From the TCJ Archives

An Interview with Victor Moscoso


GROTH: Then you went to Cooper Union?

MOSCOSO: I wanted to go to Pratt, because Pratt had six trees on it which gave it the impression of a campus. Cooper Union was on the Bowery. They had a guard in the lobby to keep the bums out. Oh boy, especially in the wintertime — a bum just dies in the street, what a cool campus. But Cooper Union was free. Two thousand people took the test and they accepted 90, and I was amongst the 90 that they took. And I was very lucky for it, because most of the craft that I learned, I learned at Cooper Union, and it was there that I decided that I didn’t want to be a commercial artist. I wanted to be a so-called fine artist, an easel painter. It was the time of the abstract-expressionist takeover, and New York was now the capital city of European art, no longer Paris. The war had taken care of that. At Cooper Union, I learned Josef Albers’ color theory and all his ideas about color from Neil Welliver, a student of his who was a teacher at Cooper Union. By the time I went to Yale and took Albers’ color class, I was already familiar with it. But Albers was quite a phenomenal guy. A great performer. I’ll give you one example: One day, one student caught him in a contradiction. She said, “Mr. Albers, last week you said such and such; this week you say such and such. That’s a contradiction. What am I to do?” And Albers, without missing a beat, said, “In that case, young lady, you have a choice.” [Groth laughs.] He was the head of the class, you were the student. No fucking around, there.

And I thought, “Wow, this guy’s good.” He knew what he was talking about so well that he codified it and could put it in a book or place it in a lecture, and people could memorize it and transmit it in their work. Especially if you did it with the homework that went with it, which had to do with these colored papers that you worked back and forth, and learned how to make one color look different, how to make a different color look like this color, how to make colors vibrate.

GROTH: Albers was teaching color theory? How to use color? Concepts like simultaneous contrast?

MOSCOSO: Right. Vibrating colors.

GROTH: Can you give me the gist of what you came away with from that class, or an aspect of what you came away with?

MOSCOSO: It was like he had given me a textbook, or a manual on color, because at the time I was not a colorist. If you look at my work that I did at the time, it bears no influence of Josef Albers. He did not influence my work at the time. I just filed it away in the back of my mind. Now, when I saw Wes Wilson’s Association poster, click! The red and green lettering that vibrated. I said, “Holy shit! I can do that.” I’d already fucked up with my “Stone Façade” poster, but I was working my way back to get in the hunt along with Wes Wilson, Mouse and Kelley. I’d had a lot of education, but I couldn’t get the hang of it at first. From that point on, what I had learned from Josef Albers came into play, because when I reversed all the rules and I really knew the rules. The better you know the rule, the better you can break it. So I made every edge on a particular poster a vibrating edge. Only edges vibrate. Complexity, figure ground, all of these; what’s figure? What’s ground? And if you’re lettering the negative spaces in between the letters, the ground becomes the figure “Ahh! I can do that!” So then, in late ’66, about eight years later, what I had learned from Josef Albers and his color theories I was able to put into use. Before that, it had been a book gathering dust in my mind. But that’s how well he was able to encapsulate it and teach it. That’s a good teacher.

GROTH: You said that Abstract Expressionism was on the rise at that point — de Kooning and Rothko and the rest. Were you taken by that movement?

MOSCOSO: Oh yes! However, I was not an Abstract Expressionist. I used their surface, but I was still a figurative painter. Everything I did was figurative. I later found out, at this show at the Museum of Modern Art, I think called “New Painting in the ’50s,” I found out there were people out here doing what I was doing. That was Diebenkorn, David Park, Nathan Oliveira, Elmer Bischoff, who I was later to study with, all these guys. Except for David Park; I didn’t study with him.

GROTH: And you said that they were doing what you were doing; what was that?

MOSCOSO: They were doing figurative stuff, figurative subject matter, be it a landscape, a still life or a figure, but using the Abstract Expressionist surface — rough, kind of like Monet on The Water Lilies. Very rough. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the beginning of Abstract Expressionism; Monet’s Water Lilies. You can count the church cathedrals too, but I think really with Monet’s Water Lilies, Abstract Expressionism starts, in my book.

