In this world, most people get to be teenagers for exactly seven years. And then there’s the artist Larry Clark. Born in Tulsa, Okla., in 1943, Clark has been living and reliving the teen experience for some six decades.
His photograph books — including “Tulsa” (1971) and “Teenage Lust” (1983) — and his films — including “Kids” (1995) and “Bully” (2001) — are dispatches on youth culture from The Wrong Side of the Tracks, USA.
Here is a greasy-haired delinquent sucking on a joint; there a spoon, cork, eyedropper and syringe arranged like talismans on a bedside table; elsewhere a boy and girl embracing, beautifully stretched out on a carpet littered with cigarette butts.
Clark’s exhibition “Punk Picasso,” a collection of photographs, videos, paintings and found objects from the 1940s to the present, is now showing at the Watari-Um Museum of Contemporary Art. Last Saturday afternoon, I caught up with Clark and his twentysomething model, assistant and companion Tiffany. We set a spell, drank sparkling mineral water and, as Tiffany videotaped, had a chat.
“I started doing work more than 40 years ago,” said Clark, “when the image of America was applepie and Mom and white picket fences. Drug addiction, alcoholic mothers and fathers, child abuse and incest — that wasn’t part of the image. There were great photojournalists back then doing essays for Life magazine, but they always pulled their punches. There seemed to be things that couldn’t be shown because they weren’t supposed to be happening.”
It was this denial that compelled Clark to start photographing scenes of teenage decadence.
“I was injecting amphetamines when I was 16. There were people taking drugs back then, but it was really a secret life. I think if I could have seen these photographs anywhere else I would not have had to make them. That’s one of the reasons why I started making work, I just wondered, why can’t I see everything? So I started photographing my secret life in a secret world.”
The exhibition “Punk Picasso” is based on Clark’s new book of the same name, which tries to communicate the spirit of his life’s work by sifting through the clutter of his studio.
“I never actively collected things — I just didn’t throw things away,” he explained.
“My studio was full and I was always making collages, and I started to put it together as a book. At around the same time, the Luhring Augustine Gallery in New York had a last-minute cancellation, so I went and installed all the material from ‘Punk Picasso.’ “What’s interesting is that even if you didn’t know it was a book, it still works as an exhibition.”
The show proceeds in roughly chronological order. First up, in Watari-Um’s largest gallery, are family portraits and pictures of Clark’s childhood and school years. Memorabilia abounds — there are assorted newspaper clippings, baseball cards of Clark’s hero, Yankees slugger Roger Maris, and a 10-inch Johnny Ace 33 1/3 record, “Pledging my Love.”
Also in this room, there is a wall dedicated to the movie “Kids,” which includes documentation such as casting sheets. One of these shows an actor who is codenamed “Paul,” seen in his first photo as a good-looking boy. In a second picture, taken later in the filming, “Paul” has been badly battered, both eyes are bruised the color of raw liver.
On the next floor we find more than 100 pictures grouped in 40 frames, these from the series “Skaters” (1992-95) documenting the teens, decals, piercings and beer consumption of the skateboard counterculture. As always, Clark manages to find more than a few boys with their shirts off and their pants unbuttoned.
One of two low-resolution videos in the show sees a quartet of skaters being interviewed on a call-in TV show. The other video here is of Tiffany and her hyperactive dog, Snappy, in New York City.
In the museum’s final gallery we have the 1996-2003 works, more newspaper clippings, more pictures of kids slugging cheap whiskey — surely you get the idea by now.
As the decades go by, we see that teens have not really changed much. But Clark’s face has — in the ’60s, he’s a greased-back hepcat, way handsome in a “troubled loner” style. In the ’70s, the long ponytail and faraway eyes say “stoner.” In the ’80s and ’90s, Clark looks a scraggly man; clearly the fast life has by then, extracted its toll.
Surprisingly, when I met Clark on Saturday, he looked very well, was totally coherent and even personable. He still goes and hangs out with skateboarders, but maybe he is finally growing out of his teens?
There are, perhaps, a dozen works in “Punk Picasso” — of genitalia and fellatio — that likely won’t stay up to the end of the show because the Japanese authorities will order them to be removed. There is also an undercurrent of violence here.
In one snapshot, from the ’90s, Clark is seen sitting on a mattress in his underwear. His nose is bloodied, he is clutching a handgun and he has the devil in his eyes. (Soon after this picture was taken, Clark went into rehabilitation.)
A cynical interpretation would be that “Punk Picasso” is simply pages torn from a scrapbook of depravity — and that only if you are interested enough in Clark to be interested in what interests Clark, will this show interest you.
But a different interpretation emerges from the many images that communicate, with unwavering honesty, the simple realities of a preternatural life.
Said Clark: “I don’t think that I’ve ever done anything to shock people, I’m just photographing what’s going on. I’m just showing true events.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.