News
Interview with Peter Doig
Purple Fashion Magazine
Parinaz Mogadassi
April 2011

PARINAZ MOGADASSI: You spent a significant portion of your childhood moving around. Your very slight accent is almost impossible to place.

PETER DOIG: I was born in Scotland, but we left when I was 18 months old. I lived in Canada from the ages of seven to 19, which left a big impression on me, even though we weren't a typical Canadian family'no camping, canoeing, or stuff like that. But through my own volition, and that of my friends, I had an interest in outdoor activities, which I later expanded and reinvented in my work.

How so?

There's a lot of fiction in my paintings'not drawn from my own experience, but more from imaginary spaces and experiences. Being authentic or realistic has never been an issue for me.

What was your childhood in Canada like?

I wasn't really interested in art. When I was young, I was always outside, constantly running around with my friends, playing shinny, skiing, skateboarding, and finding places to hide and get high. When I was 14 I loved going in and out of secondhand book, clothing, and record shops. By the time I was 16 many of my friends were out of school. Not many of us finished, because the temptations on the outside were so inviting. I went out to the prairies in Canada to work on the rigs. It was out there that I started to draw a bit'at night in hotel rooms. And I started to think that maybe I should try to do something else. In Toronto the punk thing was happening, although it all seemed to come out of what had already happened, the difference now being that a lot of the bands were much younger.

Why did you go to London?

I was born in the UK and went to school there for three years'at age 11'so I felt a strong urge to go back. It seemed like more exciting things were happening there and I figured that if I could get into any art school it should be there. At first London seemed so big, tough, and hard. I was lucky'my first jobs were selling badges and fanzines at smallish concerts. We sold things like the earliest issues of i-D and Secret Public magazines. I wasn't paid but I was allowed to take a fair quantity of badges and mags which I could sell. We worked shows for Certain Ratio, Pop Group, Joy Division, The Slits, and Cabaret Voltaire.

But you soon began art school.

Yes, six months later I was at St. Martins, really meeting people. It seemed like it was the most exciting place one could be. We had a good group of people teaching us, but it was more that the other students were such an inspiration. They made the place so special. St. Martins was unique among London art schools because it had such a strong design school. At the time it was arguably stronger than the fine arts side. Not just for fashion, for which it is so famous, but also for graphic art. In its early days i-D magazine was designed by Robin Derrick, who was a second-year student there. The connection between the school, the street, and the clubs in Soho'many of which were run by St. Martins students or those closely connected to it'was quite strong. I don't know if I can honestly say there was any particular dialogue or sentiment within the art school, but things were happening fast, and trends'some of which became genres'were unfolding in front of our eyes and ears: post-punk, New Wave, New Romanticism, a new interest in funk, rockabilly, early hip hop, and goth. Within the school itself there was quite a bit of mixing, especially within the lecture groups held by Rosetta Brooks and John Stezaker, which had a combination of fashion, graphic design, and fine artists. This was reflected in some of the early issues of ZG magazine, to which students contributed. John Galliano was often in the painting studios. He was good friends with David Harrison, as was Isaac Julien, who was studying film. Everything was separated department-wise. Painting was going through a Sort of romantic phase, with a lot of talk about the sublime and transcendence. The influence of Max Beckmann and late Phillip Guston ran through the studios like a rash. Then there was the watershed exhibition, A New Spirit In Painting, which opened at the Royal Academy in '81 and introduced many artists to Kiefer, Richter, Polke, Baselitz, Schnabel, and so on. And to further confuse things for the painting student, these were combined with Balthus, Bacon, Hockney, Helion, Warhol, Twombly, Freud, and de Kooning, which made it all seem like anything was valid'and maybe it was. Goldsmiths, on the other hand, was a different type of school. It was part of London University but it was way out in Peckham. I can't remember even meeting anyone from there until the late '80s or early '90s. But I know that young artists from there started getting attention around this time and I felt the same thing happening at St. Martins'but in fashion and design, and not really in fine art.

What did you want to do, paint?

Once I got there I realized I was more interested in painting and the art world. Sr. Martins was smack in the middle of London, which seemed a good reason to go there, having come from afar. I had no idea about the school's illustrious history. Though I did have a very good'if nervous'feeling when I visited the place. I never really imagined I would be accepted'there was so much avant-garde art being made by so many avant-garde-looking people.

