… [I] was trying to take art away from places where it was bought and sold like so much official meat.
… my criticism of art and of our culture is that it’s a whole lot of material and very little matter.
Huot: … As an artist I was pretty naive for a long time about what my art was and where it went in the world. I thought art was a religious activity in the sense that you committed yourself to a life of searching for truth. You knew that things were not necessarily going to be all that good or easy, but at least you had your vision and your medium with which to express yourself, to present your discoveries to whatever other people were willing to look at them. As a child and as a teenager, art had given me a lot of pleasure, but the idea of being an artist wasn’t a real issue, because there weren’t any artists in my life, at least not in the official sense.
… In college I met an artist named Tom Young. He was a member of the March Gallery on 10th Street — this is in the fifties during the boom period of the New York School. There was this proliferation of galleries on 10th Street and a real society of artists. I met other students in school who thought about being creative people — not necessarily painters, but singers, poets, actresses, and other people interested in the arts — and suddenly found myself part of a small group of people who cared a great deal about the arts. Up to that point, it hadn’t dawned on me that I could be an artist, and it wasn’t until the mid-to-late sixties that I really began to deal with questions like what is the function of an artist in society; what do artists do, really; where do their products go, and who uses them, who benefits from them? I was showing at a Madison Avenue gallery with the naiveté of a teenager. That’s the way I look at it now, anyway. I suddenly began to realize that art was hooked to a whole class structure, and I found that though my art was appreciated, the people who bought it dealt with it in a fairly startling way: primarily as a symbol of their own power and their own sensitivity. It became their property and represented how aesthetically astute they were or how important they were. I had thought I was involved in a process of discovery, of making something beautiful, something that would elevate people’s feelings about the way they perceived the world and that would sharpen their senses and give them experiences that were stimulating or beautiful or whatever. That was pretty naive. Maybe that is part of it, but in this country, art functions largely as a means of status.
I began to be dissatisfied with my role as an artist in the official system, but I really didn’t know what to do about it. I was just uncomfortable. This, coupled with the fact that we were involved in the Vietnam War. … Well, to make a long story a little shorter, a group of people formed what would eventually be called the Art Worker’s Coalition. It was a sort of leftist-anarchist organization. I started to participate at the second or third meeting and became an active member. We were trying to deal with issues that involved the political nature of being an artist or being associated with the arts. We were artists, historians, critics, whatever, but mostly we were very involved in art. We began to try to affect the shape of the art structure: we participated in demonstrations, for example, to force the Museum of Modern Art to have a free day. We began to talk about artists’ rights. I think the women’s art movement in New York got a tremendous boost from the Art Workers’ Coalition.
Before, I had thought, if I make this beautiful painting, that’s it, that’s all I have to do, that’s the end of it. It goes out and changes the world. Well, maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. American art — abstract expressionism, for example — has been used by government organizations to propagandize ”freedom of expression” in the United States. Well, more and more, I didn’t want that to happen to my art. I did not wish my art to be used in ways that violated my intent. I became involved in a process of dematerialization. I felt that, possibly, if I made art that was more about ideas and less physically tangible, it couldn’t be owned or manipulated. I became what would be called a conceptual artist. But as I began to be involved in the conceptual movement, all that seemed to be happening was that the ideas were being turned into objects by being totally documented. It became chic to own or sell “nothing” — the Emperor’s Clothes. So I was very pissed off, and very disillusioned. I stopped making physical paintings in 1968, and I began to do things for people in their homes, in their studios — installation pieces, using a piece of tape, drawing on the wall, or making pieces that existed only in the dark — different things like that. It was anti the power structure; it was trying to take art away from places where it was bought and sold like so much official meat. When the people left the places where I did these pieces, the work stayed there and was painted out, or destroyed, or whatever.
Film appealed to me more and more because I could have a whole four-hour film in just a few cans. There was very little material and a whole lot of matter — and my criticism of art and of our culture is that it’s a whole lot of material and very little matter. Anyway, this was part of the attitude: less material, less stuff, and more experience, more information. Film just fit my needs at the time. I was changing rapidly. I had done my journeyman work as an artist. I had proven that I was a good artist, and I had done it in the official way. I had successfully shown in galleries and had reviews and gotten museum shows and all that sort of thing; now I wanted first of all to find out what the reasons were that I was doing it and whether I needed to do it, whether I wanted to do it. So, finally, I just dropped out of the official art world and bought this old farm and began to try to look at myself and the process of living. Film seemed a much more suitable vehicle for that.
Much later, at the end of the long interview, Hout seems to come full circle:
MacDonald: For a long time you made a lot of film and showed it comparatively little. Now you seem more interested in showing your films. Is this a reaction to the films you see dominating people’s attention?
Huot: Well, I can’t set up a whole program in reaction to something that I think is happening. I don’t want to do that, because I would end up being the same as what I’d be opposing. I want to do more than react. The reason I feel like being more public is that I woodshedded for quite a long time. I made a substantial body of work: the diary films, the diary paintings, the Möbius-strip investigations, and a whole lot of other things. I took a position of being pretty much out of view and did a lot of self-searching, a lot of just sitting around thinking without wanting to feel that everything I did had to be shown. So after going through this, I looked around and said, well, OK, what good did it do for Bob Huot to drop out? I saw that it did something for me in terms of the work I had done, but I also saw that if I wanted to have any sort of impact or voice, it would have to be through showing my art. So I will be an artist and will make my films and my paintings and three-dimensional things and whatever. I’ll try to use my work for my own ends, my own education, my own fun, but I’ll also try to use it as a means of having a voice for myself and my ideas. If I want somebody to hear me, I have to speak out; I have to show my work.