Oral history interview with James Melchert, 2002 Sept. 18-Oct. 19
Melchert, Jim, b. 1930
Sculptor, Art teacher, Ceramicist
Oral history interview with James Melchert, 2002 Sept. 18-Oct. 19, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission.
Melchert speaks of his decision to pursue painting instead of educational psychology; his introduction to ceramics while learning to teach it at a small college in Illinois; taking a summer course with Pete Voulkos; moving to California and working as Voulkos studio assistant at the University of California, Berkeley; his friendship with John Mason, another potter; the difference between the philosophies of Mason and Voulkos; teaching at the Art Institute in San Francisco; and the book Exercises in Style [Raymond Queneau], upon which he based his series of (3z(Ba(3y(Bs.
Melchert also discusses several of the group exhibitions he has been involved with; John Cage and the influence of Silence; his interest in photography; the similarities and differences between his early work and more recent work; working with tiles; his teaching techniques and how he engaged his students; the is craft art question; the Milwaukee Art Museum; and the function of pottery. He also recalls Steve DeStaebler, Manuel Neri, Nate Olivera, Joan Brown, Henry Takemoto, Michael Frimkiss, Richard Koshalek, Bob Irwin, Bob Arneson, Bruce Nauman, Russell Lynes, Garth Clark, Suzanne Foley, Richard Shaw, Marilyn Levine, Theresa Cha, Jim Pomeroy, and others.
MR. PRITIKIN: This is Renny Pritikin interviewing Jim Melchert at his studio in Oakland, California, on September 18, 2002, for the Archives of American Art for the Smithsonian Institution.
So, Jim, let’s start not with the strict order of biographical stuff, but more obliquely. What are the most powerful influences in your career? And that includes people, art movements, technology.
MR. MELCHERT: Okay. It was in the late ’50s when I came back from Japan, ready to go to graduate school. And the last minute, I decided that I wouldn’t get my master’s in educational psychology, which one – my two brothers are in clinical psychology, and I thought, well, they’re enjoying careers in that, so maybe I would, too. But I’d already been accepted at the University of Chicago and realized that I’d rather be painting. And I got permission to change my area of concentration.
MR. PRITIKIN: One of your interviews that I’ve read, you credited a brother with helping you make that –
MR. MELCHERT: Oh! That’s true. That’s true. It made a big difference, I mean, a huge difference. And –
MR. PRITIKIN: So an influence – I thought of that – I was very moved by that incredible generosity of him to –
MR. MELCHERT: That’s right. He seemed to understand that I needed permission to do something, to even conceive of it. And I owe him a lot for that.
Well, anyway, at the time, abstract expressionism was the great movement in painting. And the instructor –
MR. PRITIKIN: I’m sorry, Jim. What was the brother’s name? Because –
MR. MELCHERT: My brother’s name was John.
MR. PRITIKIN: Is he still living?
MR. MELCHERT: No, he died about five years ago of emphysema, which is a nasty, nasty way to go.
But anyway, abstract expressionism was the big thing, and yet in – the instruction that I was getting in painting really didn’t take into account what was happening at the time. But –
MR. PRITIKIN: This was ’50 –
MR. MELCHERT: This was ’50 – let’s see, ’59, ’50 – no, excuse me, ’57 – ’57, ’58.
MR. PRITIKIN: So – and it was already an established –
MR. MELCHERT: Fifty-seven. It was ’57. Yes. Okay, 1957. But anyway –
MR. PRITIKIN: It wasn’t the new thing on the block. It was already – it had won the war.
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yes. But, I was out of the country –
MR. PRITIKIN: Right.
MR. MELCHERT: – from ’52 to ’56 –
MR. PRITIKIN: Right.
MR. MELCHERT: – and so I wasn’t aware of what was going on. And I didn’t know anybody who was close to the movement. I don’t know artists, really.
