Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow was first published in 1973, three years before the birth of Zak Smith. Who would have guessed that almost three decades later Smith would make a pen-and-ink drawing for every page of Pynchon’s famous classic?
I first heard about Smith’s illustrations, now housed in full at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, via literary weblogs in 2005, a year after they were first shown at the Whitney Biennial in 2004. Postmodern lit geeks and fans of DIY punk and comics alike were equally excited by Smith’s undertaking. In an art scene that can often be ironic, elitist, playful, and decorative, Smith’s works stand out as simply human and raw. They’re also literate, culturally and experientially full of life, knowledge of people, streets, lives, and objects. In essence, Smith is an acute observer of his world who combines unreality like postmodern storytelling and science fiction with his own experiences of sex and grime.
Smith is currently represented by Fredericks and Freiser, and last showed his work with that gallery in 2005. He has also exhibited at major museums, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. His art has been collected into Zak Smith: Pictures of Girls (Distributed Art Publishers, 2006), which features art from his Girls in the Naked Girl Business series and his 100 Girls and 100 Octopuses project.
In November 2006, Tin House Books will publish Gravity’s Rainbow Illustrated, which will include all 760 of Smith’s illustrations of Gravity’s Rainbow.
Terri Saul: Did you make the illustrations as a slow and methodical way of reading Gravity’s Rainbow? Or, did you read GR first, and decide to use it as a tool to make your work spin off in a new direction?
Zak Smith: I read GR years before I did the project—but I realized that a lot of the ideas in it—the density, the intricacy, the mishmash of styles and moods, the sort-of-sci-fi-but-sort-of-real-life thing—were all things I had been trying to get in the other work I’d been doing, So, rather than using the GR piece to make my work spin off in a new direction, it was more like trying to use the GR piece to pinpoint some ideas that had been flitting around in there all along.
TS: Do you think illustrating the novel was similar to translating it from one
language to another?
ZS: In the most important or meaningful way, it’s not really a translation. I mean, you wouldn’t be able to understand Alice In Wonderland from Tenniel’s illustrations alone—it’s the same with GR. And even if you did, the best things in the book—the wonderful turns of phrase and logic—would be lost. I think it’s important to know what my medium CAN’T do so that I’m focusing my energy on the things my medium CAN do.
Even though my drawings are as faithful to the parts of the text they illustrate as I could make them,
the collected pictures are more like a personalized set of footnotes than a translation.
TS: How did you feel responding to the characters in Pynchon—double agents, collaborators, resisters, giant adenoids?
ZS: Well, they weren’t hot punk rock chicks—that was the first thing I noticed. I had to find ways to get interested in them visually anyway—if they were pretty girls I could do it, or if they were monsters or caricatures, but scenes that called for basically everyman type people doing everyman type actors-studio emotions were tough because it’s so easy for it to come out as “just” an illustration.
It helped to have some visual hook—Slothrop had that moustache which made him automatically a little
ridiculous—which he’s supposed to be, and I gave Pointsman opaque glasses which was a bit of an easy way out but it conveyed the idea that he was this sort of evil technocrat, and Tchitcherine came out as a sort of anxious shark-faced guy in the earliest sketches, and Blicero has a few nice moments—I imagined him as sort of Egon-Schiele-drawing-Klaus-Kinski but he came out as a sort of evil James Woods. Some of the character bits are the worst of the bunch, though, it’s just some person saying something—blah.
TS: There’s one illustration where you’ve drawn your self-portrait with Richard Nixon/Richard Zhlubb. Why did you place yourself here? Did you feel as if you were actually living the book?
ZS: Not at all, it’s just that the text says “He ushers you into the black Managerial
Volkswagen” and my project was to draw my understanding of the scenes as written. The sentence says “you”—when I read the word “you” then I understand it as referring to Zak Smith. If Alan Greenspan were doing the illustrations we would then have a picture of Alan Greenspan being ushered into the Volkswagen.
There’s actually one other place where Pynchon uses second-person—near the beginning he says something about “you” getting your arm blown off—so there’s me with my arm blown off—but I’m facing left so people didn’t recognize me from my haircut.
