Attila Richard Lukacs
by Sean Starke
Hobo Magazine, December 2007
Despite the rumours you may have heard, the artist Attila Richard Lukacs is not dead. Many people thought he died, some probably even hoped so, and others figured he was merely finished as a painter.
Lukacs first achieved international fame with his highly controversial (and influential) paintings of skinheads and military cadets in the early 1990s. Considered Canada’s “bad boy” export, Lukacs was for a time a very bright star in contemporary art. Then in 2001, after a frustrating four years in New York, Lukacs fired all his dealers and gallerists, stopped painting, and descended into a drug-addled inferno of self-sabotage. In the years since then Lukacs has managed to recover his mind and body from this breakdown, but until now it has been unclear whether he will be able to work again at the same level as in the past. After the damage done to his reputation by alienating his dealers and supporters, it even seemed doubtful whether any galleries would be willing to represent him. Can burned bridges be rebuilt? This is the story of an artist on the brink.
The first person I call to find out the real story is Diane Farris, Lukacs’ longest running (ex) dealer. When I ask about what happened, she uses the words “crash and burn.” Diane has been like a mother figure to Lukacs for over twenty years and she says, “When Attila is good, he’s very, very good; when he’s bad, he’s terrible.” Always a champion of her artists however (even when they are no longer hers) Diane is quick to add with great dignity, “The situation now is that Attila is miraculously recovered. He is painting well again, big tough stuff. He’s got lots more to say.” As it turns out, Lukacs has a new studio in Vancouver and is working at full throttle once again. Encouraged by this news, I spent a few days with Lukacs in his studio and we got to the bottom of his fall from grace, his rejuvenation, and his rebirth as a new Attila Richard Lukacs.
Entering a Lukacs studio is an impressive experience. Huge canvases, twelve feet wide and ten feet tall, are tacked to the wall and are in progress simultaneously. Each day you return they have evolved. Not unlike his painted subjects, the artist himself has a very physical, masculine presence that is at the same time boyish. Greeting me in paint-splattered coveralls, he bounds in great strides rather than walks as he shows me around the vast studio. Art-history books are everywhere, as is reference material from the news media, photographs taken by Lukacs and others, Polaroids of models, and of course the odd 1970s gay porn magazine. For the most part these ephemera are meticulously organized in boxes and on shelves, all with specific purposes in mind.
Lukacs’ manner is warm, and he is terribly funny. He seems somehow both on his best behavior for me and yet completely open and honest. Allowing me to view his works in progress, Lukacs speaks freely about their symbolic references and allusions, and we talk for many hours about his own practice and art in general. When I ask about his thoughts on the current state of contemporary art, he demurs, saying that he’s too busy painting to take much notice. When I press him, he quips, “I can’t pick favorites right now: there’s always someone to insult.” In fact, the only influences he will admit to are Italian Masters. “Right now it’s Piero della Francesca, Giovanni Bellini, and Cimabue.”
Lukacs was born in 1962 in Alberta to Hungarian parents. He graduated from Vancouver’s Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in 1985, and as it is for many young talents in Canada, the first order of business upon graduating was moving somewhere else. Feeling that figurative painting in New York had collapsed in the 1970s (an ominous prediction, surely) Lukacs chose Berlin and in 1986 was granted a Studio Residency at the Kunstlerhaus Behanien. It was here, in Germany, that he found the inspiration and reference material for a body of work that would catapult him into the international spotlight. Painting on massive canvases, Lukacs depicted life-size, often nude or half nude, Berlin skinheads, American military cadets and primates in mostly homosocial and homoerotic scenes littered with swastikas and flags. Far from being a supporter or sympathizer of Nazism, however, Lukacs’ skinheads are, as the art critic Georges Bogardi has argued (1994), “objects of desire and symbols of political energy.” Lukacs agrees with this assessment: “I became fascinated with Nazi imagery because in Berlin I was going through flea markets and finding postcards and books and a lot of print media with these images. This imagery fascinated me because it was so overtly sexual. And I found no difference between Stalinist, Nazi and American propaganda from that period. In these images, if you take away the symbols on the flags, they are almost indistinguishable.”
Lukacs’ fetishization of uniforms, rituals of training, and violent identities in combination with male (homo)sexuality was immediately and understandably controversial – particularly for a German audience so haunted by the aftermath of National Socialism. He was a huge hit at the Cologne Art Fair in 1989, and in the following years had numerous important shows in Canada and Germany, most notably at the Diane Farris Gallery in Vancouver, and the Dietmar Werle gallery in Cologne. The success that followed was nothing short of spectacular. Celebrities such as Sir Elton John began collecting Lukacs paintings (he now owns five), and the National Gallery of Canada acquired eight for their permanent collection. At the height of Lukacs’ popularity, his paintings were being appraised at upwards of $120, 000.
