ongoing architectural experiment he entitled “The Great Building
Crack Up" On West 13th Street. "The idea for the creation of a church began
when Allan Kaprow asked me to play the role of The Painter in Karlheinz
Stockhausen’s “Originale”. I decided that I would wear a firefighter’s suit
and drop eggs and red powder from a ladder. I suddenly realized that I was
coming up with a creation myth that had similarly occurred to people for
millions of years. At the same time I was also preparing to do an
environment which I entitled MEAT SHOW. It entailed the use of thousands
of pounds of meat. It was a work of desperation and rage. . . which took
place in a refrigerated room 14 feet wide and 90 feet long in the
Washington Meat Market in New York City…. I proclaimed that "the MEAT SHOW"
was The First Grand Opening Service of The First National Church of the
Exquisite Panic, Inc."
Thus began Brown’s contribution to the American art scene.
In this interview Brown talks not about his own work but about the New York
art world he found when he arrived here in the late 1950s.
BLOCH: Tell me about the art world of the 1950s. You say it was small.
BROWN: Tiny, it was tiny. Teeny-weeny.BLOCH: There weren't a lot of people? Now there’s thousands of people…
BROWN: When I was at UCLA, I would go into the book stacks, and I would
read through all these bound copies of art magazines. In the 1940s, mostly
they had full page ads for fur coats and that kind of thing. There was no…
BLOCH: Really, art magazines?
BROWN: Oh yeah, art magazines, the art world, and it was just… Like in the
1950s, there were about three galleries. There was Pierre Mattise, he had
a gallery I guess, but it was very tiny, and artists would just go to one
another’s openings. But it was like… there was nothing, when I went and
decided to become an artist in the 1940s, it was mostly taking a vow of
poverty. My goal was to just be a good painter, and have a reputation for
being a good painter, a good craftsman, and there was no money. And if you
were an artist, you were a communist or a pervert or something. I mean…
BLOCH: Where did you get that idea of a vow of poverty? Where did it
actually come from?
BROWN: That was the way it was. In 1959, word got out Mark Rothko made ten
thousand dollars selling a painting. So all the little boys who were going
to be dentists, politicians, all this stuff… they said “Wow, I'll become an
artist.” In the 1960s, that’s where the baloney came in with the artist.
There was no celebrity. Celebrity didn’t exist. If you were an artist in
the 1940s and 50s, you worked as a carpenter and a stone mason or
something, or maybe got a little job teaching someplace, and that was it.
The people who knew what you were doing… maybe there were fifty people who
knew. It was tiny, tiny, the art world. In 1960, the entire international
art world could fit in this room. It was just…
BLOCH: There was a hand full of artists, a hand full of collectors.
BROWN: No, fuck collectors! They didn’t exist. Artists…BLOCH: Did they have openings?
BROWN: Well, little openings, and artists would go to these little
openings, and then they would always have a couple of loft parties after
the opening. If you wanted to see the entire art world, on Tuesday you’d
go uptown, on Friday you’d go downtown. You would see Raymond Duncan, who
was Isadora Duncan’s brother. He wore a long gown with sandals, and maybe
you would see Marcel Duchamp, and you would see Huelsenbeck, who was one of
the founders of Dada.
BLOCH: You would see them at these parties?
BROWN: Yeah, at the openings, but you would see everything from the
founders of Dada up through little art students. And then there would be
these parties, they had these loft parties, they would dance. And the
floor… they would jump up and down, and honest to God… it’s a wonder the
floor didn’t collapse. They would just go nuts. I mean the floor… yeah,
there would be booze… but the poverty, I mean it was really poor. Like you
see, just poverty. When I came in the New York City, you could, I guess
get a cold water flat for around eighteen dollars a month.
BLOCH: You say loft parties, but they didn’t have lofts then, did they, in
BROWN: An artist would go into a cold water flat like DeKooning on Tenth
Street, that building is still there. DeKooning, Franz Kline, they’d take
a railroad flat, knock a wall down, and that was the first loft. Now lofts
are like a joke…BLOCH: There’re an entire block.