TS: GR is famously difficult, and many have described it as a slog. Was it hard to read Pynchon like this?
ZS: I don’t know what the piece would be like for people who have trouble getting through Pynchon—but I’d hope that for at least some readers it’d be interesting to go through the pictures and text together the first time they read the book. Normally when you read it’s just you and the words—so you form an image in your head—and with Pynchon you’re never quite sure if it’s the right image—and that’s all you’ve got. By putting the image that popped into my head on the page it’s a way to sort of “compare notes” with another reader. Not necessary, but maybe fun.
TS: Drawing while reading is a great way to engage more purposefully with language. It makes the experience of reading more personal, activates different parts of the brain. But not all readers are going to be that engaged with a text. Do you think writers should write for a very active audience of people who work to read? Or should novelists play the role of entertainers?
ZS: I think there’s a fallacy in that question—The Da Vinci Code doesn’t suck because it’s “entertaining,” it sucks because it’s NOT entertaining. At least to people who read a lot. People who read a lot see a stock character or situation or description and immediately think “Fuck, I’m wasting valuable time—I could be reading Julio Cortazar.” Literate people require a certain level of complexity to stay “entertained.”
So, to answer your question directly—novelists should write books that they really wanna read that haven’t been written yet. Then they’re guaranteed to not only entertain and enlighten people with roughly the same faculties and sensibilities as themselves but also shed honest light on the mental processes of a given kind of person.
Aiming for some perceived “audience” is always a losing proposition because then you’re reading the
author’s view of his or her fellow humans altered in such a way as to be palatable to those same imagined humans. You get less information, and what you get is less reliable.
On the other hand, I don’t think books that are meaningless without research are ever very good.
Ulysses was exactly as good before I read the Odyssey as it was after—even though I had a better idea what was going on. The magic is in the words, not the references.
TS: Illustration #23 is a hypnotic image of smoking, the smoke escaping from the mouth and the tip of the cigarette at the same time. Do you feel like painting one page at a time is similar to smoking? Like a cigarette, each drawing has a definite beginning and a crisp ending, a little life and death.
ZS: First, picture 23 drives me nuts because in the text he’s smoking two cigarettes at once and it’s kind of funny and I should’ve made it clearer in the drawing and basically I fucked up. There’s lots of them
I’d do over if I wasn’t busy on new projects.
No, I don’t smoke, but, yes, I understand about cigarettes and the sublime—i.e. a measured interval where you know you have nothing to do but enjoy/observe time passing while also enjoying some sensual stimuli. It works with hot dogs too.
Does living with beginnings and endings affect my life and work? Yeah. I mean, I can pretty neatly divide up my life into eras indexed by what I was working on, where I was and who I was fucking, and when I think about what I’ll do next I often plan out projects that fit how I’m living at the time.
Like, for example, I never could’ve done 100 Girls and 100 Octopuses if I was travelling all the time like I have been lately, and I wouldn’t have been able to do the autobiographical piece I’m working on now about the porno movies if I was inside all day.
TS: Speaking of 100 Girls and 100 Octopuses, throughout your work you have a series of incredible paintings of octopuses and women. Tell me about your interest in octopuses and in Japanese erotic art. And, do you consider the octopus, with its many limbs a metaphor for the artist?
ZS: I only thought about the history of octopus art after I was a few weeks into the project. Well I always liked Yoshitoshi—I’m not sure if he did octopuses. I really like Klimt’s “Jurisprudence”—that’s a great girl/octopus picture. And “Octopussy.” And Japanese demon-tentacle-porn cartoons like “Legend of the Demon Womb.”
What I noticed is that the octopus usually comes up in the work of really stylish, stylized artists. Klimt, James Bond, Japanese woodblock art, Gravity’s Rainbow—not only are there girls and octopuses in this stuff but also bizarre patterns and weird furniture and decadent carpets and lavish architecture. Octopuses tend to be the province of people who just wanna make gorgeous, crazy pictures, not sober, responsible artists who think their work will solve all the planet’s problems or make them important.
