Excerpt from interview by Rebecca McGrew, December 17, 2009
Rebecca McGrew Your exhibition for Hal Glicksman’s “Artist Gallery” program at Pomona was from December 12 to 20 in 1969. How did it come about that Hal invited you?
Ron Cooper Let me tell you how I knew Hal. When I was in art school at Chouinard, in the early sixties, there was a guy who was making really cool paintings that had a show at Ralph Stewart Gallery on La Cienega, named Michael Olodort. Through him, I met Phil Hefferton, who was also a pop painter. Through Olodort and Hefferton, I met Hal and Gretchen Glicksman in Pasadena. They knew all the artists living downtown in those lofts.
RM Were you working on your MFA at this time?
RC Ah, no. I got pushed out of Chouinard by John Dean. It was the period, around ’64–’65, when Chouinard was going to become CalArts. And Ed Reep, who was the head of the California Watercolor Society and definitely a fifties kind of painter, was the dean of painting at Chouinard. He began to fire cool people like Bob Irwin and John Altoon, and limit the input that we young students had. So we formed a student body organization. I was the representative for the junior year, and we had a meeting in the library. And Disney had six three-piece-gray-suited lawyers walk in. And we said, “Look, we’re very happy to take classes from Ed Reep and the old school, but we want young, vital people as well.” Anyway, Dean was one of those attorneys, and he said: “Look, we know what’s good for your education. You limit yourselves to school dances and art sales. We’ll take care of the rest.” And I stood up and gave everyone the finger. I said, “Fuck you. This is the end of my formal education.”
RM What year was that?
RC In ’64 or ’65. I had been working eight hours a day at Chouinard, five days a week, and eight hours a day in my studio. After this incident with Dean and the Disney people, I was exhausted. It was just before lunch, and I collapsed on the sidewalk, sitting against the wall. All the teachers came out and shook my hand and said, “You did the right thing.” I went back to my studio and I took stacks of all the work I had done up to that moment and put it out on the sidewalk for the trash pick-up the next day. I decided that the things that were the most personal to me were a sense of scale; I grew up in a small town—Ojai, California. Instead of the abstraction of the city, where you go north four blocks and then you go east a block, and then north another half block, I grew up where you could see everything. I wanted to deal with a scale that was real, rather than abstract. Ojai is basically a bowl, just like James Turrell’s crater.
RM That’s right, Ojai is in a valley.
RC And it’s filled with this incredible light. I wanted to deal with space, a sense of scale, and light. When I was a teenager, I was really into hotrods; I was going to be the greatest car customizer in the world. When I was eighteen, I went to Europe for a year. I saw all the great work in the museums, and realized that what I really wanted to be was an artist. But what was most personal to me were the materials and techniques of my time—the custom lacquer paint, nacreous pigment, surfboard resin.
RM Was this when you were working on the Vertical Bars?
RC Yes, and the Light Traps. The Vertical Bars had a scale the size of an American four by four (which are really 3 5/8 by 3 5/8 inches) and were seven to eight feet high. I thought a lot about the materials of construction and the tract housing in Southern California, that kind of density and volume. So I began making pieces that related to all these things.
RM Don’t the Vertical Bars have many layers of pigment?
RC Yes, of nacreous pigment, lacquer, and transparent pigment, sanded many times, then more layers. Close to thirty layers of transparent pigment. At that time, I began to meet another group of artists. I shared my earliest work with Bill Petit, Terry O’Shea, who’s dead, and Doug Wheeler. We hung out in each other’s studios. And then Ron Davis became a part of this group of artists.