FOUND SUBJECT: Asterios Matakos
PETER BRATSIS and HEATHER GAUTNEY
Interview published in, Found Object, nine (Fall), 2000
This feature on Asterios Matakos is the first of the Found Subjects series, which will continue to present the work and biography of living artists, activists, and intellectuals of various styles and media, often outside the academy.
Matakos is an artist whose career spans nearly the entire 20th century and continues to the present day. He is a composer, musician and visual artist, whose work is produced in concert with found objects that he salvages from the street. Matakos' unique style flows not only from his aesthetic sensibility, but is fundamentally related to his valuation of change as the key to vitality, a view that characterizes Matakos' work, his life, and his philosophy.
Matakos was born in New York City in 1917. He spent much of his early life in Greece, after being kidnapped by his father when he was four years old. Matakos developed an interest in music at an early age and began playing local folk music on the accordion. Soon after, Matakos formed a Greek folk band, The Bohemians, who had their own program on Greek radio and often performed with traveling theater companies. After spending three years in a German prison camp in Bavaria from 1941 to 1944, Matakos was returned to the United States as part of a prisoner exchange. From 1944 to the early 1980s, he pursued his musical career, performing in such venues as Carnegie Recital Hall, Steinway Concert Hall, Avery Fischer Hall, Madison Square Garden, and throughout France and England. Although Matakos was famous for his solo concert pieces for the accordion, he also played folk music and has shared the stage with Pete Seeger, Charlie Chaplin, Paul Robeson, and many others.
Matakos began to create his visual art in the 1960s. He was inspired by the artists in his Chelsea community, notably Zero Mostel (his neighbor) and Waldo Salt (his roommate). Matakos was deeply influenced by his years in Paris in the early 1950s and by his communist politics. His work has been shown at the Carnegie Mellon Art Gallery, Artists Space (Soho), the Robert Price Gallery, and the New York Public Library, among various other venues. In the early 1980s, Matakos abruptly abandoned his musical career. Around this time, his mother, with whom he had been reunited only ten years prior, died, leaving him a small inheritance in support of his art. From that point on, he would no longer sell his work.
Matakos left his home in Chelsea in 1993 and currently resides in a basement apartment, “The Museum of Greek Art,” in the shadows of the faux marble Doric columns of Athens Square Park in Astoria, New York.∗
Peter: How did you become an artist?
Matakos: Well, I used to be a musician and I got to this point where I needed something else in my life to keep me going, something private. And I turned to this slate business because I had the opportunity a long time ago to go to a place under the George Washington Bridge, with friends of mine, we used to go right down there ... big rocks. There was an old railroad station, which was no more in function and they did not take care of it. It was falling apart. And the roof was with slates, all slates. The station had a fire and helped to roast the slates, and they took all kinds of color. And I was playing around with my friends and I picked up some of these slates. They were all over the place. The first time I did this idea I made one bird and one fish, and as we were coming back home on the subway, I showed them to my friends and the man next to me says, “Ooh, I love these things.” I said, “Thank you.” He says, “Would you sell them to me?” I said, “Yeah.” So he gave me forty dollars for those two pieces. That encouraged me to start doing more.
Peter: What year was this?
Matakos: Oh, around 1960. And that encouraged me to do more. I had a lot of friends, artists, through my music. The actor Zero Mostel was a very good friend of mine, the Greek sculptor Michael Lekakis, and many many more. They liked my ideas. They encouraged me to go ahead and do it, but they never thought that I could be a good artist.
Heather: So it started with the slates from the roof of the railroad station, and it seems like there are many things here that you have gotten off the street, objects that you’ve formed...