Is the octopus a metaphor for anything? No. There were tons of animals I could’ve used and didn’t because they had some obvious meaning. Basically, the octopus is a real-life thing that looks like my line, my way of drawing—spidery, tenuous, tangled, wet, sharp curves—so it’s interesting to work with. That’s probably the biggest reason, it fit my style—I mean, I think Picasso was always drawing bulls because whatever he drew looked like a bull anyway—he couldn’t draw a woman’s arm without making some hard pinched curve that looked like a horn instead of a woman.
TS: Illustrating every single page of GR speaks to its obsessive qualities. Your illustrations seem obsessive too. They have a frantic, repetitive pace that reminds me of how comics move from panel to panel. Do you make other kinds of art that relates to comic books?
ZS: Sure, here’s an example—I just started a piece with the artist Shawn Cheng that works like a chess game. I draw a sort of protagonist or monster and then e-mail it to Shawn—then he draws a picture or two showing some monster of his own invention attacking the thing I drew and sends those pictures back to me and then I draw a counterattack and send it back and so forth. If one of us “kills” the other guy’s monster, then we come up with new foes and it keeps going back and forth and on and on and the plot and setting get more detailed as we go. It’ll all be on a blog soon, I think we’re calling it “on the road of knives” or something.
TS: In #688 you’ve hammered out a perfectly sculptural drawing of Tyrone Slothrop’s shoe.
Do you see these shoes as standing for his fate, as with Van Gogh’s boots, for instance?
ZS: There are 3 big shoes in the illustrations, all of which were based on observation of actual shoes and all of which get a lot of attention. I think they’re kind of a good example of a time when the subject was kind of mundane but the picture nailed it.
As for shoes and fate—well in the South they say if you meet a stranger, look at their shoes.
Ok, why? Well, the theory is, your clothes change all the time, but your shoes don’t change as much, so they’ve been through what you’ve been through and show the signs of it.
Not that I imagined any of this at the time, but a big thing in the book is Slothrop trying to hold onto his sense of himself despite being rootless and changing clothes and roles all the time. So maybe when we think of Slothrop’s shoes we’re thinking more about trying to remember everything he’s been through as opposed to how when we see his Hawaiian shirt or his zoot suit or his pig suit or his moustache we just think about what role he’s playing at the moment. Ok, that’s my Shoe Theory.
TS: GR is one of the most drug-ridden novels ever written. When considering your illustrations of it, I thought about Glenn Gould, a musician who experimented with both drugs and classical music. Do you ever use drugs while working?
ZS: 1-Drugs are very popular among people who are interested in interesting
things but are not themselves very interesting.
2-Drugs make your body do weird things—so they’re interesting if you’re in the
3-Drugs make boring things seem interesting, so products created by people while
they are on drugs are often really boring.
Glenn Gould is a pretty good example of all three of these propositions—his rendition of Webern’s piano opus—(23 or 28?)—is amazing, but when he sits down and writes his own stuff, he’s terrible and derivative.
What I do—and what most fine artists do—is not a performing art, so drugs just do to you what they do to everyone else: they make you suck and then waste everyone’s time pretending you sucked for some non-drug reason. I mean, in art school if there was some minimalist who made like a 2 by 4 except it was purposefully off by a quarter-inch and that was their art, you knew that guy was either on speed or a big pothead. When you look at all that crap conceptual art from the sixties and seventies—drugs.
Anyone with half an eyeball knows Victor Moscoso is obviously waaaaaaaay better then Andy Warhol—unless
you’re on LSD, in which case they’re both exactly the same—green next to magenta, fuuuuuuck duuuuude. Then you sober up and have to defend how much you liked it and well, Andy’s got some old photo of Jackie O in it so you pretend you like it because it was like socially relevant and shit and Victor Moscocco just has a cool picture of a dinosaur so you just pretend you never saw it.
Big muddy neo-expressionist art that looks exactly like every other big muddy painting anyone accidentally made ever? Cocaine.
The funny part is then the critics have to scramble back to their desks and write 80-page essays about why they think Andy Warhol is good that DON’T just say “Sorry, sorry, I was on drugs.”
