Skip to main content

Oral history interview with James Arthur Herbert, 1981 Oct. 1

Herbert, James Arthur, 1938-

Painter, Filmmaker


Collection Information

Size: Sound recording: 1 sound file, digital, wav file; 16 Pages, Transcript

Summary: An interview with James Arthur Herbert conducted 1981 Oct. 1, by Estill Curtis Pennington, for the Archives of American Art.
Herbert speaks of making art as a child; attending classes as an adolescent at Rhode Island School of Design; attending college at Dartmouth and working with Paul Sample while there; attending graduate school at the University of Colorado, Boulder and working with Clyfford Still; his thoughts on learning to paint and methods; his approach to figurative painting; preparing to enter the Peace Corps in Peru, but the assignment is cancelled due to uprising; accepting a position at the Unveristiy of Georgia; the balance of pedagogy and his own painting; creating films such as Night Horses; his thoughts and philosophies on being a painter.

Biographical/Historical Note

James A. Herbert (1938- ) is a painter and filmmaker from Athens, Ga.


This interview is part of the Archives of American Art Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and others.

Language Note

English .


Funding for the digital preservation of this interview was provided by a grant from the Save America's Treasures Program of the National Park Service.



The following oral history transcript is the result of a recorded interview with James Arthur Herbert on October 1, 1981. The interview took place in Athens, Georgia, and was conducted by Estill Curtis "Buck" Pennington for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. This transcript has been lightly edited for readability by the Archives of American Art. The reader should bear in mind that they are reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.


BUCK PENNINGTON:  Buck Pennington from the Archives of American Art, in Athens, Georgia, on the night October 1, 1981, preparing to do an oral history interview with Jim Herbert. Mr. Herbert is not currently in the room, and I'm recording this in advance so as not to put him off his guard, because I'm seeking a rather spontaneous, perhaps outrageous, interview with the man.

[Audio Break.]


JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Sure. Virginia, how you doing? All right. [Inaudible] for radio.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  It's not for radio. I have to start in a real basic way, and say, when did you start making art and why?

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  I started making art, you know, as a small—as a kid, doing paintings at home, you know, [00:02:03] instead of going out and playing, coming home and just hanging around the house and making little paintings. My mother was a painter, and so I picked up a lot. Went to art classes. When she would have community art classes, I'd go with her, and draw and paint from the model. But I would just come home in the afternoon, and I liked to paint, so I would sit down and make little oil paintings of the ocean and things like that, when I was, I guess, five or six and beyond. And I really got into it seriously when I was probably in adolescence more. I did more actual painting. And actually did some early films, then, too, in Super 8—or Regular 8—and photography. Did a lot of still photography. But I was always interested in art as a—as kind of a little secret thing to do away from everybody else. Not so secretive, actually, because I would always show the things to people. But I mean, I felt—it was very nice to work alone with the materials and not have to worry about playing games with other people.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  So the quality of working alone appealed to you?

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Very much, yeah. You kept your own rules, you know?

BUCK PENNINGTON:  What was the extent of your formal training?

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  The earliest formal training, other than what you get in the school situation, when a third grade school teacher comes over to you and says, "I really like that crayon drawing" and gives you a lot of compliments—you know, that sort of thing happened. But the earliest was in adolescence, going to the Rhode Island School of Design for Saturday morning classes. You know, their little extension class for anybody who wanted to come, and drawing from the model there. That was about it, up until going to college. And then when I was in college, at Dartmouth College, I had a teacher, who was the head of the art department there, named Richard Wagner, who took a very strong interest in my work in supporting me to work kind of independent of the system of the school. [00:04:02] And he got me a studio when I was a sophomore, and then he helped me obtain a kind of a junior honors program thing, where I really didn't have to go to classes. I could just paint. And then a senior fellowship, he helped me get, in which I just simply painted the whole year. So when I was in college, I actually took very few courses, and did mostly studio. And the formal kind of work that I got, formal training, was through the critical thing of working with him, looking at finished work. Not so much a kind of pick-up-the-brush kind of thing, I never had that kind of training. Nobody ever—I never got in a situation where there was a lot of academic kind of training, and still, to this day, don't believe in it for that reason. You know, I like the sort of situation where I was just sort of put in a room and asked to paint, and somebody believed that you would come up with something. But I did have some time with Paul Sample, who was an instructor at Dartmouth—not an instructor, but the artist-in-residence. And we drew from the model, figure model, with him, and he would kind of come around and suggest different ways of modeling the figure and such. But again, not much formal instruction. And then, as a graduate student at the University of Colorado, studio courses are pretty open for graduate students, and you simply try to create a body of work, so you didn't really have a problem of being told anything. I've never really been told what to paint. Of course, I did work with Clyfford Still, for a summer, at the University of Colorado, and his presence as a great artist was so strong that I painted just like him. So that's a form of being told what to do in a very indirect way. He was a—yeah?