GROTH: A lot of your contemporaries, like Robert Williams and Robert Crumb, really despised the influence of Abstract Expressionism in the schools.

MOSCOSO: Well, that’s their choice.

GROTH: But you actually embraced it, albeit not entirely —

MOSCOSO: No, not entirely — I said, “OK, let’s do an Abstract Expressionist painting. Let’s do it.” I said, “All right.” So I did an Abstract painting, and I looked at it, and I said, “Well, that’s that!” Then I painted something over it! It didn’t do shit for me.

GROTH: It had no real significant meaning for you.

MOSCOSO: No, why paint nothing when you can paint something? [Groth laughs] I was not an intellectual painter. I don’t particularly care for the work of Jackson Pollack, but I can understand him in a historical context. That’s where it was going anyway; It was getting more and more to the paint. It is also my theory that the Impressionists were running away from the camera. You don’t hear a lot about that. There’s been a real hush-hush about the camera and its role in art. Someday I’m gonna write a book about it. It’s like, I used to think there were no women in art, and then I read Germaine Greer’s book about women and art. They were written out of history by men. The camera has been written out of the history of painting in the same way.

I’m looking for a book called Art and the Camera or The Camera and Art, or something like that, where they show photographs of these antique camera obscuras they would carry around. Vermeer used one. They never talk about that. In fact, I was reading one book on Vermeer where they’re trying their best to say he wasn’t in a camera when he did his paintings, even though the front of the chair is out of focus. Now, why would you draw something close to you out of focus? Whenever you look at it, it’s in focus — but if you were looking through a lens, it would be out of focus! Why would he invent that? It’s so obvious. “But tracing is cheating!” Well, is driving a car cheating? Shouldn’t you be walking? [Groth laughs.] I dunno. So something really fucked up happened with the camera, so Abstract Expressionism and Jackson Pollack were inevitable. If you’re going in that direction, to where the image means less and less, and the paint means more and more — fuck the image, just deal with the paint. And that’s what Pollack did, and after that he could do no more, so he killed himself. Fool! He should’ve done a comic. It wasn’t the end of the road. It was just one road! They really take it seriously, these guys.

GROTH: So are you saying the paint itself became the subject matter because the camera tended to make painting antiquated?

MOSCOSO: Well, it had an impact. It did not make it antiquated; there’s still painting going on today. After all, the automobile did not antiquate the horse. It changed its role in society. In fact, we measure the power of our automobiles in terms of horses. The Indians measured the horse in terms of dogs — one name for the horse is “seven dogs.” One horse could carry what seven dogs could carry.

GROTH: But painting had a central place in the world of art at one time, and now it’s very peripheral.

MOSCOSO: Well, it was the photography of its day, man! If you were a king, after all — you know, a tailor ain’t gonna be able to afford an oil portrait, unless it gets to the Netherlandish countries, where the merchants take ascendance — nobility had a court painter — look at Velasquez. The painter, the job — you see him painting the kids as they grow up. He had a job for life. A good job for life! He had a part in society; he was at one with society. Then came the Protestant Reformation, which kicked most artists out as “the handmaiden of the Devil,” and then came the Industrial Revolution, which kicked the rest of the artists out and replaced them with engineers. Because of the Puritanism and the technology, the artist is considered a boy. A boy, because he enjoys what he’s doing! In Protestant ethics, if you enjoy what you’re doing, that’s not work. That’s play.

GROTH: And you shouldn’t be allowed to play.

MOSCOSO: Yeah. Or you don’t expect to get paid. “You mean you want to get paid? You just had a nice time, doing a job for me!” [Laughter] When people ask me for free sketches, I say, “Would you ask a plumber for a free toilet? Do I have a craft equal to that of a plumber?” I had to learn that for myself, though; they don’t teach you that in school. If they ever invite me back to talk, any of my schools — none of them have, I think they’re afraid of me — one of the things I would bring up would be that.


