Nicknamed “the Fluxus cabdriver” by Nam June Paik, Jeffrey Perkins is an artist and filmmaker who has worked in relative obscurity for over four decades, having collaborated in the 1960s with Fluxus artists including George Maciunas, Yoko Ono, and Alison Knowles. Until recently he was best known for his light projection performances and his “Movies for the Blind” (based on sound recordings of interviews with passengers in his cab). He recently completed a documentary, The Painter Sam Francis, an endeavor that was itself 40 years in the making. He continues to do performance art, most recently at X-Initiative and Daniel Reich Gallery in New York, and his artwork was most recently on view at Front Desk Apparatus Space. In Part Two of this two-part interview, Perkins discusses redeeming the catastrophe of his documentary, and getting out of the driver seat his new work. PART I is here.
GILLIAN SNEED: Tell me a little bit about the [Sam Francis] film.
JEFFREY PERKINS: One day Sam was [at our shared studio space in L.A.] and he bragged to me, he said, “Look I’ve just been commissioned to make the largest painting of my career. It’s going to be something like 60 by 40 feet of painting, so I said, “Well, why don’t I film you making this painting?”
SNEED: And you just suggested this out of general interest?
PERKINS: Yes. At that point it was just for documentation. He was going to make a huge painting. As far as I was concerned, that was a performance. And it turned out to be that. So he said, “Well I’ve never let anybody into the studio when I’ve worked before, but if you feel like you can handle it, let’s do it.” JEFFREY PERKINS, ILLUMINATED SELF-PORTRAIT, 1972. COURTESY THE ARTIST
SNEED: He must have really trusted you.
PERKINS: Well, he really liked what I was doing at the time. To him that was something really interesting. So I followed him around, borrowed cameras, scrounged around for film. I didn’t have any money and at the beginning, I said to Sam, “Look, I don’t want you to be involved in this thing financially. I want this to be separate from your own expenses.”
SNEED: And why was that? Because you wanted to maintain authorial agency?
PERKINS: I don’t really know why I said that. I wasn’t planning make a film at that point. It was just like…
SNEED: Your instinct.
PERKINS: I work in the moment, you know? And that was a decision that was made in the moment. And as far as I was concerned, Sam and I had an artist-to-artist relationship, and that’s the way he wanted it too. This was 1968. It was a very special moment-for him, for me, and for the world really. Anyway, I kind of followed him and then I waited for a year while the canvas was prepared. The canvas occupied the 2nd floor of his studio, and one day, he just walked in to that, in his blue underwear and red shirt, and made this incredible mark in this white space. I could barely hold myself together. I had this hand-held Airflex camera. I didn’t know if it was going to work. And here was this miracle, as far I was concerned.
SNEED: So how did it turn into a documentary?
PERKINS: Filming him painting, I didn’t feel like I was making a movie. I was recording it, but there wasn’t a plan. I filmed in the litho shop; I filmed him painting, no home stuff. It was pure art. Then in 1973, I was looking at this footage, and I felt I had something going with this incredible footage of an artist at work. By this time our relationship had grown. We were friends. So I decided to interview him. He said he’d never been interviewed before, [but] I went over for breakfast one morning and him and Mako, his wife, were there, and I proposed to interview him and he agreed… So we showed up at the appointed day at Sam’s garden and did this interview, which was an extraordinary life-changing catastrophe for me.
SNEED: Why catastrophe?
PERKINS: As far as I was concerned, it was a disaster. It was an emotional test of my mettle… I was sweating it out. I couldn’t really interview him. He wouldn’t answer questions about art; he was just being as feisty and playful as he could possibly be. At the end of the interview we were both standing next to his studio door. I stood next to him. He didn’t say a word to me. I didn’t say anything to him. We didn’t even look at each other…I told him I was going to destroy the film. And he still didn’t say anything. So, I left. I tried to edit together a film, but there were a couple of things he said in the interview that were so mysterious to me that I felt I needed to clarify these statements, these inscrutable statements he made. So I went through them again, and I said, “I want to re-interview you.”
