Artist interview: Nicola L

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

I didn’t use the term pop art in relation to my work in the 1960s – for me it was a great new movement only coming from England and America … As a student at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts de Paris, and later as a young artist, in the 1960s I felt kind of asphyxiated by the old School of Paris. Especially after my encounter with Alberto Greco, who had just returned from New York City where he had met Marcel Duchamp, when he asked me, ‘how can you paint in the 1960s?’

Following the shocking death of Greco in 1965, I burned all of my abstract paintings and made The Screen for Three People: Homage to Albert Greco. This marked the beginning of a new and totally different body of work for me, inspired by skin, which Pierre Restany called Pénétrables. Restany was the formulator, along with Yves Klein, of the ‘new realism’ movement created at the Galerie Apollinaire in Milan in 1960. (This was the same gallery where I would have a show the Fur Room installation curated by Pierre Restany in 1970.) I was really close to the new realists without being a part of the group.

Nicola L Red Coat 1973

Nicola L
Red Coat 1973
Private collection
© Nicola L

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

Without knowing it, the Sofa Foot that I did during my first stay in New York City in 1967 was my first pop piece: made in red vinyl 5 feet 9 inches [approximately 175cm] long, exactly my height. I held it up, hiding myself naked behind it. I still have the photo, which was on the invitation for my exhibition at Galerie Daniel Templon in Paris in 1969.

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

I realise now, in retrospect, that all my performances were really political (in Barcelona, Isle of Wight, Amsterdam, Brussels, New York, Beijing and La Havana).

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

I don’t remember choosing any pieces for The World Goes Pop, it was more a happy surprise to discover that Jessica Morgan and her team of assistants had found pieces that no longer belong to me, except for the Red Coat, for which they wrote a very interesting text that touched me very much. 

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

The Little Speaking TV Woman: “I Am the Last Woman Object” was probably inspired by the new feminist movement, in which the woman declares:

I am the last woman object,
you can touch my mouth,
my breasts,
my stomach,
but I repeat myself it’s the last time.

Iris Clert, the grand and divine art dealer of the 1960s originally from Greece, showed this piece in the vitrine of the famous jeweller Alfred Van Cleef.

The sofa woman Corps coupé en Morceaux (Body Cut Up in Pieces) was inspired by the human body which I drew and sculpted a lot at the École des Beaux Arts under the influence of my teacher, the painter Souverbie, a contemporary of Picasso, who wanted us to ‘cut the body up in the same way that light was cutting the live model’.

Were you aware of pop art in other parts of the world?

Of course, there was the very well-known Anglo-Saxon pop but I was also aware of Italian pop – I used to know for example Mimmo Rotella, and also at the time the very young Martial Raysse. But as the title The World Goes Pop insinuates, there were certainly a lot of pop artists that I shall be happy to discover at the show.

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

I did my first performance with the Red Coat at the Isle of Wight with the two Brazilian musicians, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, in front of an audience of 6,000 people.

It was the last pop music festival where they were all there: The Who, The Doors, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, and it was the last concert of Jimi Hendrix, who died soon afterwards.

At the end of the performance we were distributing gloves on which was written ‘same skin for everybody’, and people started chanting the phrase, like a prayer.

And it was after this that Pepsi Cola approached me and asked if I would like to repeat the performance with them. I was shocked and I told them that ‘my Red Coat was an ephemeral monument to freedom and freedom is not for sale’. This is a phrase that I repeated recently to a famous collector who wanted to buy it, but as I didn’t know what he wanted to do with it, I refused, so the Red Coat is still free for The World Goes Pop.

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

It was when I was repeating the Red Coat performance in the streets of different cities (Amsterdam, Brussels and New York), in which I invited people to get inside my coat, that I felt I was changing the order of the street: people who didn’t know each other five minutes before were now connected – it was never the same and was always improvised. Interestingly, on every occasion there was someone who took the lead.

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

For many years after the Isle of Wight, I did performances in the street. For me, the audience was the people of the street, and some members of the audience even became my actors in the coat.

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

As in the Tarot cards, the fifth house represents creativity and children. Thus a certain confusion happens in the reading and meaning of this. But now when I find an object that I haven’t seen in a long time, I am so happy; there is no more confusion, the two are mixed.

September 2015