An interview with Jeffrey Perkins, New York-based artist and filmmaker
Weronika Trojańska 23/11/2016
I met Jeffrey Perkins, the New-York based artist and filmmaker, through the research I was doing about the Lithuanian-born artist George Maciunas. For the last seven years Perkins has been working on a documentary film – a portrait of one of the founders of the Fluxus Art Movement. His adventures with the intellectual avant-garde began in 1963 in Tokyo, while stationed by the US Air Force in Japan; there he met Yoko Ono, which then led to introductions to many artists and composers active at the time. After moving to Los Angeles in the late 1960s, Perkins worked for the Fox Venice Theater, managed Cinematheque 16, and co-founded the psychedelic light-show group Single Wing Turquoise Bird, which performed with The Velvet Underground, The Yardbirds, Cream, Sly and the Family Stone, among others. In 1981 Perkins returned to New York, where for the next twenty years he drove a taxi in order to support his artistic endeavors. Perkins has traveled worldwide to present his visual, audio, and conceptual works. Nicknamed “the Fluxus cabdriver” by Nam June Paik, Perkins knows almost everything about Fluxus first-hand. Having lived in relative obscurity for over four decades now, he has done performances and films for Yoko Ono, Tony Cox, Alison Knowles, and George Maciunas, to name a few. Recognized for his audio interviews as a taxi driver (“Movie for the Blind”), in 2008 he released a documentary film – a portrait of the abstract painter Sam Francis. Currently Perkins is preparing his upcoming solo show at The Sebastien Bertrand Gallery in Geneva, which will open in Spring 2017. We met in his apartment on the Upper West Side in New York City to talk about his experience with Fluxus, and to discuss his current production, a film called “GEORGE”, which is about to premier in a few months.
Jeffrey Perkins, making of “The Painter Sam Francis”
I am very curious about how you met George Maciunas.
I met George Maciunas in 1966, when Yoko Ono brought me to meet him in his apartment on West Broadway. At that time I was renting a flat from her on 1 West 100 Street. That was my first meeting with him.
What was your impression?
He was very European, I guess, very short hair, and intellectual. We came into the kitchen and there was a room on the left, where he was living. Three walls of that room were, as I recall, full of very organized cabinets, and he was showing us works from these cabinets. Of course, he was friends with Yoko, and I was just some young, new guy – he didn’t pay much attention to me. I was just there. He was showing Yoko some chess pieces, games that were made in the Fluxus fashion and according to his ideas about chess. And this particular idea that he showed us was “smell chess”. I believe there were black and white vials, so you would play the game by smell. It was not a visual game of chess.
That’s pretty extraordinary.
Very extraordinary, yes. He had several of these games in the cabinets. That’s what I recall seeing. I had heard about him through Yoko Ono when I was in the military in Tokyo, which is where I first met her. George was apparently sending Yoko Fluxus documents – a copy of the book “An Anthology”, which he had designed, and other Fluxus-related stuff. He was the first American intellectual artist that I had met, and so I was very receptive to this.
You were also involved in Fluxus activities at some point, right?
George started what he called “The First Fluxus Film Festival”. During that time I had a 16 mm camera, and while living with Yoko Ono and her husband Tony Cox, we made two Fluxus films. The first film was called “Fluxus Film No. 4”, also known as the “Bottoms” movie. I was a cameraman for that film, and it was simply a film of people who had been invited to the apartment and were asked to take off their pants and walk bare-assed in front of the camera. Nobody told me what to do. The same (or maybe the next) day Yoko asked me to make another film, and I came up with the idea for a movie which was later called “Shout”. Basically, Tony Cox (Yoko’s husband) and I were shot in profile as we argued with each other. And that was it. It was a silent film, and that was my film. So, those two films were included in the First Fluxus Film Festival at the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque – Jonas Mekas’ theater on West 41 Street. Yoko, Tony, and I, at that time, were working together, so to speak. I was living with them, so I was really absorbing the influence – which really had already begun in Tokyo.
Jeffrey Perkins and Tony Cox. Fluxus Film #22, “Shout” by Jeffrey Perkins, 1966
I heard that you also did some performances together.