BUCK PENNINGTON:  You mentioned being told what to do. Do you characterize classic academic art, or the art of the precedent times, as being told what to do? [00:06:00] Do you see the great studio artists of the 19th century as having been told how to paint, so there's a didactic quality there?

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Well, at least that there's a way to paint that is known, and that one follows those rules and regulations. And I think, in some instances, that even provided them a great form of freedom to be able to have a structure already given, and then you work within those limits. I mean, even in the iconography or in the method—I think in the Renaissance, they were told certain ways to make pictures. I think that the freedom that we have now and that I came up in, in my period of growing up in school, that kind of notion of freedom that came about, um—was a way of being told what to do in another sense, I suppose. That is, that you were supposed to kind of come up with something to paint.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Is the freedom that you're talking about a freedom from representationalism? Is that the—

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  No, I'm talking about a freedom from method and techniques training. Training in techniques or in the dictating of iconography, and freedom from historical things, situations. [Cross talk.]

BUCK PENNINGTON:  [Inaudible] gesso panels [laughs].

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Right. Well, you learn to paint certain—some subjects were better than others in the past, and you learn how to paint them certain ways. I mean, you learn how to draw with a certain kind of cross-hatching, and a certain kind of method of [inaudible] and those techniques and methods. And I came up in a period, or something—my thing is that you find your own way, and you don't know what you're going to get until you get there.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  You came of age in a truly abstract period. You came of age in a period in which abstraction reigned supreme.

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  That's true, but I have always been a figurative painter. Let me explain that. When I was in—a freshman and sophomore in college, where I really started painting in a kind of serious sort of way, trying to create a body of work for exhibition, or whatever you want to say, I started out painting figures, figurative imagery, still lifes and things, but they were made up. [00:08:01] So you would call them abstractions, because they were sort of distortions and rearrangements, and they had a kind of cubistic relationship. Then, for a short period in the junior and senior year in college, I switched to a kind of non-objectivity. It was still related to the still life, but it became more abstract and more interested in color, rather than light and dark and the modeling of figurative forms and space. It became its own sort of flat display of field imagery, the clustering choreography of color masses and such. It would be more related to non-objective painting. Then I went to University of Colorado, with Clyfford Still there. My impulse was non-objective under his influence. But the non-objective paintings from that period that I like the best are very clear in their figure-ground relationship. That figure-ground relationship, as opposed to field painting, can be found in Still's imagery to some extent, although he's sort of a mixture of figure-ground and field. But to get back to the subject, my own figurative painting, I liked a rather simple image of some sort, of a shape against a clean ground. And I consider that a kind of figurative bias, in a way, the old figure-ground sort of thing. When I came to Georgia, my first year or so here, I painted gigantic, very large, non-objective paintings, but they had a landscape reference to the South, and they had very much—the colors of the South suddenly came in. In fact, every place I've gone to—that is, New Hampshire, Dartmouth College, Colorado, and then to Georgia, those three sort of areas—the paintings have changed significantly, and I believe due to the air, and the climate, and the atmosphere, and the space. In Colorado, there was this sort of big, open, fresh feeling thing, and that was in the paintings. Then, in Georgia, a claustrophobic, hot tension in the color.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  There's an irony there, in that you, as a Yankee, born in the North, and lived in the North, and growing up there all your life, finds your way into a very Southern environment, which you've chosen to stay in. [00:10:10]

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Chosen to stay in—

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Is there a tension there? Or have you chosen to stay here?

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Well, I am—I never chose to come here, and I have never chosen to stay here, but I am here, and I mean, I think that's just the—

BUCK PENNINGTON:  How did you arrive here?

