Can’t tell them apart at all: a conversation with John McNaughton

French dvd publisher Eléphant Films recently released a new blu-ray edition of John McNaughton’s Mad Dog & Glory, with Robert De Niro, Uma Thurman and Bill Murray, for which S. wrote an introductory essay and did an interview with the director. De Niro plays the role of a crime scene photographer, while his apartment is filled with framed images he takes during what he has of another life. The manner in which they are hung immediately revealed the filmmaker’s relationship with art, galleries and collecting. SZ took the opportunity to send John McNaughton further questions on these topics, who was generous with his answers and recollections. In 2000 JM also directed a documentary on contemporary American artist George Condo, Condo Painting. McNaughton is himself a collector, for work he wants to be in proximity with rather than defining them as investments.


George Condo sitting with John McNaughton

-What did you study in art school? If you were thinking at first of being an artist (with gallery representation etc.), what made you move to film?

I studied life drawing, painting, sculpting, art history, also philosophy, psychology, anatomy, etc. at the University of Illinois in Urbana Ill. After two years I felt I had learned all they had to teach me and was ready to move on but not sure as to what or where. Then I had a psychedelic epiphany at a wild party one night and it hit me that the greatest cultural influence on my life up to that point had been television so I decided to leave art school, move back to Chicago and attend Columbia College where I would study television production and still photography.

-Did De Niro’s character in Mad Dog express a longing for that world?

DeNiro’s character is a police photographer who takes pictures of murdered corpses in Chicago at night. It’s almost as if he lives in hell among the dead in the darkness but what he really wants is to be an artist.

-How did you get into collecting? Outside out of the film world, had some of your colleagues/classmates made it as artists?

None of my art school classmates became professional artists that I am aware of. Most drifted into other pursuits in order to make a living. I got into collecting art after I started to make money directing films. Most of the art I’ve collected comes from artists I have known as friends.

-How do you collect? Through galleries, direct contact with artists, a mix of both?

Probably about 95% of what I’ve collected has come from friends with only a few pieces acquired from galleries, including Pace in New York where Condo was represented when we made “Condo Painting.”

From Condo Painting

George Condo with Allen Ginsberg

-Who and what do you collect? Painting, drawing, print, photography… Any particular artists and period?

Most of what I’ve collected comes from friends who are alive and still working. Some have become high profile artists over the years since we met. I have drawings, paintings, etchings, photographs, sculpture and a few odd objects. I very much like to collect art created by friends. When I look at the art that surrounds me, each piece connects me to the person who made it as if some part of them is in the room. It’s different from living with art from artists no longer alive or whom you don’t know. When I look up at a George Condo painting I automatically think about George and the crazy times we had together making the film “Condo Painting,” it’s personal.

-I asked before but are you still in Chicago? Did you know Donald Young? Do you make regular visits to NYC?

I’m currently living in Chicago and did not know Donald Young. I have been collecting the work of Tony Fitzpatrick for many years who also lives in Chicago and is a longstanding friend. Also Joe Coleman who lives and works in Brooklyn and created the painting that became the first poster for “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.” I used to visit NY frequently and often worked there but not as much recently. It was certainly one of my favorite places but has become so elitist and slick that I miss the grittier more Bohemian version of Manhattan that seems to be all but gone.

-Are you at all interested in artists working with moving image, from video installations to film-based art, from Bill Viola to Isaac Julien or Steve McQueen?

I was very much interested and influenced by Nam June Paik when he emerged in the late 60s, especially since at that time my primary interest turned to television in 1969. I find much video/installation art to be tedious but Paik was a true visionary who also had a sense of humor about himself and his work which I still find very appealing. To me he was one of the most revolutionary and important artists of the era. I think he is overdue for a major retrospective at one of the big museums.

-Not having seen the Condo documentary, could you explain how that came to you and what interests you in his work? A year or two ago, I recall seeing a beautiful show of his at Almine Rech in Paris.

I was introduced to George Condo in New York in 1996 by a woman named Janet Koo who had friends at the Pace Gallery where George was represented at that time. I was not familiar with George’s work when we first met. Initially the Pace Gallery was interested in producing a short film about George to be used at gallery openings of his shows but George and I had larger ambitions and soon decided to make a full length film and over the next two years made “Condo Painting.” I would often find myself holding the camera lens an inch or two from his brush as he painted and became very intimately connected to his work by being so close to its creation. Having painted myself, I love the feel, texture and of course color of oil paints and working so close to a master’s moving brush was a profound experience. Without a doubt the most fun I’ve ever had making a film. William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg were friends of George and they both appear in the film.

-Do you collect specifically American art, or international artists as well?

Just about everything I own is American. I do have some work by my friend Dmitry Samarov who is Russian born but now lives in Chicago. The closest I came to acquiring a European work was a Giacometti bronze bust of his friend Eli Lotar that George Condo located in Paris but in the end decided not to buy which I of course regret today.

                                                                                      John McNaughton, 1/18/20

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