Artist interview: Dorothée Selz

Was ‘pop art’ a term used by yourself or colleagues or was there a different terminology that referred to a new figurative art movement in the 1960s and early 1970s?

Yes, I was aware of the term pop art since the early 1960s; it was used by my artist friends around me. Later around 1969 I discovered nouveau réalisme and met writer and curator Pierre Restany.

Notes on my discoveries:
I was born in Paris in 1946 and grew up in the city, so from an early age I became attracted to visual arts and visited many exhibitions, often with my father Guy Selz (1901–1976), who back then worked as a journalist for Elle magazine; he was the chief administrative officer and in charge of the cultural section of the magazine. Between 1964 and 1967 I went to Camondo School, a school of interior design. The Ecole des Beaux Arts de Paris in 1964 seemed to have never heard of pop art, or performance art, or abstract art or op art, and I didn’t want to study in such a conservative institution. I am an autodidact.

In 1965 in Paris, British pop art and North American pop art were not much exhibited; I only knew of Alexandre Iolas Gallery, which opened in 1964. The American Centre had an excellent programme showing American, French and international experimental avant-garde artists such as Festival Fluxus, John Giorno, John Cage, Marc’O’s theatre, Bernard Heidsieck, action poetry or visual poetry, Living Theatre, Philip Glass. This constituted my ‘marginal university’, where I discovered and learnt everything. I was fascinated by these new modes of expression, subversive, provocative, poetic and challenging works.

Did you ever consider yourself (now or in the past) as a pop artist?

Not really, but pop art culture influenced me. Today I can still define myself as influenced by pop art, eat art and performance. Between 1962 and 1972 I often went to London. I was fascinated by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, British rock music, the gigs at the Roundhouse, the Arts Lab created by Jim Haynes (1967), the music records’ design, fashion at Biba, Twiggy’s style, ‘The Shrimp’s’ [Jean Shrimpton] style, make-up by Mary Quant, pop artists that I had seen in galleries – Peter Blake (Kasmin gallery), Richard Hamilton – and the events at the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Arts]. In London, it was mainly the radical changes in society, the socio-cultural changes, which were the most visible and palpable. I was fascinated by a part of Britain’s youth. I was living and fully embracing pop culture, I wanted to be pop, whether I was or not. Inspiration was found in the streets, posters, adverts, industrialisation of the everyday life, fashion. Pop was influenced by subversive trends, which were protesting against institutions’ stiffness, conservative traditions and the role of women as housewives.

I thought that Harald Szeemann’s When Attitudes Become Form could be applied to other artistic practices and research other than just minimalism.

Did your work engage with current events in the 1960s and early 1970s?

Yes my work was linked to the socio-cultural context of the years from 1960 to 1975. Society was changing as well as behaviours and I felt the necessity to develop new attitudes in my work:

- new pictorial subjects linked to current socio-political issues
- new modes of action outside galleries (performances in the streets to de-sacralise art)
- new approaches to the public (with its active participation)
- use of new materials (industrial or unusual ones such as the edible)
- attempts to destroy a few taboos (after our Dadaist predecessors)

French society was then fully metamorphosing. I experienced events in Paris in May 1968 with conscience, seriousness and euphoria: students’ and workers’ protests, feminist movements, sexual liberation, a whole population becoming aware.

Current events were also the origin of fear or interrogation:

Algerian War of Independence from France (1954–62)
Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in Spain
the USA and Vietnam War
dictatorships in Latin America
Black Power in the USA
the Cold War and the USA/Soviet Union’s nuclear race
cf Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove

But the news was also marked by a certain utopia and poetry, with the Beat generation, the hippie movement, the new literature and the music boom, with Woodstock in 1969 and the Isle of Wight festival, which I went to. I was a fan of The Who and Jimi Hendricks.

Young people felt either in danger, because of wars and repression (depending on the countries they came from) or by the utopian movement, longing for a new way of life (like hippies, beatniks), with rock music and its huge collective rituals. I identified with that.

In France, the economic boom enabled women to be financially independent. There was little unemployment and everyday life didn’t cost much. The changes in traditions and the socio-cultural changes enabled women to play other roles in society. I was a feminist and I still am, in the sense of rights to fight for, for the new social role of women, and for the changes in intimacy in parallel with the changes in society. This also implied new sexual/erotic relationships, but of course with males’ complicity, in so far as a new woman also implies a new man, right?!

September 1969 was my first collective performance with my artist friends Antoni Miralda, Joan Rabascall and Jaume Xifra at the American Centre – a visual and edible ritual installation-performance which sought the audience’s direct participation, with an indirect pop spirit. We met Pierre Restany in 1970 and Daniel Spoerri in 1971. Since 1972 we have pursued own artistic careers, influenced – among others – by pop art.

I was fascinated by the edible as a new experimental element (I worked with bakers and pastry chefs), and collaborated with Miralda as the ‘Miralda-Selz Colourist-Caterers’ and created many edible works.

How did you choose the subject for your work included in The World Goes Pop?

