I became familiar with the work of John Lurie in mid 80's when a friend put in a cassette tape during an intoxicating balmy night on Aegean coast of Turkey with meandering sounds of Lounge Lizards mixing into the starry skies above. Since then, I have listened to more of his music, watched the films and became aware of his fascinating artistic output. Due to his illness, suffering from Lyme disease, John Lurie had to refocus his artful existence doing paintings which are no less expressive and heartfelt than his masterful work in other forms. I had an opportunity to ask him to talk with me about architecture and this conversation resulted over a few days of messaging in cyber space. By the end, we became somewhat friends and so far have been checking in with each other on a daily basis. He is a rare, multi-talented artist for sure. And I really believe he knows more about architecture than he thinks.
Orhan Ayyüce- Hi John, do you want to talk about architecture?
John Lurie- Man, I really know nothing about architecture.
OA- All the better.. We have dime a dozen architects who are experts but say very little. This is not what you know about it but how you feel in it. It can get technical but that is not I am talking about. What are the moments when you notice architecture? Can you describe one? It could be in any form of expression.. Anywhere from haiku to a painting. It does not even have to be a building sometimes, I think.. Knowledge of architecture exists in music and painting and in words and ideas as well. For example, cities are endless architecture of life. It is intuitive. This is true for me as well and I am an architect on top of it.
OA - Great! You can just say yes, no, ok and I can do the talking! Like Benigni talks to the priest in the taxi he is driving in "Night on Earth." Except the lamb is replaced with Architecture..! Speaking of movies, there is a great scene in "Stranger Than Paradise" where Eddie says to Willie (bet.. 5:40 and 6:35) "you know it's funny, you come to someplace new and everything looks just the same..." I always thought it was the simple but really powerful statement that holds true even more now. Everywhere is this landscape of big box stores and consumer wasteland.
JL- I hate that line 'no matter where you go it looks the same.'
OA- But it is true. That is the problem with American cities. Every town has a road with big box stores on either side..The same national brands. And industrial wasteland of the old manufacturing plants which already moved to overseas.
JL- Yes that is true mostly in America, but not in the world.
OA- Tell me about New York. Does it play a role in your art? You seem to oscillate between nature and the city, do you do your paintings in the city?
JL- Does it? I don't really know. When I am there, I tend to paint jungle backgrounds. But now I am in the jungle and I just painted a jungle background.
OA- I have seen some urban jungles in there too. Even your paintings are lush with green jungle most of the time, they speak of urban language. This one is pretty much a minimal depiction of the city. This is both jungles.. There is always a person, group of people or animals as well as plants. So yeah.., I guess you are right about jungles. Why jungle? What does jungle represent?
JL- There are no people, there is a skeleton. Which is somewhere between people and plants I suppose. The jungle represents life, where this will kill that.
OA- Cities are like that too. I have always lived in cities. I have not been in jungle at all. I wouldn't know which represents better. Is it safe to say jungle is your primary city?
JL- Well I lived in New York forever - which is a jungle in a way. But I like flowers and plants and wildlife. As dangerous as nature can be it doesn’t often lie. I can handle danger, deceit is something I can’t abide by.
OA- You have music, paintings and the jungles (city/jungle and jungle/jungle..) The four things who don't lie. Well, two jungles might lie a bit but only temporarily, which is good because then you have to be on the look out sometimes. Keeping the soul awake. Your paintings together are more like a contigious story with certain characters appearing in and out at different times and situations. Is that a continuous narrative? Almost like a theater play?
JL- Is there a question here? There is nothing intentionally recurring if that was the question.
OA- Is there anything intentional in them?
OA- Are they reactive to daily life? Are they sort of diaries?
JL- No they are rarely autobiographical in any way. I usually just start with some colors in my head. I see what I have and go from there.
OA- Your use of colors are brilliant (not literally.) And they are not contrived. Is it like composing and playing jazz?
JL- Thank you. I think composing music is more like that - with painting you have actual colors. With music, at least I do this, not sure about others, it does conjure up a palette.I often start a painting because a set of colors compels me to get up and work. When I first started music when I was young and still doing things like taking hallucinogenic drugs, I said to myself, "Don’t lose this sense of color. Don’t get so adept at musical technique and theory that you lose the color."
OA- I feel like you are little uncomfortable with me. I saw a video of yours this morning just posted couple days ago with an audience asking you about "Fishing with John". I guess you like to talk about your stuff the most. It was funny and a little nostalgic in the same time. Later today, can I send you some pictures of buildings and you can comment on them? Don't worry about your lack of knowledge on architecture. Everybody knows or senses something about architecture. Especially a highly visual person like you.
JL- I don’t know you. I don’t know the magazine this interview is for. I did this article with the New Yorker and barely any quote is correct and it was really creepy what they did. So I need to be careful. And I don’t know anything about architecture. If you want to take about snakes or the NBA I can do that. Sure send some photos.
OA- Ok no problem. First building.. This is a government TV and communication headquarters in China.