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Well, I arrived here by an accident. I was headed for the Peace Corps in Lima, Peru, and they had an uprising there and canceled the project. The Americans were all taboo there, and they canceled the project. So I was then going to be a soccer coach in Colombia, because those are the two areas that I had signed up for: either art or athletics. The art project looked very promising, because it was with Quechua Indians in Peru, who are naked, and I always like nakedness and nudity and such, and they were—all they knew how to do was body paintings, tattoos. And they had come down from the mountains to Lima because there was a potato famine, and they—hanging around with nothing to do. And so the Peace Corps was going to try to establish their method of doing imagery on their bodies to some commercial effect, such as textiles and such. And so, I was going to help with that, but as I say, that never happened. Then a phone call came in while we were waiting around to see what the Peace Corps was going to do, and said that there was a wonderful opening at the University of Georgia. In fact, Lamar Dodd himself called this man named Alden Megrew there, his friend, to see if there was any sharp person, or some person that could handle the whole basic program here. They said, "Well, we have just the person." I was real proud of that compliment. But when I got down here, they decided I certainly was not the person. [Laughter.] I was taken, sight unseen, without an interview, just on the basis of my Ivy League background and pressing Lamar Dodd, I think, and possibly the images that I had done in my freshman and sophomore years were very much like his paintings at that time. Earth colors, semi-abstract, a little bit of Cubism in there, and very tasteful, in frames. [00:12:06] And so, I think that appealed to him. But when I came down here, I had, at that time, what would be considered long hair, and I had a somewhat disreputable affect, I guess, or belligerent, or somewhat—you know, kind of a gadfly kind of manner, and I think they detected that. In his wisdom, he detected that right away. And I didn't want to come to the South at all, because I—you know, Northerners have a far greater prejudice against the South than any Southerner ever has between black and white or whatever. Much greater.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Or even against the Yankees themselves.

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Yes, I think so. I think so. I think that's true. Yes, that's better put. I arrived here in the middle of August, and I wanted to get a head start on things and look things over, and I stayed in a hotel in Athens called the Holman Hotel, which is now the C&S Bank across from the—and I just could not believe the heat. I'd never experienced anything like it in my life. It was just like being submerged in wet towels. I didn't—I couldn't believe that people even existed in this climate. And so I was there to acclimate myself before I would have to face the music, and I didn't even go over to the school for about a month. And I was the only white person that walked around, I noticed. There were only black people walking, and everybody else had a car. And people would take their children to the YMCA two blocks in a car, but I—for exercise—but I would not—I could not understand how anybody could live in this climate, and I hated it. Then, for two years here, I didn't know anybody, and I just sort of went to my studio and painted five hours a day, after teaching, which was a very grave and very enervating kind of exercise in futility. And the paintings weren't that bad. There were only five paintings created in the first year at all, because I'd keep going over the same thing over and over again. [00:14:01] Then in the second year, I started to get a little bit more acclimated, and my painting suddenly shifted and changed, very, very much, to very clean figure paintings on white backgrounds, pure white backgrounds. None of this five hours on a painting. As little as half an hour on a painting. And I would go to this—I had one day decided that I wasn't going to paint anymore, in a sense, and so the way to not paint anymore was to do another kind of painting. Chuck all this Abstract Expressionism and all this compulsiveness, and do something very clean, and very much back to drawing, at the same scale. Big paintings, but very decorative and very graphic.


JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Graphic in the sense of being pure, clean color and line against white backgrounds. These things would reproduce on a postage stamp, you know what I mean? Crisp and clean. None of this—the figure goes into the ground, the ground goes over the figure, the figure goes back over the ground. You know, all of this interplay that goes on in Abstract Expressionism, where you weave things in and out. I did these figurative paintings, on very clean, white backgrounds, for a number of years, and had about 6[00], 700 of them. About 75 x 82 inches. That's what they all were. I had a ritual of coming in, stretching the canvas, painting white gesso on it, and getting very pure and clean, and sort of meditating for about half an hour, and then going up to the canvas, opening a nudist magazine or some pornographic magazine, taking a little figure from here and a figure from there. Just sort of glancing at them, and just painting them on, very quickly and directly, identically, and then leaving the canvas just as it was, putting it away, and never seeing it again, never touching it again. It was like a therapy.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Nudist and pornographic. Nudist meaning without clothes?


