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Q&A: Christian Marclay

For his follow-up to his acclaimed video The Clock, Marclay turns to paintings that put the plop into Pop Art.

Photograph: Nick FitzPatrick
Christian Marclay
Photograph: Steven Probert; © Christian Marclay; Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery; New York

Christian Marclay, Actions: Smak Squish Splsh, 2013

Photograph: Keri Pickett
Performance at the Performance Garage, 1986
Photograph: Bill Orcutt; © Christian Marclay; Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art; New York; and Paula Cooper Gallery; New York

Chalkboard installation at the Whitney Museum, 2010, for “Christian Marclay: Festival”

Photograph: Todd-White Art Photography; © Christian Marclay; Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery; New York

Christian Marclay, Manga Scroll, 2010

Celebrated for his 24-hour film, The Clock, Christian Marclay returns to New York with silkscreen canvases that mix AbEx abstraction with comic-book onomatopoeias (squish, smack, plaff, etc.), evoking the sounds of paint hurled at canvas. The London artist talked to TONY about his new work, and his lifelong interest in turning sound into art. How did this show come about?
It’s been a long time in the making. I had similar works in my “Festival” exhibition at the Whitney three years ago, but the notion goes back to my first New York show, in 1988. I’ve always been curious about how sounds are visualized, and in the case of comics, the words aren’t written—they’re drawn, which makes them even more expressive.

Is painting new for you?
No, in the early ’90s, I painted on record covers with abstract art on the jackets. The relationship between improvisational music and gestural abstraction intrigued me. In 2006, I did a series of paintings channeling Andy Warhol. I made silkscreen canvases with the silence sign that Andy Warhol had cropped out of the source photo for his Electric Chair pieces. The sign's implication of an audience interested me. And I worked with a screen-printer who was Warhol’s assistant.

What’s the process behind your new work?
The backgrounds are painted and the words are screened on top. There’s a visual confusion between what’s painted and what’s printed. The gestural action of the painting is mimicking the sounds, which were selected because they reference painting—splash, swoosh and slurp are all sounds that wet paint might make on canvas.

Did the words direct the action?
Yes, the words became a list of instructions. I create the overlaid image by collaging fragments from comic books and then scanning and enlarging it. That gives me a structure for what kind of gestures to make. If it’s a big splash then I attempt to make a big splash. If it’s a small, bubbly sound, I’m going to apply the paint differently. The collage becomes the score for the painting actions.

Was there an element of chance in the making of these works?
Very much so, as in many performances, you try to follow the score, but things happen—paint drips where you don’t think it’s going to drip and things happen in the printing as well. You don’t always succeed. As with any new project, there was a learning curve, but the accidents were an important part of the process.

How were the scale of the works determined?
The size of the pieces grew out of a relationship to the canvas that had to do with body and action. I didn’t use paintbrushes. I used other things, such as rags, mops and brooms soaked in paint. That created a physical engagement with the surface of the paintings, which were placed alternatively on the floor and on the wall.

You have used collage a lot throughout your work. What fascinates you about it?
I always thought that I was more talented at cutting out things—appropriating things— than in trying to invent a new reality. It’s a way to react directly to your environment, to your culture. I’m interested in transforming what’s at hand, re-organizing it to reveal things that may have missed our attention.

When did your interest in sound and visual art begin?
Oh, it was a long time ago. I recently discovered some drawings that my parents had kept from when I was ten, of battleships with boom and crash drawn on the picture. It’s a challenge for still imagery to convey sound and action, and basically life. Once you put it down on paper or canvas it’s frozen and silent—therein lies a contradiction.

After the huge success of The Clock, how do you hope your audience will respond to this new body of work?
I didn’t know what to expect when I made The Clock, and I don’t know what to expect with this body of work. Making art is always an adventure; you don’t know where it’s going to lead you. However, I’m quite excited about the new work. It was much more fun making these new pieces than it was sitting in front of a computer for three years.

Christian Marclay is at Paula Cooper Gallery Nov 22–Jan 18