Illustrating Gravity’s Rainbow

Erik Ketzan interviews Zak Smith

Zak Smith is a young artist based in New York whose Gravity’s Rainbow Illustrated: One Picture for Every Page, will be published in late November by Tin House Books as a 784-page paperback.
Zak originally created the hundreds of images in 2004, exhibited them side-by-side in a massive wall of imagery at the 2004 Whitney Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary Art, and the pieces now reside in the permanent collection of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Since April 2005, all 760 images have been hosted online by The Modern Word.


Erik Ketzan: So you created an illustration for every page of Gravity’s Rainbow. How long did that take?

Zak Smith: It took like 9 months, but I was working on other stuff, too, at the same time. People always go “Wow, you must’ve had a lot of free time on your hands,” but, y’know, it’s my job to. You do something 14 hours a day every day, you can get a lot done. I think people are conditioned by the art they usually see in galleries to think that it takes an artist a full 8 months to—say—glue a dixie cup to a rug and write “Slander!” on it in lipstick—so when they see something where an artist had to actually work as much as a person with a real job does it seems like it must’ve taken forever.


Slothrop in his Hawaiian shirt
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760 images is a pretty daunting assignment. Did you ever fear that you might not finish it?

No. Though sometimes I was afraid it would suck— that the whole thing was just ill-conceived and too constraining and whatever, but then I’d just throw away a bunch of pictures and re-draw them. I probably threw away a hundred all together. It might still suck. I don’t know.

This isn’t the first time you’ve done a massive series of drawings and paintings. In 2003 you did 8 Variations..., which had 192 pictures, and in 2005 you did 100 Girls and 100 Octopuses. Some of these were collected in your first book, Pictures of Girls. What has the response to that book been like?

The response has been like two things. The first thing is I write to my publisher and say “Hey, how’s that book doing?” and they say “It’s selling well.” I have no idea what that means. The second is I get mail every day from people of various ages and levels of sanity saying how they like my work and the book etc. which I guess happens to all artists. I’m not really good friends with many other well-known people in the art world so I can’t really figure out if it’s an unusual response. Some people send me weird stuff, one person sent a picture of herself sucking a garden hose, people send novels they want illustrated, a couple people sent underwear. But then there’s probably weird Austrian minimalist women sending Donald Judd their underwear, too.


Zak Smith’s first book, Pictures of Girls

What has the art world response to the Gravity’s Rainbow piece been? What about the literary world?

When it was first shown, the two biggest art magazines both wrote reviews and both writers assumed that it wasn’t actually illustrations for the novel but that they were just 755 drawings from my real life and I’d just given them a clever title. I wrote a polite letter to one magazine explaining how V-2 rockets and Nazi scientists don’t really turn up much here in Bushwick.  Probably the most charitable thing you can infer about those guys from that incident is that art critics just have really low expectations these days— they don’t actually expect that some artist in 2007 actually did something that was hard to do.

Once the literary people found out about it was a whole other story— they all sort of tore through it looking for the pictures of their favorite scenes. I got invited to give a paper on it at the Pynchon conference in Malta and everybody was really into it. The only thing is they keep recommending books they want illustrated.

Any chance you’ll start selling the t-shirt seen in Pictures of Girls, “Varrick in a Shirt I Made That Has a Monkey”? It’s cool.

I’m pretty sure anybody could just copy that monkey, it’s pretty simple, I made it with a couple sharpies.

What have you been up to in 2006? Illustrating War & Peace?

Totally. Actually it’s one mural for every page this time. I bought a small village near Chernobyl and I’m using the walls of the abandoned buildings.  It’s conceptual.

No, actually, I’ve been doing drawings of stuff I did while I was acting in porn movies— that’s actually not a joke. I did one for Hustler/VCA called “Barbed Wire Kiss” for a guy named Benny Profane and one for Vivid called “Girls Lie” with this director Eon McKai, and some stuff for Burning Angel. Pretty soon I’m doing a really bloody, violent one for Bella Vendetta. Anyway, the drawings will be people and stuff from the sets and also whatever else was going on at the time. Paintingwise, I’m also in the middle of a series of portraits of porn girls I know and the usual batch of abstract paintings. But there isn’t a hell of a lot to say about abstract paintings. They’re abstract, they look great. Everyone should own one.

Have you thought about illustrating any other novels?

Not really, I feel like Gravity’s Rainbow had all these fleeting images that really sort of called out for this kind of treatment, but not a lot of other books do. I mean, I thought about it for a second— I was thinking about maybe Martin Amis. But I was re-reading “the Information” and there’s this part where he’s talking about genres of hangover— how there’s the western hangover and the comedy hangover and the tragic hangover—and I thought, this is great, but illustrating it would add absolutely nothing to the experience of reading it.

I see some comic books and comic book drawing styles in some of  your works, some of which have a narrative thrust to them. Have you ever done or wanted to draw comics? Which ones do you like?