BUCK PENNINGTON:  Pornographic in the sense of being—

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  —a sex magazine.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Explicit sexuality?

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Well, not too—in those days—that was 1963 and '64—they weren't really that explicit. Mainly I worked from nudist magazines. Ninety-nine percent of the activity were from what were called legitimate nudist magazines. I mean, nude figures cavorting in volleyball courts and such as that. [00:16:00]

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Nakedness has—you have this fascination with nakedness.

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  A fetish with it, yes.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  What is a fetish?


BUCK PENNINGTON:  A preoccupation?

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  —I don't think—I would say it's an obsession and not a fetish. I think a fetish is something you're hung up on and can't do anything with, whereas an obsession is something you sort of—that triggers a whole lot of impulses that get you going in making things. I'm making a pejorative comment when I say fetish, and I would say an obsession is on a higher level. That is, the utilization [laughs] of fetish into action, maybe.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  What is it about naked form?

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Well, I think that the nude figure—rather than naked, if we can go back to Kenneth Clark, you know.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Yes, indeed.

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  The nude figure, to me, is very romantic, and very sensuous, and very sensual, and very much something that is constantly renewing itself to me. In other words, in the words of the '60s, it turns me on. In the words of the '50s, it sends me. In the words of the '40s, it's something that I can really swing, you know [laughs]? It makes me feel very, very much—I mean, it's the [inaudible]—

BUCK PENNINGTON:  [Inaudible.]

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  —it is the libido. Yeah, yeah. It has life in it, and I am just constantly—I am a voyeur to some extent, and the physical beauty of a body makes me want to not just seek out the body, but actually promotes a kind of activity in me that makes me want to make things. I mean, we can say it's Freudian sublimation [inaudible]—

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Voyeur—voyeur to the extent that you are standing on the outside and looking at it, but aren't you inside of your own body, and there—

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Yeah. Well, it's always an external/internal integrating thing, just like art is, too, I think. You make paintings both on the outside and the inside. But the voyeur—Larry Kardish, in this comment that he wrote, this nice thing he wrote for the retrospective film showing, says something to the effect of, the voyeur is much on the outside, and always distant, but he has this incredible passion to reach out and touch the thing, but he doesn't somehow. [00:18:17] And he makes a nice relationship about the voyeur and the artist in this thing about a tactile quality of sort of caressing the image that the voyeur does with his eyes. But I mean, you know, all artists are voyeurs. I mean, was it Delacroix or somebody said, "make a painting that's a feast for the eyes." You know, eating with the eyes. The whole sense of that. The whole oral thing of that, if you want to be Freudian.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  If you want to be Freudian.

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  If you want to be Freudian, yes.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Or you merely want to question segregation, you know, of the—


BUCK PENNINGTON:  —of the senses. Not only of the senses, but of the actions that you are performing in the capacity as an artist, observing, seeing, creating a scene, making a scene, making something—


BUCK PENNINGTON:  —as opposed to—

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  —doing, and the involvement of actually being in the thing.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Is that your dichotomy?

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Yeah, it is my dichotomy.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Is that the one you're claiming for yourself?

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  It is my dichotomy, because we are—as artists, we are, as artists, not able to participate in life completely. The biggest—


JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  —the biggest—well, I'll give you an example of that. I'll give you an example of that. You have to sort of choose, to some extent, between life and art. I mean, that sounds terrible—


JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  —and I think it's sort of tragic. Why? Because you can't do two things at once. If you're having a wonderful time, you don't paint. If you're having lots of love and lots of rich experiences, you don't paint. Now, that doesn't mean you seek out the lack of rich experiences in order to paint.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  We are distinguishing here paint—we're not talking about, if you have love, you don't go to the studio five hours a day, or—

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  You don't. No, no, you have your love.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  You're talking about the process of painting? We're not talking about the image of painting? [00:20:01]