BROWN: Then when I came into town, they also moved into stables, and they
had little horses. You could walk into buildings around here, and you’d
smell the manure.
BLOCH: Really? So when they say the Stable Gallery, it was really the
BROWN: Oh the Stable Gallery was a stable. Yeah, that was on Sixth Avenue.
BLOCH: And she (Eleanor Ward who owned the Stable Gallery) was part of the
new wave, right? After what you were talking about, then who came in?
Richard Bellamy and her and…
BROWN: Richard Bellamy, he had the Green Gallery and that was the taxi
tycoon, Scull. Robert Scull backed the Green Gallery.
BLOCH: Before that, it was just Sidney Janis and a couple of other
guys, and then like some younger people started opening galleries. Were you there when that happened?
BROWN: In the late fifties, everybody was talking about comic strips, that was in the air, comic strips. Then Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol ran away with it. And then there was ragged pop art, but it took about 2 years for it to get slick and clean. And it was commodified. Business wanted to go into it. They’d go into art and make millions. Like with cars, you’d have to have a new model, a new style of painting. Every year you’d have to get your latest model. By 1970 that whole thing collapsed. But the art world is very tiny, even still compared to other industries. But the art world was the forerunner of that, and so by 1970, 1972, Robert Scull, he
sold out his collection at the top of the art market at about 1970, 1972.
BLOCH: He was a collector? Did he own taxis?
BROWN: Yes, he was a taxi tycoon. It was Scull’s Angels. His taxis were
called Scull’s Angels. Instead of Hell’s Angels.
BLOCH: And how did he wind up in the art world?
BROWN: Leo Castelli was in the shirt business. He became an art dealer when
he was in his fifties, the same thing with Sidney Janis. He was a
businessman, something or other, and then he got into art in his fifties.
BLOCH: And what about Ivan Karp. He worked for Castelli?
BROWN: He worked for Castelli. the first day, when I came into NYC, 1959, I
walked into this gallery down on Third Avenue and it was all… Alan Kaprow
had already set it up. His 18 happenings and 18 parts or whatever it was.
And I asked this little girl, I said: “What is this?” She said: “It’s group
Robert Delford Brown in Stockhausen's Originale
2nd Avant Garde Festival, New York, 1964
BLOCH: Audience participation?
BROWN: Yes. When I heard that I just left. It just turned me off. I didn’t
want anything to do with it. I was totally working in the studio and was a
lone artist, and that kind of crap.
BLOCH: So you were more in the Abstract Expressionist mode of the lone
BROWN: Yeah, working in the studio. And the thing is, in the sixties,
suddenly 1960/1961, Abstract Expressionism became a joke, and Pop Art was
in. And for me, art was art. All these fashion shit just revolted me. Art
In the 20’s, they had Purism which it was called, then in the 60’s Purism
became Hard Edge. And Non-objective art became Color Field. Like everything
was merchandising. It was just the same old thing repeated with new names.
Nothing was done. I mean, when World War II ended, the United States… we
had beaten everybody so we had to have a great… it was all merchandising.
They put together a varied group of artists and said “These are abstract
expressionists.” So it’s all merchandising. They just took Ad Reinhardt
and they took all these people, they called them Abstract Expressionists.BLOCH: What was the thing with Hans Hoffman?
BROWN: He came to this country and he opened a school.
BLOCH: But then like Allan Kaprow ended up in the Hansa Gallery. Tell me
BROWN: Hansa Gallery, on Third Avenue. And that’s where he had his 18
Happenings or whatever it was, 18 Happenings in 16 Parts or something.
BLOCH: I guess it was because of something to do with Hoffman. What did he
teach? What was his message?
BROWN: He had push and pull. He was a painting teacher. He was a painting
teacher and all these young artists…
BLOCH: What’s push and pull? What did that have to do with Happenings?
BROWN: Well, that’s what he was talking about. I don’t know what he was
talking about. And then I met Edward Dickenson who had a gallery over
here. He had a studio over here on 14th Street. That building was
demolished. Edward Dickenson was a very fine painter and I met Stuart
Davis in his place.
BLOCH: Where was that?