But – so it’s January of ’57 that I started at the University of Chicago. And I think it was during the third quarter, which would have been the summer term, that I ran into a graduate student in art history named Max Kozloff. And he was very much aware of what was happening in painting. And the Chicago Art Institute had just acquired two paintings, one a Kenzo Okada, and a [Mark] Rothko, it seems to me. And I didn’t know how to read them. And so Max –
MR. PRITIKIN: Could you spell Kenzo’s name?
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah. K-E-N-Z-O, I believe it is. Okada, I know, is correct.
Anyway, I liked Max very much, and I had several conversations with him. And he and I were going to go to the Chicago Art Institute to look at these paintings, and unfortunately couldn’t because of some conflict he had.
But Roland Ginzel was teaching printmaking at Chicago occasionally, at the university. And Roland took me under his wing, and one Saturday had me meet him in the northern part of the city, where there were a lot of artists living. And I met Ellen Lanyon, his wife, and I met Richard Hunt, the sculptor, and a number of people who were doing this wonderful work, new work, unlike anything that I had seen.
MR. PRITIKIN: They were doing abstract –
MR. MELCHERT: It was definitely nonobjective, nonrepresentational; I’ll put it that way – nonrepresentational work. Well, that for me was a beginning. It was a little bit like having somebody open a door a crack. But when I –
MR. PRITIKIN: You were doing ceramics –
MR. MELCHERT: I was painting. No, no, I was a painter.
MR. PRITIKIN: No, you were just painting.
MR. MELCHERT: So I got my MFA in painting.
MR. PRITIKIN: And what kind of painting was it?
MR. MELCHERT: Representational. I was painting still lifes, and for my thesis I did a triptych that was rather – oh, I would say, that owed a lot to German expressionism. Actually, I think I did still lifes better than anything. [Laughs.] I liked them – well, in any event –
MR. PRITIKIN: Sorry. So now you’re exposed to these slightly older people?
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah. And I painted for a year while I was teaching at some small college in Illinois.
MR. PRITIKIN: Right.
MR. MELCHERT: And I was the only art instructor. I just had to teach ceramics, because it was one of the courses listed. Well, I’d had a few classes in it – so I could easily keep ahead of the students, but I would work at it at night, and I’d find that I was getting a bigger kick out of the clay than I was my painting. And that’s when I decided to go where I could work in clay for a summer. And that eventually led to going to Montana and working with Pete Voulkos, taking his summer course. He’d come up from L.A.
And he showed a lot of slides of work, not only ceramic work, but also he was very interested in Miró’s ceramics and Picasso’s ceramics. And the world just opened up. I mean, as I said, the door had been opened to contemporary work, only now it was much, much bigger.
MR. PRITIKIN: Did you start painting nonrepresentationally, or –
MR. MELCHERT: Yes. After I left the graduate program, I took what – some ideas that I had gotten from Roland Ginzel and pursued them. He would make a collage just out of colors of – he would tear up ads in magazines that had a lot of color, and he would use that to put together a small collage. And then he would base a painting on the collage, and so that’s how I was working.
But I also took some painting classes then, in Missoula, while I was there that summer of ’58. And instead of using oil paint, we were using cans of interior house paint, so that you, you know, were drying immediately – it means that it must have been latex; it could dry right away, and you could use a big brush and you’d do large paintings. Well, all of these things had a positive effect on my joining a larger community of – I should say a larger sphere of activity than I had known before.
But Pete Voulkos was the one who really changed everything for me – the way in which he believed in doing things larger than you’re used to doing, so that you become physically involved. You know, I’d go home at night and I’d just be physically exhausted, and I’d sleep wonderfully well. And it was energizing. I loved –
MR. PRITIKIN: But even though abstract expressionism – that was one of their ideas, that the whole body be involved in painting. You didn’t really get it until Voulkos had you doing that with ceramics.
MR. MELCHERT: And I think I got it through Voulkos –
MR. PRITIKIN: Right.
