By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST February 2019
After a successful run at Arts & Leisure in New York City, I had a chance to speak with the great New York based collage artist Michael Anderson.
Michael Anderson’s first collage was a fluke. He was studying International Relations at SUNY, New Paltz, but he’s from the Bronx and was often in the city. “And I started ripping down posters off the street to put up where I was living at college,” he says. He decided to stick up a poster for an indie rock band when he was giving a party but found it was stuck to others, a girl friend suggested he soak the stack in water. “So I filled up the bathtub and put them in and the poster kind of disintegrated. I pulled off the pieces and made a collage on the bathroom wall.”
The memory stuck too. Anderson had taken a life drawing class and had been complimented by the teacher so he began to focus on an art career. He was ambitious from the get go. ‘I really wanted to find something that I could add to the canon,” he says. “I read every book they had on art. Every single book! And I decided that there was a lot of room in collage that hadn’t been covered. There was room to make something new, something that hadn’t happened before.”
The collage art with which Anderson had familarised himself included Braque and Picasso, the making of whose early collages had been a seminal event in Modernism, and Max Ernst’s Surrealist masterwork, La Semaine de Bonte. Just where was that “lot of room in collage” to be found?
Out There. Literally.
“Most people that do collages, they use magazines so the scale of imagery is very small.” Anderson says “I wanted to make larger scale collages. So I was stealing the street posters”.
What is his largest piece to date?
“Forty by sixty feet."
Anderson quickly learned to apply the water treatment more deftly. “I was able to get all the layers apart, like three hundred layers of posters. Which was really kind of fun. It was urban archaeology. I could extract all this content from the city. It was up! And it’s up! And then they paste over another one. And that’s up! And they paste over another one. And I was able to go and get all of those things.”
The pre-existent raw materials used in Cubist collages – newsprint, ads, snippets of wallpaper – effectively brought a guah of reality into the picture space, whereas Max Ernst and the German Dadaist, Hannah Hoch, had done their best to push subliminal Freudian buttons, but Michael Anderson is freely roaming the waterfront, Post-Modernist fashion. His pieces vary from pure abstractions to the largely figurative, but all are compellingly composed, and in a manner less Pop than Symbolist in that they seem to welcome meaning although, as with the Symbolists, that meaning is not intended to be wholly clear. Also it’s another property of their having been built from pre-existing images that they can support gleefully dark titles – Alfred Hitchcock’s Tahitian Mob Execution, Michael Jordan’s Murderous Competitiveness, There’s No Compromise When It’s Time to Die – that an artist will be unlikely to attach to, say, an oil painting.
At what stage does Anderson decide or simply realise the direction in which a piece is going?
“I can make different rules for a piece I’m making.,” he said. “Like I’m only going to use two colors and it’s going to be abstract. Or I’m going to use every color. And it’s going to have cowboys in it. Or I’m going to have Bob Marley in it.”
He the chooses the surface upon which the piece will be made
“Some pieces I make on wooden panels,” Anderson says. “Other pieces I build up, just the way they are posted onto the streets. So I take five to seven layers of poster and put them down onto a panel first. And at the end I’ll put down maybe two layers of the actual art work.” The pieces beneath will be so laid that he gets a two-sided piece, so that whoever holds the piece may choose not to hang it on the wall but suspend it between perspex sheets.
Where does Anderson get his raw materials? Does he go foraging? Yes, indeed,
“I know where all the poster are in New York,” he said. “When I go another country it takes me a certain amount of time to find out.
But here in New York it depends on what I want to get. I have a knife, a really sophisticated boxcutter. It’s the best one I’ve ever gotten, I’m really so happy with it, it’s a perfect tool. I’ll cut into the posters, no matter how thick they are, and remove them from the space. And also I can surgically take just anything, if I’m just walking down the street and I don’t feel like carrying a huge amount of posters I can just cut …
“The other day I saw a poster for Eminem’s new album … he had a gun up against his head, he was going to shoot himself … so I cut out the gun and his hand, and I took that. I took a couple of copies of that right off the street in about one minute and put it in my bag. Because I didn’t have time to work on the rest of that.”
Does he sometimes like weathered ones?
“Yeah. Sure. Everything is good. I try to get them when they’re dry. I hate to have them wet. Then you have to let them dry out a bit you know. But I got a great David Bowie poster when it was wet down in Chelsea when the Black Star album came out. And I haven’t used that for anything yet. That one was very wet and it was huge too. But I was able to take it. I don’t care if it’s perfect.”
Michael Anderson’s work is increasingly known, and becoming increasingly visible. He has, for instance, made work for all thirty Rag &Bone outlets in the US and a couple in London. “There’s still one up in the bathroom in TriBeCa” he said.
He had to source some highly specific imagery for Rag & Bone but located a B movie poster outlet online.
“It’s a tremendous resource,” he said. “So I’ve been buying posters for the very first time”.
Anderson is removing images from the street, not adding them as graffiti artists do, but it is equally if differently illegal. It is recorded that Braque and Picasso were aware – Picasso delightedly so, apparently – that they were lawbreakers when they pilfered posters by Steinlen and (most especially) Toulouse-Lautrec. Has Michael Anderson ever had any blowback from street cops?
Yes, he says. But minor key. “I just say I’m taking down the graffiti,” he says. “I sometimes have to deal with the mafia too. There was a guy in a silver jumpsuit.”
How did that turn out?
“He had me sign every page of my Marlborough catalog” Michael Anderson said. WM
Anthony Haden-Guest is an internationally known writer and artist.
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