LAFF Interview: Tamar Halpern and Chris Quilty shine a spotlight on iconoclastic L.A. artist Llyn Foulkes
The engaging doc 'Llyn Foulkes One Man Band' profiles the fascinating life and work of a true rebel of the art world
There were so many great documentaries at the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival. One of my favorites was Tamar Halpern and Chris Quilty’s “Llyn Foulkes One Man Band” about, as the tagline of the film states, “the most famous artist you’ve never heard of.” Although he made a big splash in the L.A. art scene in the 1960s, his uncompromising methods and inability to “play the game” sabotaged what could have brought him major success. The film follows the artist, now in his late 70s, as he struggles to complete two astonishing tableaux that demonstrate his outsider’s perspective and eye for evocative imagery. But as his constant reworking of one piece stretches into its second decade, we see Foulkes’ contempt for the establishment replaced by a yearning for the recognition he’s due. As the film ends, we see that recognition finally coming to him. Just last week a major retrospective of his work opened to raves at the New Museum in New York, and now, after all these years, his work is being lauded by museums and collectors around the world.
I spoke to Tamar Halpern and Chris Quilty about the provocative and wildly entertaining “Llyn Foulkes One Man Band” which has one more screening at the festival on Saturday afternoon, June 22.
MSN Movies: I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this film even though I am far from being any kind of art maven! I was utterly fascinated by both Llyn Foulkes and his artwork.
Tamar Halpern: That’s great! We really wanted to make it an even playing field—if you’re an art buff, of course you’d be interested, but we wanted to appeal to people who are not experts at all, and people who know about art but who may not be that familiar with the L.A. scene.
Llyn Foulkes is such an incredibly engaging subject for a documentary. Given his past issues with the art community, was he reluctant to open himself up for the film?
Chris Quilty: Llyn is actually one of the most open people I’ve ever met. He loves to talk and for the most part, he always welcomed us in.
Tamar: When we started filming him seven years ago—and we don’t really mention this in the film—he was trading art for rent. The people who own the building he was living in downtown now have a very nice collection of Llyn Foulkes paintings!
That was generous of them, and as it turns out based on the recent resurgence of interest in his work, probably a great investment!
Chris: Yeah, he’s more successful right now than at any time in his life so there is finally some money coming in.
How do you explain that turnaround?
Tamar: The big shift for Llyn was a curator named Ali Subotnick who came from New York to the Hammer Museum here in L.A. She was young, had fresh eyes, and wasn’t at all jaded. When she first came here, someone said to her, “Oh, you’re new to L.A.? I ‘ve got something very interesting to show you!” and brought her down to meet Llyn. The Hammer had started putting together this show called “Nine Lives: Visionary Artists from L.A.” that we show in the film, and Llyn ended up getting the first room with all these great pieces from the 60s and also the amazing piece we show him working on, “The Last Frontier,” which the Hammer later purchased. Ali felt that was a seminal, important piece and she was right. That was the turning point.
In the film, we see Llyn putting together a show in New York, several years before the current retrospective, that he felt was a total disaster. Was that just his own skewed perspective?
It was a disaster for him because no one paid any attention. But one interesting thing that we didn’t show in the film was that he was obsessed with this New York Times review of that show that he thought was so terrible. He had me read it aloud on camera and after each line he’d say, “Oh wait, that’s not as bad as I thought—but keep reading.” So I’d read more and he’d say, “Oh, I thought that was worse!” But at the end he still said they’d completely misunderstood his work—it just made him crazy.
It seems like a lot of his problems early on were his inability to act in a way that the art world demanded or to keep doing the kind of paintings that people wanted him to do.
Llyn is someone who can’t help but speak his mind.
Chris: And he admits that he’s not overly friendly.
Isn't it even more accurate to say that he's unable to say what people want to hear or act in a way that helps him in the art world?
Tamar: Right. He’s just unable to play the game.
Which, of course, as an audience watching the film, we just love that quality. What a rebel! What brutal honestly! But then, we’re not the ones trying to find success in the art world.
We started interviewing people for the film and asking them if they thought Llyn had been written out of our history. Everybody had a different point of view. Dennis Hopper said, “Yeah, he hasn’t gotten his due.” Paul Schimmel said, “No, he’s been there all along.” Raphael Rubinstein said, “Yes, but it happens to lots of artists. He may not be discovered until after his death!”
How great that didn't have to wait that long! His personal story is so interesting, too. Was it hard for him to hear what some of his family members say about him in the film?
Llyn is so honest and open—he doesn’t really have any secrets. But I had a long talk with him after our first screening here at the festival and he did seem a little traumatized after seeing his life up there on the big screen!
Chris: I think he’s still processing it.
There are so many poignant parts of the film. You can see moments where he seems very sad about the years when he was rejected and largely forgotten.
Tamar: Right, and the truth is, if he had just kept doing a certain kind of work that people wanted him to do back then he’d probably have ten million dollars in the bank!
That’s why his current success must seem especially sweet since he refused to compromise no matter what pressures he got from the art world and elsewhere for all those years.
Yep, he really stayed true to himself.
“Llyn Foulkes One Man Band” will be screening on 2 pm on Saturday, June 22 at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Tamar Halpern and Chris Quilty will be doing a Q&A after the screening. For more movie news, follow MSN Movies on Facebook and Twitter.