In the annals of “I am what I am,” Llyn Foulkes ranks as Exhibit A—that is, he can’t help being an eccentric, self-defeating Los Angeles artist, a poet, a singer, and a one-man band in command of exotic instruments.
At 78 years old, the often-overlooked artist finds himself the subject of a flurry of interest. Heralding his apparent re-arrival are a traveling retrospective curated by Ali Subotnick—which started at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles earlier this year and is now at the New Museum in New York through September 1—and One Man Band, a documentary by Tamar Halpern and Chris Quilty that recently premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
In the 1960s, Foulkes found some success with his series of paintings of rocky landscapes. Collectors and critics “liked it because it’s big,” Foulkes says. And he liked that “it’s easy to do.” He sold paintings to museums and had major shows—one at the legendary Ferus Gallery, another at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon). But then he started to paint cartoonish bloody heads and began a cycle of repeatedly “shooting himself in the foot,” as the filmmakers put it.
He was booted from the Ferus Gallery and fell off the radar, writing in a song: “They wanted me to be consistent, / Throw away my heart, / They wanted me to be nonresistant; / To promote the history of art. / And I didn’t go to their parties, / Painted at home instead, / So they kicked me out of the gallery / And that’s when I got ahead.”
He reveals in the film how he once sold a painting that had a real fetus in it. The woman who’d purchased it was horrified. “If she’s got a problem with real fetuses in it,” Foulkes says, “that’s her problem.” He wouldn’t take back the painting.
It was in the late ’90s when Foulkes met Halpern, who trailed the artist for seven years to make her documentary. Foulkes had moved from Topanga Canyon to the Brewery Arts Complex in downtown Los Angeles in 1997 after his 17-year marriage had ended. That was his first of two unsuccessful marriages. The second wife is the source of his longtime-in-the-making opus The Awakening (1994–2012), which depicts Foulkes in bed with her. It turns out he’d actually been working on the painting during his first marriage, which seems to have precipitated the divorce.
One Man Band includes interviews with Dennis Hopper, Johnny Carson, Paul Schimmel, and George Herms, as well as Foulkes’s three children and two ex-wives. “His paintings are corrosive allegories about the decline of American culture, the decline of artistic values, the indignities of aging, and the inevitability of violence,” says art critic Raphael Rubinstein, who’s also interviewed in the film.
As for his infamous one-man-band contraption (called “The Machine” and composed of clown horns, tin cans, a xylophone, and anything else that makes noise), Foulkes explains, “It’s an instrument. I just made for myself.” Not even his daughter, Jenny, is allowed to touch it. “I just start it and it goes.” It’s like cartoon music, he says.