Matakos: Well, I worked continuously on the slates. But then I started to find a lot of things in the street. I used to walk a lot and I incorporated these found objects from the street with my techniques on the slates. The street objects help me very much to do things that I never could do with my palate because the street objects are ... they have their own world. The only thing I do is use my talent, which is how I find in the objects the way to relate them with my slates and to have something to say. Because I believe the art of any period is nothing more or less than a mirror of life. You wanna see the period of any time, see a piece of good art and be, of course, involved. You see what’s the condition of the suits, you can tell how they were related with the beauties, with the intelligence, with sports, everything. I had to say something with what I found. But if I didn’t find those objects, they’ll never bring me the questions of what I am going to do with them, you see? So they inspire me continuously to bring new ideas. Now for me, this is what I do because I have no education. Every individual piece that I do is a new school of art to what I do. It is not that I succeed one way and I made it a hobby and do it all my life. No, every work has it’s own problem and I go with it. Their inspiration, my talent, and my labor makes a work of art. In other words, there is no school - it is not something established. You cannot teach somebody. Somebody walks in the street and finds an object ... what he can do, the person, is to develop his personality, to develop his eye to relate the piece of art with the god Apollo, an object, or person or something. You see what I mean? There’s no way to tell somebody, “Now if you do this...put the line there...” I have to find it myself. So what’s the characteristic of my work? It’s continuously revealed, and I try to perfect one or many pieces of work - they’re not finished. They are finished only when I forget them. I let the work itself tell me what I’m gonna do and this gives me a very great pleasure and interesting life because I am always surprised. When I walk around I don’t know what I am gonna find. I just look, and all of the sudden I see a “Romeo and Juliet” on the floor - so let’s go home and work. You see what I mean?
Peter: I have heard you say in the past that art should have myth...
Matakos: When my friend Lekakis would see a work he didn’t like he would say, “It’s ok, but it has no myth.” Back then, I did not know what he was talking about. Maybe I do now. Myth - it comes from the person, the world, the society that thinks and does things from the waist up, not from the waist down. There are no good myths concerning sex. All the good myths are from the waist up. You may have a little touch of sex with Helen of Troy ... but the problem of Troy, yes: that’s myth, that’s humor, that’s life.
Peter: Maybe you can explain some of your influences. You lived in Paris for some years and, here in New York, you lived amongst many artists in Chelsea for most of your life.
Matakos: I know you want me to give you an answer like the conversation we had the other day. I believe in life we are continuously changing. If I say the same thing that I said a few weeks ago about an idea, I don’t think I do anything - I have to change that idea - I have to fight what I said three or four months ago because I found a new approach to that idea. So I am continuously on the move, and I think people who stick to the things they learn only, and make a religion of it...they are finished. They have nothing. They just use what they learn in relation with the society. They have no changes, and if you don’t have changes, you don’t have life.
Peter: Yes but, for example, you have a whole series where you take themes from artists you like and incorporate and modify them with your own style.
Matakos: That’s my experience in Paris, and that’s ... actually, it’s a musical idea. See all these art books that a lot of people bring to me, they are sometimes inspiring to me, and I try to make use of them, and I made pieces on five or six pieces of these artists. Picasso had twenty four pieces, black and white, made with a pencil or pen, and I took that - the whole book - and I rebuilt it with a thick pencil, taking some liberties also, on my own, and I finished it at this restaurant there. And I made these pieces, and I continue with an idea that I had some time ago. They were eight that became ten, that became eighteen, that became thirteen, because I changed my mind and so forth - and I can prove it with pieces that I did - about Picasso. There were eight pieces, and now there remain about two because I incorporated them with other things. I needed those ideas of mine that I put Picasso in...so here, I have this thing called in English, “Matakos the Parisian.”
Peter: You also have some American influences, right? You were very friendly with Andy Warhol?
Matakos: Not Andy Warhol. Others, but not Andy Warhol. I met him, but he was not the type for me. But I believe the only American artist, original American artist, is Warhol - nobody else. They all are Europeans.
Peter: Why is Warhol an original American artist?
Matakos: I’ll tell you why. There is no person in the world who can think like Warhol if he’s not an American - to bring out American liberty in arts. All the others, they think in terms of the past, building upon other people’s ideas. Warhol feels free to create without making any connections to other people’s work or ideas. It shows a certain arrogance and shallowness, but this is what America is. It also shows a need for recognition and fame. I mean, what person who is not American would be so arrogant to take an image of a soup can and sell it for millions of dollars?