MR. MELCHERT: – because he was the one who was looking at Rothko, and [Franz] Kline particularly, and [Willem] de Kooning, and others. And I found myself going beyond anything I had imagined I’d ever be doing – and how my world expanded that summer. As a result, I taught one more year in this little college and then moved to California, expecting to start graduate school a second time at the Otis Art Institute [Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles], only to find that Pete had lost his job there and had been hired at Cal Berkeley [University of California, Berkeley]. So we came here instead. And so for two years I worked closely for Pete as his assistant.
MR. PRITIKIN: As his assistant teaching or –
MR. MELCHERT: Not – no.
MR. PRITIKIN: – his studio assistant?
MR. MELCHERT: No, it was studio assistant. I mixed the clay and swept the floors and fired the kilns.
MR. PRITIKIN: What was the age difference?
MR. MELCHERT: Pete was probably seven years – I think seven years older than I.
MR. PRITIKIN: So it wasn’t vast. It was –
MR. MELCHERT: No. Also, I mean, I had been out of college at that point about seven years, so I was older than the other students around me. There were graduate students in the art department who also were a little older; some of them had been in the army. Steve DeStaebler, for example, was – I knew him in college. He was a couple of years behind me. And he was there, having just come from the army, I believe.
But since Pete was returning to the Bay Area, he knew a lot of artists here already; he had gone to CCAC [California College of Arts and Crafts] as a graduate student. And one of the first artists I met was Manuel Neri. Another was Nate Olivera. And through Manuel I met Joan Brown. And that sort of expanded my territory to include San Francisco. And in time, Pete saw to it that I would go with him to Los Angeles for a weekend, where I met John Mason and Henry Takemoto and Mike Frimkess and a lot of those artists he had known when he was living and teaching there.
MR. PRITIKIN: They were ceramicists in –
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah. They – John had been a studiomate of Pete’s, who was working as a designer with some ceramics firm. But it seems that he also worked at Otis, because Pete always brought people in as auditors if they weren’t enrolled. And I want to talk a little bit about John because we became –
MR. PRITIKIN: That would be John Mason?
MR. MELCHERT: John Mason. We became good friends. And in time, John came to have an influence on me that I – how shall I say it? – that I feel quite good about. That is, that he was questioning what he called the tyranny of the wheel. Now, Pete used the wheel as a way of making hollow forms that he could use as an understructure in building these tall ceramic sculptures.
John, on the other hand, who could throw quite well, and who, in fact, made some wonderful work on the wheel – he could throw a good bowl, for example, which is a hard thing to do. I mean, throwing a bowl is one of the easiest things you can do, but throwing a good bowl is one of the hardest things. So anyway, John could do that. But he was trying to get away from the wheel because it determined to such an extent what you could do and what you could not do. So he – in time – he was making walls, for instance, huge, very thick clay walls that he would then slice into a grid. And I’m talking about walls that must have been eight or nine feet tall and 15 feet long. It took an enormous amount of physical strength and energy to do that.
MR. PRITIKIN: This is late ’50s?
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah, this was late ’50s, early ’60s.
MR. PRITIKIN: People must not have known what to make of him.
MR. MELCHERT: No, that’s right. But he was with the Ferus Gallery [Los Angeles, CA], and Irving Blum was quite good at moving work – you know, placing work. And so John got some good commissions and was selling work and doing very well.
But what I liked about John’s work was that he kept finding new ways of building a structure – for example, something as simple as attaching a two-by-two to a rafter overhead in his studio and then using that as the armature, around which he would build a clay form that needed support until it began to dry. And at that – once the clay could support itself, John would simply pull it out, because there was still room overhead. And little things like that impressed me, that –
MR. PRITIKIN: And was that an unheard-of –
MR. MELCHERT: Well, no, I don’t know anybody who was doing that. And he kept thinking of these things, so that how you did it had an immediate connection with the form that you got. And he got new forms by inventing new ways of putting a structure together.
