Interview with Tom Marioni

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Interview with Tom Marioni

By Terri Cohn October 17, 2017

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


Since the 1990s, myriad books have been published about conceptual art and its genesis during the 1960s and ’70s. Yet, with rare exception, the majority of accounts have centered on New York, where language- and systems-based explorations prevailed. Until recently, few books or exhibitions focused on the actions- and sculpture-based history of conceptual art in California during the ’70s, a situation that has slowly shifted during the 21st century as this latter significance has been recognized nationally and internationally. Artist Tom Marioni was a central figure in the unique artistic milieu that fueled the evolution of the San Francisco Bay Area’s conceptual scene. In his memoir, Beer, Art, and Philosophy (2003), Marioni talks about the experiences that contributed to the evolution of his art, ideas about social sculpture, and interpretations of his artistic forebears in conversational and humorous ways. The social emphasis of Marioni’s oeuvre is underscored by the book’s subtitle, which is also one of his signature artworks, “The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art.” The conversations that Tom and I had over time about his art and life (excerpted in this interview) reveal the continuity of his thinking and work as a sculptor and conceptual artist, the importance of his traditional art training, and the influence of places to which he has traveled on his artistic vision. In this context, Marioni talks in depth about the ongoing personal significance of creating a social space as art.

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Terri Cohn: When did you realize that you were a conceptual artist, and what attracted you to working in this way?

Tom Marioni: It happened gradually. In 1967, I started making word pieces where I rubbed letters onto white, bumper-sticker-like material. I would give these to my friends to put on white refrigerators, so it looked like the word was printed right on the refrigerator’s surface. That was my first kind of conceptual work. At the same time, I was doing an act in a nightclub where I would bring in an easel, paper, and charcoal, and have a nude model pose on a platform, like in an art school, while I made short sketches.

Conceptual art was in the air, and I was ready to be part of it, be part of this generation. It was a worldwide movement; it wasn’t centered anywhere in particular, and I was the right age and came along at the right time. Most of the conceptual artists emerged in Europe, New York, and California, at more or less the same time, or within a couple of years of each other. It was all happening, but in the beginning, it wasn’t something that was being written about in the art magazines—you couldn’t yet read about conceptual art and copy it. Today, an artist does something and very quickly it gets reproduced in an art magazine, but with conceptual art, it took a while.

Tom Marioni. Drawing a Line as Far as I Can Reach, 1972; performance documentation from The Creation, a Seven Day Performance. Collection of Oakland Museum of California. Photo courtesy of the Artist.

TC: How has working as a conceptual artist influenced the kinds of work you make? Will you define what being a conceptual artist means in your terms?

TM: In some ways, I define myself as a conceptual artist, but I see the world and approach everything I do as a sculptor and a graphic artist.

In my 1972 Drawing a Line as Far as I Can Reach, I made an image of a tree, using up a whole pencil. The pencil had been made from a tree that was cut down. From the very first time I did that kind of exercise drawing, it was connected to a tree. It was an important work for me because it was, in a way, like doing yoga. It was about reach, and it was about body measurement, and it had that little political element to it—about cutting down trees, an ecological touch. The piece was about how a tree grows—it wasn’t about making a picture of a tree.

TC: Related to this style of connectivity, can you talk about how your work in the 1970s was, in part, about the place in which you live and work—meaning, San Francisco—as well as the many places you traveled to around the world?

TM: In the ’70s I was lucky to get connected with the European performance-art scene. I was invited to travel abroad regularly, and became familiar with the underground art scenes in different countries. Later—particularly in the ’80s—I started making installations and performances about the places that I’d been to, felt a connection with, and that I had learned from. In my installations and performances during this time, I used symbolic objects that were suggestive of Italian, German, and Japanese cultures, and cities like Beijing, Paris, San Francisco, Kyoto, and Los Angeles, in combination with drawings to tie it all together. In 1980, I created a piece about the art and artists living in Paris in the early 20th century. I made copies of drawings of famous artists like Picasso, and included them in the installation to look like the back room of a Paris art gallery.