It was also around this time that you began traveling to New York. There's a lot of American geography in your early work. As a student in London, what sort of awareness did you have of New York?

When I moved to London in 1979, Tony, one of my close friends from Canada, moved to New York's Lower East Side. The cheapest way to get to London from Canada back then was to fly standby from New York, and I'd stay some days or even weeks with Tony. I felt very excited and connected to what was happening in New York. Maybe because I grew up in North America I felt more connected to New York. London often involved specific nuances'British TV, music, humor, politics, grim war stuff, and so on. I always thought of myself as an American in London, at least in those days. I related to a lot of American art. I was exposed to early Pictures Generation art [artists such as Jack Goldstein, Robert Longo, and Cindy Sherman] at St. Martins via Brooks and Stezaker, art which was made around the beginning of early hip hop, plus works out of Chicago, like H.C. Westermann, Ed Paschke, Roger Brown, and Neil Jenney. This all seemed more exciting than the trends in British painting, which all seemed either derivative or safe. No young artists were being exhibited in London back then. New York art had an edge to it that had a certain resonance in London. Information moved around so slowly in those days, though. This was when magazines were actually very important messengers of ideas and images.

Have any artists made lasting impressions on you?

The shows that left lasting impressions tended to be those of older or dead artists, like late Guston, Max Beckmann's triptychs, Joseph Cornell, Günter Brus, Francis Bacon, Edward Burra, Painting From Naples, The Hairy Who from Chicago, etc. These were all London shows from the early to mid '80s. I can't think of an American artist's show or work from the early '80s that really blew me away. J.M. Basquiat was a force, though I never saw any of his gallery shows, other than the show at the ICA in London. Clemente did a great show at the Whitechapel early on, as did Julian Schnabel and Eric Fischl. Another was the Don Van Vliet [AKA Captain Beefheart] show at Waddington. It was the energy that was exciting, rather than the art leaving lasting impressions.

Jeff Koons organized an Ed Paschke show at Gagosian last spring. You cite Paschke and Roger Brown as influences.

I wasn't aware that Koons organized a Paschke show, but it makes sense, because I know he studied in Chicago and has referenced H.C. Westermann's work in some of his paintings. I liked the way Westermann looked at life subjectively, and with humor, even when dealing with tragic events, like death ships, drawn from his South Pacific Navy experiences. He had a different approach to subject than the New York and British pop artists, though I also think of early Hockney paintings, which exhibited a fantastic autobiographic quality. I saw two great exhibitions in my first year at St. Martins: The Hairy Who and H.C. Westermann. I hadn't been aware of Westermann's work prior to 1980. I particularly liked his drawings, prints, and illustrated letters. I also liked the works of Roger Brown and Ed Paschke. They had such different approaches to subject matter.

Koons studied with Paschke. I guess Paschke was sort of his mentor.

If Otto Dix had been a pop artist he might have been a bit like Paschke, though maybe more detached. I also related to Roger Brown's approach to landscape. Both he and Paschke could be illustrative, but the way they used materials and manipulated images was absolutely in tune with their subjects, while also taking them so far out stylistically.

It's interesting what you say about Westermann's life becoming part of his work. The same could be said of you. Your own interests are well represented in your ski paintings and your more recent ping-pong paintings. People might not be aware that you're so active. I've spoken to you on days when you've spent the night fishing and the early morning playing tennis and then ping-pong. You live in Trinidad, and swimming and the sea have appeared in your work in a number of ways. Is life outside the studio just as important to the process as time spent in the studio?

Life outside the studio is sometimes more important than life in it. It couldn't be any other way. My work has never been inspired by studio practice alone, and I've always brought the outside in. But many artists do that.

Was it you or someone else who coined the phrase "being an artist is not a job"?

That was Chris Ofili, who said that to me when I was lamenting not having finished some paintings. They're some of best words of encouragement I've ever had.

What were you reading, watching, and listening to in London?

