Action artist Paul McCarthy was born August 4, 1945, in Salt Lake City, Utah. McCarthy began his studies of art at the University of Utah (1966 — 68) and then transferred to the San Francisco Art Institute, where he studied in 1969. He graduated from the University of Southern California in 1973. During his time at USC, he focused on film and especially on video as artistic mediums. From 1984 to 2003, McCarthy was professor for Video, Installations, and the History of Artistic Representation at UCLA.
The beginnings of McCarthy’s artistic work around 1966 were shaped by actionist tendencies, a concern with paint as material, and with the processes of paint application. Often, these processes also included acts of destruction. In his Black Paintings (1966 — 68), McCarthy referred to Minimalist concepts. Yet instead of taking up, for example, the subtle traces of paint (color?) of Frank? Stella’s pictures, he applied oil paint with his hands on picture carriers of canvas or wood and set them on fire. The radicalness of his painterly Action presented a specific version of Action Art whose most well-known representatives at the time were Alan Kaprow, Wolf Vostell, and the Performance artists Gustav Metzger and Ralph Ortiz. McCarthy kept pursuing these painterly Actions until the 1990s. Bodily involvement is of high importance (Face Painting – Floor, White Line, 1972) in his work. Yet from the very beginning, parodist elements also played a role in his Performances which, in a way, subverted then current artist myths of Action Painting (Penis Brush Painting, 1974, Painte, 1995, Bossy Burger, 1991). Explicit references to the contemporary art scene further characterized McCarthy’s early work. Especially Minimal Art whose reduced objects he invested with associative anthropomorphic interpretations (Hanging Hollow Torso, 1966; Skull with a Tail, 1978; The Three Boxes, 1972 — 84) remained an important focus for a long time.
With the beginning of the 1970s, McCarthy increasingly turned towards political and sociological questions. He understood artistic work as a form of social radicalization, drawing especially on Gustav Metzger’s theories of »Destruction in Arts.« In radical Performances, mostly accompanied by videos and, initially, without an audience, McCarthy deconstructed concepts of social roles and sexual norms. Costumes and masks, the parodic and excessive transgression of conventional boundaries through the use of body fluids and food – especially Ketchup – and of dirt, as well as the staging of violence and pornography served as scandalous artistic means. In these Performances, McCarthy drew on traditional gender roles and images disseminated by the entertainment media, especially film and TV. The spectrum employed included feminine porn queens as well as masculine sailor myths (Ma Bell, 1971; Sailors Meat, 1975).
In later Performances, the audience became part of the Action through its staged presence or absence (San Francsico Shithole of the Universe, 1980; Death Ship, 1981). Asked about the comparability of his Performances and those of the Vienna Actionists, McCarthy explained: »My work comes from the children’s TV in Los Angeles. As a teenager, I did not endure Catholicism or the Second World War. Europe was not my life environment. People refer to Viennese art without questioning the fact that there is a big difference between ketchup and blood. I never understood my work as shamanist. My work is more about the existence of the clown than of the shaman« (McCarthy, in: Flash Art 170, 1993).
In 1983, McCarthy decided to end his Actions and started – as an archival storage of the self – to pack up stage props in specially built boxes. In 1992, he opened his archive and exhibited some of the props.
After 1984, McCarthy increasingly created dressed up mechanical dolls and sculptures with associative references to the culture of Disneyland and pop (Bear and Rabbit, 1991, Spaghetti Man 1993). In 1990, he also started to collaborate with Mike Kelley in many Performances (Heidi, 1992). Aside from the kitschy myths of alps and nation, he was now interested in the grand Hollywood themes which he worked on with hard-hitting irony. Among these themes are the Western (Saloon Theater, 1995 — 96; Saloon Film, 1995, Wagons, 2003 — 05) and pirate films (Caribbean Pirates, 2003 — 05). He expanded his Performance into large sets and stage installations showing several actors – all documented through video and photography.
For many years, McCarthy’s works have been shown at international exhibitions. Among the more recent ones are shows at the Kunsthalle Hamburg (1995), at the New York Museum of Contemporary Art (2001), at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo (2003), at Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven (2004), and at the Haus der Kunst, Munich (2005).
Paul McCarthy, Between beauty and the beast, sculptures, drawings and photographs: Ausst.- Kat. Nyehaus, New York 2006
Paul McCarthy, Head shop, shop head, Works 1966 — 2006: Ausst.-Kat. Moderna Museet Stockholm u.a., Göttingen 2006
Lala land, parody paradise, Paul McCarthy: Ausst.-Kat. Haus der Kunst München, hg. v. S. Rosenthal, Ostfildern-Ruit 2005
Paul McCarthy, Brain box dream box: Ausst.-Kat. Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven, hg. v. E. Meyer-Hermann, Düsseldorf 2004
Blockhead + daddies bighead, Paul McCarthy at Tate Modern: Ausst.-Kat. Tate Modern London, 2003