Interview: Jean-Paul Goude

Interview and portrait: Andrey Bold


Snug dancer's frame, energetic and quick, Jean-Paul Goude sprints back and forth while we're waiting for the interview to start. Tomorrow is the opening of Image-Makers and the artist's visionary work is at the heart of the show. We settle down. Jean-Paul apologizes for a small delay, preparations for the show and interviews didn't leave much room for lunch. In front of him is a bowl of unfinished peaches. I say they look delicious. He smiles and says I wouldn't want to live on his diet—Jean-Paul Goude is recovering from cancer.

Artist Jean-Paul Goude

Artist Jean-Paul Goude

  • ABWhat do you know now that you didn't know before?
  • JPGWell, I just went through something most people die from and survived. So I had plenty of time to think about the past―whatever accomplishments I might have achieved since I landed on this planet, and what's left to do. This is one of the reasons I'm taking part in this show, it helps me look back without feeling nostalgic, to see if the things I've done along the years have any value. I’m trying to determine whether I am the artist I wanted to be, evaluate my own worth.
  • This introspection was a very useful exercise—it incidentally helped me to find out much more about my parents. My mother, who was the star of the family, was not only my best friend, but a never-ending source of inspiration. Compared to her vivacity and “joie de vivre,” my dad’s personality seemed almost austere. I didn’t really get to know him very well because he died when I was 20. I learned much later how “romanesque” his youth had been, how he'd been raised in a orphanage since infancy after the accidental death of both his parents, how he'd gone to America to seek fame and fortune—neither of which ever materialized—and how after a few difficult years in New York and a disastrous romance with a famous operetta singer, he came back to Paris to study and raised himself from nothing to become an engineer. It’s a little late to say so, but it looks that my dad and I had a lot in common—I never really cared or paid attention to the notion of family before, only since I’ve been ill it has become a highly important issue: my wife, her mom, my children. I need to focus on my priorities. Thank God, I like to work and spend time in the studio. I only exist through my work.
  • ABIs there anything you would do differently? Do you have any regrets?
  • JPGNo. I always thought that a work of art—whatever shape or content it may have—should be a sublimation of one’s deepest feelings, or as my mother would have said, “a work of art is the reflection of one’s soul.” Maybe a bit of a grandiloquent statement, but for better or worse, it's the lead I always tried to follow. I always tried to avoid trends and I never liked the idea of emulating this or that school of painting. I tried to be true to myself. I fell in love with American magazines and American movies, especially musicals, when I was a kid and focused on them as my guiding light ever since. I always was a pretty good draftsman and after my first year in an art school, I was drawing for a living and became a professional illustrator. By the age of 35 I had lived in New York for ten years and was lucky enough to work with some of the great talents of the period like George Lois, the advertising genius, and Harold Hayes, the American publishing legend and editor in chief of Esquire magazine. I had a great time and learned a lot. I don’t regret a thing.
  • ABWho is your favorite dancer?
  • JPGI have to say Jean Babilée, of course. Even though almost nobody remembers him anymore. Are you interested in dance?
  • ABI like modern dance.
  • JPGSo do I. The strongest dance related emotion I ever had, was when I was seven or eight. My mother, who had been a professional dancer in the US before her marriage, had taken me to her daily dance class. It’s there, through a half-open door, that I caught a glimpse of Jean Babilée, who was right in the middle of a rehearsal. I had never seen such an extraordinary athlete. I know it’s a cliché but he was not dancing, he was literally flying. I never forgot that moment. Babilée was the very first modern ballet dancer. Wild, tiny, very muscular, long greasy hair—he looked more like a little thug or a bicycle racer—nothing in common with the effeminate dancers of the period. I worshipped him.
  • ABWhat is your most vivid memory of New York in the 70s?
  • JPGMy studio on Union Square. It was great—a little house on the roof of an old building—the biggest fantasy any European could have wished for. Jack Klein, the art dealer, lived there. He was at the time one of the biggest Pop Art collectors. There was Pop Art all over the place, everywhere, in the bathroom, even the kitchen. I was very impressed and took the place immediately. The rent was very cheap, $250 a month, which unfortunately went up every year until it became so ridiculously high that I finally and definitively moved out in 2005.