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  No, we can't talk about the image without the process. In other words, there are no images without the process. In other words, the act of making a painting is the replacement of the act of living in that way. But—when I made the film Night Horses [ph], for example, I was—there was a very important scene there, in which everybody's bodies were oiled, all these 10 couples, and the horses are all around. The dogs were—the lights were all on. The generators were running to run the lights, and these people felt a sense of privacy within the context of the little movie set out in the country. It was set out in the landscape at night. The lights were all around, and surrounded them. After three days of doing this, they felt very free and open, and they were starting to get very sort of sexually motivated. All these nude oil couples with the oil, and they were writhing in this sort of group [laughs], and they pulled me down with them. It was a natural thing to do. They grabbed me and pulled me into the group. At that split moment, I knew—I said, I would like to do that. I really should put the camera down and join them. That's what I really want to do. But I had my movie to make. And that, I think, is really it. I think we have our movies to make and our pennies to make, and so we don't do all the other things that other people do all the time. But we make that choice out of necessity, not out of free will, I don't think. You know, I think it's—

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Art as product.

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Artists as cripples.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Art as product, artist as cripple. I don't know.

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Artist as product is not the same thing, because product is—anybody can make product and live a very happy life. But the artist must pour the life forces that he would normally use in the outside world into the art. This doesn't mean that the artist can't take a break. I mean, Hemingway worked from 8:00 to 12:00, and the rest of the day, he went out and lived. You can do—you can have it both ways if you have your studio time as a private, secret moment where you do that. But I mean, film is very strange in that regard, in that life and art are, to some extent, mixed. To some extent, mixed up. But what I'm trying to say is that when Rimbaud stopped doing his poetry, when—[00:22:01]

BUCK PENNINGTON:  At the age of 70.

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Yeah. I think what he did was join life.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  [Laughs.] By becoming a white slaver. There are several ironies here that impress me. There's the irony of the Yankee in the South. There's the seriously intense irony of the artist divided from life itself. And then there's the irony of the artist functioning within the context of the academic community.


BUCK PENNINGTON:  And once again, a kind of choice to function within that context, to both teach and to do. What is that all about?

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Well, I mean, I think that teaching is a tremendous sacrifice, on the one hand. You have to use the same energies to create in the classroom that you would use in a studio. And so it is very much a contradiction about the artist preserving himself for his art and that sort of thing, because you have to give everything that you normally use in making a painting. The same sources. I don't think you create with the same nuance or subtlety or all that stuff, but I mean, you have to use the same vital fluid, so to speak. So it's very important that the artist get all his painting done before he go to the classroom. There's no going to the studio after the classroom, because the teaching zaps the same energy. Okay, and the irony is that one would participate as an artist in an academic situation. Now, let's go off of the classroom for a moment—

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Or give up energy.

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  —or give up energy, right. The classroom has a plus side to it, and that is being around young people, who have a lot more energy than older people, or than most older people, except those wonderful older people that we see [laughs] every once in a while, like Alice Neel and—

BUCK PENNINGTON:  [Laughs.] [Inaudible.]

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  —Georgia O'Keeffe. Yeah, there's people around. There's people who—and they're usually women, I think, after—

BUCK PENNINGTON:  I think they are.

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  —they're usually women, and they're just wonderful, and you just—they're life forces, you know. But I'm saying—

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Matriarch [ph].

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Right. [00:24:00] I think, though, that the young people have a wonderful, fresh quality that that's the one thing they give to the artist-teacher. They don't give anything else. They don't give—

[Audio Break.]

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  —they don't give special, really special, developed points of view. They don't give values and intense—any kind of wisdom or anything. But they do give a wonderful sparkle and impulsiveness, and all that stuff, and angriness and all those things, which are very much—it's nice to be around that, because it is at least a fresh-moving kind of thing that's happening. It's like—I think artists like to be around the action. I think they've always liked to be around the action. Does that contradict the thing about wanting to sort of divorce yourself from life in order to do the work? I think not. I think—in the '50s, the guys all wanted to go to the Cedar Bar [Tavern] or whatever—people wanted to go to the city, because that's where there's lots of action and energy going on.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  I know definitely that we want to act out whatever we think, and the artist acts it out to the extent of duplicating it, or making it again, or creating—

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  I don't understand anything that you're saying right there as relevant to anything we're talking about. I don't understand what you mean at all.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  That, instead of being divorced—you said, is there an irony there of the artist being divorced? I don't think so, because this schizoid aspect of it, the divided aspect of it, is the desire to both act out, to be a part of, and to be separate from, and make a statement on it at once.