Then, in 1996, after a decade of prolific painting in Berlin, Lukacs moved to New York with intentions of breaking into America’s premier art market. He was at the top of his career when he moved into a studio in Manhattan’s meat packing district. So what the hell happened? Things did not go as smoothly as they had in Europe. Unable to make the critical splash he had hoped, and painting at less than his best, he floundered. This can be attributed to a number of complex factors, including both personal and curatorial obstacles. At this point in his career Lukacs was not an unknown up and comer – if he had been, I suspect the New York art establishment would have taken a much keener interest in him. But as an established artist in mid-career who had already forged a serious reputation working out of Europe, there seemed to be little incentive for New York dealers and gallerists to “discover” him for American collections. Diane Farris says she spoke with something like forty galleries but no one was sufficiently interested. In the end it was the Phyllis Kind Gallery that agreed to represent Lukacs in New York. Furthermore, his work was simply, and unsurprisingly, less well received in America, and was never enthusiastically sought for permanent collections there. Frustrated by the lackluster reception to his paintings, increasingly unhappy with the direction his work was taking, and nursing a growing drug habit, things fell apart. Says Lukacs, “ultimately I had a meltdown with all my galleries. For better or for worse I fired all my dealers.”
Many accounts of Lukacs’ downward spiral tend to underestimate Lukacs’ own conscious involvement, painting him as a victim of artistic mania and excess. This makes for salacious reading and serves the public’s appetite for schadenfreude, but does not tell the whole story. Though it may sound dubious, by Lukacs’ own account he made a conscious decision to drop out and burn himself down to the core. “I had one more year left on my five-year lease in Manhattan, and intentionally took a year off to do anything but paint. I spent a year doing drugs and re-starting my internal hard-drive.” During his “year of drugs,” as he calls it, Lukacs progressed from cocaine, to crystal meth, to crack. It was a complete breakdown of himself as a person and as an artist. Using “explorations with crystal meth” to try and regress back to his artistic foundations, Lukacs made sculptural assemblages out of material he scavenged from alleyways. “I was doing meth 24/7 and constructing a large junk installation. Eventually I built myself inside of it and couldn’t get out. I had to have pizza delivered through a gap in the boards.”
This self-destruction was made even more spectacular by the fact that Lukacs was being filmed for a documentary at the time. Directed by David Vaisbord, the film is called Drawing Out the Demons and it is remarkable for capturing the last two terrible weeks in New York when a defeated Lukacs tries to move all his paintings into storage. In the film a gaunt, hollow-eyed Lukacs storms around his studio completely wired, often wearing only boxer shorts, shouting at people and trying to make sense of everything. I spoke with Vaisbord about the experience of filming Lukacs at this moment of unraveling. “It got to the point where the few people still involved pulled the plug on him. Always there was mutual respect, but you can’t work with someone on crystal meth. At the best of times, Attila is difficult to work with.” Vaisbord explains that Lukacs would be packing his materials and paintings in the day, and then be up all night doing drugs and working. Lukacs himself confirms this. “Vaisbord missed a lot by shooting the documentary during regular nine to five hours. At five o’clock he and the crew would leave and the coke would come out, haha.”
Although Diane Farris feels that the film “didn’t do him any good as an artist,” Lukacs is unflinchingly honest about it, with no regrets. “It is a great documentation of that moment – the worst in my life – which is a perfect phase to be documented. I’m glad it’s on film, so that I don’t have to re-create it.” Vaisbord’s experience bears testimony to this feeling: “I think even then, amidst all the madness, he understood that making this film was a way of looking at himself through another person’s perspective, from a more objective perspective. And that he could really gain insight into himself and his life by allowing this to happen.”
When Attila escaped New York, he moved to the north shore of Maui to “heal.” While there he began to work with figurative representation again, drawing on paper before doing a series of painted surfboards. Finally, in the autumn of 2005 after moving home to Vancouver, Attila got a bigger studio so he could start working on canvas again, finally emerging from his crazy chrysalis. Looking back now, Lukacs is philosophical about it. “After I broke away from my dealers I felt very free. Before I started thinking about having to re-establish all that again, I allowed myself some time and headspace to make sure that my recovery was one hundred percent, and that I’m not fooling anybody, or have to fool anybody again. Because it took a lot of energy to maintain a drug habit and keep the shows going. And you saw it sort of slip, and you involve the dealers.” He laughs over the two meanings of dealers. “It was just an awful scenario, and I want to make sure that doesn’t happen again. I had to create the space where I could make sure that what I’m offering now is going to be rock solid for the next twenty years.”
So what exactly is Lukacs “offering” now? People have been very curious about what the new work looks like and, speaking for myself, I think it is equal to his best work. This in itself is astonishing. Lukacs is currently finishing no less than three new series of paintings. In many pieces he is returning to the military imagery and soldier figures that first brought him so much controversy and acclaim. This time, however, the paintings are more concerned with war itself – specifically the still-raging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and in this way are more overtly political. I ask Lukacs whether he considers them so. “Yes, these ones are political. I hope they read that way, in any case, and that my intent comes through. I’m not sitting on the fence with these.”