They invited me into her performance-concert at Sogetsu Kaikan Hall, called “Farewell to Tokyo”. I had no idea what was going to be asked of me, so at that point I was ready for anything. The piece consisted of Tony and me tied back to back with ropes, very tightly, and with our arms around our bodies, so we couldn’t move very well. The instruction by Tony was that we would cross the proscenium of the stage – cross the stage from one side and then back again. The piece was performed in the dark. Yoko announced to the audience that the lights were going to be turned off, and that audience members were allowed to strike one match so that they could see that she had let out two snakes. We did this piece. It was terrifying to me because it was very hard to perform without falling over, and I was sweating.
This was my introduction into the avant-garde. Before that, I was simply an observer. However, because we became friends, they accepted me into their circle. And because of that, I met many, many important composers and artists – some came into Fluxus, while others were classical or experimental. Plus, Yoko was feeding me all these texts to read – the “An Anthology” book and other texts. She also introduced me to the I-Ching Book of Changes, which I studied, and John Cage’s book “Silence”. I was working at the military hospital at that time, night shifts, so I had many hours of nothing to do but read. And I read a lot. Anyway, this was my education. Basically, I was being educated. Previously, I’d been an art student and a young artist in New York City – actually, during 1961 and 1962, which is when Yoko’s concerts on Chamber Street were going on, but I had no idea about that. I knew about abstract expressionism and abstract art, about Romantic paintings from Europe, and I used to go to MoMA all the time. When I met Yoko, I met a totally different class of art and thinking. The impression was that this was not visual art – it was more of an intellectual art that had to do with literature and creativity.
How did this influence your practice as an artist at the time?
While I was in the military, as I said, I had a camera, so I was shooting personal activities that dealt with me – walking, insignificant things that were journalistic, basically. I was also doing some written pieces that were influenced by Jackson MacLow’s writing. And this practice kind of gave me a direction and a certain liberty, as far as creativity was concerned. When I was a young man, my primary influence was literature. I liked to read, I liked books; my education in reading came from the library in my home town, in Springfield, Massachusetts. When I decided to be an artist, I began with painting, so I started to develop as a young painter. The Fluxus influence was existential; it was just new, completely fresh. I was twenty-three, twenty-four years old, and I was totally ready for that. Also, people I had known served as a primary influence. Basically, I am an improvisational kind of a person in terms of how I do what I do. There had been occasions when I’d done relatively originals works. The idea that you are an artist is that you are a free being and you can do as you wish – you do what your imagination and the influences of the mind conduct or influence you to do. So, yes, it definitely changed my thinking about art.
Sam Francis at SF Ashland st. studio, 1969
A couple of years ago you completed your film about Sam Francis (“The Painter Sam Francis”). How did your interest in making biographical films start?
Coincidentally enough, I met Sam Francis when I was in Japan. In fact, he had created a mural in the lobby of Sogetsu Kaikan Hall, and he was in the audience during my participation in “Farewell to Tokyo”. I had also been invited to the Fluxus Festival at the University of Hawaii East-West Center, by a scholar there – an ethnomusicologist named Fred Lieberman. I met him through Yoko. Fred was from Brooklyn and we got along very well very quickly. Sam Francis was there, in fact, visiting Hawaii. He was traveling with Jasper Johns. I knew that they were there, but I didn’t meet them. Sam Francis was, by that time, a known name in abstract painting, and I had seen his works at MoMA when I was at school. I knew who he was and I admired his paintings. They were very singular and strong abstract expressionist statements. Really great. I participated in Fluxus concerts at the East-West Center, in the performance of John Cage’s “Atlas Eclipticalis”. We made some noises, and John Cage conducted the piece.
There was another thing that Yoko gave me to perform. It was a circular score with notation on the circumference of a circle. It was called “Crapping Piece”. The word to crap means to take a shit, and I thought, I’ve been asked to perform this piece in a concert. (I was still pretty fresh on the scene, certainly not ambitious as an artist, because I was so young to the whole thing.) And I thought – “Interesting, but I am not going to take my pants down and take a shit on stage in this high art situation” [laughs]. So I didn’t. I just ignored it. I didn’t bring the piece into the concert. Well, many years later – I had kept the score (I finally sold it to John Hendricks) – I realized that the composer, Yasunao Tone, had misspelled the title of the piece! In the Japanese language they have a certain pronunciation that is different than that in American English. In fact, I was dumb enough to have mistranslated the piece, which was actually supposed to be “Clapping Piece” [laughs]!