SNEED: That must have taken a bit of courage to re-approach him about it.
PERKINS: Well, at that time, we were still friends. It wasn’t the disastrous thing to end our relationship; it was just a terrible experience. But anyways, he said, “No, I don’t do things over. However, you can film me painting again.” So, he re-invited me to the studio to film him painting in the same studio in 1977, and those were the last rolls I shot of him. But in 1977, my son was born, and I was involved in a serious relationship with his mother. And I tried to make a film, but I was never satisfied with what I had.
SNEED: So you took a hiatus from the film.
PERKINS: I ended up moving to New York in 1981. My life got very busy and I needed to make money, so I decided to be a cab driver. I started driving a cab in 1982, and I kept trying to finish the film. My relationship with Sam continued, but I could never get the film done, and in 1994 he died.
SNEED: You never shot any more footage?
PERKINS: No. In 2000, I bought a good quality mini-DV camera that could record digital sound, and I went out to L.A. with a cameraperson and interviewed five people. And at this point, I decided, “I’m going to make this movie now.” So, from 2000 to 2008, I produced the movie. It was based on the 16mm color footage that I shot in L.A. during that nine year period, and now that movie’s done. That movie is finished.
SNEED: And you’ve been showing it in New York, and nationally and internationally.
PERKINS: Yes. I just screened it at the Louvre in Paris; it just played at the Tate, and it had a seven-day run at the Anthology Film Archives, and at festivals. It still doesn’t have a distributor, but I’m working towards that now.
SNEED: How has the feedback been?
PERKINS: Every screening I’ve had, the reaction has been the same. People are moved by the experience of watching this film. It does have the feeling of a personal film, though it is a professional film. It is a conventional documentary with soul. There’s a certain point in a movie where it takes a certain personal turn. When you see him in this interview, then the film changes. So, in the end, it was the interview that saved the movie. It was that disastrous interview that made this movie great.
SNEED: Right now you have something up at Front Desk Apparatus Space, the gallery in art advisor Rob Teeters’ office, here in New York. Tell me a little about that.
PERKINS: Well, I know the guy who was curating the Front Desk show.
SNEED: [Artist] Amir Mogharabi?
PERKINS: Yes, we performed together about three times. We did a joint show at Daniel Reich [Gallery], in which we did a blindfolded performance for the opening. For the show up at Front Desk Apparatus, they selected two black drawings, which I made in 1979 in Los Angeles, and was the last work that I did there, and they had never really been shown publicly.
SNEED: They’re black ink squares, a bit like Mondrian but glossy and hung very high, adjacent on a corner in the back of the space. Do you want to talk about them?
PERKINS: They are black ink drawings, basically black squares. They were made as a set. They’re three feet by three feet, and I made five or six purely black ones. They all had a shiny surface to them, because they’re done with ink on plastic coated cover stock. They’re fetishistic in a way, as objects, as well as being black squares. These are the last works that I did in Los Angeles, and I felt like these were also works that came out of a consequence of both need and a purpose.
SNEED: I’m curious how audiences now react differently or the same to your work, as audiences from the 1960s and 1970s.
PERKINS: It’s better now. The reaction is more sublime. My reaction to it is if it doesn’t take me to paradise, I’ve failed. I feel like I have to really create something extraordinary to satisfy myself.
SNEED: And are you returning to film?
PERKINS: Since I finished the film [on Sam Francis], I’m starting a new documentary portrait of George Maciunas. I wasn’t as personally involved with him as I was with Sam, though I do have an association with Fluxus, because of my past, and also because of some of the work I do now. I believe his personal life is cinematic. And I believe, so far as a portrait of an artist is concerned, that’s exciting.
SNEED: Do you think of yourself as an undiscovered artist?
PERKINS: You know, I’ve never really been successful as an artist. I’ve always been on the edge. [People say,] “He knew so and so. He knew famous people.” I mean, I accept that, but the Sam Francis film has given me a kind of official identity in the arts, which I never really had before, which is nice. I think I’ll continue doing what I’ve been doing. As long as I can continue to do my work and feed myself, I’ll be happy.