THE PARTY, 1966, overpainted poster & oil, 90"x60"
Herbert Brown has been desecrating billboards since Neckface's dad was scribbling his name on the inside of his father's testes. Back in the early 60s he acquired tons of enormous subway ads and transformed them into raunchy bedroom scenes and hilarious jokes the likes of which would not be out of place on the pages of a well-loved 8th-grade History textbook. Unfortunately, Brown's work was deemed way too raunchy and hilarious (and also "obscene") by the shining lights of the New York art-gallery establishment, who refused to exhibit his giant pieces.
Herbert was also one of the first people to come up with the idea of integrating television with fine art, but he was equally unlucky getting that operation off the ground. In 1965, right as he was setting up the first exhibition of his television pieces the whole city blacked out. The next year he lost most of his work in a massive fire that still holds the record for most NYC firemen killed. But acts of God could not kill off Herbert's insatiable desire to create, nor his near-superhuman gift of gab.
At 87, Herbert is still making art and was recently featured in a group show titled “Wiser Than God,” with a number of other living and working artists born before 1927. He's also got a show of his early subway-ad art at BLT gallery in New York. We stopped by his studio to chat.
Herbert Brown in his studio, New York 2010
Vice: When did you start using ads as a medium? Herbert Brown: 1960, October 12th at 8 PM. No I’m sorry, it was 7. Excuse me.
Ha. Was there a certain point or idea that you were trying to express with your--
It just looked exciting to me. I liked the paradox between those ads and the way I painted, which was… I’m a Soutine man. Soutine was the best damn expressionist painter that’s ever been. I followed him and I learned from him. Actually I learned from a lot of people…I stole from everybody. Ideas, everywhere I looked I picked something up. I still learn something from everybody, even rotten painters. The so-called “rotten painters.” Not “important." People who are put down in the art world. You know? There’s serious artists, and there’s good artists, and there’s bad artists, and the top, the middle, blah blah, you know--hierarchy shit. But even the guys down at the bottom, or so-called "at the bottom" were doing something that I could learn from. And I did. I stole and I was a snob about it and I put them down even while I was stealing from them.
HELLO, 1966, oil & paper on canvas, 60"x90"
That's pretty brutal, but was there a specific message you were trying to convey with the ads or wa--
It came out after the aesthetic. The most important thing was my feelings of aesthetics. My pre-conceived idea, or learned idea I suppose, about what was beautiful and what was not beautiful, you know? But those were notions that I had to get as I climbed into the art world or into the world itself--whatever--and everything else, intellectual notions, political ideas, social commentary--that all came out afterward, if it came out at all. But it was never driven by any of that. It was driven entirely by aesthetics, by the relationship between this kind of art and that kind of art.
How did you go about getting the subway ads for your work?
I went down into the subway and I told myself I needed bigger stuff than magazine pages and bigger stuff than the little posters that I had found in the street. My ego demanded that. Part of it was my ego and part of it was just like a sense of what the visual does when you change the scale. Something happens, there’s a different experience. I travel by subway all the time--I’ve lived in New York since 1949,before you were born--so I went there and I imagined making even bigger stuff than the subway posters, but I never got to execute them because of a little thing called "a fire." But that's just what happened, it’s over now, it’s finished.
YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE JEWISH, 1965, oil & paper on canvas, 32"x46"
How much work did you lose when your studio burnt down?
I don’t know, about 900 or so paintings.
Did that destroy you or did you see it as some kind of cleansing experience?
No, it was painful. I remember standing out there with dumb Leslie watching both our buildings go down and he’s laughing about it, the fucking asshole. He’s trying to be sophisticated and laughing about losing all that work, except most of his paintings weren't in there. He was lucky because he had galleries and he was showing his work and he was selling a lot.
TWO FIGURES, 1964, oil & paper on canvas, 60"x90"
Who's this again?
Alfred Leslie, he lost one thing. He lost the only copy of a new film he had just made. [spoken directly into tape recorder] Fuck you, Al. Up your ass.
But do you remember how you got your hands on all those ads? I read somewhere that you stole them from the platforms.
That I stole them?
Yeah that you went late at night and--
That’s a bullshit story, but if you want to believe it go ahead. The truth is probably much more mundane.
The arrangement of your work at BLT goes from smaller to larger--is that show in chronological order? Did you start small and work up to the subway ads?
