Paul McCarthy

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Paul McCarthy
Paul McCarthy — Westernparade (ii).jpg
McCarthy in 2005
Born (1945-08-04) August 4, 1945 (age 77)
EducationSan Francisco Art Institute
University of Southern California
Known forPerformance art
Notable workSailor's Meat (1975)
The Garden (1991)
Bossy Burger (1991)
Santa Claus (2001)
Tree (2014)

Paul McCarthy (born August 4, 1945) is an American artist who lives and works in Los Angeles, California.


McCarthy was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1945. He studied art at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, and later continued to study at the University of Utah until 1969. He went on to study at the San Francisco Art Institute, receiving a BFA in painting. In 1972 he studied film, video, and art at the University of Southern California, receiving an MFA. From 1982 to 2002 he taught performance, video, installation, and performance art history at the University of California, Los Angeles. McCarthy currently works mainly in video and sculpture.[1]

Originally formally trained as a painter, McCarthy's main interest lies in everyday activities and the mess created by them.[2] Much of his work in the late 1960s, such as Mountain Bowling (1969) and Hold an Apple in Your Armpit (1970), are similar to the work of Happenings founder Allan Kaprow, with whom McCarthy had a professional relationship.[2]


Sweet Brown Snail by Jason Rhoades and Paul McCarthy at the Bavariapark and the Verkehrszentrum of the Deutsches Museum in Munich.
Boxhead (2001), Collection of the Centro de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim in Brumadinho/Brazil
Santa Claus (2001) on the Eendrachtsplein in Rotterdam, the Netherlands

McCarthy's works include performance, sculpture, installation, film and "painting as action". His points of reference are rooted, on the one hand, in things typically American, such as Disneyland, B-Movies, Soap Operas and Comics – he is a critical analyst of the mass media and consumer-driven American society and its hypocrisy, double standards and repression. On the other hand, it is European avant-garde art that has had the most influence on his artistic form language. Such influences include the Lost Art Movement, Joseph Beuys, Sigmund Freud, Samuel Beckett, and the Viennese Actionism.[3]

I started making videotapes in the early 1970s. The first ones were around perception and illusion. The camera was upside down, or I’d use mirrors, things like that. But I also started making pieces that were performances in the sense that I would be in front of the camera. I would work in the studio primarily by myself with the camera. There was not much in the room. I would do some things and record them. They were often repetitious and intuitive. Ma Bell was one of the first actions that I did which involved liquids, in this case, motor oil. I had not planned to make the piece. It was spontaneous. It was the first tape where there was a persona.[4]

Although by his own statement the happenings of the Viennese Actionists were known to him in the 1970s, he sees a clear difference between the actions of the Viennese and his own performances:

Vienna is not Los Angeles. My work came out of kids' television in Los Angeles. I didn't go through Catholicism and World War II as a teenager, I didn't live in a European environment. People make references to Viennese art without really questioning the fact that there is a big difference between ketchup and blood. I never thought of my work as shamanistic. My work is more about being a clown than a shaman.[5]

In his early works, McCarthy sought to break the limitations of painting by using the body as a paintbrush or even canvas; later, he incorporated bodily fluids or food as substitutes into his works. In a 1974 video, Sauce,[6] he painted with his head and face, "smearing his body with paint and then with ketchup, mayonnaise or raw meat and, in one case, feces." This clearly resembled the work of Vienna actionist Günter Brus.[7] Similarly, his work evolved from painting to transgressive performance art, psychosexual events intended to fly in the face of social convention, testing the emotional limits of both artist and viewer. An example of this is his 1976 piece Class Fool, where McCarthy threw himself around a ketchup-spattered classroom at the University of California, San Diego until dazed and self-injured. He then vomited several times and inserted a Barbie doll into his rectum.[2] The piece ended when the audience could no longer stand to watch his performance.[2] Concerned that the University's custodians would have to clean up the mess, graduate students Virginia Maksymowicz and Blaise Tobia, along with art historian Moira Roth, spent several hours cleaning up the ketchup and vomit. Maksymowicz can be seen in the rear left of a documentary photo of the event.[8]

McCarthy's work in the 1990s, such as Painter (1995), often seeks to undermine the idea of "the myth of artistic greatness" and attacks the perception of the heroic male artist.[2]

McCarthy's transfixion with Johanna Spyri's novel Heidi led to his 1992 video and installation Heidi: Midlife Crisis Trauma Center and Negative Media-Engram Abreaction Release Zone, on which he collaborated with Mike Kelley.[9]

Caribbean Pirates (2001–05), alludes to the Johnny Depp film franchise and to the Disneyland attraction.[9]

Complex Shit[edit]

During the summer of 2008, Paul McCarthy's inflatable Complex Shit, installed on the grounds of the Paul Klee Centre in Bern, Switzerland, took off in a wind, bringing down a power line, breaking a greenhouse window and a window at a children's home.[10] This incident was widely reported internationally via news outlets in several languages with headlines like "Huge turd catastrophe for museum"[11] and "Up in the sky: is it a turd or a plane?"[12]

Santa Claus[edit]

McCarthy has created several Christmas-themed works. Through them, he combined his impressions of the dismal aesthetic and the real meaning of Christmas.[13] In 2001, he created Santa Claus for the city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Originally, it was intended to be placed next to the concert hall at the locally famous "Schouwburgplein" square, but it never was. This was due to controversies around the statue: The work is seen by many citizens as having sexual connotations, and, therefore it also is colloquially called "Butt plug Gnome".[14] Its original location was rejected by citizens and retailers, as well as several other proposed locations. On November 28, 2008, it did, however, receive a permanent destination on the Eendrachtsplein square, within a walkway-of-statues project.[15][16]

White Snow[edit]

In November 2009, an exhibition called "White Snow" was held at Hauser & Wirth New York, featuring McCarthy's mixed-media works, centered on the character Snow White from Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.


