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Laurence Gartel Interview: From Warhol to the Grammys, In-Depth with the "Father" of Digital Art

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Image attributed to Laurence Gartel

Laurence Gartel

Laurence Gartel is considered to be the father of the Digital Art movement around the world for over 40 years. The New York native’s work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, Joan Whitney Payson Museum, Long Beach Museum of Art, Princeton Art Museum, Norton Museum and in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institutions Museum of American History and the Bibliotheque Nationale. He has traveled the world exhibiting and projecting his work in Australia, Spain, Germany, Italy and India.

Gartel has had associations with Debbie Harry, Sid Vicious, Ace Frehley, Wendy O. Williams, taught Andy Warhol how to use the Amiga Computer and created artwork for Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, as well as for Coca-Cola, Philip Morris, Walt Disney, Gibson Guitars and Absolut Vodka.

“Oh, yes. Oh, yes, a punk rock hippie, you could say, with punk glitter, high heels and a big car. I was outrageous. It was like right at that point where people would change from hippies into entrepreneurs. Interesting time.”

In addition, he was the official artist of the 57th Annual Grammy Awards (2015). His concentration the last several years has been focused on Art Cars, the first commission being the TESLA Electric Art Roadster. Mercedes Benz commissioned Gartel to create a very special Art Car to celebrate their “13th Million Friend” on Facebook. He also created the first State Art Car at the Capital building in Concord with the New Hampshire Governor.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve said that you were an artist right out of the womb!

Laurence Gartel: It was like a chute … just like boom! (laughs)

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Does that mean as far back as you can remember, art is what you wanted to do?

Laurence Gartel: That’s correct. I don’t think I wanted to do it. I think I was told to do it or missioned to do it. I don’t know. I’m a pretty bright guy. I could’ve been a doctor, a lawyer, an architect. But somebody once pointed out that it was in my name: GARTEL – A-R-T, E-L (Electronics), the God of Electronic Art. Interesting how that is.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What were you like as a kid?

Laurence Gartel: Incorrigible (laughs). One time, I was talking or something in first grade, and the teacher made me sit in the corner. Then they went to gym, and she made me stand by a pole. She was ridiculing me. I guess, back in the day, one could say that the teacher was probably abusive, you know, in today’s world. I don’t even recall if she hit me. She probably did. But I didn’t give in. I didn’t relent. She wanted me to apologize for talking. I said, “No. I refuse. I’m not going to.” I guess I always had this way.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Rebellious?

Laurence Gartel: Rebellious in a way, but always feeling like I had the right answer. I was in junior high school, and the teacher said, “Stop talking! Listen to what I’m saying!” I told him that I listened to every word he said. He was shocked because he didn’t think I was paying attention, but I was. I think I was always a bit of a wise guy. I say wise guy, only for the fact that I was smarter than my teachers.

I had a teacher whom I admired. His name was Arthur Liepzig, a documentary photographer. He was the chairman of the photography department at CW Post College where I went to school, and I admired his great photography very much, I told him “Arthur, you realize I’m holding the future of art.” He goes, “Excuse me?” I said, “Yeah. You know that digital imaging is the future. I am holding the future.”

He hated me for that, but I admired him. It’s just having a certain amount of knowingness. I’m going to trade in “wise guy” for knowingness. That’s a hard thing for people to deal with actually, especially if they’re in power.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was it a struggle in the beginning while trying to get your ideas out there and convince people that digital art would be the wave of the future?

Laurence Gartel: Yes! Imagine Jesus walking around telling people he was a prophet. People didn’t want to listen to him. It’s hard when you have certain information you want to depart to others, they don’t believe it, and then it comes to be. I have many stories about that.

One story is when I went to the Brooklyn Museum and saw the photography curator. I showed her my work, and she said, “That’s not photography.” I said, “It’s not? What is it?” She goes, “Well, you used video, so I want you to see the new video curator down the hall.” I went there, and he sent me to the drawing department because I used an electronic pen to draw electronically. In the drawing department, he said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I make prints out of them.” He said, “That’s the print department.” I think that was in 1980. I saw every possible curator at the Brooklyn Museum, and they didn’t know what to make of it. They sent me all around, so consequently, I didn’t see anyone.

In 1989, I was the spokesperson for a show in Chicago called the Computer and Electronic Publishing Show. I was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune, and I was on the front page of the business section. I was interviewed for NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, and they asked a museum director from the Grey Gallery at New York University, “What do you think of digital art? What do you think of Gartel?” The director said, “Oh, please! This is a fad. It has no substance. It’s not going anywhere.” Boy, was that guy wrong!

I saw the curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), John Szarkowski, and I did this thing where I was photographing electronic images off the front of a screen and making Polaroid murals. I put it on the floor in 1982. I came back, and there was no comment. There was nothing. Eight years later, MoMA collected my work, and it was another sellout. So that was dead wrong. I let these people know it.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Laurence, you were born and raised in New York, so how did you end up in Boca Raton, Florida?