Yeah, that’s generally how I approached my art anyway. I mean, if I was getting into something I would paint small, it didn’t matter what period I was in. Maybe it was easier for me to work on a tiny thing because I could control it better, and if I fucked up it's OK--it was only a little picture. Maybe that was part of my thinking, I don’t know. And then the urge to enlarge it--it was kind of a natural progression. I don’t know if a lot of artists do that or not... but yeah, I guess so. Even if you look at Rauschenberg’s final thing--the quarter mile painting--he didn’t start out doing that. He started out doing regular stuff. Pictures that relate to your body size--that’s not a bad relationship to use in looking at somebody’s art. Not that big guys can’t paint little pictures, but I think there’s a comfort zone, physically, when you pick up a brush, or any tool and you want to do something with it, you should feel comfortable with that tool in some way. So it fits your body somehow, you know?
BLOW JOB, 1964, Oil & paper on canvas, 77"x91"
It’s like short guys today who like exceptionally tall, flat-chested women. I grew up in a time when we wanted our women shorter than ourselves, to some degree. And if you look out there in the streets that’s the way most relationships are. Women want the protection of a strong man, they need the Lion King walking beside them. Maybe some of that’s true--it probably is you know? After all, the lion does patrol his territory, he goes and checks things out, he goes out and says "hey, get the fuck away from here."
Yeah, I’ve dated women who were taller than me. I didn’t really like it, I was scared they might beat me up.
I’ve had women who were taller than me and I’ve enjoyed them for who they were, and even the idea that they were taller. That was a kind of new and exciting thing at the time. You look in all the fashion magazines now and there are all these tall women.
How did you make the transition from subway posters to painting on televisions?
I was working on a painting and noticed something in it that I wished had been in another place. So I picked up a brush and ran into the other room where my wife was watching TV, and I painted some quick little thing right on the screen while she was sitting there watching it.
B&W Portrait, 2009
How'd she like that move?
At first she was shocked, I suppose because I was interrupting her program. I don’t even know what the program was, but we just sat there and we were both… it was incredible to see it happening like that.
So it was a totally spontaneous thing? You weren't going after some specific relationship between the static painting and the moving image underneath it?
No! It was just, bam! I was just working and wanted something different to happen. It’s all the yin-yang thing, though, no matter what the image, no matter what you’re doing, everything can be seen in those terms.
Portrait of Woman #1, 2009
In 1965 you were setting up for your first TV-painting show when the whole city blacked out.
Haha! That’s the Leo Castelli story. Yeah, it was 1965 and I went to Leo with my old television set and a couple of the glass pieces. I set it up, and in those days it took a while for the TV sets to warm up, for the image to come on. So we’re standing there waiting for it and the very instant the image came on the screen the lights went off all over New York and New England. It was the big blackout of 1965. My first thought was, what did I do? I fucked up the entire city's electricity! I thought something I did with my set fucked it up. Leo of course went bananas. It soon became apparent that it wasn’t my fault, but he didn’t get around to inviting me back. and I didn’t ask. I should have, but I wasn’t hip enough, sharp enough, or comfortable enough to get myself invited back to show him the stuff again.
Wow, so the show never happened?
He never got to see the stuff. I was just showing him an example of what I do.
Fucking #1, 2009
Did that feel discouraging to be on the verge of introducing this new art-style that people had never seen before, and then have the show stopped by something completely out of your control?
Yeah, I was not a mature, sharp, business-oriented person. I didn’t understand the nature of art galleries. I was strictly into aesthetics. Aesthetics ruled what I did. My id, my psychology--I was emotionally driven. I had very little command of my intellectual part. I learned about that later. It took a long time because I was a slow learner.
Why were you called the “Bad Boy” of the recent Wiser than God show at BLT gallery? Did you have a reputation for drunkenness like Jackson Pollack or De Kooning?
What? Who called me bad? I hadn’t heard that, I don’t know what the reason for that remark was.
I feel like it probably had something to with the sexual overtones in your work.
Sexuality. A lot of stuff is sexual ain’t it? Look in the mirror, and look beyond the mirror, into the mirror of your mind and soul. Look deep and you might get scared--it’s freaky. It would scare the shit out of me.
Do you think it’s still possible for sexually explicit work to have as big of an impact today as yours did in the 50s and 60s?
In half the population, for sure. The other half will delight in it and clap their hands, but they still won’t hang it on their walls. Even the most enlightened, well not the most enlightened, but a good part of the very enlightened would still be afraid to hang it up, because grandma’s going to come to the house with the grandchildren, so they have to worry about that.