Produced by Scott Newman & Marc Santo
Camera by Kevin Schaefer
Edited by Christie Brown
Associate Producer: Juliana Reiters
Interview by Marc Santo
For over 30 years the art duo of Peter McGough and David McDermott has been living as though it’s the end of the 19th century. From a townhouse in the East Village they created their art by candlelight, lived without modern appliances and traveled through Manhattan on horseback, complete with top hats and the finest couture from nearly a century ago.
As painters, photographers, playwrights and filmmakers, the artists came of age during the same East Village art scene that made superstars of Keith Haring (their one-time roommate) and Julian Schnabel (who’s championed their work). Notorious in their own right and exhibited locally through Chelsea’s prestigious Cheim & Read Gallery, McDermott and McGough have been the subjects of countless stories told both in print and oral legend.
MARC SANTO: Do you consider yourselves dandies?
PETER MCGOUGH: People call us Victorian dandies, but we’re not Victorians and we’re certainly not dandies. Hamish Bowles of Vogue is a dandy. If you’re walking around calling yourself a dandy you better—as Diaghilev said to Jean Cocteau—‘Astonish me.’ I was in Venice last summer (which is the most beautiful city in the world), and I was dressed impeccably and everybody else was dressed hideously in T-shirts and shorts. I matched the city perfectly, because I was of a different time period. People constantly look forward, but everything that’s considered great today will just look passé tomorrow. The past is always being thrown out and for what? Something innovative? I never go out of fashion. I always look great.
MARC: How does your art and the past play into your lifestyle?
PETER: We had a 19th century townhouse in the East Village and an 18th century farm upstate that we never modernized. It had no electricity, no running water and an outhouse. We had a 1913 Ford Model T, a 1916 Model T truck and horses and carriages. Howard Read of the Cheim & Read Gallery and the curator, Diego Cortez, suggested we try photography because it went with our look. We bought a camera from 1900 and started documenting our lives. We could take a picture of anything and it would be beautiful because our lives were so beautiful.
MARC: How were you guys discovered?
PETER: When we started we made paintings we could hang in our house because we couldn’t afford art. We never worked jobs. We always considered ourselves artists, not clothing salesmen or telemarketers. One day we made all these paintings, put them under our arms and went to visit everybody we thought was rich. Diego Cortez saw us and became our agent. He did the same thing with Keith Haring.
MARC: Where do you think your work fits in the larger art world?
PETER: When I look at art I want to be taken away. With Michelangelo this happens. You get the museum world bragging, ‘Oh, we have a Michelangelo. Isn’t that great?’ Then you get the janitor who mops the floors, look at his work and say, ‘Now that’s a beautiful sculpture.’ That’s real success because the snobs and the common man both agree that it’s great art. Today, I see a lot of work that I say is made out of cement, pom poms and string. When the bomb hits and we’re all digging through the rubble, are you really going to pull out a sculpture made of cement, pom poms and string, or are you going to pull out something that’s beautiful and hang it in your bombed-out cave and try to make a life for yourself? I always think that’s a funny way of looking at art. Nowadays it seems that everybody has a strategy. It’s all about getting your MFA and making connections. The younger artists strategize themselves and it does work for them. I just don’t think it’s very exciting. I think it’s very corporate and a little boring.
MARC: How has New York changed?
PETER: New York then was a slum. People were selling drugs out of Mister Softee trucks in the middle of January. You would hear gunshots and fights all the time. There was a woman who was skewering meat over an open fire in her shopping cart. This was our world. Nobody wanted to work a job. Nobody wanted an MFA to impress people in the corporate world. When Julian Schnabel got famous, that upped the bar and everyone thought to themselves, ‘How do I get that? I need to work harder.’ Everyone was sick of being a starving artist or writer or filmmaker. McDermott used to call East Third Street Hollywood Boulevard because all the great underground filmmakers were around there. Eric Mitchell, Patti Astor, Jim Jarmusch, James Nares—they were really doing something great. Today, people think, ‘I’m not going to make a cheesy movie on Super 8. I’m going to get a filmmaking degree and go right to Hollywood to get a real job.’ How forgettable is that? ‘Youth is wasted on the young,’ they say. It’s great to be young. It’s fleeting. Enjoy it while it lasts.