BROWN: They built a lot of studios on the west side. So he had a studio…BLOCH: What category was he in?
BROWN: Stuart Davis?
BLOCH: Was he considered more European? Was he European-influenced, do you
BROWN: Oh yeah… A modern, Cubist… all of America is European-influenced.
BLOCH: But you came right into that, huh? You came in 1959?
BROWN: Yeah. I came in the spring of 1959.BLOCH: So you came after The Club and all that.
BROWN: The club was pissing out when I came in.
BLOCH: Did you used to go to the Cedar Tavern?
BROWN: The Cedar Bar, yeah, I used to eat veal parmagian in the Cedar Bar.
And I saw Franz Kline a couple of times. I saw de Kooning, once, maybe a
couple of times. He was the star. My wife Rhett and I, we later went and
saw DeKooning, I think in 1966. He built a studio out on Long Island. And
he kept apologizing, he kept apologizing. He had… he lived in absolute,
abject poverty until he was… then he had his first show at 45.
BLOCH: What was he apologizing for?
BROWN: For the fact that he had some success. He was apologizing for the
fact that he had all this paint and material. He’d worked his butt off to
get where he was.
BLOCH: Did you make an appointment or did you just go?
BROWN: I guess we made an appointment. But it was very impressive.
BLOCH: What about Ad Reinardt?
BROWN: Oh, Ad Reinhardt, he was funny… black on black. One of his black on
blacks got restored. They wanted to retouch it; they wanted to restore it.
One of his paintings was damaged so they gave it to him and he just
repainted it. “I can make it better; I can make another one that looks
better than that one…” (laughs)BLOCH: From scratch or on top of that one?
BROWN: He just repainted it. Restoring is a whole bunch of shit. If you
live long enough, paintings become movies… you go to the Museum of Modern
Art. When they first bought the Francis Bacon, it had oil stains and
cracks--all this kind of shit--and now its all been retouched. You can’t
see anything. And there was a collage by Robert Motherwell and I read
somewhere they said it wouldn’t last for another five years. Well you go
see it now and it, they just… its worth money so its repainted.BLOCH: Uh huh.
BROWN: I was up there one day and there was this big Matisse dancer and it
looked like a herd of elephants had been dancing on it. It was beaten
totally to shit. You look at that now and it’s all repainted.
BROWN: Restore my ass. It’s… they just repaint. There was a Pousette-Dart
in the Museum, and sometimes, when he was working on it, he poked 2 holes
in the canvas, and those holes have disappeared. Just horseshit. Its like,
back in the sixties, “THE SURFACE OF THE PAINTING!…” the surface was very
important. Essential. Well, now they’re all under glass. So there’s no
surface, they’re all under glass.
Robert Delford Brown preparing for The Meat Show,
New York. 1964BLOCH: Did you used to see Harold Rosenberg and all them?
BROWN: He was around. And the other one. Greenberg. He was around. I saw
Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler at a party once.
BLOCH: Were they together?
BROWN: They were married, I think. Her father was a judge, and then she
lived with Clement Greenberg.BLOCH: She did? before she was with Motherwell?
BROWN: It’s all conducting careers. I mean, I had no idea, I just didn’t
know. like Nancy Graves. Her father was a Museum official. So she knew how
to conduct a career. She had an exhibition of camels. She was obsessed by
camels, she couldn’t think of anything but camels. Then she had a second
show, obsessed with camels. After the obsessed with camels show, she just
dropped camels.BLOCH: And that made a big impression on you?
BROWN: like Claus Oldenberg, his father was a diplomat so he knew how to
finagle. He knew how to do all this shit. He always dressed like a clown.
He was the artist… the collector is well-dressed. The artist is supposed to
be a clown, supposed to dress shabbily. It’s very clear. The artist is
inferior to the businessman. I used to joke around like that. I used to
dress in tailored suits. I thought it was funny. I didn’t know I was
bending anybody’s noses out of shape.
BROWN: Oh, yes. Rhett and I, we did not know what we were doing. We would
storm into places. We were just nuts. We knew we were doing something
wrong, we didn’t know what it was.BLOCH: Really?