Sam Francis at SF Ashland st. studio, 1969
Sam Francis was there, too? Did he see that?
No, he was not. Back in Tokyo, there was an avant-garde gallery in Shimbashi called Niaqua Gallery. One night, Yoko told me and Jed Curtis that there was an interesting concert going on, and that we should go check it out. We went, and the door to the concert was shut with boards nailed across the entrance, and a sign that said “Show canceled. Go away”. So, Jed and I went to a restaurant, ate, and went back again. The door was now open, and the room was full of people. In the center of the room was one chair, and sitting in the chair was Sam Francis. Standing next to him was Jasper Johns. Recently I found pictures of that same event. Yoko also staged the concert at the Niaqua’s second room, which was called “Fly”. It was an audience-participation piece in which she invited people to either fly or to demonstrate how they would fly [laughs]. In any case, the concert at the Niaqua was actually a concert by a group called Hi-Red Center, the premier avant-garde group in Tokyo at that time. They were out there, doing original public works. After that event, I joined my friend Jed Curtis and we went to a Japanese bar in a basement. I don’t know how we found it, but I remember that we were sitting in a booth, there was a Yves Tinguely sculpture on the wall, we were drinking sake, and in the next booth there was Sam Francis sitting with Yoshiaki Tōno, I think – an important critic in Japan at that time. So Sam was there, and I was like “Wow, you are here”.
In late 1964 Yoko and Tony Cox had their daughter, Kyoko, who was born in Tokyo. In fact, when I met Yoko, she was late in pregnancy with that child. They moved back to New York and I wanted to stay. However, the military wouldn’t let me do that. I was reassigned to the base at Washington DC. My job was working in a psychiatric hospital, where mostly what I did was play the piano for the patients that were on drugs. And they loved it [laughs]. I was a good improviser.
That sounds like a Fluxus piece [laughs]!
Yeah! I was already there, you see?
I was still in touch with Tony and Yoko, and I went back to New York, which is where they were living now. I think it was at the time of Yoko Ono’s concert at Carnegie Recital Hall, where she performed “Cut Piece”. It is a famous piece in which she invited the audience to come onto the stage and cut her clothing off. Tony and I were backstage then, I remember. It was a powerful performance. In 1966 I was discharged in January, and I moved to their apartment in New York, just six blocks from where we are sitting right now. The work continued with them for about one year. We had an exhibition at the Judson Church Gallery, called “The Stone”. It was an installation piece in which I made a movie – a text film that would be displayed on sequential days. There was also a map on the floor that Tony Cox had made. A very interesting piece. And Yoko wrote quite a long text for the catalog, which was also a part of the show. That was my first show in New York City. It was quite thrilling. We were all pretty high about the whole thing. The entire installation eventually moved to the Zen-macrobiotic restaurant in the East Village called “Paradox Restaurant”. We were all on macrobiotics.
The East Village at that time was just being born. It was 1966. The Hippie scene didn’t really explode until 1968, but it was pretty active at that time. Tony and Yoko invited me to join them again in a building that they had found and were occupying on 99th and 2nd Avenue, where Yoko had started a conceptual gallery. I took the top floor of the place and was making paintings on canvas – of text, words. All of that, of course, came from the influence of “An Anthology”, from Yoko’s work, and all that...
Referring a bit to my previous question… How did you switch from making art and experimental films to making feature films?