In paintings like “The Forge,” Lukacs continues to depict his half-naked subjects as “objects of desire and symbols of political energy,” but these are American soldiers, not skinheads or cadets, and their physical prowess and coiled brutality refers to a war that is being waged at the same moment Lukacs paints them. Nonetheless, the scene’s highly charged atmosphere of sweat and muscle – painted in a virtuoso performance of chiaroscuro not unworthy of Caravaggio – is classic Lukacs. The two figures at the far left are locked in an embrace that is at once both violent and sexual. The finger wrenched into the mouth is an obvious erotic image, and the soldier “taking” the finger has his pants half down. Behind him, to the right, the soldier with the tattoo of a – yes – swastika holds his gun at crotch level, the rifle’s long barrel pointed at the soldier’s exposed ass cheeks.
While Lukacs’ new paintings retain the brute physicality of his best work, even going so far as reducing the body to meat in “Beware of God,” until now each series of paintings has been quite distinct. Compare the Gainsborough-like realism of the portraits in the “True North” collection to the flat, Persian symbolism of the garden scenes in “Varieties of Love.” Lukacs says he is now developed to the point of integrating his various styles into single paintings. He calls this integration “homogeneity,” and is aware of its importance for the future of his work: “ I am happiest with my painting now, more than I ever have been before.” The best example of this homogeneity is “Peace, Love, Rock & Soul or Slave In The Graveyard.” The painting’s composition is almost an exact mirror of Giovanni Bellini’s “St. Francis in Ecstasy,” mixed with Bellini’s “St. Jerome in the Desert.” In this expansive painting we are presented with a typical Lukacs figure – a soldier clad only in underwear, his physique lovingly crafted – but the pose is serene rather than aggressive, and is set against a complex backdrop incorporating both naturalistic and symbolic elements. In this way many of Lukacs’ various styles, techniques, and subject matter are united in a single composition: the anatomical perfection of the body, the chiaroscuro of the Death figure reaching out from the cave or tomb, the swastikas painted into the rocks of the grotto, the pastoral beauty of the budding tree, the surreal detail of the swallows in the top left corner, and so on.
In addition to its formal variety, “Peace, Love, Rock & Soul” illustrates the development of an autobiographical content, which is unprecedented for Lukacs. The painting quite directly depicts Lukacs’ artistic and personal rebirth after his self-destruction in New York and his recovery in Maui. The setting is essentially a background of violence, struggle and death: the city on the horizon is Baghdad, skulls and bones litter the ground at the foot of the mountain, Death reaches out from the darkness. And yet the theme of regeneration and new life is overwhelming: the tree is budding brilliant young flowers, the swallows are in a spring-time battle of courtship, children are at play, and – most significantly – the soldier figure is at peace, as if rising Christ-like from the tomb. That the soldier is a version of the painter himself is made explicit by the tattoo arching over the bellybutton (Lukacs has a similar tattoo, in Arabic). The tattoo in the painting is a stylized Farsi script that reads, “God the creator is merciful and great.”
When I discuss my interpretation of “Peace, Love, Rock & Soul” as an autobiography of rebirth, Lukacs laughs with surprise. “I’m surprised you picked that up so precisely – or maybe I’m not surprised because it is definitely there. When I had to find my sanity and find myself again that’s exactly what I did. I wasn’t in a grotto, of course, [laughing] I was in a $5,000 a month Maui condo on ten acres of lush rainforest. But honestly I was wearing nervous breakdowns like pearls around my neck. And I had to go out and face the sun or those trees, and find wonderment.” As Lukacs’ experience in the past six years shows, however, re-birth can only occur in combination with a kind of death. In “Peace, Love, Rock & Soul” there is in fact a bullet (circled for emphasis) about to strike the soldier in the back of the neck. Lukacs points out that the woman in the burqa below has already heard the shot and is turned in alarm. Death and Resurrection. This painting loudly heralds the return of a new – in a sense re-born – Attila Richard Lukacs.
So it seems that Lukacs has come through his dark night of the soul and is stronger than ever. This summer he will be exhibiting the last series of paintings he did in New York – “Inside Darkness”(1999/2000) – at the Musée D’Art Contemporain des Laurentides in Montréal. This raises the question of when the current paintings will be ready for exhibition. “I’m still playing catch-up with exhibiting the work I did in New York, before I will be ready to show my new series. But hopefully it won’t be long.”
It seems the only question that remains is whether he can get any dealers to agree to represent him again. As of press time I can only reveal that Lukacs is indeed in discussions with new representation and planning a return to large-scale solo exhibition of his new work. Whether this involves one or more dealers, for the North American or European market – or both – I am unable to squeeze out of him. He gives a sly smile and then apologizes for not being able to reveal more. “I have to insist on you not printing any more details than that. I’m obliged not to disclose anything about the negotiations at this point. Plus,” he starts to laugh, “I don’t want to jinx it.” †