Anthony Haden-Guest talks to Ronnie Cutrone, who took a circuitous route to Neo-Pop fame, from Warhol to Woody Woodpecker
Ronnie Cutrone is truly a son of Pop. When a teenager, still at high school in Brooklyn and doing courses at the Manhattan School of Visual Arts, he became both a weekend habitué of Andy Warhol’s Factory on Union Square and a performer with Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, being one of the three dancers who did their stuff while the Velvet Underground played behind them, their backs insolently turned to their ultra-hip audience.
‘It was really crazy. I was lonely in school actually. People would say, “What did you do over the weekend?” How do you say, “Well, I shot a lot of amphetamine… had two or three girls… danced with this rock group… met several hundred gay men. And it’s Monday and I’m back in school.” I mean, I was really alienated. I would just say… “Uh, I had fun.” I had a good time in Manhattan.’
Cutrone made the Velvets the subject of his first grown-up painting. Warhol put it on the sleeve of their first album, the famous one with the peelable banana on the cover. And in 1968, when Warhol began publishing the monthly Andy Warhol’s Interview — which was shamelessly created as a vehicle for getting invited to screenings and meeting movie stars but somehow morphed into a sharp magazine — Cutrone was taken on to contribute a couple of pages, one on goings-on in music and one on the same in art. ‘I was the one who got to go to all the openings and meet the artists,’ he says. ‘I like meeting artists.’
In 1972 he decided to leave Interview and Warhol took him on as a studio assistant. ‘I would mix the colours, stretch the canvases. I just made sure everything went smoothly, that things were shipped out.’ And frequently shipped back. ‘When Andy was alive he couldn’t get more than $50,000 for a painting,’ says Cutrone. ‘It was pathetic. Other artists who weren’t nearly as good as he was were getting $250,000, $450,000 for each canvas. And Andy would never even get the fifty — there would be a big discount. So he might get 35,000 top dollar for his art. Which I found to be a travesty.’
It was the portrait commissions secured by Fred Hughes, the dandyish, frequently outré but socially adept Texan, that kept the Factory going. In 1980, Cutrone, a Warhol loyalist then and now, left the Factory to focus on his own art.
This wasn’t painting — Cutrone had decided painting was dead and had been concentrating on photography and sculpture, often with an element of performance thrown in. When he partnered with Steve Mass of the notorious Mudd Club, he put in an electric rolling gate instead of a curtain and built cages for people to hang out in upstairs. ‘They were like rooms,’ he says. ‘There was David Bowie’s room. And then Grace Jones asked me to do an album cover, so that was interesting. We put her in a small cage nude and threw in raw meat, and she went…’ He makes a tigerish face.
Soon after leaving the Factory, Cutrone was in Naples with his Italian dealer, Lucio Amelio. They were preparing to go to Art Basel, where Cutrone was to make an installation, when Amelio suggested that Cutrone make a painting. This wasn’t completely out of the blue — Cutrone had been thinking of making paintings with similar themes to the sculptures. Indeed, he had filled a sketchbook with potential images. The suggestion appalled him nonetheless. ‘I haven’t made a painting in twelve years,’ he said.
Nonetheless he bought a 6 x 8ft canvas and was soon at work. His first attempt, a ‘mythic fox’, was, in Cutrone’s words ‘so nasty, so brutal, so sketchy — I made the ugliest painting’. The critics were due in three hours. Cutrone promptly turned the canvas around and got back to work. The image he chose came from the sketchbook and the painting, which he called Cannibals Eating Red, was finished by the time the critics arrived, was much admired and quickly sold.
‘So I was now a painter,’ Cutrone says. It remained only to get back to New York and start painting. But what?
‘Paint what you love!’ Amelio told him. ‘And you’ll be OK.’
A girlfriend? No — Cutrone was recently divorced so he didn’t want to go there. Other things that he liked or loved drifted to mind and were promptly dismissed but then, waking one morning, he thought of one he truly loved, who was, in fact, in bed with him at the time. At least in the form of a soft toy. Woody Woodpecker!
One of the Warner Brothers screwball cartoon trinity, along with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Woody Woodpecker was born in 1940, eight years before Cutrone, and had clearly impressed him profoundly. He made his first Woody Woodpecker painting that morning, and in 1982 he had Woody Woodpecker shows with Amelio in Naples and at the Shafrazi Gallery in New York. They were hugely successful and Cutrone was duly installed alongside Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf as part of an emerging movement: Neo-Pop.
But Neo-Pop was not just a lame rehash of the great originals; it is radically different. Pop had been so called because it used popular source materials, but the manner in which it did so was distancing, cool, deadpan. Warhol treated Liz Taylor the way he treated an electric chair or the tuna-fish disaster. In his diaries he seldom paddled through mushy concepts like love, whereas Cutrone uses the word all the time. ‘Andy was classic,’ he says. ‘I’m a Romantic. He left no place else for me to go.’
Like Warhol, though, he does like using found sources. In this new body of work, he has moved on beyond Woody Woodpecker. ‘I want to use characters who are more anonymous, like Frosty the Snowman and the Gingerbread Man. I think there are too many images in the world — I don’t want to make new ones. I sometimes slip and make something new, but I don’t want to be original. I want to take things, buck them together and make something new from them. It’s very green in a way, it turns out. I’m recycling. I’ve been called a lot of things — but I like Pop, because it means popular.’
Anthony Haden-Guest writes about art for Saatchi Online
Images courtesy of Milk Studios