JL- I almost like it - but it is trying too hard. I particularly do not like the pattern of diamonds. I like the shape but then buildings where the shape is not really functional always bother me.
OA- What about this angle?
JL- It's two different atmospheres, two different photographs almost, it's like one thing glaringly overlooking the other. But almost feels like people in that building wouldn't look out the window really.
OA- This is a brain health building in Las Vegas.
JL- I love it. Even though it completely shatters my theory where I don't like architecture that flaunts itself with no purpose. I think it is quite beautiful. It is liquid. Also reminds me of the Gaudi buildings a bit. I guess I feel that if you make a building that calls attention to itself, you better really fucking bring it. Otherwise there is this huge thing out in society that just sucks.
OA- A New York hi-rise condo lobby interior with its architect..
JL- I cant really tell what is happening there.
OA- An apartment in Los Angeles
JL- I like it. Kind of. I like how open the layout of the stairs makes it feel.
OA- Neighborhood where I grew up.
JL- It is almost great but is drab. Let me know if i sound like an idiot.
OA- No way! You are doing well. Right on! What about this cabin in the nature?
JL- This is hard to really see what is going on. I like the feel of it but can't really tell.
OA- Here is a plan there are two cubes across from each other. It is for guests.
And it looks like this from the road.
JL- That is kind of really cool. Is it stucco? But is there plumbing and stuff? Or just two cubes with couches? I dont like stuff that tries too hard to be different. Unless it is shockingly good. But this seems kind of nice.I do like it but something is odd, like you would never actually be comfortable being there.
OA- What is comfort in your opinion and in your house? Can you describe your comfort space?
JL- In his old house in LA, Flea had this extra bedroom that he called the secret room. Something about it was so incredibly safe feeling. I am not doing a good job of explaining why but you could just sleep and sleep in there.
........,thats a terrible answer - let me think about it.
OA- It is a big thing these days. A lot of people building their houses with safe rooms.. I guess it is extra popular with celebrities. As a side note, I worked in the design of all three contiguous houses of Dennis Hopper. His main house had a glass bottom sitting room and glass bottom balcony we designed for him and his last two wives. They had a glass bathtub.. I liked him though. He was very respectful to creative people.
Grotesque/Kryipt means "hidden place" in ancient Greek. There is a lot of that in your paintings. I just assume you know I mean it in a painterly good way..
Anyway.., an old monastery in Turkey, what do you say?
JL- Well, that is absolutely perfect.
OA- I knew you were gonna like it. It is a one compact world..
JL- Yes it is absolutely perfect.., all architecture should come from that.
OA- Can you make a drawing of your dream house? Kind of a house you are going to build for yourself in a place you want to be. Maybe a floor plan and an elevation.
JL- I dont have access to anything that would scan it.
OA- How about taking a photo with your camera and uploading the image to facebook message? Did you draw it already?
JL- No I didnt draw it. I dont have a camera here and that isn't going to be possible. My situation is pretty hellish and bizarre.
OA- That doesn't sound good. I am sorry. When you are in a better situation, can you describe it with words? I can draw it here based on interpreting your words. We can try..
JL- Didn't Dennis have a bunker? I am afraid I might need a bunker though it wouldn't be my ideal home.
OA- No he did not have a bunker. He had a painting storage on the first floor which was like one big loft like space with a lot of Jean-Michel Basquiats and others... He had a small bleacher stand and a stage where he made money by giving acting lessons. He was down and not acting much. Then he did Blue Velvet as a comeback. Then he bought next lot with three condos on it that was designed by architect Frank Gehry and knocked down the fence between the two lots and we had to cover the entire in between courtyard with chain-link fence like a monkey cage or a bird aviary.., whichever you want to visualize it with.
JL- I have a tenacious stalker who is probably reading this very message before you do. He keeps hacking into everything.
OA- Well fuck him.. None of his business. I read the New Yorker article last night. The writer is an asshole. What's the point? He is using both of you for his story. You guys should get together and tell him. Of course, without you nobody would be interested in any of it. People reading it because of you. Story is not interesting. The hunger strikes and all are boring. Your illness is amplified because of this shit. Man.., it is such a wasted valuable time. Don't be victimized by these people. That is all I am going to say. I read bunch of interviews people did with you in last few days researching. They are all after Lurie gossip and bad news.
How is your diet? I heard you were in Turkey for a while. Do you like Turkish food?
JL- Yes it is an incredible waste of time, but must be dealt with... I love Turkish food, but when I lived there for a while I started to get desperate for something else.
OA- You were near Bodrum. I spent couple of winters there. What do you mean you "start to get desperate for something else." What did you miss the most?
JL- A good steak and sushi. That New Yorker article was very painful though. And you know what – things just like, I was being offered at least 2 museum shows a year for my paintings between 2006 and 2010, after the New Yorker article, there have been none. Perhaps that is a coincidence but I highly doubt it and that one pervert of an irresponsible journalist could have this kind of effect on someone’s life, just doesn’t seem right.
