Peter, you met David McDermott in New York in 1980. He went to Syracuse University like you, six years ahead, and this encounter changed both your lives. How did it happen?
He went after me. He courted me. It was like the fairy tale “Puss in Boots”. He asked me what I wanted to do with my life and I said, “I am an artist.” He said, “If you want to go with me I will make you a famous artist,” and he did. But he did it in his own way. That’s tricky, because he knew that I was so devoted to being an artist that I would do all the work.
And he did nothing?
No, he did, but I was always the driving force behind it.
Why did you and he want to become one artist with two names? Couldn’t you both make it separately?
I guess, yes we could have, but we did not because we were two missing pieces and together we became whole. I think also that David was highly intelligent, but he did not know what to do with that at all. Nothing had ever worked for him and he was 26. He had a life before he met me and it crashed. And there was I. I was 21 and had ambition and drive. So I took the ideas and I made it real and after we were together for one year he said to me that he saw that people liked me and wanted to make projects. He said I had it easy and that people did not like him and did not want to work with him, and he thought it was difficult for him.
He used me to get work.
You also both had a lifestyle that is art in itself, as you both live your daily lives in a different time?
Before I met him I used to wear my father’s clothes, and I would watch old movies and look at pictures and books of the past. But when I met David he explained the past to me.
In what way?
He would explain history and he would explain the clothes, the manners, architecture, books… and so he would say for instance, “This glass is from the 1920’s. This dress is 18th Century.” He broke down the past and would explain it to me.
But what about the present?
He was not interested. He said it was mundane and boring and vulgar. Everything since 1940 was vulgar. He was experimenting with time.
You were living in the East Village in New York and you started your career as artists contemporary to Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Julian Schnabel and others. How did it work with your obsession with the past?
The great thing about the East Village at the time was that most artists were poor and they were different people, not in a negative sense, but they looked at the world upside down. And that is why regular people adore and worship artists, because their own life is mundane. If we go forward and we look at today, this is the typical modern person’s life today:- They wake up and they look at the screen on their phone, computer and television. They leave and they go to work and look at a screen. They go to the gym, and when they are running on the track they look at another screen. Then they leave the gym and they go home and they look at another screen, their TV set. Then they go to bed and they start again the next day doing the same thing. If that is not boring and mundane I don’t know what is.
And what about you and any other artist?
I think the life of an artist is the opposite of mundane. Most artists are very similar, they like drugs, they like alcohol and they can work without going to jobs. You have less fear than an ordinary person.
But you need self-discipline and David, as you said, seemed not to have it?
I do have discipline and he has it for the time machine. I shall give a perfect example. When we became successful with our paintings in the eighties (our paintings were our theory and ideas about the past) David was very disciplined on creating the interior of our house that was perfect, down to the medicine cabinet in the bathroom which had to have old bottles.
And you used a camera from 1900 to take your pictures?
Yes, and what I did was that Peter, me, was behind the camera, and David and his interiors were the subject. That was where we collaborated.
You went to stay in Naples for many months and then you moved to Ireland. Is it so?
Yes. Naples was our first European experience, in 1986. We went to Naples for an exhibition with Lucio Amelio’s gallery, and we went with all our clothes. When you opened our steamer trunk you had a drawer just for the top hats and it was lined in red velvet. Naples was so different from what we were used to in America, so we were living in the deep past. When we stopped in Rome before going to Naples people said to us, “You had better be careful because it is dangerous.” But we were not the normal American tourists, we were like a vision, and when I think of my own past in the eighties we were dressing like in the Edwardian period and everything was perfect. It is amazing, thinking of these two young men being artists and living as an art work, and then creating art work in the art work.
Your life and lifestyle has changed since then?
We lost it all in the early nineties. The IRS tax people took it because we did not pay taxes, because nobody paid taxes in the 19th Century.
How did you survive?
My answer is two answers. If David and I were more intelligent and more experienced we would have understood what they were doing, that they destroyed our art piece not just our life.
Could you not defend yourselves?
We were depressed because our boyfriend left us and we were used to a “ménage à trois” and he also lived in the past with us. As we were depressed we would not answer the mail. Once they took away everything David said, “I want to move to Ireland because an artist in Ireland does not have to pay taxes. And I want to live in a country that protects its artists.”
Did you follow him?
I stayed in New York for a year and then I left for Ireland, which is a much kinder country. We set up our lives there.
But now you are back in New York, and you have an apartment in the West Village and a studio in Brooklyn?
And are you still together?
Yes, 35 years.
What are your projects?
I keep the production going, mostly in the studio in Brooklyn, and we also have a studio in Dublin. It is very poetic.
What has changed in your art?
The time period. We moved to the thirties in New York. In Ireland it is still the 19th Century. But the difficult part of our experiment is that our greatest time machine was destroyed. So what we are left with is a plaster cast of Michelangelo’s Pietà, and what we are left with is our own mythology, so what we are doing now is putting our lives together with the pieces remaining from our destruction. I am twice my age and lack the energy of youth to be able to build the time machine, and the time machine was so great and the destruction was so large that now we are two men in their middle age trying to put back a life. We are clinical.
Does homosexuality have a lot to do with your poetical world and your art?
Yes, definitely. I think that when we started working in 1980 homosexuality had just been taken off the medical list as a mental disease, and it is interesting being a homosexual. We made our work about it, just as Basquiat made his work about being black. I was not going to make work about sexy girls. Our work was and is about time and homoeroticism. Sexuality is about procreation. We made a painting that said in capital letters QUEER and making that kind of work in the eighties, a work that was so obviously homosexual, paved the way for the artists in the nineties, so they had it easier.
Are you nostalgic for your past?
I am not nostalgic for our past. I think that for all artists that became great, their early work is repeated throughout their lives. The perfect example is Warhol. He made his work in the sixties, Marilyn, Elvis, and then in the eighties he made his reverse greatest hits. He repeated his early life.
With us there are no dollars influencing us. We are real artists, we are not business artists. The difference is that some artists are good at business and working deals. We are not. We are great artists. I don’t make paintings to be successful, I make paintings to express ourselves. European artists are much different from American artists. A perfect example is Alighiero Boetti, a terrible business artist, but a great artist; and when he died the business got very good. I don’t want to die. When you are dead is so final and who knows what is next. I don’t want to complain all my life and then die. When you are born you are born into this world and it is event, event, event, event and then you die. It is absurd.
Are you writing your memoirs?
I was asked by an agent to write my memoirs. He said I was a great storyteller. I thought that what David and I are doing with our lives and art is so special that I have the greatest stories to tell.
This will be your book?
Yes, my book is about him and is a collaboration in that way.
At the moment Peter and David have a show on at M77 Gallery in Milan until May 15th. Don’t miss it!
New York, April 2015
All images copyright and courtesy of McDermott and McGough.