Laurence Gartel: In 1991, I had a show at the Norton Gallery with a museum curator named Christina Orr-Cahall. Christina was the curator of this Cincinnati museum, and she was the one who had the show of Robert Mapplethorpe and his homoerotic nudes. They threw her out of the museum essentially because of that show (laughs). She was going to show my work there in Cincinnati.

I said to Christina, “Listen. Wherever you go, I am going to go. I am not necessarily a fan of that work, but I certainly am a fan of freedom of expression, and that won’t change.” The work that Robert Mapplethorpe was doing was not my taste, not my sexual preference, but he was a master photographer. I loved his work, and I felt that what was happening at that time was like a witch hunt. So I said to her, “I will follow you wherever you go.” She went to the Norton Gallery in Palm Beach, and I had my show with her in 1991.

Everyone was so nice to me that I decided to move to South Florida. The Boca Raton Museum of Art director, Roger Selby, told me I should get in touch with the people who were starting something called the Palm Beach Photographic Centre with Art NeJame and his wife, Fatima NeJame. They are still in business to this day, and I started teaching for them in 1992, giving workshops.

Every year, they honor historical photographers with a lifetime achievement award. They’ve had some very high, established photographers that they’ve honored over the years. They honored me in 2009, not the youngest person ever to get that award, but certainly the first in digital photography/digital art. That was a big honor. But that was really the reason why I moved down there because people were nice to me and they acted very favorable. And the weather’s nice (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You designed a campaign in 1990 for Absolut Vodka. Was that one of the first digital art ads?

Laurence Gartel: Yeah. It was the first digital art ad ever created. I used Photoshop 2.0 and Canon’s first still video camera, the Canon 760. The background is manipulated Polaroid mural. People have said to me, “The bottle looks out of focus.” I said, “Well, if you drink enough Vodka, that’s what the bottle will look like.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Makes sense (laughs).

Laurence Gartel: It made a lot of sense, so I was using the first digital camera, the first of everything. To this day, it’s iconic. This year celebrates the 25th anniversary of the ad. We’re going to have a big party.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What was your relationship like with Andy Warhol in the 80s?

Laurence Gartel: I met Warhol at Studio 54. It was a very wild place, but we struck up a conversation about electronic art. He was very interested in that. I said, “You know, the possibilities are limitless. It’s kind of a new genre and you should check it out.” Warhol told me he was going to create the album cover for Debbie Harry, and he was going to use the Commodore Amiga computer. I told him that I helped establish that, so he invited me to his studio.

I showed him how to use Deluxe Paint and a program called Photon Paint. He was then able to scan Debbie Harry by putting a video camera on her. There were three wheels that the Amiga utilized, red, green and blue filters. It filtered in her image in red, green and blue and then put it together in the program. I showed him how to use the stylus to manipulate the image. Warhol was a very quiet guy, didn’t say very much.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you have any further contact with him?

Laurence Gartel: No. That was it. You know, he passed away two years later. I held the keys to all of it. I’m sure it influenced him greatly in some way to see the work that I was doing. But I didn’t talk to him after that. I admired him, but I felt my story was bigger than his (laughs). I really was on the cusp of a new genre like stained glass in the 12th century.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And you got the idea from watching a Charlie Chaplin movie?

Laurence Gartel: Yes. I was sitting in the back of a classroom watching Modern Times. I had this big lens, and a guy comes and taps me on the shoulder and says, “May I see your camera?” I’m like, “Oh, my God. He probably wants to steal my camera.” He goes, “That’s cool, man. What are you trying to accomplish?” I said, “I’m wondering if I can make a static picture from a moving image.” He said, “We have a really cool place here. Why don’t you come check it out? Meet me at 8:00 tonight in downtown Buffalo.

I told my girlfriend we had to go and check it out, so we went. I was curious. Lo and behold, there was a place called Media Study/Buffalo. They had a bunch of electronics there. I wanted to be able to create an image on the screen that was different, that no one ever had seen before.

You know, some people paint the same painting over and over and over, and that’s nice. But great art has to do with groundbreaking work. Sure, there are great painters. There are great sculptors. There’s a lot of great talent in the world. I admit that. I admire that. But will they ever be in art history books? Does what they do deserve the attention of art history forever? Forever? That’s where I come in. And I am in. I’m in those books.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Skin for burn victims and the foundations of a human liver have been created on 3D printers, and they are used more and more in healthcare. What do you think about 3D printing?

Laurence Gartel: We are at the tip of the iceberg with 3D printing because anything you’re going to need, you’ll just be able to print. This is the revolution of manufacturing. It hasn’t hit just yet. We are in its infancy, but you will be able to do all sorts of things with 3D printing. That’s going to revolutionize manufacturing. If you need a chair, you’ll print the chair. If you dropped your ceramic coffee mug, you’ll print another one. If you have an old Mercedes, you can just print another one.