OA- Oh yeah. It is very distrusting, skimming and no fucking empathy.. It might be good to distance yourself from it. It is basically starfuck article. But he choose the wrong guy. I mean who would want to write such a nasty piece about an artist who does nothing but create art. Too bad you can't be on the street and be with the city. Is that right?
JL- I can be there but it is exhausting. Have to be on the alert all the time. I go back and do things and then leave. Are we still doing the interview?
OA- Yes we are. But like I said, I am doing this for an architectural audience. So I need to somewhat bring architecture back. And honestly, there are tons of things about your past work that needs no repeating by me. I am not a John Lurie scholar. I like your creative energy and output over the years but I like to show you something and get you engaged in it. Something like architecture and urban environment. Can you find some building images or drawings from the web that you like and show them to me. Kind of what I did yesterday in reverse?
JL- I can have a look.
JL- Hate this. If you want to make something pretentious and ugly - can it not be a building that everyone has to see?
Man.., I am not finding stuff.
OA- Hahaha.., good one John! Possibility on that one: upper management was a narrow minded set of assholes..
JL- But there are a lot of places I like, I see them all the time. I have a book of these Moroccan places at home that is breathtaking. Just not finding stuff on google.
OA- What do you think about this place in Sao Paulo?
JL- I dont know.., that looks a little too much like the rich overlooking the poor.
OA- It is oppressive .. Imagine the angst it creates every day on otherwise peaceful people. And what kind of an asshole would be living there looking down from their jacuzzi. Are you political?
JL- I am not political. I am for kindness and dignity. I was once political but it seems that anyone who is capable of gaining political power is duplicitous by nature. I most certainly do not like rich people overlooking the poor. When we played in Brazil we met all these great people who couldn't go to the concert because it would be a months pay. But architecturally I loved the favelas...You know what else - I love the Gaudi buildings. He was a true artist. How he got the okay and the money to do what he did is beyond me. Because he must have also had a Robert Wilson like mesmerizing charm on whoever allowed and supported him to do what he did.
OA- Send me some images from Google whenever you see something. It does not have to be good.
JL- If you are going to put up a building that says - Look at me! - you better be really good.
JL- This my house.
OA- I like your pyramid house, really cozy.
JL- My other house.
OA- This one not so much.., it has a false sense of security. Send me some images from New York buildings that say "look at me" but in a good way.
JL- I love the Flatiron Building - it makes perfect sense.
OA- I love the Flatiron too. What a great way to handle the tip of the site.
JL- This is a nice building but there is an infestation of smugness.
OA- Thanks for the heads up regarding the infestations of smugness in the building... Did you know this building? Casa Malaparte.. You might like to live there. Not an easy place to get to in Capri.
JL- The location is fantastic, can't really tell about the house.
OA- Inside contempt happens.. I would get antsy there in couple of days and want to go back to mainland to have a steak and sushi... I have a clip for you might like. Let me know what do you think about it as a fragment following interior architecture?
JL- Man.., I had friends who were so into that book and that movie and I couldn't get anywhere near it. Camera strolls by some beautiful things but I find the overall effect empty and depressing, though impressive.
OA- I liked Robbe Grillet's Jealousy. Some scholar said "you can't get away from thinginess of things in his books." Regarding Casa Malaparte, what did you mean you "can't really tell about the house" ? Is it the shape of the house or amount of information in the image?
JL- I can barely see the house itself. I gather that is the house from "Contempt?" But don't remember the film so so well. What do you mean what do I mean- there is only a wall.
OA- Ok. I thought you might have meant "I don't care about the way house looks as a piece of form." Here is more information with plans and interior details. What do think now about the architecture of the house? Wow..! I didn't know they had wikiarchitecture..
JL- It is such a nice spot - you can't go wrong. They didn't wreck it at least. But it is so so for me. I am going to look up the rest of my answers on wiki architecture.
OA- Do you know any of these people?
Herzog de Meuron
JL- I know they are architects but know nothing about any of them. Why the hell am I doing this interview, it really is a subject I know less about than almost anything.
OA- We are trying to find you a house man. How about this one? It might need to cut out some windows here and there. And, if you want to see yourself in different cities you can project some images of the buildings on the walls. The rest is some comfortable furniture, rugs and stuff. No rent after the initial float. Your friends can come and fish with you from the deck.
JL- I am not sure if this is a mean joke but I actually quite like it.
OA- It wasn't a joke. I've been thinking hard. This is no ordinary one either. It is by famous architect Jean Nouvel. But you can get it welded anywhere. It would be great in some place in Aegean coast.
JL- Aw – I looked up Jean Novel – disappointed.
OA- His building in New York is really bad.
JL- That first thing you sent of his was special rest is the standard bullshit that I hate and want to look the other way.
OA- I don't blame you. Most architecture these days are for the wealthy and corporate.
JL- So are paintings.., I guess we are both fucked.
OA- Great ending! Thanks for the interview John.