Well, one of the things he was questioning also was manipulating a form that – or manipulating clay. The hand is a big thing in craft work, and it’s true that a great deal is communicated by the hand. But it doesn’t mean that you’ve got to handle the clay, wet clay, in order to use it as a means of communication.
One of the things that John – one of the first things John did that made me see how you could use clay without manipulating it – I mean, handling of the wet clay – was when he had the – in the ’70s, the mid-’70s, he began building brick pieces, and he had a big show at the Pasadena Museum out of brick. And then Richard Koshalek, who was at the Hudson River School Museum – Hudson River Museum – Richard Koshalek gave him a show that toured the country. And John found that an advantage with working with brick is that you could rent it, build a huge piece, depending on how much space you had available with you – for you – and then at the end of the show you could return the brick, go to the next city, assess the space that you have, and build new pieces by renting brick again. And –
MR. PRITIKIN: So there was no –
MR. MELCHERT: No shipping.
MR. PRITIKIN: But there’s no additional work; it was just the bricks that he was showing?
MR. MELCHERT: That’s right.
MR. PRITIKIN: So this is a huge conceptual leap –
MR. MELCHERT: Yes.
MR. PRITIKIN: – into found – I mean, nobody was doing that in –
MR. MELCHERT: Nobody was doing that.
MR. PRITIKIN: – in any field, let alone craft.
MR. MELCHERT: That’s right. But John has not really been given the credit he deserves for all of that. I mean, he was working with a computer, figuring out how to do things. He would – he was working with paper, for instance, little cardboard things this big, folding them almost like origami, as a way of rapidly going through a lot of forms and always watching it to see. And when he saw something happening, then he would pursue it.
And the work he’s doing now, for example, is he makes all these slabs and constructs them in ways where he ends up with a fire-glazed ceramic sculpture made out of slabs, where – you even might think of working with wood panels that way, but not with clay. So –
MR. PRITIKIN: So you’ve continued your relationship over the years.
MR. MELCHERT: Yes, yes, yes. I admire John’s work so much, and I think that by getting into tile – my enthusiasm for tile comes partly from his experience with brick and my experience of seeing it.
MR. PRITIKIN: Okay, so we’ve got – you’re – how old were you in –
MR. MELCHERT: I’m – I’ll be 72 in a couple months.
MR. PRITIKIN: No, no. No, no, in –
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, at the time?
MR. PRITIKIN: Yeah. In ’58 –
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, okay. I would have been 28.
MR. PRITIKIN: So you’re in your late ’20s. You’ve been through a lot of school. You come across Voulkos, the body energy, kind of manic excess –
MR. MELCHERT: Yes, yes. Yes.
MR. PRITIKIN: – and Mason, almost the opposite: conceptual, innovative, new forms. Two kind of key figures –
MR. MELCHERT: Two key figures. But going from one to the other didn’t happen overnight.
One thing that Voulkos – I must say – this is a confession – when I realized that I needed to get out from under his influence, I felt a certain guilt in doing that. And I remember there was some show called “American Studio Potters” – I’ll put it that way – at the Victoria and Albert in London. I’ve often thought about this. I made a little wall piece, a funny little thing. It looked like it was, maybe, leather. It had a little zipper on it and so on. And it reminded – I mean, I think it stemmed from my having seen a little wall vase that my grandmother had. But at any rate, I made this thing, and it amused me.
And they asked for this show, and I thought, well, I’m going to put this piece in with some of the plates that I sent – a follow-up plate. And the director of the department at the Victoria and Albert – who was involved with education, where they had asked for this show and then they traveled it throughout the United Kingdom – he was intrigued by this piece, and he asked me if he, if – for permission to use a picture of it in an article he was writing. And when I realized that it would be published, it occurred to me Pete might see this, and what would he say? And I refused to give him permission.
MR. PRITIKIN: Because it was different than Voulkos?
MR. MELCHERT: It was so different – and I knew he wouldn’t approve. And you know, it’s interesting; I always wanted his approval, but as time went by, I made less of an effort to keep him informed of what I was doing. I didn’t want that interference and –
MR. PRITIKIN: Like we were talking about earlier, I mean, there’s an Oedipal –
MR. MELCHERT: That’s right. That’s right.