  • ABWhat was the last thing you saw that blew your mind?
  • JPGThe first time I saw a Pina Bausch ballet. I think it was Nelken (Carnations). What a shock, the choreography, the staging, the dancers—everything and everybody was “mind blowing” as you say.
  • ABOne thing about Grace Jones no one knows about?
  • JPGI’m not allowed to say anything bad about her.
  • ABYou better not then. [Laughs]
  • JPGNow, let me see if I can say something good! [Laughs]
    Grace is a dear friend, she's OK. We had our problems. It’s true that sometimes I think she could have done better. That’s not a bad thing to say, is it? She could have gone much further... who knows? She could have grown as an artist and become a musical legend! But she doesn’t believe in questioning herself or re-evaluating her craft. Though in a way, the fact that she hasn’t changed is a proof of her honesty! She stays true to herself, which is sort of admirable, but for me such an attitude is impossible to deal with. An example: she calls me the other day very business like and says, “I need to talk it’s very important.” She sounds very serious, so despite the fact that we're extremely busy working on the last details of the Tokyo show, I reluctantly make an appointment for the next day, knowing how “distractive” she can be at times. So, I ask her to call me in the morning to confirm which of course she never does... I’m still waiting. It’s no big deal! It’s OK, it's Grace. That’s the way she is! Some find it cute, I’m not sure I do. People don’t like to deal with someone who's unreliable. I know I don’t! Can you imagine such behavior in Japan?
  • ABThe Japanese are very reliable.
  • JPGSo am I, or should I say—try to be—as much as possible! Japanese values are not well understood in the West.
    By the way, I’ve got to tell you, of course it's only a first impression, but yesterday, as I was roaming around Tokyo, I caught myself fantasizing about coming here to live for good.
  • ABWhat is your take on rapidly growing right-wing tendencies across the globe?
  • JPGI worry, just like everybody else. This new Abe law, I don’t know... (the interview took place the next day after the controversial “collective self-defence” law change), it reminds me about this commercial I saw last night on TV selling the latest trends in American weapons. Beautifully filmed, tanks going 150 miles an hour, movie star looking G.I’s, rockets, airplanes, missiles, I have never seen such a lavish display of power—beautiful and revolting at the same time. I really think that such propaganda is dangerous to society.
    It may be due to the fact that my mother was American, but I never felt 100% French, which enabled me to look back and put things in perspective in an almost detached way. For instance, if I got so easily involved with such a sensitive national symbol as the Bicentennial Parade, it’s because I merely took it as an exciting opportunity for my work, a fun exercise, not a political or social mission.
    To answer the question: if the army stays strictly defensive and doesn’t colonize anybody I guess everything should be OK. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.
  • ABTadanori Yokoo, apparently one of your favorite artists, told me he wants to be an actress in Takaruzaka in his next life, what are your plans?
  • JPGI don’t have any plans. I only have plans for my siblings. I could tell you that I fantasize about coming back as the new Babilée, with a touch of Pina Bausch, but I would be lying. I don’t believe in reincarnation. I believe in nothingness. Stop is stop. Nothing. When you’re dead you’re dead.
    All I know is that I have a terrific family and that I would like to keep it that way as long as possible. My wife is everything to me. We’re extremely close on all levels. I want to tell people how wonderful it is to have found such a partner. So much so that the threat of dying no longer seems like a problem.
  • ABWhat is your biggest vice?
  • JPGEven though I’m at times very unsure of myself, I’d say it’s my ego-centrism. I’m much too preoccupied with myself.
  • ABHow vital is luck in a career of an artist?
  • JPGEnormous. Especially in my case. When luck comes your way, you have to grab it. My job at Esquire was pure luck, so was my encounter with Grace. My involvement with advertising was result of a lucky break, so was the Bicentennial Parade and especially my encounter with Karen, my wife... Luck is indispensable [Starts singing the tune from “Guys and Dolls”] “Luck be a lady tonight...”

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Interview transcript: Shoko Tanaka