Well, I caught up with the films I heard or read about. I'd seen quite a lot of films in Toronto as a teenager, especially in the rep cinemas. But in London at that time there were so many cinemas that offered great programs'everything from classic film noir, and Italian and German films, to films by Curt McDowell. We all went to the same cinemas. A lot of our viewing was dictated by the programmers at the Scala, which was just up the road from St. Martins. We'd leave our studios to watch films in the afternoons. The Scala also had an all-night cafe-bar where people would meet and drink. Our listening was informed by what we heard in the clubs. Such a variety of music was played, but things traveled so slowly. Music from New York had to be bought in. DJs flew over there to buy records. I even bought tapes of New York radio transmissions'it was a way of hearing stuff you couldn't get on record. As I said, most young artists weren't showing in contemporary art galleries. Some showed in alternative spaces, which could be shops or clubs. There wasn't much of a stigma about where you showed because there were so very few options. I showed with a group of London artists in a shop in Florence. There was some good work, but the London galleries weren't very interested in it.

Did you think making a living as an artist was possible?

I never ever thought I would make a living from art. I didn't really know anyone who did, so there was no precedent. Most people I knew were ducking and diving, living in low-rent housing, surviving on benefits and odd jobs. I knew how to get by and I never felt restricted by the little that I made. Everyone was in the same boat. We never had to pay to get into clubs. We knew where to eat and drink cheaply. I worked for seven years as a dresser at the English National Opera on St. Martins Lane. In the summer I dressed the ballet there. It was the ideal job, because it was night work and it had a canteen and a bar'something very important in those days. I could paint in the day and go to work afterward. By the time I left maybe 20 of my friends and associates were there. I met so many great people backstage, all of whom treated us as artists, though we rarely, if ever, showed our work there.

Didn't you also live in Montreal?

I moved to Montreal in 1987, and then returned to London in late '89 to study at Chelsea.

Had anything changed?

When I arrived at Chelsea, after Montreal, I found it nearly impossible to duck and dive. I had to pay proper rent and have a full-time job. Making painting was hard, as was starting fresh without any peer group. It was a kind of exile, even though I didn't think of it that way then. I was able to reflect on what I had done, and from that a new body of work emerged even though at the time it felt like an unproductive one. When I came back to London and started at Chelsea I had no real idea what to make my work about, but after a month or two it started to flow. My two and a half years in Montreal suddenly seemed rich, from a distance. I was one of the oldest students'I was 30'and I think I benefited from having had my college experience seven years before. I wasn't really concerned about making work that would fit into what was happening, as others were. This was a time when a lot of art was manufactured and painting was process-based. For whatever reason, my work gradually started to be looked at, primarily by other students.

Did the other students get what you were trying to convey, or were they confused by it?

I'm not sure they got my work, but I don't know if I did either. I was getting into feelings and subjects that were new to me, sometimes verging on the non-permissible. It was something I recognized in other paintings, something that touched the edge of sentimentality.

How did you address this in the work? Was it a question of subject matter?

I started using images and colors and methods of applying material that were decorative, and that referenced outmoded artists, like Klimt, for instance. An old friend who'd not seen my work in quite a few years saw my Chelsea show and said that if he hadn't seen my name he'd have assumed it was made by a woman. He didn't say that to slight the work. He actually felt it was an achievement.

When did your first big break come?

After Chelsea I started appearing in student shows. This all came about because I had been at college. It's sad to say, but in the current system, after people hit 30 it's hard for them to have their work looked at. But these group shows helped. The year after I left Chelsea I was awarded The Whitechapel artist prize, so I got a show of my new work at the Whitechapel Gallery, upstairs. Cindy Sherman's show was on downstairs. I remember walking my paintings, which were still wet and in cheap decorator's plastic, between her incredible crates. But it would take another two years before things really started to happen. In 1992 Gareth Jones wrote about my work in frieze magazine. Then he put me in the group show he curated, the one that included Gavin Brown, Matthew Higgs, Hilary Lloyd, Martin Creed, Jeff Luke, and the Wilson twins'all of whom, except Creed and I, had been at the Newcastle School of Art together. This was the first gallery show I'd been in that excited me. Before this, it's fair to say, I'd been a solo traveler.

That's right, Gavin Brown started out as an artist. Is it through this connection that you came to show with him in New York?

Yes. Gavin would visit my studio when he came to London. In the beginning he worked at 303 Gallery and was starring to organize shows in other places. He was keen to get my work to New York, but we didn't have the means to get it there. Eventually I made a crate myself and shipped over a few works. It was renegade style back then.