MR. PRITIKIN: Okay.
MR. MELCHERT: But –
MR. PRITIKIN: Don’t you think that there are breakthrough artists – you were talking about – or I was reading about your quoting from somebody, I can’t remember, about the different kinds of artists, the innovators and the pioneers.
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, that was – yeah, that was Bob Irwin.
MR. PRITIKIN: Irwin, yeah. And there – I’ve always thought a similar thing, that there are breakthrough artists who everyone acknowledges as seminal and geniuses, if you want to use that word.
MR. MELCHERT: Yes.
MR. PRITIKIN: But very often they have no followers or no influence because they’ve done it, and you can’t –
MR. MELCHERT: Yes.
MR. PRITIKIN: – like Allen Ginsberg. You know, he stands alone, basically.
MR. MELCHERT: Pete used to say that –
MR. PRITIKIN: And I think Voulkos, in some ways –
MR. MELCHERT: Voulkos, in some way. That’s interesting. I’ll have to think about that.
Pete used to say that he didn’t – he couldn’t see where a person could go after de Kooning. In other words, he felt that Kline opened up ways for him, certainly, but he didn’t feel that you could go anywhere, that somehow de Kooning – that a path that couldn’t be taken elsewhere. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but –
MR. PRITIKIN: Well, I think when we say that, we’re talking about ourselves and –
MR. MELCHERT: With ourselves. That’s true. That’s true.
MR. PRITIKIN: I remember I had a roommate in college who was a composer, and he said at some point he realized there’s nothing left to write.
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, nothing. [Laughs.] Oh, dear. Yeah. Well –
MR. PRITIKIN: We’re prisoners of our times.
MR. MELCHERT: See, every time I think that you can’t go somewhere, I have to remind myself of a statement I quoted in that article, that essay, a statement of Pete’s that I quoted: “Never underestimate the power of the artist, because one will come along who will do it.”
But that notion of Bob Irwin’s, you know, the – he categorized four kinds of artists. Actually, the replicator is his addition, the artist who simply replicates. It turns out – and I need to find this material because I want to read it – it’s not original to Bob Irwin. It turns out that it’s part of some Eastern thought – “Eastern” being from, probably, Hindu – that there were, like, three, shall I say, deities; I’ll call them deities. And one is the destroyer, one is the creator, and the other is the keeper of the flame. And the ideal is to be all three.
MR. PRITIKIN: I think it’s Shiva who just embodies all three at the same time.
MR. MELCHERT: Is that what it is? Okay, that’s good. And I think that’s where Irwin got his notion, although he may well be the first to have declared it in America for artists.
MR. PRITIKIN: Or translated it into the artist –
MR. MELCHERT: Translated it – exactly – into artists. But you see, it leaves out the person who just simply replicates, and that’s a lot of artists. And I’m sorry to say it’s also a large part of the craft community. I mean, right now, for instance, wood-burning – I mean, wood-fired kilns are really very popular, and what is coming out of it – a lot of American replications of Japanese antique pottery. And who wants to be making antiques, you know, especially if, I mean, it doesn’t go anywhere, doesn’t add anything to what we already know?
MR. PRITIKIN: Well, isn’t that a value, though? I mean, that –
MR. MELCHERT: Well, it’s –
MR. PRITIKIN: Obviously, you and I come from the same tradition, but, you know, this phenomenon that we’re talking about, this late ’50s, early ’60s, where everybody was trying to get away from the tyranny of X, whether it’s the wheel or the –
MR. MELCHERT: Yes. Oh, yes.
MR. PRITIKIN: – the rectangle and the photograph, or –
MR. MELCHERT: Yes.
MR. PRITIKIN: – and trying new forms. I always think of the phrase “the opening of the field” – do you know that phrase, from Robert Duncan, the poet?
MR. MELCHERT: No, I don’t.
