Laurie Lipton was born in New York and began drawing at the age of 4. She was the first person to graduate from Carnegie-Mellon University in Pennsylvania with a fine arts degree in drawing (with honors). She has lived in Holland, Belgium, Germany, and France and had made her home in London from 1986 until a year ago when she came back to live in the U.S. — West Hollywood, specifically. Her work has been exhibited extensively throughout Europe and the USA.
Lipton was inspired by the religious paintings of the Flemish School. She tried to teach herself how to paint in the style of the 16th-century Dutch Masters and failed. When traveling around Europe as a student, she began developing her own peculiar drawing technique, building up tone with thousands of fine cross-hatching lines like an egg tempera painting. “It’s an insane way to draw,” she says, “but the resulting detail and luminosity is worth the amount of effort. My drawings take longer to create than a painting of equal size and detail.”
“It was all abstract and conceptual art when I attended university. My teachers told me that figurative art went ‘out’ in the Middle Ages and that I should express myself using form and shapes, but splashes on canvas and rocks on the floor bored me. I knew what I wanted: I wanted to create something no one had ever seen before, something that was brewing in the back of my brain. I used to sit for hours in the library copying Durer, Memling, Van Eyck, Goya, and Rembrandt. The photographer Diane Arbus was another of my inspirations. Her use of black and white hit me at the core of my being. Black and white is the color of ancient photographs and old TV shows ... it is the color of ghosts, longing, time passing, memory, and madness. Black and white ached. I realized that it was perfect for the imagery in my work.”
WATCH BELOW: Laurie at the international opening of her new work, "Extraordinary Drawings," in Liverpool.
The Advocate: Thanks so much for agreeing to a few questions. You work is so intense in both content and execution it is hard to know where to begin. But as your biography says, "It's an insane way to draw." There is an obsessive quality to your technique. How do you maintain that intense detailed quality? And what happens say if you make a mistake? Is everything fixable?
Laurie Lipton: The first week or so I'm erasing. I have to get the image to look "right." I was never taught perspective even though I went to one of the best art universities in the USA (Carnegie-Mellon). Abstract was the fashion and my professors thought I was insane to want to draw figurative work. I also am not making exact copies of photographs that you see everyone doing these days. I am using my imagination, so I have to invent ... which means making a lot of mistakes to begin with. After the outline is finished I get to flesh it all out. That is the fun part. Once I begin using the charcoal and graphite there is very little erasing. A "mistake" is rarely made, however. I've been drawing since I was 4 years old. If I don't know what I'm doing by now, I might as well give up.
Your work reminds us of the mid-century American artists like Grant Wood, Paul Cadmus, and George Tooker. Especially Tooker's dystopian view. But you have shot way past them in scale and complexity. Much of your work seems to be a dystopian warning. Are you a Cassandra with a pencil? Are you telling us to stop before it's too late?
I don't like to be preached to, and I don't want to preach. I am drawing about the things that concern and fascinate me, aspects of life that make me wonder. I'm spending weeks on these images. I might as well make them interesting to me. Sometimes I feel as though I've been dropped on the wrong planet and can't comprehend what the crazy Earthlings are up to. I'm trying to figure it all out.
The presence of death is often in your work in a chilling way but also in a celebratory way. Can you tell us about your feelings of how American culture handles death?
It was a great shock when my mother died: not only the fact of her death, but the way the people around me treated it. They were embarrassed, and the vocabulary they used to express their condolences stank of Hallmark greeting cards. I realized that we have no words for death in our society. We're all about youth and keeping wrinkles at bay and being healthy, successful, and odor-free. We spend billions on vitamins and skin creams. When I visited the Mexican Day of the Dead Festival it was cathartic. They acknowledged death as a part of life. They stared death and aging full in the face and poked fun at it. I decided, then and there, to rebel against my culture and draw about death.
Lastly, we need to know: How is it to live with Laurie Lipton? It's a little hard to imagine doing anything humdrum or mundane with you, knowing what is going on in your artistic imagination.
I could have answered that so differently in so many phases of my life. To begin with I hated it. Laurie Lipton was different and awkward and didn't fit in. Later on it was a trial and tribulation. Laurie Lipton was trying to kill me with drugs and drink and unhealthy relationships. Now, however, I adore Laurie Lipton. I'm never bored with her and am enjoying the art and people and where life has taken me. It's sheer bliss living with Laurie Lipton. I feel very fortunate. I highly recommend it to any gorgeous, single, successful women out there.