Thinking about London in the late '80s, and about the Young British Artists, do you think the climate of the art world in London changed dramatically? New York art of that time was very professional.

The attention the YBAs received brought a lot of people to London, and a lot of galleries changed their agendas. They dropped artists, or brought the new professional and conceptual art into their stables. Many new spaces opened. Artists gave visiting collectors tours of alternate spaces.

How was your career going?

It took a while before there was any interest in what I was doing from the commercial world'i.e., the galleries that sold art. Not much, if any, figurative work was featured in art journals. This changed when that piece about my work appeared in frieze. Maybe the surprise of it being in that context got people interested. I also had the support of friends like Dinos and Jake Chapman, who were into the work and weren't afraid to talk about it. Many others found it embarrassing'which was partly the point of it. You have to remember, this was Twin Peaks time and I was often accused of trying to make Twin Peaks-like paintings. In his article Gareth Jones picked up on the fact that I lived in a building that had the phrase "150 People Live Here" written in large letters on its side.

The frieze article was published in 1992, and by 1994, just four years after receiving your MFA, you were short-listed for the Turner prize. It seems that once the interest in your work started it grew exponentially. How do you account for this, and what was it like living through those years?

After Gareth's article in frieze things happened quickly. Gordon VeneKlasen contacted me, as did Victoria Miro and Gavin Brown. I was lucky because I had quite a lot of work in my studio'which was a good thing, and, I now realize, a rare thing. I was able to pull out about 20 large, finished works.

You've been credited with bringing about a resurgence in painting. Is that how you landed a job teaching at the Royal College?

Students could invite artists to visit the studios. Chris Ofili, who was at Chelsea working on his BFA while I was working on my MFA, invited me. Of course, when I went over he wasn't there. He'd gone to Berlin on an exchange. But after that, the school invited me to come one day a week, which I did for a number of years. I wouldn't use the word "educator," because I don't think one can teach art. I like being in artists' studios and talking about work as it's being made, which is a pretty unique situation.

Comparing the environment at the Royal College to what you experienced at St. Martins, and to what's happening in Düsseldorf, where you're currently giving a master class at the Kunstakademie, and to your recent visits to American art schools, what similarities or differences have you observed? What are the responsibilities of a professor? What's owed to a student?

I don't know what's owed to a student. Someone at an American art school once said to me that because such high fees were paid by the students, they demanded a certain amount of time with you, which is terrifying, but I can understand it. At Düsseldorf none of the students pay fees, which is extremely rare these days, and they can stay for six years. The academy operates like a huge studio building, with 20 or more classes, each headed by a different professor, each of whom has a different approach and method. There's not much exchange between the classes but a lot happens outside of them. We have group discussions that are quite informal. I like them to be able to talk about their work, and not in a prescribed or taught way. It was like that at the Royal College. I like the system because it's slow. I believe that real development can happen in this type of environment. At St. Martins it was more individually based, plus you saw many different artists and teachers. When I was a student I found this to be confusing and not really interesting. I found I got a lot out of talking to the same people and on occasion to a visitor. We had some good visitors. Bruce McLean and Jack Goldstein were very encouraging to me. It's hard being a visitor and reacting to new work and saying something meaningful. But with time, dialog emerges.

In the 20 years that have passed since you completed your studies have you witnessed a considerable shift in the altitudes and concerns of art students?

There's more pressure on young artists now than when I was a student because there's a definite precedent for success'whatever that is. Students naturally get worried if their contemporaries are successful and they deem themselves not to be so. Also, access to students' work and the students' access to the system is much more open than it used to be. Many students have exhibitions. In most cases, I don't think this is a good thing. Having said that, I've put students of mine in exhibitions. But Düsseldorf has a harsh system, in that the professor chooses the students for his or her class. So if you want to be in such and such a class, it's not necessarily going to happen, and most often, it doesn't. It's tough, but somehow quite realistic.

Realistic in what sense?

In the way alliances are formed in the real world. But I try to take challenging students rather than ones whose work I already have an affinity for, because I think that otherwise the class could become too cozy.

When did you leave London for Trinidad?

I moved to Trinidad in 2002, after doing an artists' residency in 2000.

Trinidad was a big shift for you, and judging from the look of your paintings you were able to draw on your immediate surroundings. Was this a factor in your decision to move there?