MR. PRITIKIN: Robert Duncan, the great San Francisco poet, had –
MR. MELCHERT: Right.
MR. PRITIKIN: – his first book was The Opening of the Field, saying that in poetry now, we don’t have to be limited to this esoteric language; we can talk about sex, and we can talk about politics, and we can use vernacular –
MR. MELCHERT: Yes, yes, yes.
MR. PRITIKIN: – and we can lie, and we can – you know, the field’s open.
MR. MELCHERT: Yes.
MR. PRITIKIN: And I think that what you’re talking about in ceramics was the same thing.
MR. MELCHERT: Uh-huh.
MR. PRITIKIN: Everything was burgeoning. And one of the values was to make it new, the, you know –
MR. MELCHERT: Yes. That’s true.
MR. PRITIKIN: And so we carried that – [Laughs.]
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yeah. Yes.
MR. PRITIKIN: But maybe – you know, as we get older, maybe young people don’t care about that. I don’t know. I mean, there is – what about all the people who just do it because they love it and they’re good at it and they make a living?
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah. Well, I just don’t consider them honest.
MR. PRITIKIN: Uh-huh. What are they?
MR. MELCHERT: I think the best term for them is, like, journeyman potters, journeyman painters, that sort of thing.
MR. PRITIKIN: Mm-hmm. So an artist is an innovator?
MR. MELCHERT: Well, if we go back to Shiva – [laughs] – I mean, there’s the creative aspect to the work and –
MR. PRITIKIN: So what’s – what does “academic” mean to you – academic art?
MR. MELCHERT: I think of rules. For example, I – at the University of Chicago I studied with a painter who was German but had really been trained in the French academy. He did portrait painting – portraits, primarily. And he once explained to me some of the rules of painting that he had learned to follow. And they were largely based on things [Diego] Velázquez did but later codified and, you know, part of your training – made part of your training.
Well, for example, you don’t put your darkest dark next to your lightest light, and you have a transition between them. And transitions are very important – transitions between them. That is a Greek notion, actually, the transitions. I mean, you’re – how you get from a vertical to a horizontal in sculpture would require transitional passages in Greek sculpture, as it would in the academy.
Another is that edges require very careful attention that you go from a sharp edge to, like, a slightly fuzzy edge, and you may lose it, and then you get it back again and so on. And if you follow good academic painting, as you can in, say, even in eighteenth century English portraiture that you’ll see at the Legion [California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco], look at the edges, and they’re really wonderfully done.
MR. PRITIKIN: [Laughs.]
MR. MELCHERT: Well, at any rate, rules of that sort I consider academic.
MR. PRITIKIN: Right. So is it – rules, and learning what the rules are, and then recreating what you’ve learned is academic. And making your own rules or throwing out the rules is art, or innovative art, or art that we’re interested in?
MR. MELCHERT: Okay, it seems to me that what you have to do after you have gone through an academic program is shed a lot of what you’ve learned that doesn’t belong to you – in other words, other people’s ideas. And the nice thing about learning rules is that you have something to question. And you can learn a lot by starting out with your academic training and then gradually dissembling it. And you find that some of it works for you and some of it doesn’t.
But the first few years out of college, if you – for example, if you’re an artist trained in a college or university, the first few years are terribly important, because you have such serious work to do in – with regard to what you have learned and what you’ve got to unlearn, which is why, when I was with the arts endowment [National Endowment of the Art], we put such stress on providing small fellowships for artists who were recently out of graduate school. We called them “emerging artists” because often there could be a woman who had been trained in art, but because of raising a family she had to put it off, and she might be 35 years old before she started in again.
MR. PRITIKIN: Mm-hmm. Right.
MR. MELCHERT: And we certainly wanted to include people who had to – or whose work had been interrupted.
Nevertheless, it’s very hard for a young artist, because that’s the point – I mean, when you’ve just gotten out of graduate school, you’ve got a lot of debts, you’ve got to find a job, your parents aren’t supporting you anymore. And that’s when you need time, and that’s when you have the least amount of time. I certainly found that to be true.