BROWN: And Walter Hopps would say, “Cool it.” I didn’t know what he meant.BLOCH: How did you meet Walter Hopps?
BROWN: We were babies together in UCLA, southern California. I was the hard
charging young artist, and he was a couple of years younger than I was, and
we had a lot in common. We were equally crazy. You know, he loved to
pontificate, he was like a big talker,BLOCH: Were you in art classes, or what?
BROWN: I was in art classes, he was kind of wandering around, he would
change, he would do this, and he would do that, he was changing majors.
But I didn’t find this out until I was in Houston, Texas the last time I
saw him: He was in the Korean War. He was drafted, and he said, “I’m not
going to kill anybody” so they let him go through boot camp and then they
just gave him an honorable discharge so he got a G.I. Bill of Rights.
BLOCH: Oh really, and that’s how he went to UCLA?
BLOCH: He was like a pacifist? Did they draft him, or he signed up?
BROWN: They drafted him, but he said “I’m not going to kill anyone.”BLOCH: We skipped over your being L.A. and going to Jazz clubs and all
BROWN: Oh, my friend Bill would find these places. We used to go to see
Gerry Mulligan. There was a little house… Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker,
and there was a drummer. There was this place called The Lightning Room,
that had a little stage about 3 feet by 3 feet and then the strip teaser
would do this dance on this little platform. And then there was a blind
drummer who played the saxophone. But he would find these goofy places.
BLOCH: And where were these places? Santa Monica? Downtown L.A. or what?
BROWN: Downtown Los Angeles, and there was Glen’s on Webster, and that was
a little café, so we’d go there. I saw Art Tatum, he was there.
BLOCH: Performing, or…
BROWN: Well, passing through. But he had fingers like he was a spider.
Fingers like this, so…
BLOCH: Did you see other guys, other black guys? You mentioned all the
White guys, Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker. Did you see the Black guys too?
BROWN: I saw Lionel Hampton. Back in those days the…there would be an ad
in the Los Angeles Times about like this
BLOCH: Like an inch square?
BROWN: It was tiny, and it would say “Jazz Concert,” that’s it. At the
Los Angeles Philharmonic, and that was all it was… and whoever was in town
showed up. In the Second World War everybody had money so all the
musicians were busy, so they would get together, it was like you’d have 50
musicians showing up at a jazz concert: Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie,
Lester Young, they all showed up. And I was like 15 years old. My mother
would drive me to the jazz concert and sit outside while I was in there. A
little white boy with all these black people. And the black guys… they’d
be passing quarts of vodka around.
BLOCH: And who were you with?
BROWN: Myself.BLOCH: And how’d you get onto that?
BROWN: I have no idea. I don’t know how a little boy in Southern
California would find jazz.
BLOCH: Did you have 78s?
BROWN: Oh yeah, yeah. But in those days you could go into a record store
and listen to it before you bought it. They had listening rooms.
I guess I found Jazz through two books about white musicians in the
library… biographies of white musicians, Frank Teschmacher, and Muffy
Spangler, and Peewee Russell. I think I found these books in the Junior
High School library.
BLOCH: That’s interesting. But even though they were white, it was still
the “Devil’s Music,” huh?
BROWN: Devil’s music, oh in the 40s nice people did not listen to jazz.
The so-called Golden Age of Jazz was not… nice people didn’t do that. Even
colored people didn’t listen to it. You weren’t supposed to listen to jazz.
It was whore house music.BLOCH: Did you used to listen to the radio?
BROWN: Friday and Saturday, I think there was about an hour of jazz on 12
o’clock Saturday night or something like that. And I would sit there
listening in my bedroom to one hour of jazz maybe 2 hours of jazz. That
BLOCH: Didn’t you live by the Santa Monica Pier or something?
BROWN: I lived at the Santa Monica Pier for 2 or 3 years. The second
floor. I was in Apartment 5.
BLOCH: What was it?
BROWN: It was a Merry-go-round. I would sleep and these two clowns figured
they’d make a lot of money, and they’d play that mother-fucking thing until
2 in the morning. “I’m looking over a 4 leaf clover” over and over again.