Peter: You wouldn’t say that your art is American?
Matakos: My art? No, because I’m not an American with the sense like she is (referring to Heather), or you. You finish high school, you finish grammar school...I don’t have this background. My background is the street, not the organized system of learning. I learn here, learn there. You lose a lot of time, but you can bring new ideas. The other way, you learn, but it’s things that have been said already, have been overused. In the arts, the problem is not the technical, not the beauty – they say nothing, you see? When you have nothing to say, it doesn’t matter how good your greens and reds are.
Heather: What is this piece here, with the American flag and Jesse Owens... “Making a Living”?
Matakos: When Jesse Owens came back with all the medals from the Olympics; he thought he could do anything he wanted. After he embarrassed Hitler and all this. He thought the Americans would see him as a hero. But he came back and none of the white people would give him a job. So some smart guys, with a circus...they get him to race against a horse, you see? And the people would throw money. They don’t teach you this in school – it’s not in the history. That’s why I decide to do this one.
Peter: Do you think your art represents the art of the working class?
Matakos: The sympathy of an artist with the working class is nonsense. The working class is the working class. They have all the right to build. They have all the right to destroy, to have a good life, to have their hospitalization, but not to interfere with the work of the head - of human learning. They have no business in that. I suppose there may be some exceptions, but these are not strong enough to have value. Like, you go to the museums here and see hundreds of students going in and coming out, they go in stupid and come out dumb. Yes, they don’t have the effort. They don’t have the effort and training to understand.
Peter: How have you been able to support yourself as an artist for all these years?
Matakos: This question reminds me of when I was in Paris, and all of us foreigners lived in housing for foreign students. One day Matisse came to give a talk. This woman stands up and in her broken French, asks if he thinks it’s a good idea to work when you are young so you can make some money to support yourself as an artist. Matisse says, “You must be an American, only someone from America can ask that kind of question.” Matisse said that he doesn’t think it is the right way and that he remembers that a long time ago pretty girls were becoming whores in order to become ladies, rich ladies. He says, “I don’t remember anybody to have succeed that way.”
Peter: How did you manage work and art?
Matakos: I cannot give you a very scientific answer, but I am sure if I was young and I was being supported for the things that I do, I would have been better artist.
Peter: How many years did you work?
Matakos: I worked about twenty years, doing things that have nothing to do with arts. I worked as a tailor and I was pretty good at it. I come from a long tradition - my mother and father were tailors too. The money was pretty good back then, and I would refuse to work more than four hours a day. But I’m sure I could be a better artist and have a wider range as an artist, if I did not work. It is not a good idea to work in order to do the art. No, it’s not a good idea. It’s an idea of these politicians who ... they are not willing to give anything to the public of their income taxes to support arts. And that makes it quite difficult. I remember a meeting of Shostakovich, the Russian composer, who I consider to be the best of the 20th century. He had an argument with a group of artists, art dealers and critics who claimed that both Russians and Americans do pretty good work orchestrally. And Shostakovich says, “No, this is not true...This is not true because...” he says, “...in the Soviet Union, when the office of culture will ok me a symphony of mine to be performed, there is no limit to how long it will take to be perfect. In your country, everything is limited. Can be eighteen rehearsals or twenty rehearsals and then do whatever you think.” So, the limit is not in favor of the quality. Most of the works, except the old ones, are not so well done, but not because the artists are no good. There is no space, no room for more. Some work needs five weeks, some works need five months...it depends who writes, what the conductor demands.
Heather: It reminds me of Adorno’s piece in Sound Figures. He criticized the decrease in rehearsal time, especially for new music, which requires a great deal of interpretation. There is so much that happens during the course of rehearsal, he suggested that they be broadcast on the radio so that people could hear what transpires between the fifth and fifteenth rehearsals ... how the music changes when the orchestra learns how to play the piece properly and represent its meaning.
