Cecil Touchon: Cut & Paste – Interview By Matthew Rose 2009
[Matthew Rose] Collage has a long and rich history in Modern Art, beginning formally with Picasso’s and Braque’s experimental canvases in the early 20th century, cutting newspapers and wall papers and adding them to their canvases. The effects were to inject a sense of found realism into their tableaux and change forever the illusion of the picture plane. Since then, of course, collage has become a dominate form of artistic production. Schwitters most well known works are collage pieces; the Dadaists brought collage into a new world not only with physical art works but with performances in a kind of audio and perceptual collage. Painting, as a result of all this early 20th century activity was forced to change, and one might say that all painting now is influenced by collage.
As an artist who has long worked the medium of collage in both cut paper and paint, how do you assess the state of the art of collage?
[Cecil Touchon] I would have to say that the state of the art just now is very much alive and the number of artists working in the medium is growing. My efforts to understand and advance this constructive medium have, aside from my own art making, been in the area of developing an online community of collage artists around a central hub which is the International Museum of Collage, Assemblage and Construction (collagemuseum.com) that I founded in 1998.
The museum began as an online virtual museum and then, through various projects, has developed into a significant archive of actual collage and assemblage art. The collection numbers in the thousands of actual works. My intention has been to create a focal point for collage art. I hope to draw artists together working in this medium so that we might all know each other’s work. Communicating together as colleagues, we discuss issues related to collage such as its history, techniques, materials, copyright and archival issues. We also share information about artists currently working in collage. I also wish as to inspire and promote exhibitions. Through this continuous banter it is possible to get a sense of what everyone is thinking about and what ideas are circulating.
Because of the prolific production of paper goods in the 20th century, there is a super abundance of paper and other materials for collage artists to work with. This leads to a very wide ranging spectrum of imagery that artists are exploring. There are, however three very different trends going on right now and that could be defined as book arts, fine arts and craft-oriented collage making. My central interest is the fine arts angle. Certainly in this area there is a large number of working artists. However, the collage art community is such that there are many amateurs, perhaps mostly amateurs, as compared to professional gallery-based artists who support themselves through the sale of their work. This is both a matter of practicality and personal choice. Many artists do not wish to be bothered with the issues surrounding the sale of their artwork. Thus they are much more interested in their creative pursuits unencumbered by a quest for commercial viability and collector interest. Because of this there is a large population of artists who we are likely to never become aware of except through something like the Collage Museum. Most collage/assemblage artists are themselves collectors. They collect the elements and refuse of everyday life and see these things as material for possible inclusion in future artworks.
I suppose you could say that a healthy arts community built around collage is dependant upon this vast array of detritus generated by a consumer-based culture. These are artists who have an anthropological appreciation and love of material culture. It certainly then follows that the artist-run museum will develop as a new genre – a kind of meta-assemblage of examples in the genres of collage and assemblage.
[MR] Your activities comprise both composition of found papers and painted works. How do you explain the relationship between them? Does one influence the other? Does painting allow you to scale differently?
[CT] Collage art, by its very nature, is an art of miniature scale. Most collage and assemblage art employs found materials. Since these materials are largely paper goods, the majority of those papers tend to be at the scale of books and magazines. This is going to limit the natural size of most collage art to the scale of these materials. Really, everything created by humans is based on ergonomics – that everything is based on human scale and on the efficiency of an object in relation to a human being handling that object.
From the standpoint of art, especially painting, the natural scale of the art object is quite a bit larger than that of paper goods. So to make a work of art such as a painting, where the natural scale might be something like 3×4 feet or larger, poses a problem for a collage artist.
Collage is my first love. I like to work with found materials. I like paper. But at the same time, I feel the need to work at the larger scale typical of painting. After a great deal of thought I decided that I would make paintings using my collages as studies or preparatory works. I see the collages as their own finished works but I also see their potential as suggestions for paintings. My current method is to make my collages and then, from among these, select the ones that I believe will make an interesting painting.
[MR] Many of your Fusion series collages are created in tight color ranges. One finds ochres and blacks and reds and the sense is they have almost a historical pedigree, as if they were produced from the 1920s and 1930s. Is that intentional?