BLOCH: Where were you? You were inside it?
BROWN: Oh yeah, I lived in Apartment 5. I lived and painted in Apartment
5. The merry-go-round was on the first floor, then there were apartments
around the building, and I got Apartment 5 from a multi-millionaire,
multi-millionaire, and I had to pay her half a month’s rent when I took
over that apartment. I had to pay her $12. She was a multi-millionaire,
she had the Dwan Gallery.BLOCH: Oh really?
BROWN: The Dwan Gallery was in Los Angeles, and one day Ed Moses and I
were banging around, he said let’s go up and visit Virginia. So we went up
to see Virginia Dwan.
BLOCH: And what was Ed Moses doing then?
BROWN: He was painting, I was the tear ass when he was not yet a tear ass.
I was a precocious tear ass. I was a precocious fuck-up.BLOCH: Where did you meet him?
BROWN: He’d been in the Army, so we met at the Long Beach State College.
He was older than I was. I thought these kids who had been in the Army, I
thought they knew everything. They were like… I was 17-18 years old, they
were in their 20s. I thought they really knew what the hell was going on.
BLOCH: Did you ever meet Ed Kienholz back then?
BROWN: Oh yeah, I saw his Barney’s Beanery in his studio.BLOCH: Really?
BROWN: Yeah, everybody had clock faces. It was in the 50s and then I saw
his Roxy’s, and there was an exhibition, I forget the name of the gallery,
but there was an exhibition of Roxy’s, it was a whore house in the 50s, it
BLOCH: So you didn’t go to New York completely not knowing about what was
going to come? The end of painting and all that, that must have been a
hint that something was going on, right? Wasn’t that a radical departure?
BROWN: No, no, no. Kurt Schwitters was doing environmental art in the 20s.
BLOCH: You went and saw Cornell once you moved to New York?
BROWN: Joseph Cornell back in the 30s, he was practically the only
Surrealist American artist, you know, that could be put in that category.
And then Julian Levy caught onto Cornell, and then Duchamps and Cornell
knew one another. But Cornell was threatened by Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp was
obscene. He made dirty jokes.
BROWN: Bawdy. And I figured Cornell would be bawdy. Well Cornell was just
Miss Priss. I mean he was just… He was like the guy who wrote Alice in
BLOCH: Yeah, Lewis Carroll.
BROWN: I mean very Victorian. He just had this tremendous passion for
little girls and we were all concerned that he would end up arrested
because he had this tremendous passion for little girls and he would call
Rhett and he would say, “Rhett, I have a delivery to make,” so Rhett would
go, pick him up, and deliver a box to some little girl he met. She was
working in a dime store or something. So there’s probably still Cornells
out in Queens.
BLOCH: You went and saw him a number of times?
BROWN: Oh yeah. He had all of his work in the attic, and he kept track of
his prices. He said, I have $2 million worth of work in the attic. Oh
yeah. He knew. Cornell had 3 price classes, A, B and C. He didn’t want to
sell the A’s… he wanted to sell B and C.
One of Robert Delford Brown's works Sacred Ikonobile
, 2006, 26" x 18" x 14"
BLOCH: But you were saying that the art world was small. When did it start
to grow and change?
BROWN: Well the 60s. Mid 60s and it just exploded.
BLOCH: So Joseph Cornel? So you’d go out there, you’d hang out…
BROWN: Yeah, sit in his kitchen and talk. The first time we met, he
brought out two bottles of soft drinks, raspberry soda pop and club soda.
And he had these little juice glasses you’d get at Woolworth’s, and he
poured the glasses half full of this rasberry shit, and he said, “If that’s
too sweet, you can cut it with the soda,” you know? And my wife would
bring him quart jars of spaghetti sauce. We took him out to the Great Neck
several times, and he would eat…BLOCH: You’d go pick him up?
BROWN: Yeah. If the food was in front of him, he would eat it, but he
would just start… he would eat like… in his own house he would keep the
temperature around 45° and he thought the reason he felt cold was he didn’t
have the right attitude. If he had the proper attitude, he wouldn’t feel
cold. He was a fuckin’ nut.BLOCH: He was living in deprivation.
