Westword: You have done so much work though various art forms, and you're especially a staple when we look at '80s pop-art culture — just one of those things involved you working as a set designer for Pee-Wee's Playhouse. How did that come about?
Gary Panter: It was really a magical thing that happened that had never happened before — the executives gave us total freedom. I originally got involved because I got a call from Paul Reubens or someone representing him wanting me to do a poster for a stage show he wanted to do — it wasn't going to pay any money. I went to see him and I liked what he was doing and it had a lot in common with things that me and many of my friends — who also ended up working on the Pee-Wee show — were doing in Dallas in 1975. We had a performance art group and we had puppets and it wasn't a kiddie show, but it was definitely infantile art.
When I saw what Paul was doing and saw that we were on the same page, I told him I wanted to design everything. I designed the first stage show — all the props, puppets, everything. He and I also wrote a movie — the first draft of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure — which did not get made for Paramount Pictures. I hung out with him for another year in an office writing that movie, but then he and Phil Hartman wrote the movie that was eventually made (as) Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. I then moved to New York right when the Pee-Wee's Playhouse TV show happened and it was going to happen there, so he convinced the production company Broadcast Arts to hire me.
I can't believe there was another version of that movie that never saw the light of day.
Well, it was just a script; when you are dealing with development deals, you're talking to a lot of nervous people because they are risking millions of dollars. We were telling the executives at Paramount Pictures that we wanted to do a bad special effects movie with terrible special effects and they didn't understand what we meant. We would have meetings with these guys and show them, like Fireball XL5, and they just didn't get it. It probably would have been an expensive movie in their minds, as all movies are. But it was this tropical sea adventure and he (Reubens) tried to sell that movie for years and then started re-writing it.
Where did your ideas come from to create the world that became Pee-Wee's Playhouse?
I'd already been working with Reubens for a few years at that point and I had moved to New York on my own before the show moved there. I think it was a case of arrested development as a child — I really liked toys and I studied them like a scientist. I studied toy trends and TV shows and I thought I could design a TV show when I grew up — and with this I had the chance. So I just jumped in and started designing it. I had never done that before, I had no training for it. But I have a degree in painting and just a lot of goofy interests, like puppets. I think you can see a lot of the painting influence and painting history on the Pee-Wee set — we were all painters; Ric Heitzman and Wayne White and I had all studied painting.
Looking at the show now as an adult, it really is this big, beautiful piece of art that I can't believe was on network television.
It was. It was really cool. It has a big influence on cereal commercials. (Laughs)
Do you feel like there was a particular climate or something about the '80s that allowed for this kind of art to be so visible in the mainstream?
I guess my view of the Pee-Wee show was that it was the kind of show that hippies wanted to make. Hippies wanted to get into television and wanted to make psychedelic TV shows and this was an opportunity to make a full-blown imaginative show. It's easy — if you get an opportunity like that — to go crazy. There was a show when I was a kid that I was really struck by — it was a very obscure show — and it was out of Chicago called Susan's Show.
It was a little girl — kind of Wizard of Oz-style — and she's just in her kitchen and she sits in this chair and sings a song and she flies away with her little dog down to hell. It dark and had a really weird set — the set for the show was strange and the puppets where weird and they didn't move very much. I saw it a few times when I was a child and I have only met three other people in my life who ever saw it — I think there might be one episode on YouTube. So that was an influence. So with Pee-Wee's Playhouse, I get this opportunity like, make a super nerd's palace and it was like, okay. I think I can do that.
You also created album covers for bands like The Germs and Red Hot Chili Peppers. How did collaborations or work like that come about?
In those days — the world is a little different now — you really had to meet people, whether it is the computerized world or not. I had moved to L.A. from Texas with my painting degree and I started pulling my portfolio around to get work. I was trying to be a painter, but that was going to be a slow project. Illustration was something I had to do to make money. I went to all the record labels and met the art directors and I met a lot of punk bands.
But mostly, it was just an art director calling me up and asking if I wanted to do an album cover. Then they would tell me what they wanted or they would send me the music — sometimes I didn't even hear the music. Sometimes I would meet the band; sometimes I would meet the band and it would be really fun, like when I met Ian McLagan of Small Faces. (Panter created the art for the cover for McLagan's solo album Bump in the Night.) But sometimes I would meet the band and it would be too complicated — everyone in the band would have an idea and it would be some impossible thing to illustrate.
But the Frank Zappa covers I did — it was an odd moment when the record company didn't want Zappa anymore and I actually worked on those unauthorized, unbeknownst to me. I was working on unauthorized Frank Zappa covers but the family still uses them today. Frank liked them okay; I've been told that by Matt Groening, who became friends with him. I was such a fan. And actually, the guy who did his early album covers, Cal Shenkel, he's one of my heroes. I loved his art.
Was painting the first medium that you worked with?
I was born in Oklahoma and we lived in a house trailer all over the Midwest until 1955, when we went to Texas. My father is a painter and he's been painting cowboy and Indian paintings my whole life — and that made me want to be an artist. By the time I was ten years old I had discovered modern art and I wanted to become a modern artist after that. So that's been my whole thing — being interested in the story of modern art, which over the last century has been totally fascinating because what you could do as an artist just got broader.
By the end of the century, all these hybrids — post-modernism was all about hybridism, which is what I was interested in, anyway. Like, what if you took Jack Kirby and David Hockney or things that don't really belong together and mash them together and see what you get?
I seem to be out of the commercial art business now for the most part, which is fine with me because now I have more of an opportunity to paint. I have a nice gallery in New York and a lot of people have showed me over the years. With galleries, it's hard because sometimes they stay in business and sometimes they don't.
Gary Panter joins MCA director Adam Lerner at 7 p.m. tonight at the MCA Denver for an installment of Who Made the '80s, a lecture series exploring the art and aesthetic that defined a decade. Tickets are $10 and $5 for museum members. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the MCA Denver's website.
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