Because I owned a 16mm camera, which later I basically lost. At that time, because I was working as a waiter at a restaurant, I met a woman who was an actress. She was living in Hollywood, and we had this very torrid love affair. She moved back to L.A., and I was suddenly evicted from the 99th and 2nd Avenue space, and I had to do something. I was fired up by this woman, so I decided “Hell, I am going to Hollywood”. So I got a car, drove to L.A., and moved in with her. Her name was Bobbie Shaw – she was my girlfriend and she was an actress in movies. She knew a lot of people, a lot of actors. Later I got a job projecting at a movie theater right in the center of the Sunset Strip, which was really boiling at the time. This was in 1967 and the new scene in L.A. was just beginning, and it was hot. The Sunset Strip especially. And I found myself right in the middle of that. When the manager of the program decided to leave, I got his job. So, I became the manager and program director for this experimental movie theater. This was a kind of locus of experimental film-making activity at that time.
That was before you started to make your own films?
Yes, yes. However, I remember that Fred Lieberman had moved to L.A. to do his PhD at UCLA in musicology. One evening he invited me to a cocktail reception for Yoko Ono’s first husband, Toshi Ichiyanagi. It was at Fred’s apartment, and who showed up but Sam Francis with his new wife, Mako Idemitsu. So there he is, in the room!
Jeffrey Prkins and Sam Francis, photo by Larry Janss
I didn’t meet him then. Yet, in the work that I was doing – as the program manager of the theater – the concept for a light show was born. We basically founded it for the purpose of doing rock concerts in a very large hall near USC (University of Southern California). They were spectacular! We did the shows for all of the great British and New York bands, including the Velvet Underground, and the West Coast bands, mostly from San Francisco. Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Big Brother and Holding Company, The Who, Cream. I remember that one night we were doing a concert (I think it might have been the Velvet Underground); in the middle of the concert, we were up on scaffolding in the center of this big room – seven, eight thousand people – and while we were working, I turned around and there was Sam Francis, standing on the scaffolding with us. And I thought – “Wow! My faith is at work here”.
We continued doing the concerts and, eventually, the equipment that we were working with was being stored in a little shop in Venice. I remember one day I was at a department store in Santa Monica, and I went out into the road to hitchhike a ride. A car stopped and I got in – it was Sam Francis driving! He was alone, and I said to myself: “This is it. I finally get to meet this guy”. Soon after that, Sam Francis was doing a lithograph at the studio in which we were storing the equipment. The company that we were working for went broke, and our light show then relocated to that shop; it was a very small space in which we continued to do the shows, because we had built up this style of work. Sam Francis saw our work and he was really taken by it. He really liked what I was doing, which was basically slide projector animation. I was working with six Kodak slide projectors with shutters, doing animation or a flicker effect. I’d seen Tony Conrad’s film “The Flicker” in New York, and that was kind of what influenced me.
So, Sam Francis suddenly became our patron. He decided to pay for everything that we needed to do. One day, he said to me that he was commissioned by the National Gallery of West Germany in Berlin to do the largest painting of his life. I could see it – as a spectacle, as a performative piece. He was already a colorful kind of individual. He told me that he had never let anybody into the studio, not even his dog. “However, if you think you can handle it, I’ll agree to do it”. I started filming him at work, in that studio in Santa Monica in Ocean Park, two blocks from the Pacific Ocean. The light was just incredible there. I spent about a year in that room, waiting for him to start that painting – which he eventually did, and I filmed it. I filmed him making three of the five shapes of the painting. That was the beginning of my film on Sam Francis. I interviewed him in 1973, which was a catastrophic event for me; however, now it stands as something quite important, because it’s the only interview-film that there is with the artist Sam Francis.
Were you, at that time, already consciously thinking about doing a film about him?
No, I wasn’t. To me, I was still an artist at that point. I thought I was just working. I am shooting a film, I am recording this event. It was more of a kind of documentation. Pure documentation.
The interview, too?
No. I had already seen the recording of the painting event. The first scene I filmed was when he came into this white space with blue underwear, tied like a bikini, and a bright red shirt. And the first thing he did was this very gestural stroke of red, and I am filming it – “Holy shit!” I was really glad that I recorded it. To me, it was a spectacular, important event. After I looked at that footage, which also included works that he did in the litho shop, I knew that I had a pretty good body of work for the making of a film – a 16mm color film about an important painter. So, I though that I’d better interview him, too. At the beginning, I thought of it as an artwork, as a film, but then, because of the spectacular, dramatic nature of the footage of him, I thought it needs to be something else. I want other people to see it. This interview was the first document that was intended to be a movie from the start. I prepared chronological questions for him – about his career, where he had been, what he had done. He demolished that idea very quickly, however, and threw the interview into an existential experience of two people trying to get somewhere that they really didn’t know where they were going.