MR. PRITIKIN: Right. So – we’re straying. [Laughs.]
MR. MELCHERT: Get me back.
MR. PRITIKIN: Actually, the whole Mason conversation was a tangent to the Voulkos conversation –
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yes, because we were talking about some major influences.
MR. PRITIKIN: Yeah.
MR. MELCHERT: Now –
MR. PRITIKIN: So you said that Voulkos had taken you down and introduced you to all these folks in L.A., but your life was up here –
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah.
MR. PRITIKIN: – teaching at the art institute [Otis College of Art and Design], then at Berkeley.
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah. Now, let’s get to this matter of – I don’t know what you call a community, but –
MR. PRITIKIN: What the –
MR. MELCHERT: I was very interested in knowing where I was, in that, yes, I was teaching at the art institute in San Francisco and I had a – I mean, I enjoyed my colleagues there very much, but I found there were people I wanted to get to know, and some of them – Bill Wiley was a recent graduate student, Bob Hudson was a recent graduate student, and I was very curious about their work, the work they were doing, because it was so different from what I had been exposed to up to that point.
And I don’t know why, but I find it very necessary to get to know people, and I think very often, as part of getting to know them, I would empathize with them so closely that it would affect my work. And when I think back on the work that I did from, let’s say, 1960 to 1975 – well, 1970, put it – take it that far, from 1960 to 1970, for 10 years I was essentially making up for the fact that I hadn’t gone to art school. And all the courses that I didn’t have I was having to teach myself, in a way, by choosing people to pay attention to.
And there was a point at which I know that the figurative activity at the art institute in San Francisco, and particularly – I mean, Manuel Neri, Nate Olivera, and, let’s see, Wiley – Wiley to a lesser extent, but nevertheless – I did a series of what I called ghost boxes. And it was, for me, liberating, because it was so far a field from Pete that I was on my own now. And I found that you could take an idea like the – an idea, a theme, like the Lindbergh kidnapping, and think of the various competing forces at that time, and actually end up with a box that had to do with people vying for power.
And it’s interesting to me that when – before Bob Arneson died, he was asked to name five works that he admired. And it was in some magazine – some catalogue for a show. I was in the same show, but I didn’t know until after the catalogue came out and after Bob had died that one of the pieces that he showed was something of mine. And it was, in fact, this jar with a – like the ghost with the competing theme, the theme of competition. And these ghosts were blind; I always made them blind. But I gave them teeth, and I tried to seal their lips with a little mark in them. But how interesting that – I mean, Bob saw the death mask in that piece, and I can’t say how all he interpreted it, but it really touched him. And that was very interesting. Well, I did that during that period, you know, when I was sort of –
MR. PRITIKIN: So are you melding the abstract expression –
MR. MELCHERT: No, that was gone.
MR. PRITIKIN: Well, yeah, but I mean, I’m thinking the Bay Area figurative abstractions –
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yes, yes, yes. I see what you mean.
MR. PRITIKIN: – filtered through ceramic.
MR. MELCHERT: I was certainly drawing on it, the way you would if you were taking formal classes – you get this instructor, that instructor – only since I hadn’t had it, I used the ’60s to make up for it. And consequently –
MR. PRITIKIN: Was it your major – undergraduate was –
MR. MELCHERT: Art history.
MR. PRITIKIN: It was art history. So, not studio?
MR. MELCHERT: No. I did a lot of drawing then, you know; I’d take extracurricular classes in figure sculpture and drawing – figure drawing.
But one thing I learned is that you shouldn’t do that. You shouldn’t be, as it were, all over the place as I was in the ’60s. And I remember one time Alex Katz sort of challenged me, because I had no signature, he said. And I didn’t know what he meant. I had to find out. But it’s one of those things where people sort of – dealers and collectors back off from somebody who doesn’t have a signature.
