An Artist Exposing Fascism Through Provocation

He attended Weber State College in Utah for about a year, where he received an unexpectedly avant-garde arts education, learning in particular about found objects and ready-mades, before transferring to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. At Weber State, there was one student show in the hallway of the school’s cultural center where he showed an old cash register; another student showed a car door. It was around this time that he met Karen Player, who would become his closest collaborator and, soon, his wife. (“We both had common interests: getting the hell out of Utah,” he said.) Karen gave him a copy of Allan Kaprow’s 1966 book “Assemblage, Environments and Happenings,” which would become the standard text on the development of performance art. McCarthy was already familiar with the Gutai group, a loose collective that emerged in postwar Japan and approached painting as a kind of theatrical event — artists painted with their feet or ran through wooden frames covered in paper. He was, in these years, nominally a painter, but his paintings all had some performative aspect: He’d make what he called “black paintings” by setting canvases on fire. “The actions themselves were kind of utilitarian,” he said, “in that the easiest way to turn something black was to burn it. You know, the easiest way to paint for me was with a big rag. Why did I need a brush?”

In 1968, he and Karen moved to San Francisco so McCarthy could finish his undergraduate degree at the San Francisco Art Institute. The following year he was drafted and refused induction, which forced the couple to return to Utah to wait and see if he’d be sent to jail. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court as part of a class-action suit, miring him in a legal backwater — he wouldn’t be granted conscientious-objector status until 1973. During this limbo, McCarthy enrolled at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where he was in the multimedia department, “somewhere between art, video and film,” he said. In one of his student works, McCarthy, with the help of a friend, knocked a hole in a wall to the outside of a building and called it a movie, alienating other members of the film school. He never had any intention of living or, once he arrived, staying there (he and Karen wanted to return to the Bay Area, or even to Salt Lake), but it was the only school that offered him a stipend. “We were always going to leave L.A.,” he said. “And pretty soon, you’re there forever.”

It was upon his arrival in Los Angeles that McCarthy began developing his language of depravity. The 1970s witnessed a malaise that led to a breakdown in the status quo, a time that recalls our current moment all too well: People were fed up with the pointless war abroad and struggling to survive; they had lost faith in the political leaders who seemed to have no interest in helping the people who had elected them. The era’s nihilism was reflected in its art, which was angrier, more confrontational, less pleasant than anything that had come before. In 1971, in front of a small audience at a gallery in Santa Ana, Calif., an artist named Chris Burden staged a performance called “Shoot,” in which he had a friend shoot him in his left arm with a .22 caliber rifle because he wanted to know what it felt like. In 1975, for a piece called “Interior Scroll,” Carolee Schneemann stripped naked in a gallery in East Hampton, N.Y., stood on a table, rubbed her face and body in paint and pulled a long piece of parchment out of her vagina, from which she read aloud; the text discussed her marginalization as a woman in the art world.

But even in a time distinguished by its ferocity, the works McCarthy made in the ’70s remain harrowing. In a 1974 performance called “Shit Face Painting,” the images of which are still difficult to regard without cringing, he covered his body in excrement — his beard was caked with it — and rolled around on a white rubber tarp laid out on the floor. In both “Hot Dog” (1974) and “Tubbing,” McCarthy visibly gags as he tries to consume large amounts of raw meat. In 1974’s “Meat Cake I,” an oddly moving exploration of gender, the artist, dressed in a black negligee, paints his body with ketchup, mayonnaise, margarine and minced meat, and eventually stuffs everything — food, condiments, negligee — into his white underwear, revealing the man underneath it all, who looks almost like a newborn fetus, his body slick with various fluids, his underwear diaperlike.

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