I’ve been thinking about this movie after having seen it. It is like an essay. There are so many layers, but it’s very intimate. You began work on the movie about Sam Francis when he was still alive, whereas you began work on the film about George Maciunas more than 30 years after his death. I imagine that the approach to these two films was totally different.
It’s has a totally different motive, a different idea and everything. I completed the film on Sam Francis in 2008. I didn’t finish the film while he was still alive because of personal reasons. I had filmed him again in his studio, in 1977. I tried to finish the film in L.A., but my life took over. Just like the interview, which was not about Sam Francis, the painter – it was more about life. It was an existential experience. And because it was done on color film, it has this quality of being there that is different than any other interview that I had ever seen with an artist, a painter, in a documentary film. It was a challenge for me to figure out how that would play into showing an important abstract expressionist on film, which is some kind of a holy zone. The whole idea of abstract expressionism is this sacred domain. To become a successful and famous painter, you have to prove that shit...messing with a language of some importance, art history. He always was Sam Francis – the famous painter. And he made that his business, too. He wasn’t ashamed of that. He was quite happy with that reputation. Although he paid a price for that. I mean, he did the work. Nobody else did those paintings.
I knew that I had to make a film, but my personal life took over, and that is what brought me to New York City. In fact, I decided that I wouldn’t make a film – I’ll became a painter. And what kind of paintings did I do? Why, of course! I did messy paintings – I would move my arm like Sam Francis did, and the images would be like those of Sam Francis. I can do a very good imitation of his work, I know him like myself.
In any case, in the year 2000, Sony came up with a camera that could record good digital sound. In fact, I was in the middle of a piece that had come up out of my Fluxus direction, which was recording the interviews in my taxi cab on weekends, when I was a driver. So, I was a kind of professional interviewer. I bought the camera and I flew to L.A. to interview the people who had worked with him. And I started making the movie then. It was a long story. Basically, I finished the film in 2008. It was released and exhibited. I got some shows. I thought I had accomplished something. I had made a movie. I am an artist who actually made a movie. I am proud. I am happy. People liked it, not everybody, but some people liked it. And I thought that it was a good film. I thought – I am a filmmaker. One night I was walking with Christian Xatrec down Houston Street after a beer at Milano’s, and I thought – I need a job; and the word “George” came into my head. Then it came to me: “Nobody has made a film about Maciunas”.
Yoko Ono Farewell Concert. Sogetsu Hall, Tokyo, 1964
You had known many artists related to the Fluxus movement – Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Alison Knowles, and Jackson Mac Low, to name a few. Why Maciunas, then? Because of the Fluxus approach to work, and its respect of daily labor? You said you needed a job [laughing]...
Well, George was the inventor of Fluxus. He was the boss! And as I said, nobody had actually made a movie about him. I had made a portrait of an artist. I did Sam Francis. And I thought “George – he is famous now”. Fluxus was art history by then. This was in 2009. I knew the people running the Emily Harvey Gallery, which was a Fluxus gallery, and I was showing my work there. I was already back into the Fluxus stream, so it was easy for me to do this transposition. To grab the idea of it. And I knew Maciunas’ life; I knew what he was like! And I knew that he would be an interesting character study. If I make a movie about somebody, he should be interesting. I knew Maciunas to be interesting. It came very quickly.
That’s true, and not many things had been revealed about him at that time…
That’s right. It was nothing, actually. I don’t think he wanted that. When he was near death, he gave Larry Miller an interview, but for most of his life, he basically made fun of himself and he would not promote himself in a kind of egotistical way – such as Sam Francis did, who was so rich and famous. George was opposed to the very idea of it. And in fact, people said to me: “You’re making a movie about Maciunas, after one about Sam Francis? Wait a minute. Those are two different kinds of people”. But I thought I had an authority to make this film. I can make this film because I’ve been there and I have met him. In fact, I worked with him – as a minor assistant of course, not as a true collaborator, as far as Fluxus was concerned.