From 1960 to 1975 the woman was depicted in popular imagery (calendars) or sophisticated imagery (Playboy magazine or Allen Jones’s works) as a seducer, femme fatale or pseudo prostitute. Or, on the other hand, as a housewife or mother of a family. These two clichés were the most common: mother or femme fatale. I thought that women were in an ambiguous position, between the secret desire to resemble the ‘sexy female models’ and the rejection of these models. It is in this spirit that I conceived this series where I staged myself as a model, by highlighting with humour the ambivalence of the female image in sexy pictures. By posing as a model – to imitate or to reject? – I was myself becoming the model of this tricky topic. What kind of woman shall I become? Which woman would I like to resemble? Which woman am I? I didn’t want to ‘portray myself’ but I couldn’t see anyone else but myself illustrating my intention. In fact, I would say that by presenting the model and myself, the subject is double, it is a complex duo: the model and its imitation, the model and its ironical imitation, the anonymous model and myself.

Over the years I wondered about the life of this anonymous woman – what was the model’s real life?

Notes on the processes of creation of the diptychs:
1. Choose an image from hundreds.
2. Have myself photographed naked (or not) on a white background.
3. Print the black and white photographs.
4. Draw on these photographs, with Indian ink, the female model’s accessories, or her surroundings (leather boots, lamp etc.)
5. Print the photograph with the added drawings a second time in black and white.
6. Create the diptych with the two images of the two women in the same format.
7. Frame the duo ‘as if it were a patisserie’: painting and cement are applied with a pastry chef’s piping bag, the model and myself now become edible, women offered to the eye and to the taste.

The edible-like frame is a deliberately absurd background, with pop patisserie colours: from 1967 I was very interested in the edible as subject, object and material from the everyday life.

I made multiple edible works with the instructions ‘Please touch’ or ‘Eat me!’ Sex is taboo but the edible is also if it’s taken out of its usual context and original function, which is to feed. I’ve had a willingness to provoke new behaviours, from 1967 up until today.

Relative Mimetism with its fake edible appearance was asking the question: how do you make fun of the stereotyped women?

Where did you get your imagery from (what, if any, sources did you use)?

From various industrial and popular sources produced in large quantities, such as calendars, postcards, magazines such as Lui or Playboy. They were all from France, Spain, Turkey and the USA.

Were you aware of pop art in another part of the world?

I had little information about pop art in the UK and USA. I knew the works of Equipo Crónica in Spain, I met Brazilian Antonio Dias in Paris, Lourdes Castro and Rene Bertholo in Portugal, and Erró and the nouveaux réalistes. But I didn’t know anything about pop art in the rest of the world. Information was only circulated by word of mouth, which was more efficient than the press.

Was commercial art an influence on your work or the way in which it was made?

Yes, I was very interested in the industrialisation of the image, through advertising, packaging, press/fashion/food photographs, record covers, film posters, shop windows, large industrial food displays, new architectural techniques, forms, colours, textures: everything in the urban everyday environment was inspiring. For a living I was working for the daily newspaper France-Soir, retouching press photographs, and for various fashion magazines. I was trying to decipher product messages and distort them. I was influenced by Saul Steinberg’s drawings.

Was there a feeling at the time that you were doing something important and new, making a change…?

No, I wasn’t conscious of that but I thought I was in the spirit of the times, and that the subject was important. French society in the 1960s was very conservative and living another way of life required a lot of energy. What was important for me was what was experienced, and more than making a change it was I who was changing. I didn’t have enough distance to look back at my work and judge it. I thought artists had a role to play in society and should express themselves as much as possible. But I didn’t have a career plan and I didn’t even think of taking photographs of the work I was producing. This is why there is very little documentation on my works from 1967 to 1975. I was motivated by experiencing, discovering, feeling and reacting to things.

Was there an audience for the work at the time – and if so what was their reaction to it?

Yes, there was an audience interested in my work, positively surprised by its humorous character. In 1975 Fernando Amat invited me to Sala Vinçon in Barcelona, an experimental gallery located in the first shop to sell design objects. Then in 1976 to Claude Nori’s Galerie Contrejour, an experimental space exhibiting photography. Both galleries had a young audience.

Looking back at these works, what you do think about them now?

Today, I think that the concept and realisation of these works are good, but I notice that their subject is still current, and that I could produce more works of this series today. In 1970 I thought that pin-ups imagery would disappear, how naïve I was! The male body also rapidly became a pin-up in every visual media.

In 2014, through advertisements, the bodies of sexy women and men (among others) are displayed, offered up for mass consumption by the collective sexual imagination. Industry, with provocative images and slogans, tries to sell everything and nothing. Art also has its provocative codes, like Allen Jones in 1970. Learning how to decipher misleading images should be taught in schools.

The fight against female and male stereotypes is still a topical issue. I am optimistic and see the multiple nature of the individual’s erotic identity gaining more acceptance in certain parts of the world. The dialogue between male and female has changed a lot, in our private lives and in society. The World Goes Pop? I would say, as a utopian dreamer, The World Goes Sexy.

September 2015