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  I don't think artists ever make a statement on life. I don't think artists are ever making a direct statement about life if they're worth anything. But I think they do, indirectly, report on life, whether they want to or not. I mean, they do state the times, but any artist who wants to make a comment on his time is a bad artist. Ben Shahn notwithstanding and that sort of thing. There are people who are social commentators. In other words, if you want—if you set out to take a look at the world and say, "Ah-ha, the world is in bad shape; I'll do bad shape paintings," well, you're a fool. [00:26:04]

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Comment to the extent of a didactic analysis.


BUCK PENNINGTON:  Comment can also be the mere creation—


BUCK PENNINGTON:  —the mere quotation. The mere notation.

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  That's to equate comment with a sponge soaking up water, and if you want to do that, I agree with you completely. In other words, a painter soaks up every damn thing that happens to him, and out comes the painting. You're absolutely right. But the comment implies, if I understand the meaning of the word "comment," an intellectual choosing to make—I mean, it has to have the didactic implication, comment. But here we quibble on words when we could—I understand—I think we both understand what we're saying here. To absorb—the artist absorbs the ocean he swims in, and to that extent, he never can even separate himself from it. So the artist is constantly living it, and some people say he even lives more than other people do. But I'm talking about—I'm talking, really, about whether or not the artist has the same kind of experiences that the non-artist has that are fulfilling. In other words, I think the artist finds his chief fulfillment—or at least I do—the major fulfillment of his life in these things that are made, whereas I think other people find a major fulfillment in their life some other way. And every time you act, you also fail to act. So when the artist is making a picture, he's not living, and when the person who is living is not making a picture, then they're not doing that. So really, my statement is a very simple one, that artists simply choose to make things for a long time, that takes them away from the fun of the game of life that other people are often involved. I think the same can be said, obviously—when I say "artist," I mean poet. I mean those who choose to go to secret places and make secret things that are not private, but personal. [00:28:03] That is, they communicate very well in the universal sense, but they have a personal nature that is a private nature. Others would choose to raise families or would—now, of course, there are artists who raise families, too, you see. So it's a generalization, only in the sense of trying to make an abstract thought about the thing.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  There's a determination here that going to a private place implies the selection of solitude for creativity, as opposed to the making of something when we are alone. At this moment, I made this poem. At this moment, I made this picture.

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  I don't see in your distinction there.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Choice. Choice is the main thing [ph]—

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  They're the same. You described two events that were the same. The first event was to go to a secret place and be alone with your work, and the second one was to make the work alone in a secret place. I didn't understand the difference.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Purposefully alienating yourself. Choosing to alienate—

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Oh, oh, oh, no.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Choosing separation.


BUCK PENNINGTON:  Choosing [inaudible].

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  No, there's no choosing separation. Nobody chooses to be an artist no, I don't think anybody chooses to be an artist. You sort of stumble, you sort of stumble into it. Most people choose—most people I know just sort of stumbled into it, and it became the thing that they did while somebody else played baseball or something. Or became the—I know a guy who went all through the military and everything, and then sort of stumbled into art. I mean, it's something you come upon. I don't think—as Picasso said, it's something you find. It's nothing you seek out. He's referring to the work itself.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Or hear. Or see. All right. Well, I was just wondering what your—

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Well, I don't think it's something you just hear or see about. I don't think you sort of hear about art, and just kind of choose to say, "Yeah, I'd kind of like to do that." I mean, you get people like that who are students, but they never last very long. The people who are sort of—who are good are sort of people—they really couldn't tell you how they ever got into art. They sort of were around it, or they met somebody—yeah, sure, those little acquaintances and things like—there's a background for everything. But there's not a choice made where you say, "Boy, I would like to be an artist more than anything in the world." [00:30:02] At a certain point, I don't think most people say that who are artists. Most people I know just sort of fell into it. But I suppose you could say that about most careers, I guess, although it seems like there's a lot of professions—for example, being a lawyer—where one says, "I have a definite desire to be a lawyer." Then if you probe deeper, it's out of some inner necessity to be a prominent member of the community and please mom. You know what I mean? Whereas the artist might have a deep necessity to override—

BUCK PENNINGTON:  To be part of the fabric of the West. [Laughs.]

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Yeah, right. To be immortal and overcome death or something. It might be—we might have all these real, absurd necessities.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  The inner necessity.