In 1994 Nam June Paik invited me – this was the year of Sam Francis’ death, in fact – to perform in a big festival that he was producing at the Anthology Film Archive called SeOUL-NYmAX Fluxus Korean Festival. The reason why he invited me was because I had picked him up off the street while driving my cab one day. I had met him in L.A., when he was at CalArts. He was also often seen at the Emily Harvey Gallery for openings, so I had had brush-ins with him there. He knew about my relationship with Yoko, and he also knew that I had worked for John and Yoko to find Kyoko, the daughter of Tony and Yoko that had been kidnapped by Tony. John and Yoko hired me to find her. That’s a whole other story.
That’s like material for another movie.
That’s another movie [laughing]. So, he knew about it, but that’s a whole other story, as I said. I did a performance and Nam June loved it, and because of that he gave me another performance date. I did two performances in that festival. I though “I am in”. I was still a cabbie, though. I drove a cab until 2003, but I felt like bona fide Fluxus. Nam June said so. By the way, he called me “the ultimate Fluxus underdog.”
I wanted the Sam Francis film to be a success because it could bring me money. In fact, it changed my entire life because film-making kind of took over. I still make art; I am still active, in a way. However, I am kind of known as a filmmaker now. Sam Francis’ film was kind of easy to pull off – a film on a painter; but with George, it’s a challenge. And I knew that at the very beginning, because the nature and work of Fluxus is not demonstrable in such a visual way. It would have to come across as a movie to serve the legacy of Fluxus and George Maciunas, because it would be a portrait film. However, I knew of George’s eccentric and peculiar life, and his effect on art history – mostly because of who he was and his impact on art. I knew how important that was. That was a major influence on my life. Not directly only from him, but the year that I spent in New York (when I met him), was a very influential one. When I moved to L.A. in 1967, I did performances through Fred Lieberman, and I also did performance and conceptual pieces. At that time there was no such thing in LA. There was no performance art; there was no intellectual art per se. I felt like I was bringing a fresh influence, and I didn’t know anybody else in L.A. at that time who was doing that kind of thing. The Fluxus influence never really left me. In my writing, it’s always there. The intellectual became an important part.
So, it was totally natural to make a movie about it.
Yes. It was easy to conceive of it. I just thought: “George. I’ll do that”. People refer to him – George did this, George did that. I thought that would be a good title, too, because the name George is very American – George Washington, a very common name...it’s a dumb sort of name. A guy named George is kind of a nerdy name. And George was a nerd. George was a super nerd! He knew that, and played it, in fact. That’s why I think that the film makes sense. The idea of it makes sense.
Jeffrey Perkins’ taxi driver identification card
Do you sometimes wonder if Gorge would like the movie? What he would think of it?
I think that he would like it. I mean, I don’t know if he would like the movie itself. All during the time that Emily was alive and I was exhibiting at the Emily Harvey Gallery, I was kind of known as the guy who drove a cab. Emily would get me jobs driving Charlotte Moorman, all of the Fluxus artists. George didn’t like artists, apparently. That’s what people say. He was against this idea because of his socialist ideas. He thought that artists were wasting good time because they were basically serving themselves and the capitalist motive; they contributed to the problem of capitalism, and he was opposed to it. And I think that my job as a cab driver served this ideal of his. I had to survive, and I was in service to the people of NY.
What this film will look like, what will it be...to tell you the truth, I don’t know. We are close to being done, however. I just followed my instincts and knowledge about whom to interview and what to talk about. Basically, it’s a film made up of interviews and presentations of Fluxus work; the spirit of Fluxus and George’s life. I think that what will come out in the end, and what would be the most memorable, is his life. And in that sense, he would like that; he would approve. Because I am being honest about him and I am not holding anything back. I am trying to tell the truth and trying to have fun, too. I’m exploring the greater dimensions of what George thought Fluxus to be. “Fluxus was a joke!” he said. I think that he was an idealist. He had certain ideas about himself and Fluxus. He was trying to do the right thing for the common man, and he was against all that was bad in the world. Those are ideas that I am true to, and that the film is going to be true to as well. I think I am doing the right thing. I do.