Matakos: The people in the government - they are not honest. They care about money, not quality. What it means is that you have to put money to get quality art. Something that you played already thirty times - a symphony of Beethoven, for example - that you can get away with, I dunno, with six, ten rehearsals. But how about the ninth symphony of Mahler...it’s a new work - it’s complicated; people don’t know the melodies...they don’t know the spirit. There is no problem of technical perfection of the musicians. What’s the problem is they don’t understand what they do. One time Stokowski was conducting the Philadelphia orchestra, “Pictures from an Exhibition” by Mussorgsky. And at the end of the work - it’s very great and loud - he stopped the orchestra and said to the trumpet, because the trumpet had a very important role, “I want that solo part more heroic.” The musician says, “You mean you want it louder?” So how you expect with him to make a serious work? He can’t distinguish what’s loud and what’s heroic!
Peter: What you said about work reminds me of your piece on the immigrants. Can you explain the thinking behind that piece?
Matakos: It’s a reality of people looking to solve the problem of their food, of their source of income, their obligation with their children and all that. And they go so low sometimes, they look like rats. I had that work done long time ago in honor of channel thirteen, the channel with all the animal shows. And I did this piece, but then I got inspired to change that and make the immigrants. That’s what I call accidental art, which I believe the accidents in art is the secret of creation. That’s where the arts start from. If you, as a person...as a person who sees this work, can’t distinguish what it has to do the immigrants with the rats, it’s not my problem. It’s the problem of the viewer - he doesn’t understand what’s going on, you see? I think with my work...if you are not informed as much as possible - Warhol, Picasso, Bracque, little bit Matisse, little bit Miro - you will never understand what I try to do. So although it sounds like folk thing...no, it needs a preparation to understand. Long ago, I worked quite a bit with the Leftist movement, which now, I understand, has nothing to do with arts. As a matter of fact, all the artists of the Left world had problems convincing the leaders that they are wrong - that what they do is not so good. So the intelligentsia of the Left movement...they did their work right. The working class are the ones that didn’t do right. No. Working class has nothing to do with communism, socialism, and all that – no. They are an opportunistic group of people, who will vote anything that will fix their table, or secure their health and this and that. In other words, they don’t want change. They want better life. Communism doesn’t promise that. Communism promises new life - different life - no more the old type of fathers, the old type of mothers. The woman spend her life in the kitchen...no, they don’t believe that.
Peter: Can you explain your Lenin piece with the dancing girls? What was your thinking behind that?
Matakos: Oh, well Lenin looked very serious on the first looking, and he said a lot of serious things and all those statues make him look very depressing, like a religious icon. People try to make Lenin into a saint or a devil, but he is neither. He was a living person. He knew jokes...he liked to read things that are not what leaders would read, he liked to learn and all that. After the revolution they did not have a newspaper, so they would announce what’s going on on the walls...like “Tonight in this concert hall we will have a trio, who will play Brahms, Beethoven...” and this and that. So Lenin went to one wall where quite a few people were looking at the announcement, and there was a quartet playing in one hall...they were playing Brahms, I think. There were two generals before him looking, and Lenin was short, and in the back. And the one general said to the other, “Until when are we gonna listen to this bourgeois music?” And Lenin said, “Excuse me, comrades, the revolution we made is exactly so we can start to understand these works.” See? And he is right. The same mistake Mao made - to understand a work, admire or not, doesn’t mean you imitate. Learning is to help you as a person. For instance, Shostakovich was on a committee of the Tchiakovsky competition for who is the best pianist and composer. There came a young man and he played this sort of prelude or something on the piano. When he finished, Shostakovich called him and he says, “Young man, this music is very much like Brahms.” And the student said, “No, I never heard this name. I never had any connection with this composer you are talking about.” So Shostakovich said, “Exactly, if you knew who was Brahms, you would not do this mistake.” You see? So it means you don’t imitate something by learning, and needs emphasis also, in life, not to learn only your art, but to learn how you are gonna say something that has a value. And this is not only a talent, it’s a learning.