GROTH: You went to Cooper Union Art School for, I think, three years, and then you went to Yale School of Art.

MOSCOSO: Right, from ’57 to ’59, I went to Yale Art School. It was my second choice, because I wanted to go to the University of California in Berkeley.

GROTH: Victor, you never got your first choice in anything!

MOSCOSO: I never got my first choice.

GROTH: In any schools, I should say.

MOSCOSO: No, I’m just a bozo.

GROTH: That’s why they haven’t invited you back. They were all your second choices!

MOSCOSO: I wanted to go out here and study with David Park at the University of California, and they said, “Fine, we’ll accept you, but you’ve already got enough credits from Cooper Union, so you don’t have to take any art classes at all; you’ll have to take History of Early California, math, shit like that.” The worst things. And I said, “Yeah, or I could just paint all day and all night.” So I said, “Well, so much for that.” ’Cause I wanted to practice my craft, not to study up on shit that I wasn’t interested in. So I went to Yale, because a lot of my buddies from Cooper Union were going to Yale, and I had enough money for the first year. I had saved money; I worked as a waiter in the summertime. I first worked as a counselor, then I saw I could earn more money as a waiter. I used to go up to Nantucket and work as a waiter. Boy, was that cool, man. Good money, good parties! Oh man, the only drag was sleep, ’cause I’d party, work, go to the beach, and I had to go to sleep once in a while, but I tried to do that as little as possible. Being young, I was able to do it. Party and work, party and work ...

GROTH: Why did you want to go to Yale instead of just entering the job market? You had an interest in more formal education?

MOSCOSO: Yeah, I wanted more craft. I wasn’t sure that, had I just gone off on my own, gotten my own studio and started to paint, that I’d succeed at that point. If I had learned enough craft.

GROTH: When you were going to Cooper Union, were you a very disciplined student?

MOSCOSO: I’ve always been a disciplined student. I was always a good student. I used to win awards upon graduation. The only one that I remember was an award in lettering that I got when I graduated from Cooper Union, and the reason that I remember that was because of the $100 cash; the others were all certificates. Fuck the certificates! Give me the money.

GROTH: At Yale you had Josef Albers’ class. What other kinds of classes did you take?

MOSCOSO: Photography with Herbert Matter, in which I learned absolutely nothing. The drawing classes were good; I learned more about drawing. I got to be quite good. I further honed my skills to the point where I became pretty confident, as confident as a student can be. I was still embarrassed to say I was an artist, because I wasn’t. I wasn’t getting paid; I was an art student, but not an artist yet.

Jazz and Folk

GROTH: Was Yale a good experience?

MOSCOSO: Oh, yeah. It was a drag in a way, because there was a big rift, a split between “town” and “gown” at Yale. It was a pretty little town, but there was very little interaction. They didn’t tell you about nine Yalies getting knifed every year by drunken New Haven people, because they resented ’em because of the Haves and the Have Nots.

I wish Yale had been in Cambridge because it, like Berkeley, is a college town. New Haven, although it was a college town, it wasn’t. I remember, one time I was leaving the Art School, I said, “Where am I going?” So I turned around and went back into the Art School and continued painting. There was nothing to do outside.

GROTH: Well that could’ve forced a lot of discipline on you ...

MOSCOSO: Well it didn’t hurt, but I did miss the social life of New York, I missed NYU or Cooper Union. The Five Spot was just a few blocks down south on the Bowery from Cooper Union. I saw Thelonious Monk there, I saw Charlie Mingus there, I even took photographs of them! Unfortunately I wasn’t too good a photographer at that point, to be able to shoot in real low-light conditions. I could do it now, but then I didn’t have the craft, and I missed out on some really historic musical sessions that I wished I’d have taken good photographs of.

GROTH: Mingus was a furious player. Did you like him?