TS: Your lines are angular and jerky; they seem to be taking their own rebellious path, undeterred by reality. For instance, you have a painting of a woman with a branching triangle on her chin. How do you feel about the hysterical quality of line in your drawings?
ZS: I got this art history textbook and at the end of one of the chapters they describe the difference between the Western approach to painting and the Eastern. So they contrast this Greek legend that this painter painted this bunch of grapes so realistically that a bird tried to eat them with this Chinese legend that this
guy drew a horse that was so lifelife it jumped off the page.
So realism is one thing, but vitality—giving a picture its own life—is another. If I had to explain why that jerky triangle is there maybe it’s because sometimes I want both. I want it to look like the person but I also want it to have its own energy.
TS: Obsessive detail in the work of Pynchon is said to grow out of a desire to take back meaning from the nihilistic response to living through the Cold War. Do you think growing up with the threat of a bomb overhead at all times has influenced Pynchon’s writing and your illustrations?
ZS: I’ll let the lit majors pick apart what the threat of nuclear annihilation has to do with a novel about a guy who is obsessed with a bomb, but as for me, I have always been interested in doom, airborne or otherwise.
I think a lot of the best stuff I did on GR comes at the intersection of Pynchon’s ideas about death and my own sort of punk/metal thing. The Angel of Death in the center of the last page is pretty nice—I might get a tattoo of that—and page 748—the “ravens of death have now tasted of the poison of god” is pretty fuckin’ sweet if I do say so myself.
TS: In William T. Vollman’s Europe Central the fictionalized Shostakovich character copes with death threats and living in war zones by placing the sounds of falling bombs into his music, notating where they land on the chromatic scale, and outlining the numbers in troop arrangements along the same black and white patterns of his piano keys. In reality he dedicated some of his music to the victims of fascism and war. How do the characters in GR respond to the war? What was it like putting their survival techniques into your art?
ZS: That is, without a doubt, the most complicated question I have ever been asked.
Anyway, I think both Pynchon and I had a bit of a hard time dealing with the victims of war head on—it’s a subject that everyone knows is important but that everyone’s already heard described by those who know far more than we ever will—so it’s tough to do realism there. He and I were both at our best when there was some metaphor or curveball around it, like that page where he describes all the displaced persons and all the displaced European stuff they carry with them—”the hand-mortised drawers that will never fit into anything again”—page 550—I liked the drawing for that one, the stuff came out looking so perfect and so dead.
TS: Did you use toy models, or war toys as reference materials when painting the planes and other war machines in GR?
ZS: Yeah, plus a lot of Google and a book on World War II and a big book of 20th-century photojournalism and a disturbingly detailed book on SS uniforms and insignia which I feel a little nervous leaving lying around the house.
TS: When I see a set of work with the level of quality and consistency in yours I wonder how many drawings ended up in the trash heap, in order to reach that level of fluidity in the final product.
ZS: I trashed at least a hundred, I should’ve trashed about a hundred more.
TS: Illustration #14—the adenoid with the streetlamp—looks messy, but it all comes together somehow. Was this the result of a deliciously messy studio?
ZS: A mistake is a mistake unless it looks good, in which case it’s a technique. Yeah, it’s a mess in here and I use whatever materials or paper are at hand, unless I think a particular method would look good for a certain thing—like 28—in which case I try to reproduce whatever materials I was using last time I used that method. Half the time I fail and come up with a third thing altogether. You can fuck around alot when the pictures are only 4 by 5—at the worst you just waste a day.
TS: GR is a book—at least in part—about how information can tend toward entropy.
What is your view of our current information-saturated culture?
ZS: Ok, here’s a view—in newspapers with huge circulations we got headlines saying the president is a felon who lies about pretty much everything all the time and doesn’t know where Sweden is and most people in his country either don’t vote or decide to re-elect him and I got a myspace page which says “Don’t send blind friend requests, explain who you are first” and I get blind friend requests every day. Information is only information if people are not total morons—however, people are total morons. Therefore we do not live in an information-saturated culture, we live in a Brad-Pitt-and-whatshername-just-had-a-baby-saturated-culture where smart people who care can find what they need when they have to if they’re lucky and we always have and we always will.
