With its beginnings in New York's East Village scene of the 1980s, Frank Holliday's ongoing career as a painter is a testament to the medium's endurance. Today, Holliday is precisely what you would expect from a serious painter: a self-proclaimed 'studio rat'. Forty years earlier, one may have said otherwise. In the late 1970s and early 80s, alongside artists such as Keith Haring and Ann Magnuson, Holliday was a key figure at Club 57, a space opened in the East Village as a means of providing cheap exhibition opportunities to a community of artists and misfits. In the basement of a Polish church at 57 St Mark's Place, the club became a melting pot for New York counterculture and a hub for artists across all disciplines, from photography to film, video, acting and painting. Forty years on, the members of Club 57 are scattered around the world or are no longer with us, but an upcoming show at MoMA in New York, Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978-1983 (31 October 2017–April 2018), is bringing their legacy into the limelight.
Frank Holliday, Golden Hour (2009). Oil on canvas. 177.8 × 228.6 cm. Courtesy the artist and Partners & Mucciaccia Modern & Contemporary Gallery, Rome/Singapore/London/Cortina D'Ampezzo.
Despite what we know about Holliday's associations with the East Village scene, it is important to note he is an artist who has developed his visual language to the beat of his own drum, always having faith in his medium. I spoke to Holliday about how his practice has evolved, what painting means today, and how the concept of an artist community has changed.
I imagine New York's East Village scene of the 1980s as a tight-knit community of artists. Do you find yourself in an artist community of any kind today, or do you work more independently?
You mean back in the day when we actually had to leave our apartments to be social with people? At that time, everything was happening in nightclubs.
That period was very special for all of us. The art world as we know it today with its art fairs, 150-million-dollar auction sales and superstardom was not the norm. In fact, Keith [Haring] and I had our first art show at Club 57 and charged 50 cents admission just to pay for the 25-dollar rental fee. And everyone paid! The club made everything accessible. Anyone could rent the space for 25 dollars. We all could live out our fantasies and pretend to be superstars. It was crazy when the group actually started to become famous and we had to learn how to make art within the craziness of the 1980s. Today is so different. I'm so glad I was so wild as a young artist, because now I stay in the studio all the time. The work is very demanding and it's what I love to do.
Frank Holliday, Heart and Soul (2014). Oil on canvas. 243 × 183 cm. Courtesy the artist and Partners & Mucciaccia Modern & Contemporary Gallery, Rome/Singapore/London/Cortina D'Ampezzo.
Thinking about how artists create nowadays, do you think the idea of 'community' has changed? How might this affect how art is produced?
Today it's a different game with a new cast of characters. The stakes are different. Art is a career now and has become quite academic. The kids go to grad school and come out with massive debt. They have to hit the street running, so there's no real time to develop and experiment. When I teach, I find it easier and quicker to teach ideas, rather than teaching painting which is messy and takes so long to develop. Most universities don't teach it anyway. It must be really hard for young artists because everything is so expensive and 'produced' today, but I hope there are still groups of brazen 20-year-olds howling at the moon.
Of course, social media has given us a sense of connection in a different way. We have new concepts of communities. You don't necessarily have to be there, to 'be there'. Social media provides different opportunities. In fact, it was because of social media that the survivors of Club 57 found each other 20 years later and the MoMA show came together. It was like a bomb went off around 1985 and scattered everyone all over the world.
Your work was shown in a solo exhibition at Partners & Mucciaccia in Singapore two years ago (12 September–13 December 2015). Were you able to visit Singapore then?
The gallery brought me to Singapore for the show. I had never been to Asia before, although I have always loved Asian art. It was so important to the development of Modernism. The fusion of Asia and Europe made art change.
The gallery produced a beautiful show and made my experience of Singapore so rewarding. It was amazing to see all the landscapes and gardens. The people are incredible and wow, what a futuristic city Singapore is. It's like Blade Runner. I loved it. There seems to be a lot happening art-wise too: new museums, galleries and opportunities for both international and local artists. The Singapore communities are very supportive of the arts. I think it would be an interesting place to work.
Already we are seeing exciting art from Singapore on the international stage—some of the most important work being made today, and some of the most expensive!
Frank Holliday, Sky Lark (2012). Oil on canvas. 183 × 123 cm. Courtesy the artist and Partners & Mucciaccia Modern & Contemporary Gallery, Rome/Singapore/London/Cortina D'Ampezzo.
Do you think painting is a medium that can transcend geographical borders now more than ever? Do you follow the practices of painters outside the US?
I think with social media there are very few borders. But then we are dealing with images of painting, not actual painting. At this point in time, specific mediums are irrelevant. I hope people will always be involved with painting, but what is important is that people are involved with making something. It's very complicated actually. The making of art is different than selling or showing art. It seems that money transcends all borders, and that can affect art-making. While painting is the hierarchy that is always pushed against, it is also the fodder that fuels the market. These are all different aspects of the art machine, and galleries, fairs, museums, curators, auctions and writers are all part of the ecosystem. I think it's tough to chase the spotlight 24 hours a day, but some artists love that. For me, I had to find something that would keep me focused and allow me to connect to something bigger than myself. Hopefully I connect with the work and because of that, others will too.
I find it silly and limiting to define art by geographical locations. In theory, art should transcend borders, but it seems it's become quite nationalistic. Now even identity is being used as a weapon to define what we can and cannot make. My race, gender, sexual preference, medium and experience are all under attack. I want all of that to dissolve when I work. I want it to be about being human and being alive. If I do that, everything else just becomes conversation around the work. When I'm really connecting in the studio I'm thinking in more abstract terms: Redder? Or bluer? Softer? Harder? Warmer? Cooler? Faster? Slower? Push or pull? Lighter? Darker? This takes the work to the edge of imagery, it opens up and is surprising.
When I am deep into the work, I don't look at anything else. Wait—that's not true, I look at the sky.
For the 2015 exhibition at Partners & Mucciaccia, you produced a series of watercolours, a move from earlier conceptual works. Have you continued with the medium? What is your current focus?
I began the watercolours when I started travelling. I am a bit of a studio rat and had to deal with being out of the studio for extended periods of time. I find I always need to have my hand in to keep it flowing. It's like keeping in shape. I want to be prepared and ready for the breakthroughs when they come. Watercolour allows me to paint and go. It teaches me about the way colour changes depending on the location. Watercolour demands that you stay in the moment. It's a great practice. It is really connected to theatre, insofar as it is temporal. Oil painting is more connected to film.
I recently had the opportunity to paint a show for the Carlo Bilotti Museum in Rome. I painted 30 paintings in six months. It was intense. All I did was paint every day and look at great works of art. When I look back at this work, it's so Roman, I love it. Rome found its way into the work. I have had to learn to trust that the influences come through on their own. It all fuels the work.
Are there aspects of painting that you are in tune with now more than ever?'
Unlike many of my contemporaries, I've had the privilege of growing old and having the time to paint all these years. There's so much to learn and you have to go down many blind alleys to find what is really important to you. I've had to make rules and break those rules. I've had to play the game and lose and sometimes win. I've had to learn to make the work I want to make even when it's not in fashion. What I love is the idea of body memory. I'm not thinking about 'what' or 'how' anymore. My body responds and the painting shows me the way. I am more in tune with time. I want to get as far as I can in the work. But I always expect more, and I have set the bar really high. But that's just who I am. Like it or not. —[O]