It was something I thought about. The first Trinidad pictures were made in London after the residency. I knew this might be a problem, so when I moved here I brought images with me to paint'mainly postcards of Southern India that I found in a London junk shop. They reminded me of Trinidad. Interestingly, many of the Indians who first came to Trinidad came from a part of India called Kerala. This supply worked for a while and filled in for something I had seen and wanted to paint. There was always a connection in the images to Trinidad. I had no plans for what I would paint here and was surprised when I did make some quite direct paintings, like Lapeyrouse Wall, for example. I'd hoped to make some snow paintings here, but have thus far not succeeded. I don't know why I could make them in London and not here.

Over the course of the '90s and '00s, your career continued to grow steadily. In 2007 one of your works, White Canoe, sold for an unprecedented $11.3 million, which was a record for a living European artist. Then in 2009, Reflection (What does your soul look like) sold for well over $10 million, and numerous other paintings have yielded prices exceeding $3 and $4 million. How do you and your dealers wrap your heads around it all?

It is baffling. I may never be able to understand or come to terms with it. Even for a work to sell for S100,000 is extraordinary. That's already a different reality as regards worth and perceived value. It's strange, but it happened. No one close to me was happy about it. Many people outside of the art scene said I was crazy not to sell all my works through the auction houses. I found it hard to work for a while. It made me nervous, like things were out of my control. Which, of course, they are, as soon as you sell, give, or trade any of your work.

You had a solo show at the Tate, which featured 20 years of your work, from the late '80s to the present. How do you organize a show like that?

The show opened in 2008. I had about 18 months or two years to prepare. Which isn't that long, really. I also wanted to have a good number of new works in the later section of the exhibition.

How many new works were exhibited?

Maybe five large works and quite a lot of midsize and smaller ones. Some were in the Gavin Brown Enterprises/Michael Werner Gallery show in New York City last year. Did you see it?

That was the first time I saw your work exhibited. It was one of those shows that everyone went to.

The reception of the Tate show in London surprised me'and maybe a lot of others, too. I don't think anyone anticipated that it would have so many visitors. I was quite nervous about it, as I'm sure any artist whose work is put on such a platform for the first time would be, especially when 20-plus years of work is laid out for scrutiny. But as you said, I think the surprise for many people was to see the actual work. All work looks better in the flesh.

Did things change for you after that show?

At first it was quite disconcerting to see 20 years of my work. To begin with, when all the work was laid out in the Tate's rooms all I could see was technique and techniques, which made me realize what I'd been running away from in my own work. Technique sticking out'on Stalks!'from all the earlier works. But gradually, as the work went up on the walls'and it was placed well, which is a really fine skill some are lousy at and a few are brilliant at'it started to read OK and the technique started to calm down. One of the worst things for a painter to see is their work on the floor, leaning against the wall. It just melds in and it's a depressing sight. So when everything started to go up on the walls I felt a sigh of relief. Hanging exhibitions is one of the greatest parts of being an artist. It's one of those experiences, like being in the studio of others. It's a special privilege.

I want to talk about another of your endeavors: your StudioFilmClub. What is it, exactly, and how did it come into being?

StudioFilmClub is a film night I've been doing on an almost weekly basis for seven years in my Port of Spain studio. I started it because there was nowhere to see an even remotely alternative movie. It was inspired by some of the cinemas I remember from London, and also by the one-nighter clubs they have here. It's called a club because I wanted it to have the potential to turn clubby'it's at night, after all'and sometimes it does and we play music.

It seems to have become an integral part of the community'and it's captured the imaginations of people in Trinidad and abroad. The film posters have developed an appeal of their own, too. Haven't you hosted a number of notable writers and filmmakers, too?

Well, I don't really think it's an integral part of the community, although I know people miss it when it's not on. Maybe it's been mythologized from afar. We've had some filmmakers and have collaborated with the Trinidad Film Festival since its inception. The posters were initially made to alert people in the other studios in the same building, which is an old factory where Fernandes Rum was made and stored. I painted them quickly and scrawled the films' titles over the top, like something you'd see in a college cafe. When I was originally asked to exhibit the posters I hesitated because they were so specific to the film club here, and to what we had screened. I agreed to show them, but always with a screening of a series of films.

Mythologized or not, it seems like a special thing.

It's great to watch films in a hot and humid atmosphere. The experience is so different.