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Right. I think probably everybody is driven towards something, to be either a killer, or a baseball player, or a military career man. All these things.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Or a squirrel.

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Yes. No, not to be a squirrel. You can't choose to be a squirrel.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  There's another formal question. There's another formal question to ask in this period, and that's—you're making paintings, you're making films. You're working. You're working and about—what about that? There are painters who make paintings and that's all, and yet you've chosen two ways to—

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  I didn't choose these two ways.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  I'm sorry. [Inaudible.] [Laughs.]

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  No, I didn't choose. I—

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Like Dante. "Midway, I found myself in life, between painting and film. Neither path that I"—

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Well, I think there are—the reason that happened was—I've thought a lot about that, because I've not only been asked a lot about that, but it's a curious thing to myself. And I like to really get into that in a very Freudian way, if I can. I mean, I really like to talk about that in a very Freudian way. That is that the painting—


JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Because it works very well [inaudible].

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Can we define—can we briefly define "Freudian"?

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  All right, I mean—

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Can we briefly define—

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  —using labels and terminology that he used to describe phenomena that was very well-known to people for centuries and centuries before. [00:32:06] But it's sort of just an easy device to use the Freudian terms, and that is, the painting is anal-expulsive, and the filmmaking and photography is anal-retentive. To use Freud's anal-expulsive and anal-retentive—

BUCK PENNINGTON:  I'm thinking.

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Okay. Now, anal-retentive means that you—that a small child enjoys the impacted feces in his bowel and the sensation that that gives him, and the kind of holding onto it, and the loss of that is fearsome to him, so he enjoys the sensation of holding back and of collecting. And so, at that stage, we enjoy locomotives, which are like little turds all connected. And little children love to read the back of cereal boxes, as do adults. You know, when cereal boxes change their design to very simple shapes, nobody bought the cereal, because cereal is what we use for roughage to make stools, and so there's an unconscious awareness that, in fact, cereal—even the word "cereal," of course, is a homonym—

BUCK PENNINGTON:  —for series.

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  For series. For serial, serial imagery, that which is repeated imagery. But at any rate, cereal boxes are like catalogs, and catalogs are what are used in toilets. Nobody reads a novel on the toilet; they read a catalog. They read a series of elements, all in a collected, impacted page. They love that.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  So the film is collective and impacted?

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Yes, it is, because the film is about preciousness, it's about saving, it's about—like stamp-collecting and coin-collecting and all the other collecting in the world, all my films are under refrigeration, in immaculate, clean containers. The frames of films are serial frames. A man came up to me when I was painting the clear-cut figures against white backgrounds, said, "You know, when I see them all in a room, they're like a film. They're like animation cells in a film." And I had made a film some years earlier, but when he said that, that triggered off in me an impulse to make some more films, in a way. [00:34:01] What if the paintings became films? But anyway, there's a side to me that enjoys the cameras. The collecting of guns, the collecting of cameras, the preciousness of machines that one holds in the hand, and that are collectibles—collectibles. And in painting, painters never talk about their equipment. They don't care about their brushes. They don't care about ordering the paint. I am fascinated by my cameras. I love my cameras. I love to put them in shiny boxes, bring them out, polish the lenses. I love to read about cameras, and dream about new cameras, and photographers and filmmakers talk about cameras to each other. It's pleasant to talk about if they enjoy it. It's a different part of your sensibility. And the films, the image—

BUCK PENNINGTON:  It's a tool.

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Yes, but—no, it's not. Now, it's not. A tool is what you use to do your work. A camera is the fetish object you caress and collect. And a camera is not the tool, but the paintbrush is the tool. The tool is a very rude instrument that one simply uses as best he can and puts down. But nobody is too precious about the tools. Carpenters don't collect 50 different kinds of saws unless—there are cabinetmakers, and they're pretty anal people that do that. But anyway, I'm saying that filmmaking is a nice, wonderful, precious thing, and it's about cleanness and perfection. And when I do the films, they are a body that are perfect and clean, and canons of proportions that I find to be ideal. When I then take the film and manipulate it in my special way, I make the most perfect images of the body as I can. I actually enhance the images of the reality that is there. I mean, I actually make a better body than the person has. I can do that. In painting, I choose to disfigure, warp, bend, twist, explode. I have it—the figures there are the ones that exist behind your mind, as opposed to in front of them. There's no voyeurism or preciousness in the paintings. What I'm interested in in the paintings is the gushing sense of a beautiful explosion of wonder or of delight, and of jumping and popping and zipping and zapping and—pooping. [Laughs.] [00:36:10] With films, I want a deep penetration into the world of dreams, and the world of passages, of—in waves of beautiful flesh, and the pressing of it with the eye.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  The precious—when you say the precious, is that something that's to be confused with the beautiful? Is that the beautiful?