Heather: Tell us about this piece here ... “The Tsipoures” (porgies). What gave you the idea to do it?
Matakos: Well, it’s an accidental art. Of course, it evolved in time, meditation and so forth. But it’s accidental. Somebody threw, right there, a TV. From the TV I saw a lot of small pieces of some kind of a strange material...they looked like tsipoures. So I collected all this and I made it. I didn’t sit in my chair and get inspired to make it...that’s what makes very boring certain arts. You know, I know how to make the seashore...I know how to make a house...I put the little seashore with the house...then I put the house with the sun and the seashore. It may function in somebody’s room, somebody buys it and hangs it on the wall, but believe me, it won’t last long, they throw it away. It’s not something that has this accident...this adventure, like Picasso and so forth. You don’t know what he’s gonna pull out from something he saw. It’s an accidental art. So is “The Immigrants.” You know who teach me this? Tolstoy. Tolstoy told Gorky, “Listen, don’t insist on something you write to make it what you want. Leave the work to tell you how you supposed to finish the work. Don’t insist to do something because you started that way. No. And then if it doesn’t work, throw the whole project out. I guarantee you, anything that’s left from that project – it will come back to another work, somehow.” You see what I mean?
Heather: Is that what happened with the “Schizophrenia” piece?
Matakos: Yes, it is the same thing. What inspired me is what I found - that thing which has the two faces – it was on the top of a fire stove. There was a house in Chinatown that was thrown down, and the bulldozer made the machine – the cooking stove – flat. And I see that thing and I say, “Geeze, it would be beautiful for schizophrenia – two faces.” And I worked on it a long time. So, in other words, it was not an inspiration of mine to make something with two faces concerning schizophrenia, it was the material that told me what to do. Like this piece here, I found one pornography picture and I cut it - and I wanted to do something and it wanted to be something else. It became Sappho when I found the right slate that gave me the opportunity to make it.
Heather: What is this one called again?
Matakos: This? That’s the lesbians. It’s Sappho on the island of Lesvos. It’s the island where Sappho, who was the first woman poet in the world, was granted the gift from the gods of Greece to write poetry. And she started doing the poetry all over Greece. She opened a great school of poetry for women. The Romans, about almost a thousand years later, put in that they were making love, woman with woman, you see. But for the Greeks, it was strictly a poetic affair. They were starting there and then traveling all over Greece as poets, and Sappho is supposed to be one of the best poets ever. She said so many things with so little words, you won’t believe it. It is like an epitaph - few words, and it says everything. You change the whole world with that. Change the whole world with these poetic three words. The Marxists use it too - Miakovsky and all this ... Miakovsky says, “Stop believing all this Jesus Christ, and the horses and the horse that kills the snake. Life today is Left, Left, Left.” That’s it, the whole thing. It’s like Lorca, with little words say as much as you can.
Peter: I noticed that you have two different versions of Oedipus. Why?
Matakos: It’s not only my work. Any Greek art with a sense of Greekishness...it is like this: There is no one same Dionysus for all of Greece, like in the Byzantine or Catholic tradition where St. John always looks the same. Whether it’s in Athens...whether it’s in Rome...they all look like St. John. In the Greek culture, no. I do Greek art, but like the real Greeks. None of this Judeo-Christian bullshit that passes for Greek today. The Athenians have their Athena of beauty and justice and the Spartans have their Athena ugly and with weapons. It’s a culture open to new things and enlightenment, not like these small-minded followers of the Judeo-Christian tradition who wear black and hide behind their small windowless doors.
Heather: What are your thoughts about this piece here, with the church and Kassiani?
Matakos: This is a Byzantine work. Actually, I didn’t do much about Byzantine art and I have to...
Peter There is such a thing as Byzantine art?