[CT] Actually the color schemes that I tend to use are intended to convey a classical, timeless feeling. I think of art in terms of decades and perhaps centuries rather than seasons. In the world of fashion one thinks in terms of seasons and each season – to distinguish it, to make it feel new – requires a constant change in the color palette. Each season has its own range of colors. There is a continual shifting around of the color palette to give a feeling of constant change in order to make everything seem forever new. However, the items that make up the fashion world are all disposable. You wear this or that thing for a few weeks or months and as soon as it seems a little worn or a little out of date, it then goes quickly to the trash. Art objects are not like that normally. When people acquire a work of art, it is usually something that may well be passed down from one generation to the next. So for this reason, it seems a good idea to me to work with a color palette that has a long, sustained historical presence. When it comes to paper, the color scheme is usually black, white, beige, red, blue, and to a lesser degree yellow, the palette is based on commonly used printing inks. The natural color of paper, along with black and red are the most common schemes. My color palette also has a good deal to do with contrast and to achieve contrast you only need a light and a dark color.
[MR] You have a very fine sense of geometrical composition in your works. One thinks of Schwitters and Malevich in looking at these pieces. Yet your resource material is extremely contemporary – found poster materials where you cut out pieces of large letters and compose abstractly. Can you illuminate that process and how you arrive at these works? Are these works the result of actively composing works or are they planned in advance?
[CT] Certainly Schwitters and Malevich have been of interest to me over the years as well as Miro, Picasso, Laurens, van Doesberg, Vantongerloo, Popova, Klutsis and many, many others. I have always had a love for abstract and non-objective art. For me, these are the most like music. I also have a strong interest in the creative explosion that happened in the 1910s and 1920s that set Western culture on its current path. Many new ways to think and work were developed by so many different artists during that time. We are still working through all of the implications.
There are several different constructive trends in my work. However, upon close inspection you will notice there is an underlying reliance on a loose grid-like composition of rectangular forms. In some cases the grid composition is obvious but in the case of the works using lettering, while there is an underlying grid based composition, the printed matter on the rectangles creates a separate composition based on the interaction of the bits and pieces of the lettering forms. I like the use of these letter forms because they allow me to arrive at interesting new relationships that would not otherwise be possible.
Also, in the more painterly black and white works that have a lot of gestural painting on them, there remains this underlying grid based composition but I am also looking for opportunities to create constructed gestures. Fitting the parts together through collage techniques affords me more control over the final composition.
I do not work out the specific compositions ahead of time – they are improvisational in nature. I do work out my systems first, however, making certain rules for myself about how a work will be constructed. I may even have a vague idea of what I want to achieve. Each work is something of an experiment. I don’t know ahead of time what it will look like. When I discover a new system of construction, I will often create a suite of works to explore the idea. Later, I look at the group and add additional works to it over a period of time, even years later. Very often I will even work in a random or chance-oriented way so that I do not limit the outcome by my own preconceived notions or solutions – all this just to see what might happen. Interestingly, I am almost always happy with the results. When I start a collage I don’t really have a way to fail since failure assumes an expectation of some particular result. I do not impose any particular expectation on the work.
[MR] Cecil, you are also quite well known for a range of performance and other Fluxus-oriented activities, such as the Fluxibitions you’ve curated. What is the role of Fluxus in your collage work?
[CT] Anyone who spends any time involved with contemporary art will have at least heard the name Fluxus. When asked, however, most people are completely in the dark about what it is or who was/is involved in it. Most cannot distinguish what Fluxus art is even though it has been around for nearly 50 years. This may be because, most people – even in the art world – know very little about almost everything. Perhaps a person is fairly familiar with the work of this or that specific artist but I notice that most people seem to know very little beyond the most rudimentary things. That said, even Fluxus artists are hard pressed to explain Fluxus. Still, when I came upon the Fluxus community online through an email group called Fluxlist in the 1990s, I immediately recognized a strong kinship between Fluxus and my way of looking at things. Over the years I have developed a strong connection with the contemporary Fluxus community. I have studied Fluxus strategies and ways of working. There is a certain minimal aesthetic in Fluxus that is coupled with a strong conceptual foundation when it comes to art making. There is also a love of the humble and ephemeral. Then there is the idea of producing works in such a way that they could be made by literally anyone even without a background in art. This is, I think, rooted in the scientific method in the sense of structuring experiments: Ask a Question – Construct a Hypothesis – Do an Experiment – Draw a Conclusion. Fluxus, in fact, is not intended to be an aesthetic pursuit as in traditional art. Fluxus is really more like artists playing around with science and developing socio-political experiments – but not with the idea of arriving at any particular or practical result. It is more like turning Dada artists loose in a scientific laboratory. Their interests are not those of scientists.
