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John Lurie Talks About Art, Painting, and Not Putting Up with BS

The actor and musician who was once a major downtown New York celebrity now devotes himself to painting and occasionally getting into arguments on Twitter.
September 26, 2014, 4:45pm

Photo by Jill Goodwin

John Lurie is a man of many talents. He starred in and composed the scores for Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law, and appeared in a number of other films, like Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. He also wrote the theme to Late Night with Conan O’Brien and starred in the show Fishing with John, where he went on bizarre voyages with people like Tom Waits, Dennis Hopper, and Willem Dafoe. His band, the Lounge Lizards, which formed with his brother Evan in the late 70s, fused the sensibilities of jazz and no wave. But these days, Lurie devotes himself entirely to his paintings, which somehow manage to be both colorful and dark, playful and sober, funny and reflective.


Lurie’s eclectic artistic output is deeply rooted in a lack of patience for bullshit—and bullshit is a hot commodity in every scene he's worked, from Hollywood to the record industry to the art world. Throughout it all, Lurie has maintained unwavering integrity and a strong sense of self, even in the face of advanced Lyme disease, which he was diagnosed with in 2004.

Lurie’s first solo exhibition in five years just opened at Cavin-Morris Gallery in New York, and this Saturday, there’s a tribute concert to him featuring John Zorn and Flea (among many others). I recently talked to him over email to get his thoughts on painting, music, assholes, and Twitter.

The Red Crocodile Head

VICE:  I really like the work in your new show. Which of these new paintings was the most challenging?
John Lurie: I spend most of my time out of New York, on this island where I do most of my painting. I come back here from time to time to take care of stuff and also paint when I am here. I worked on Still Life with Disappearing Snake in four different trips to New York. The first problem I had was painting the table. You would think something like painting a table would not be so difficult. But it was such a disaster that, in frustration, I wrote, “What kind of an idiot cannot paint a table?” directly on the table.

Sometimes when I get really frustrated with a painting and lash out at it, the results can be great. In this case, the writing was a mistake. Getting rid of it took quite a bit of work—to obscure the writing without making a blob that made no sense. Then there was the problem of the snake. Its red color was several different paints that I had mixed together and, on subsequent trips to New York, the paint had dried and I couldn’t match it again.


That poor painting leaned against the wall for about eight months, with my other problem paintings until, in a flurry of activity, I fixed all of them.

Toward the end she would sit on the porch and see things that weren't there. Actually, maybe they are there. 

Do you listen to music while you paint?  
I think I have only listened to music once while painting. The loss of music because of my advanced Lyme is a very painful thing. For a while, because my nervous system was such a mess, music became more like fingernails on a chalkboard than music. That is better now, but music is a difficult subject.

Do you approach painting with a similar type of creative energy you used to approach acting or music, or is it just its own beast?
Yes, the best music and the best paintings —the essence of them—is like something that passed through me. My job was to have enough technique and facility to not wreck it. At some point about five or six years ago, painting became what music once had been to be.

That's great. But how do you tolerate art world people?
Is there any evidence that I have ever tolerated people from the art world?

Still life with disappearing snake 

Your work has a surreal, subconscious quality to it. Are you ever tempted to get political?
I do, from time to time on Twitter, and then usually delete it an hour later. But not in the paintings. When something I find really outrageous is happening and people seem to think it is normal, then I speak out. But the responses are so irritating that I usually delete it.


I am not really political because being political never seems to help anything. It just leads to different sides arguing for the sake of proving their side is right, even when they don’t even mean what they are saying. I am for common sense. I am for decency and equality. I am against people being oppressed by assholism. Does that make me political?

Plenty of contemporary painters seem to be weary of titles, but yours add an extra layer of humor and absurdity to the work. Do you put a lot of thought into them or do they just sort of end up there?
Sometimes they flow out. A few have had eight different titles and my poor assistant has to keep track of the last one.

The painting called:

We want the funk
And some other stuff
We want some other stuff
Just normal stuff

Had two previous titles. One was, If all the passengers on a flying plane jump in the air, does the plane weigh any less? The other one was, Are you liking the purple? too flashy? Either of them could have worked.

We want the funk

You're very active on Twitter. What draws you to it specifically? When does Twitter piss you off?
The general consciousness of humanity can be disheartening. Twitter has a way of making that very apparent. Though it can be great. At the opening the other night, there were several people that I only knew from Twitter. They felt like old friends.

Lurie’s exhibition, There Are Things You Don’t Know About, is on view now at Cavin-Morris Gallery until October 25. And there are still tickets left to Strange and Beautiful: the Music of John Lurie at Town Hall in New York on Saturday.