MOSCOSO: Oh, I loved Mingus. I once saw him in the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco. I walk in and I see this guy who looks like Charles Mingus walking around the tables in the audience with a box of Mrs. See’s candies, handing out candies to the people. [Groth laughs.] I said, “That’s funny — that sure looks like Charles Mingus. That can’t be Charles Mingus giving out candies ...” So, after he finishes giving out candies from the box, he gets up on the stand and says, “OK, you all got your mouth full, now? Good. Maybe that way, you’ll stop talking, and not interrupt me.” [Groth laughs.] I said, “Holy shit!” There wasn’t a sound to be heard but his music, man. This guy doesn’t fuck around! I dug Mingus, though he got a little bit too far out in his later years. When you lose the groove, man, I’m not interested. It becomes cerebral. “I’m doing this because it’s the cool thing to do. I am hip because I’m listening to this music. Not because I dig it, not because it moves me.” Fuck it, man, it sucks! Yeah, put on seven radios like John Cage did, and I’ll listen to them! It’s even easier — you don’t even have to bother going to music school for that one. Who knows what you get? It’s like getting stoned, putting on music, and then putting on the TV with no sound, and every once in a while, the image and the music would hook up in ways that you just couldn’t plan. Like random success.

GROTH: Are you big on jazz?

MOSCOSO: I used to be. I got turned on to jazz by the 1938 or 1939 recordings of Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall. I was in high school. And I also had a buddy of mine who was into jazz, so I caught the tail end of the bop era and then was really into the Gerry Mulligan Quartet — the cool school Modern Jazz Quartet. I saw the world premiere of the Modern Jazz Quartet at Cooper Union in the grand hall. Duke Ellington was in the audience. I didn’t know who the Modern Jazz Quartet were, but I was into jazz and I thought the name sounded cool. When they introduced Duke Ellington, I said, “Jesus, these guys must be important.” And boy, did they move me. I’ve stayed a life-long fan of them. But then folk music came around, and jazz got too far out.

GROTH: You mean, like fusion?

MOSCOSO: Yeah, when it started getting to the twelve-tone scale. I like it when Sid Caesar’s describing his band and he says we got so-and-so on radar and the guy says, “What radar?” Caesar says, “Yeah, radar, to tell us when we get too close to the melody.” It started getting like that. I dug Charlie Parker. I thought he was out of sight. Coltrane was probably the last guy, Coltrane and Elvin Jones, and I saw the guy with the white plastic saxophone — Ornette Coleman. I used to be into jazz and then I dropped out. It got too intellectual for me, too discordant, too atonal and it lost the beat. Once you lose the beat, you lose the groove, man.

GROTH: I assume that late Miles would not be your cup of tea?

MOSCOSO: No, no, he got to where he was getting to that point, it was like cerebral music, like cigarettes; it’s an acquired taste.

GROTH: I thought I didn’t like it because I didn’t understand it.

MOSCOSO: I still don’t and then along came country music — not country music — folk music. But it is country music.

GROTH: Folk is good country music.

MOSCOSO: Folk is good, it’s all good — country’s trailer parks and trucks — come on, this is Americana, man. This is American folk music too, it’s because we’re from the big city. Once I started picking up on the music, it took on a whole other trip. I’m an atheist and I love white gospel and black gospel music. It’s beautiful, it really is. Prior to jazz, I was into Latin music. I just saw a show on the Palladium. The Palladium was a ballroom just off of Times Square, and another ballroom similar to it was Roseland where the Latin music exploded, man, in the early ’50s. I was too young to go to the Palladium. So this guy in our neighborhood, Moe Galindo would go to the Palladium — he was like a Zoot Suiter — and learn the latest steps, come back to the neighborhood, to the gymnasium where we had our dances — just like in West Side Story — and we’d learn the steps from Moe that were really hip.

You were too young to go to the Avalon or the Fillmore, I was too young to go to the Palladium or to Roseland where it was happening. My high school had two rooms where students would dance to records during lunchtime. In the front they had the American Room, with people like Tony Bennett. In the back, they had the mambo room, where they played Tito Puente. And I always hung out in the mambo room, man, ’cause that that was the place. That was a really important part of my life, musically and socially.