I’ve done stuff here and there for my friends ‘zines when they ask but mostly I’m interested in figuring out what ideas from comics can add to single images. I grew up in the ‘80s, which was the absolute worst time in the history of the fine arts— so people who actually wanted to make things looked at non-fine arts for ideas. That’s why so much of the art made now is influenced by film and illustration and non-art things— all the young artists grew up in the ‘80s. I mostly like really well-done superhero comics, not the lumpy, frumpy, black-and-white autobiographical indie stuff about the holocaust or 9-11 or visiting your mom in the hospital. Good superhero comics look insane— they  don’t really look like any other art form in any other medium. I’m really big on Barry Windsor-Smith and Bill Sienkiewicz and Keith Giffen— I could be here all day talking about comics. Richard Case and Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol is probably my all-time favorite.  Pynchon people would probably like it.

The Quail has been intending to add Grant Morrison to the Scriptorium for about a decade... Anyway, I think we agree that the comic book artists of the 80s and 90s were far more technically and, well, artistically proficient artists than the so-called “fine artists” of those decades. Have things changed in the art world since?

I don’t want to cast a pox on everybody— I think like Phil Frost and Richard Billingham, for example, have done some amazing things you’d never see in a comic book. But, unlike nearly every other medium, the art world has this priest-caste of academics who determine who gets to be seen and who shows in a co-op or coffee shop in Madison. They have a financial interest in making it seem as though art requires people like them to explain it, so they prefer art which looks like shit to the untutored eye but is secretly full of art-history references and inside jokes. If galleries moved toward showing art that looked good as a rule, then all of the magazine people would be out of a job. Art magazines would just be a bunch of photos of artwork next to the address of the gallery where you could see it. The world of comics is different because comics are cheaper to produce and distribute.  You go to a big enough comic store and you’ll see Henriette Valium right next to some lame X-Men movie tie-in. The comic critics can talk all they want, but they can’t stop the comics from being right there in front of the customer.

Vice Magazine once wrote something along the lines of, “a neck tattoo means you’re willing to make shit weird with your dad forever.” Yours hasn’t, has it?

Here’s the part of the interview where I say, “No, I love my parents, they’re very supportive of everything I do”. Honestly though, they might’ve been worried a few years ago, but since I got in the MOMA I think they’ve kinda figured out that I’ll never have to interview for a job in a bank.

How did you first discover Gravity’s Rainbow?

Well if your reading list is mammoth literary classics and comic books, then sooner or later you’ll find out about Pynchon. So I checked out the first page of GR and was amazed. Just the style was gorgeous— it was intricate but also just barely out of reach— you were never sure you’d read what you just thought you’d read. I think that’s why it’s so haunting and why ten years later I decided I needed to pin all those images down.


Jessica Swanlake and her bicycle
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You said in 2005 that you did the illustrations to get Gravity’s Rainbow out of your brain. Did it? Do you think you’ll ever come back to the book, whether as a reader or artist?

I might read it again with the pictures one day, just to see how that goes.  Right now it’s too close.

Did you ever hear whether Pynchon liked the work or not?

No. I can’t imagine he does. I took hundreds of images out of that book and sort of nailed them down into concrete pictures without consulting him or anybody else— I’m sure any author would feel like there were tons of pages that just completely missed the mark or were just facile or whatever.


“I dream of a great glass sphere, hollow and very high and far away...”
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Who are some other favorite writers? Reading anything good right now?

I like Martin Amis and Dorothy Parker and Nabokov and David Foster Wallace and lots of writers. Right now I’m reading Cortazar’s “The Winners” and a Yeats collection. The best thing I read recently was this collection of Borges’ non-fiction stuff— absolutely amazing. There’s a great review in there of the original King Kong from right when it came out. He talks a lot about the 1001 Arabian Nights, too. I loved the version my dad read to me when I was a kid— I think the 100 Girls and 100 Octopuses was probably influenced a lot by the 1001 Nights. It’s sort of quiet and empty and luxurious and dark and watery.

Last question: there’s a stuffed animal that keeps popping up in your paintings, the Pokemon Charmander. What’s the story with that little guy?

I see Charmander as a sort of neo-pop iteration of a primal archetype that... Actually, I have no idea. I own that toy and it happened to be in the room when I was making those paintings. It’s orange and it looks neat, basically— oh, and it stands up on its own—there’s a big hint to any other stuffed animals out there— if you want to be in paintings, it helps to be able to stand up on your own.



Additional Information

Links

Zak Smith’s homepage

Buy Gravity's Rainbow Illustrated: One Picture for Every Page – at Amazon.com.

Zak Smith's Illustrations for Each Page of Gravity’s Rainbow – all 760 of Zak’s images, online at The Modern Word.


–Erik Ketzan
15 November 2006

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.