In October 2014, McCarthy unveiled Tree in Place Vendôme in Paris. The inflatable sculpture, standing 24 meters tall, was said to resemble a large green butt plug. This caused controversy among citizens, who believed their historic square had been sullied.[17] Within two days the piece had been deflated by someone, and McCarthy stated that he did not want it to be repaired or replaced. He also admitted to Le Monde that its butt plug shape was deliberate, and a "joke".[18] In 2016 he again exhibited Tree at Paramount Ranch 3, amongst the trees and rolling hills of the Santa Monica Mountains, where the reception was positive and visitors "reveled in its absurdist glory".[19]


  1. ^ Cotter, Holland (27 June 2013). "'Paul McCarthy: WS' Turns a Magic Mirror on Excess". The New York Times. Retrieved 29 July 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d e Klein, Jennie (May 2001). "Paul McCarthy: Rites of Masculinity". PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art. 23 (2): 10–17. doi:10.2307/3246503. JSTOR 3246503. S2CID 191524957.
  3. ^ Hoffmann, Jens; McCarthy, Paul (2010). Berg, Stacen; Hoffmann, Jens (eds.). Paul McCarthy's Low Life Slow Life. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag. ISBN 978-3-7757-2573-6.: interview with McCarthy by Stacen Berg
  4. ^ "Paul McCarthy on the Messy, Lonely Truth Behind How He Got His Start as an Artist".
  5. ^ Petersen, Magnus af (2006). "Paul McCarthy's 40 years of hard work-an attempt at a summary". Head Shop/Shop Head. Göttingen: Steidl Verlag. p. 20. ISBN 978-3-8652-1300-6.
  6. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Paul McCarthy: "Sauce" (1974)". YouTube.
  7. ^ Smith, Roberta (May 15, 1998). "Art Review: Work on the Wild Side, Raw, Rank and Morbid". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-05-26.
  8. ^ Phelan, Peggy, ed. (2012). Live Art in LA: Performance in Southern California, 1970–1983. Routledge Press. p. 73. ISBN 978-0415684224.
  9. ^ a b Holzwarth, Hans W. (2009). 100 Contemporary Artists A-Z (Taschen's 25th anniversary special ed.). Köln: Taschen. pp. 366–371. ISBN 978-3-8365-1490-3.
  10. ^ "Complex Shit causes museum chaos". The Australian. August 12, 2008. Retrieved July 25, 2010.
  11. ^ "Huge turd catastrophe for museum". Metro. London, UK. August 12, 2008. Retrieved July 25, 2010.
  12. ^ "Up in the sky: is it a turd? Is it a plane?". The Sydney Morning Herald. August 13, 2008. Retrieved July 25, 2010.
  13. ^ Nielson, Emma (2007). "The World as Pirate's Lair – Paul McCarthy's LaLa Land, Parody Paradise". Pulse Berlin (Relation). Retrieved 2007-09-01. McCarthy has a predilection for American myths and icons. In most of his works, he takes the models and role models of that world and skewers them. Santa Claus, Pinocchio and the cowboy play just as important a role in the imagery as Bush or the Queen of England Review of McCarthy's 2007 LaLa Land exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, London , and Haus der Kunst, Munich.
  14. ^ Zebracki, Martin (2012). "Engaging geographies of public art: Indwellers, the 'Butt Plug Gnome' and their locale". Social & Cultural Geography. 13 (7): 735–758. doi:10.1080/14649365.2012.723735. S2CID 146520018.
  15. ^ "Santa Claus Finds A Permanent New Home In Rotterdam". TAXI. November 28, 2008. Retrieved July 25, 2010.
  16. ^ Kennedy, Randy (10 May 2013). "Paul McCarthy, the Demented Imagineer". The New York Times. Retrieved 29 July 2017.
  17. ^ Jardonnet, Emmanuelle (17 October 2014). "McCarthy agressé pour l'érection d'un arbre de Noël ambigu, place Vendôme". Le Monde (in French).
  18. ^ Chazan, David (18 October 2014). "Vandals deflate giant 'sex toy' sculpture in Paris". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 19 October 2014.
  19. ^ "On Exhibit | Paul McCarthy's Plug Life at Paramount Ranch". Supertouch. February 1, 2016.

Further reading[edit]

  • Rugoff, Ralph, Kristine Stiles, Massimiliano Gioni, Robert Storr. Paul McCarthy. London: Phaidon Press, 2016.
  • Blazwick, Iwona. Paul McCarthy: Head Shop. Shop Head. Stockholm: Steidl/Moderna Museet, 2006.
  • Bronfen, Elisabeth. Paul McCarthy: Lala Land. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2005.
  • Sauerlander, Kathrin. Paul McCarthy: Videos 1970-1997. Cologne: Walther König, 2004.
  • Glennie, Sarah. Paul McCarthy at Tate Modern: Block Head and Daddies Big Head. London: Tate, 2003.
  • Phillips, Lisa. Paul McCarthy. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2001.
  • Monk, Philip. Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy: Collaborative Works. Toronto: Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery at Harbourfront Centre, 2000.
  • Rugoff, Ralph, Kristine Stiles, Giacinto Di Pietrantonio. Paul McCarthy. London: Phaidon Press, 1996.
  • Sherer, Daniel. "Heidi on the Loos. Ornament and Crime in Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy's Heidi." PIN-UP 3 (2008), 59–62. Reprinted in Y. Safran,ed. Adolf Loos Our Contemporary (New York: Columbia GSAPP, 2012).
  • Zebracki, Martin. Engaging geographies of public art: indwellers, the 'Butt Plug Gnome' and their locale. Social & Cultural Geography 13(7), 735–758