MR. PRITIKIN: Well, yes and no. It sounds like you’re still taking that to heart 40 years later. [Laughs.]
MR. MELCHERT: No, some of these things I’ve never heard of –
MR. PRITIKIN: I mean, [Bruce] Nauman doesn’t have a signature right?
MR. MELCHERT: That’s quite true. That’s quite true. But on the other hand –
MR. PRITIKIN: But Alex Katz has too much of a signature. [Laughs.]
MR. MELCHERT: That’s right. That’s right. But you see, you’ve got to have – if you don’t have a signature, you’ve got to have a big enough reputation to cover it.
MR. PRITIKIN: Chutzpa.
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah. Really, that’s sort of – [laughs]. But in any event –
MR. PRITIKIN: You were all over the place in the ’60s.
MR. MELCHERT: I was all over the place. And I did some very good work and I did some very bad work. I’m sorry that I stayed with the games as long as I did, because it was an interesting idea when I first got into the games, an interesting idea, but it could have been done so much more easily than the way I was going at it. But the funny thing is, a few of the best pieces I did in that decade, two of them were games, but the others – I mean, I could have spent my time much more profitably doing something else.
But, now, you mentioned Nauman. Bruce and I got acquainted while he was a graduate student at Davis, and I used to – well, we used to visit each other. We’d go out to his place. He lived in the Wileys’ house in Mill Valley. The Wileys were in Italy, I think, for a year, or something like that. And since we both read, we always had a lot to talk about in our reading.
And somewhere along in this time, since I am gregarious and I go out of my way to meet people, I’d met Emmett Williams, the “concrete poet.” He – Jimmy Suzuki knew him, and Jimmy was somebody who was interested in my work. Jimmy’s a painter who’s been teaching at Sac State [California State University, Sacramento] for many years; is retired now. But I met Emmett, and I read a lot of concrete poetry. I was very interested in it. And Emmett edited the Something Else Press books, and I remember Daniel Spoerri did a terrific little book that was all about the contents of a drawer in his dresser. He pulled out the drawer, and then he took item by item and talked about it, as well as wrote about it. And there were things of this sort that – Bruce was attracted to it. I was also quite taken with it.
Another thing. We were both reading [Alain] Robbe-Grillet at the time. And I have a friend named Bertrand Augst – A-U-G-S-T – who taught –
MR. PRITIKIN: I know Bertrand.
MR. MELCHERT: You know Bertrand.
MR. PRITIKIN: Through Connie Penley.
MR. MELCHERT: Oh, yes. Well, he was teaching French and Film Theory at Cal. And Bertrand and I were good friends, and he would be enthusiastic about certain movies and would always tell me, and I’d go see them. There was a lot of film talk with Bertrand. But also – oh, yes, someone – Raymond Roussel. And I based a whole series of pieces, the “a’s”, on a Raymond Roussel book. But who is the one who wrote Adventures in Africa [Impressions of Africa]? This was somebody else.
MR. PRITIKIN: Yes, I know who you –
MR. MELCHERT: Yeah, another Raymond – Queneau. No, Raymond Queneau and – okay, now I’ve got it straight. Raymond Queneau wrote the Exercises in Style, on which I based my series of “a’s”.
MR. PRITIKIN: Okay. Roussel was the one who did Adventures in Africa [Impressions of Africa].
MR. MELCHERT: Roussel, that’s right. And –
MR. PRITIKIN: How do you spell Queneau?
MR. MELCHERT: Q-U-E-N-E-A-U.
MR. PRITIKIN: Oh, okay.
MR. MELCHERT: All of this was going on in the ’60s. The Queneau book came just after the games, so ’69, ’70, ’71 was when I was involved with the “a’s”. And that, to me, was a wonderfully productive period.
MR. PRITIKIN: Let me stop you. We’ve spent 55 minutes on the first question – [laughs] – the most powerful influences. You’re now in mid-career by ’70.
MR. MELCHERT: That’s right.
Interview continued on Monday