Matakos: No. Byzantine arts are commissions of oriental compositions – there is no art there. There is not a single work that is art, it’s a commission of five pieces of St. John...ten pieces of Christ...you make it and you sell it. It is advertisement for religion. With this content, you cannot have art. Art is something very private that shows what the artist thinks about god and so forth. Some of these Byzantines are convincing, and they become famous. But, there is not a single work like, say, Michelangelo’s. They have the peacock...the same peacock in many sizes. So you say, “I want for the emperor, five peacocks on the chair.” “What size do you want them?” That’s it, no art just the same peacock in different sizes. With this piece I want just the feeling of the Byzantine period and the churches. It started first from my respect for Kassiani. Kassiani was a Byzantine nun and the first woman composer of the western world. She created a whole new form of hymns. You see, the tropario never existed before Kassiani. They have the hymns, they had the preludes of the ancient Greeks, the odes...but they never had the tropario, which is the telling of someone’s life in song.
Peter: What do you want to communicate through your piece on Odysseus with the souvlaki?
Matakos: I tried to satirize something that has been done a long time ago. Ulysses and all this...they just were gods or semi-gods. These are human dreams of a certain class of people of that time. For instance, Homer is a class writer. I try to avoid that. He never speaks of anything but gods and semi-gods and great generals. There is no life of people who work, bring in the food, build houses...they are never mentioned. Now, by bringing the souvlaki, I bring Ulysses down and make him human, you see? Even Ulysses, he respected the souvlaki. He is not somebody who opens his mouth and says, “Zeus send the sandwiches.” So this is the feeling you get...lot of people in Greece, and even in other countries, would not dare to give Odysseus such a meaning. I think it’s very inspiring. It makes Ulysses more human than god.
Peter: Do you see Ulysses as an heroic figure?
Matakos: I think there is no more rotten person in human history than Ulysses. He is the worst thing. He is an imperialist who goes and kills people to take their property. Ulysses, and little bit Homer too...because he worked for the classes who believed in all these things...Zeus and Apollo in the sense that the people that paid him wanted it. When you get paid to create, you have to see the object the way your boss says, not the way you may think is right. That kind of damage is the specialty of the historians today. You know, in Greece these nationalist historians write about the greatness of the ancient Greek music, but the Greeks don’t have music. Why? Simply, they have no instruments. You mean to tell me a guy with a pipe with two holes, and a guy with a harp with three chords will do all this music we hear around? With two holes, you make two holes music. So the modern guy comes out and writes music for the ancient theatre. He writes a symphony that cannot be from that time - with the two holes, you know what I mean? So that means that the relationship between the words and the music was very very limited. Maybe the tragedies were very valuable with the sense that the content of what you say in the poem is very strong. But this is not the music, it is the content. So that’s why a tragedy - Greek tragedy, which was the learning, the newspaper, the television, the radio of its time - had to have deep words. It’s so well written, and the content of the words and the play is so well organized that anybody who misses one or two lines has no idea what happened. He doesn’t know where it is going. You don’t have the same problem today. You can miss one movement from the symphony of Mozart and, if you are not specialist, you won’t know the difference. This is true, sometimes, even in Beethoven. In Bach, much more. And it would be nice to cut half the notes out and throw them away - I think repetition has to be criticized. So music has a problem - classical music - to approach the audience, because they overdo, they over say, they overspecialize. You see? And any composer who wrote something simple and direct to the meaning...his work became a piece immortal, even if he didn’t like it. “The Bolero” of Ravel: Ravel hated that composition, but he couldn’t help it, the people wanted it. Or Beethoven’s things: the “Sonata of the Moon” and all that...people wanted it because it was clear; it was of the moment - the accidental moment that makes something good art.
∗ We would like to thank John Sorensen for providing us with his biography of Matakos, “Mythiko Matakos,” prepared for the recent showing of Matakos’ work at the Donnell Library Center (February 5 to March 10, 2000).
Source: Peter Bratsis
Editor's note: For additional material on Greek/American visual arts see https://archivinggreekamerica.home.blog