BROWN: He lived in deprivation. When he was alone, he would take these
dehydrated potatoes, and he would eat mashed potatoes. But when you put
him in front of food, he’d eat it.
BLOCH: And would he get out his work and show it to you?
BROWN: Oh yes, and I told you, he would let me go in the attic for a
couple of hours at a time. I looked through everything he did.
BLOCH: How did he glue all that shit down? Did he have like a little
BROWN: With library paste, and, you know… white library paste. There was
Lepage’s glue, which was an acetone kind of a thing, and then there was
horsehide glue that you had to heat. I mean the adhesives that exist today
are just beyond belief. Like this goddamned epoxy, you know. I mix these
two things together and it’s like rock.
BLOCH: So he had a studio out there?
BROWN: He had a little studio, about as… like a closet in the basement,
and every once in a while he’d get pissed off and take a hammer and beat up
one of his boxes.
BLOCH: What was he pissed off about?
BROWN: Well it just didn’t work right so he got rid of it.
BLOCH: Did he… where did he get all that shit? Did he drive?
BROWN: No, he got it and bought it in Manhattan. He had this sun you see
in a lot of his work. And that’s off an anchovy can. But he wouldn’t
tell you. He wouldn’t tell you where he got this shit. It was a big secret,
and then those little ceramic pipes. But all this was a big secret… Before I
met Cornel, I thought he was like Duchamp, so I took a bottle of wine,
and I wrapped it up like a fetish, with hair and lingerie fabric and just a
gruesome mix. And you know, he didn’t know what to do with it. He was
totally unlike Duchamp. But Duchamp’s last work was like Cornell’s first
work. He took a doll that belonged to his mother and put it into a box
with twigs and Duchamps last work… you know, it’s in Philadelphia.BLOCH: Did you used to go down to the Lower East Side?
BROWN: Yeah. like Oldenberg had his Store down there on 3rd Street. They
were always sold out. The performance took place in a room smaller than
this. Tiny.BLOCH: So all you had to have was 10 people it was sold out. Did you ever
go down to Coenties Slip? Down there by the South Street Seaport?
BROWN: Rauchenberg and Johns both lived on White Street.
BLOCH: On the East side or the West Side?
BROWN: Down near Wall Street. I think Rauchenberg had one floor and Johns
had the other floor.
BLOCH: Did you ever visit Ray Johnson when he lived down under the
Brooklyn Bridge on Dover Street?
BROWN: No. We used to correspond. One day Ray said, “Let’s go see Jasper
Johns.” I used to send Ray boxes of hair. They used to have wig places. You
could get hair sweepings. Then I would get pillows, I’d get acrylic and
then I’d glue hair to it, flaring out… So I would send him gruesome pieces
of shit. Then whenever I sent him something he’d tear it up and rearrange
it and send it back. So one day Ray Johnson said, “Let’s go see Jasper
Johns.” So on the way to see Jasper Johns we saw this big roll of stuff
that you put under rugs, that foam stuff, and so we took that up to Jasper
Johns and he wasn’t thrilled with our gift.
BLOCH: What was his reaction? Did he seem to be friends with Jasper Johns?
BROWN: Well, Ray loved throwing people off balance. Ray liked to engage
in bizarre, quirky behavior. He knew that Jasper Johns is very meticulous,
and taking a rug up there… You don’t take a piece of used crap into
BLOCH: How long did you stay there?
BROWN: Oh, we had a conversation, a few drinks. Jasper Johns was there,
and then the woman… a very famous woman writer was there. Susan Sontag.
BLOCH: So wait – Susan Sontag was sitting there with Jasper Johns? You just
sat around chatting?
BROWN: Having a conversation. Trivial, like people chat. Chat, chat,
chat. But he lived in a very sparse, neat apartment.
BLOCH: Do you remember where that was?
BROWN: Somewhere on the West Side. West 60s or something. I don’t know
why you’re so excited by that.BLOCH: I’m excited by all of it. This is great stuff, Bob.