So while we could say that Fluxus has no particular interest in style or aesthetics nevertheless, one can start with a seed of an idea and end up making art. By continuing forward, one’s art will develop into some sort of a style. In my case, the works of mine that I would identify as being related to Fluxus might fall under the category of visual poetry, assemblage and private performance works expressed as event scores. The majority of my works that deal with lettering forms originally started out as a Fluxus idea, and that idea was to create compositions out of randomly chopped up lettering and then reconstruct an abstract ‘poem’ from the parts. I wanted something that frees the words and letters from their practical use as bearers of literary meaning allowing them to function on a purely visual and concrete level. I also make a lot of collage poetry, photographs, occasional assemblage works related to Fluxus ideas and other individual works in various media including sound works. I probably have a couple of CDs worth of sound works that I have made since 1999 some of which have been featured on radio programs of experimental audio works.
[MR] One of my favorite pieces of yours is from the Fluxihibition 3 show, where you sanded down the surfaces of some eye glasses in homage to George Maciunas. It is a simple yet fascinating work, not only in that the piece is for the “Chairman” of Fluxus, but also in that it echos what Contemporary art seems to be all about – seeing. How should we see contemporary art if our eyes are clouded by who we are, technology and our incessant projections?
[CT] Who we are has to be at the core of whatever we see in contemporary art. So getting to who we are would need to be at the top of our list of things to do I should think. It usually isn’t. Normally we are all focused outwardly on the spectacle of life – in this case, spectacles. Art, at any given time is always about seeing, envisioning, developing perspective, insight and so forth – it is all about seeing. But I think the seeing really needs to be more inward especially in these times when everything all around us is screaming for our constant attention. This seems to be leading to widespread Attention Deficit Disorder. Everyone’s attention span is becoming shorter and shorter from our inability to develop concentration and contemplation which require that we can spend time to clear our minds and become inwardly quiet.
The glasses that you mention are similar to those normally worn by George Maciunas. This particular pair I found at an antique store, are perhaps from the early part 20th century. I used them because they help to call up the Dada and Surrealist era. I wished to convey a connection to art history through their use and to allude to Daniel Spoerri’s Fakir’s Spectacles – those ones that have pins glued onto the lenses so that when worn, you would blind yourself.
[MR] Your current show in New York is a kind of retrospective, bringing together works from as far back as 1982 and works from only earlier this year. How do you see the connective line in these works?
[CT] My series of collages has always been intended as a sort of diary – an unbound diary like your recent project A Book About Death which you invited me to produce a poster for. There are several connectors in my work such as improvisation, abstraction, chance, order and a quest for elegance. Elegance suggests refinement to the point of simplicity, a dignified simplicity, reducing and honing one’s artistic quest to its most elemental qualities.
[MR] My guess is that artists as diverse as Cage and the affichistes (the Nouveau Realistes in France from the 1950s and 1960s like Raymond Hains and Jacques de la Villegle) as well as Ray Johnson have all played a part in your production. How would you assess your influences?
[CT] When still in the last century I saw my position as being a part of the clean up crew of the 20th century. My idea was to go back and dig through the rubble of artistic production and the ideas embedded in them and take up those aspects I considered worthy of continuation and exploration. So most of my artistic production has been an examination of the proposals of the avant guard as it developed in the 20th century. I see the 20th century as a profoundly important turning point in human evolution. I want to take the time to try to understand modern art history and to contribute in leisure to what earlier was accomplished in haste. I look at everyone’s work and I look at it over and over again. I keep adding new artists to my perusal. All of the artists you mentioned have been a part of my examination as well as many hundreds and perhaps thousands more. They all interest me for their contributions. Each artist has his limitations but taken as a whole community, this cabal of artists has created a rich tapestry that can be unendingly explored. All of the time artists who are new to me come to the fore. Notable, for instance, would be a Chicago artist that I don’t believe I had ever heard of until a year or two ago by the name of Robert Nickle who taught at the University of Illinois in Chicago. His work is remarkable; it surprised me that I had been unaware of him even though I grew up in Saint Louis. There are so many wonderful artists, it is hard to be aware of everyone.
As an artist it is difficult to spend as much time researching as we might wish to when we have to spend so much time on our own work. It is possible to get lost for years at a time in the private world of your own studio. So I am quite certain there are many, many other artists I have yet to discover. My project, The International Museum of Collage, Assemblage and Construction is my attempt to keep up with who is out there working. Meanwhile I keep on working, synthesizing and recomposing the world on paper and canvas and in objects.
Matthew Rose is an artist and writer based in Paris. Check out his Instagram Page for all the latest.