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  No, the same, the same. The painting, however—well, it's the same at that point. Precious can be beautiful, but ugly can be beautiful, too. Beauty covers it all, and is a sub-topic—precious, and a sub-topic, fragmented collections of—no, not collections. Fragments that disperse and weave together. A figure that's lost in the ground and comes back. By the way, my painting now weaves the figure into the ground again.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  As opposed to the ones I saw last summer? Are you still painting in the same way?


BUCK PENNINGTON:  Down at the warehouse?

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  I think those are a mixing together [inaudible] and figure-ground imagery [inaudible] so that the figure tucks under the ground sometimes, and then emerges, and it's all about pushing the figure in and around strange spaces that give and take. In other words, the ground is as important as the figure, not to just clarify the figure, as in those early paintings against white grounds. It's not graphic. It's very painterly, about having the figure tucked into the ground, and the ground tucked over the figure. As if figures are floating in worlds that are very important. The world around the figure eats away, bites away, at the figure, and the figure bites away at the world, and so they interact. A very interactive play of figure and ground, you know. But that's [inaudible]. I, increasingly, as I grow older, find that art is extremely important to me, because I have—it is a very big priority. [00:38:03] Whereas it used to be a part of my life, it is now much more the be-all and end-all of my life. I don't mean that to sound terribly righteous or anything. It just has become terribly important to me. When I've given into the art, strangely enough and ironically enough, I now am enjoying life more, too, because I sort of have found something to do with my life that I think is important.

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Making your art?

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Yeah. Whereas before, it was something I used to try to get control of my life. The art was a way, a step—

BUCK PENNINGTON:  Why wouldn't you have control of your life?

JAMES ARTHUR HERBERT:  Because I don't think that I was able to—I think the only place that I can find to locate myself is in art. I don't think—I think I am always shifting and losing my place in life, and being tossed around. I went to Italy this summer. It's the first time I've ever traveled in my life, and I found it's just like a film running out of a gate in a projector. Just a blur. A very, very superficial experience. And yet, at the same time, a very intense and important experience. I found out that a very superficial experience, of not being located, and not having any sense of art whatsoever, no sense of making, none whatsoever, left me very empty, and very sad, and very lonely for art. I did not get anything from looking at great art at all. Nothing, except the Pantheon, which is wonderful, the space in it. But I couldn't not get into any art, and I could not think—even though I was making a movie there, I did not think of having a creative experience at all. All I felt was the sense of being nowhere, and I think artists are—or this artist is a very dislocated person, until he builds into his frame the image that he finds that he can control. So I look for control in my art, but I try—I used to try to find it in my—try to get control of life, but I found it was easier to control it in art. And now, having controlled it in art, to an extent that satisfies me, I now have realized that one need not control life as much. [00:40:02] And the answer to controlling life, in a sense, ironically, is to not to try to control life, to not try to seize and grasp and to force things into position, but simply to roll with it. This psychiatrist, who was a friend of mine—I wasn't his patient. He was a friend of mine. He suggested, when I was very frightened about traveling, he suggested something to me that I'm sure he tells all his patients. It was very good. He said, "Don't try to control anything. That's the mistake everybody makes. You don't need to control anything." And in art, in fact, what one loses to do—one chooses—what one finds out, that it's controlling oneself so that you can be out of control. It's a very wonderful paradox. You get into a position where you can be as free as you want, and then get control of a wonderful limit of the image, and make it happen. You know, make the picture come together. But it's being control-dash-out of control at the same time. It's getting control of your out-of-controlness. But life, that's something else.

[END OF TRACK herber81_1of1_cass_SideA_r.]


How to Use This Collection

Transcript is available on the Archives of American Art's website.

Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with James Arthur Herbert, 1981 Oct. 1. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.