TS: Did you have a certain kind of art you were looking at—favorite artists or
illustrators—the year you made these drawings? Who has influenced you artistically more recently?
ZS: Well, I looked a lot at the art and other visual information mentioned in the actual text—like the decadent nineteenth-century pornographer Franz Von Bayros and German Expressionist movies. And after I finished the whole piece I decided it should’ve been done not by me but by Richard Lindner—I mean, he’s a ’60s pornodelic-Pop artist from decadent-era Berlin who paints weird women with purple latex stockings, he would’ve been a perfect match. A lot of that sort of thing in the porno movie pictures—and a lot of obscure illustrators.
TS: What’s one of your favorite moments in GR, or your favorite part to illustrate?
ZS: Well, one picture that I knew I’d have fun on from the get-go was that page where
Slothrop gets in a car and pulls up the head on his pig costume and leans back and smokes a cigarette “wishing he could just sleep.” Yeah, I liked that image—he’s tired from all the running around and absurdity, it’s like page 600-something already, and the reader’s kind of tired too—I guess it’s a real sublime-cigarette moment.
TS: Who else do you like to read other than Pynchon?
ZS: Well I love Martin Amis, and Hunter S. Thompson and Borges, Cortazar, Anais Nin,
David Foster Wallace, Dorothy Parker . . . we could be here all day . . .
TS: Tell me about your art education. What was it like attending Yale, Cooper Union,
and Skowhegan, three of the most prestigious art programs around? Did you also study literature? Are you glad you had formal art training?
ZS: What was it like?
I think a lot of people had a lot more fun in college than I did. People at the schools I went to were either smart and driven or stupid and lazy and rich—I think at other colleges you get a bigger mix—a lot more of the smart and not-driven people, who are some of the most interesting people because they end up doing weird things like becoming shrimp-boat captains or philosophers.
Did I study literature?
There are two kinds of heterosexual male art students—ones who take easy courses so they can fill their requirements, and the ones who take courses all over the map in the hopes of meeting girls outside their major. Guess which kind I was.
Am I glad I had formal art training?
I wish I’d gone straight to porn on my 18th birthday, but I’m not sure it was actually an option. Other than that, I am not one of these assholes who moan about being mentally trapped by the things I was taught—I mean knowledge only hurts people who lack the capacity to acquire more of it. Besides, you’d be surprised by how little “training” fine artists actually get—there’s usually one person who can draw at any given school and if you’re lucky they teach 101, and after that you gotta figure everything out yourself and the classes just teach you how to talk about it.
Everybody who’s any good paints totally differently than everyone else who’s any good anyway, so there’s not a lot of technique to learn.
TS: Sometimes artists feel like whores, always trying to be newest, youngest, most
beautiful. Do you struggle with this?
ZS: Well, people can get tied up in knots with questions like this if they forget what the basic questions are—Where does the money go? and What does the work look like? The work should look the way you want it to. The money should be going to help people who need it. As for the other stuff—the lies, the clever titles, the write-ups and the press releases—this is all job bullshit but it’s a lot easier than any other job bullshit I’ve ever done and we all have to have bullshit jobs until the revolution comes.
Is it like porn? Pretty much, except in porn everybody’s honest about the cocks they
sucked and who they buy their coke from.
TS: There’s also that saying that artists live in basements and dine with ambassadors . . .
ZS: I live in Bushwick and dine with trustees, so yeah, kinda. But I wouldn’t use the word “poverty”—I don’t have a car, a kid, a drug habit, or an expensive hobby so 28 grand a year is just fine.
TS: Have you taken on any other book illustration projects since completing this one?
ZS: Well, there’s the aforementioned one with Shawn Cheng—we’re illustrating, but there’s no text. I think about doing another book once in a while, but GR seemed uniquely suited to the project in a way most other books aren’t. If I did another one I’d have to use a different approach.
TS: Is there anything you wished I’d asked you to talk about?
ZS: Well, I will talk about anything assuming I think the person listening cares, but I have no idea what the readership of your magazine cares about so I am just trusting you here.
Terri Saul is an artist living in Oakland, CA.
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