I see that revolution taking hold. Printing in full color hasn’t taken hold yet. I’ve read, seen and heard that they could print a house. It’s going to come along. It’s moving as it is, but at some point, it’s going to really escalate.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What is your favorite piece of art that you’ve created?

Laurence Gartel: I’d have to say two favorites, “Moz Ocean,” which is a Polaroid mural created in 1982 and this piece called “Coney Island Baby” of a girl I photographed and then collaged with images I took of Coney Island. It’s the last place I was at before I moved to Florida.

My dad grew up in Brooklyn, and I wanted to say goodbye in a ceremonious type of way, and that was to take pictures of where he was. I made that piece in 1999, so I held on to those images for six years. It’s kind of interesting in a way. It was a slow turn to create that piece. It just says it all. To be honest, I’ve been trying to top it ever since. I’ve made some great pieces. I don’t know if they’re “as good,” but those just resonate with me.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why is it important to keep art in schools?

Laurence Gartel: My God, that’s the most vital thing there is. The whole thing about life is to trigger the imagination, and there’s nothing better than art to be able to do that. If you don’t give people the ability to dream, then they won’t dream. They’ll just become robots. They’ll just become cogs on a wheel. They will just follow in step, in tow, and never explore. I’m not saying everyone has to be me, of course (laughs). I think when they made me, they broke the mold. But I believe that anyone can become whatever they want to be and are able to dream.

It’s funny, just coming off the experience of the tour around Key West, talking about this fellow starting a cigar business and this person had all the things that enable people to be innovators. We’re losing a lot of that to the idea of not allowing people to dream. You don’t have to become an artist, but you can certainly become something that influences and changes the world. That’s where I believe art in school and certainly music, as well, come in. There wouldn’t be a Disney if he hadn’t had an imagination.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are you doing these days?

Laurence Gartel: I’m going to be the feature of an auto show in Scandinavia. I make Art Cars these days. I wrap cars with art. If you look around you, there are thousands of cars that are all monochromatic. The question is, “Why?” They don’t have to be that way anymore. You can personalize your car. You can be expressive. Every car is a canvas. That’s what I’m working on. I tell people that their car could be a personal expression. Of course, I’d like to do every car. Then, I’d be a wealthy man. But it’s hard for people to come around in life with new ideas.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Life and art’s about being an individual.

Laurence Gartel: Yes, it certainly is. I have a cousin I haven’t seen in 25 years, and we got together. He’s 7 feet tall, so he’s very tall (laughs). I am not that tall. I’m 5’ 9” tall. I’m very average. When we got together, his hair looked exactly like my hair, both with long, gray hair. I wore red glasses; he wore orange glasses. I have a medallion around my neck; he had a medallion around his neck. I wore a t-shirt that was imprinted with gold lettering. He wore the same. There was an aura about us, but we haven’t seen each other in 2 years. We didn’t discuss beforehand how we were going to dress.

I have other cousins, and they’re all so very unique. Our mothers were very eccentric (laughs). There were 4 sisters and a brother. She had a half brother and a half sister, and those guys are very normal. I use the word “normal” to describe them. We are all very different and very odd, very out there, very unique. Maybe that’s in the genes, I don’t know. My daughter, I’m very proud to say, won greatest creative hair colorist in the world in Las Vegas last October. She’s traveling around teaching people about color and hair. I’m very proud of her that she followed her dream to be creative in her way.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And maybe inherited that “color” gene from her dad?

Laurence Gartel: I think so. Her brother is much the same way and works in the same salon as she does, but he leans more toward fashion and has a large sneaker collection. We beat to a different drum. It’s not about money. It’s about vision, change and the big picture of living. I’ve lived here for 25 years, and it’s my first time to Key West. I decided to do something different. I was featured in Apple Computer’s “Think Different” campaign. Other subjects were Jackie Robinson, Jim Henson, Golda Meier, Jim Morrison, Pablo Picasso and Gandhi. I’m in good company with people that want to shift the world in peaceful ways.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Speaking of different colors, some of your art is pure psychedelic. Could we have called you a “hippie” in the 70s and 80s?

Laurence Gartel: Oh, yes. Oh, yes, a punk rock hippie, you could say, with punk glitter, high heels and a big car. I was outrageous. It was like right at that point where people would change from hippies into entrepreneurs. Interesting time. I went to Melbourne in 1985 to give a speech for the First Pan Pacific Computer Graphics Conference. I was 29 years old at the time. There was an article written that called me a “yuppie.” I think that’s the term – “young urban professional hippie.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You created psychedelic art for the Grammy Awards last year.

Laurence Gartel: Yes, I did the official art for the 57th Grammy Awards. I wrapped the original, one of a kind, 5 ½ foot statue, and it became the announcement, the invitation, the VIP tickets, the poster, the program. It was on everything. The original is at the Recording Academy.

They couldn’t come up with anything the year after, and I doubt they’ll come up with anything else. It’s too good. Not trying to sound arrogant or pompous or anything, but it just literally blows everything away. I think you can influence people with art. You can change people’s lives hopefully for the better. That’s really the goal.

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