Tom Marioni. Paris, 1981; mixed-media installation; dimensions variable. Photo courtesy of the Artist.

TC: Are you continuing to make that kind of art now?

TM: These days I’m obsessed with being clear about the reasons I choose to use certain items or images. I try not to use a material just because other artists are, or because it’s the fashion. I try to use things from my childhood, my background, my ethnicity, my upbringing, all those things—growing up in the Midwest, in a German beer town, being a Catholic and the son of Italian immigrants, growing up in a cultured home. I draw from my experiences to make my work because I’ve found that, usually, if an artist takes from their own personal experience, they’re going to make original art. 

TC:  I don’t know if you learned this in art school, but you also uniquely understand the relationship of the body to space. So many of your actions and methods for creating drawings have to do with the extent of your arm.

Tom Marioni. Out of Body Free Hand Circle, 2007–2009; performance documentation, graphite on prepared wall; dimensions variable; installation view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo courtesy of the Artist.

TM: Drawing is the foundation of my art. That’s what was stressed when I was in art school. The school I went to was a very traditional school. We drew from live models every day for four years. Drawing informs your sense of proportion and scale. That’s what all art is about, if it's going to be good. It has to look good, and harmonize, and have all that aesthetic information. I've heard people say conceptual artists don't care what their art looks like, but all artists care what their art looks like.

Recently, I have become known as one of the originators of a movement called Relational Aesthetics, in which artists make art by socializing, eating, drinking, and talking in art museums and galleries. My work, The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art, which I began in 1970, has been invited to be in several shows in the last few years, and has become what I’m known for. This particular way of working seems to be what interests people about my art, and has also led me to make new work—recently, I made some prints about beer bottles, which relates back to this previous work.

Tom Marioni. Beer with Musical Friends, 2017; color spit bite aquatint, soft ground etching, and chine-collé on Gampi paper;28.5 x 31 in.; edition 50 printed at Crown Point Press, San Francisco. Photo courtesy of the Artist. 

TC: Do you consider these new prints to be an extension of what you’ve been doing since the early 1970s?

TM: Yes. I decided that my early work was what I was known for, so I’d go for it! If you’re a multidisciplinary artist, people have a hard time keeping your work straight and understanding what you’re all about. I keep doing different things because I don’t like to repeat myself, but at the same time, I’m doomed to repeat myself because it’s what most people know me for—that one work from 1970. In some ways, I’ve continued this work because it is integral to my social life, and because it is the ongoing activity in my artists’ club. Although, our gatherings are not exclusively about drinking beer anymore—I don’t even drink beer anymore, I drink whiskey! I’ve also started to tell jokes, which I consider my 21st-century performance art.

In the early days, the performance work I made was about music. MOCA Ensemble (1973), The Art Orchestra (1997), Beer Drinking Sonata for 13 Players (1997), and The Buddhist Band (2004) are about sound, but are closer to music, and Drum Brush Drawings are a marriage of art and music. In this work, I’m using a musician’s instrument to make sound as well as a drawing, with the drawing becoming a record of the sound activity.

Tom Marioni. One Second Sculpture, 1969; action using the interior of a metal tape measurer; dimensions variable. Photo courtesy of the Artist.

TC: It seems your thinking and approach to creating sculpture-based performance has been consistent throughout your career.

TM: Yes. My One Second Sculpture (1969) turned out to be a profound piece for me because it was a sculpture-based performance that was also about sound. It made a sound and a drawing in space, and was also a sculpture that performed itself. It all happened in one second. That work, like much of what I’ve made throughout my career, was about taking the idea of sculpture and moving it into the dimensions of time.

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Tom Marioni at 80 is on view at Crown Point Press in San Francisco, CA through October 31, 2017.

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