Only the Dreamer: An Interview with Victor Moscoso
March 30, 2015 | by Nicole Rudick
Victor Moscoso has, as he says, always ridden two, if not three, horses at a time. As an art student, he made fine-art paintings and did “art jobs,” such as hand-painting grocery signs. Later, he made paintings and posters, and then paintings, posters, and comics. He was one of the “big five” of design in the sixties—with Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, Wes Wilson, and Rick Griffin—and has been one of the Zap Seven since 1968. Yet Moscoso is every bit his own man.
Born in Galicia, Spain, in 1936, he emigrated with his family to Brooklyn when he was three. From there, he went on to study art at the Cooper Union, Yale University, and the San Francisco Art Institute. In San Francisco, he began making psychedelic posters for the burgeoning music scene—for groups such as the Who and Big Brother and the Holding Company and for venues such as the Shrine Auditorium, the Matrix, and the Fillmore. He borrowed from Art Nouveau, Vienna Secession, LSD trips, and contemporary commercial packaging and rendered his elaborate, frequently abstruse compositions in hot, vibrating colors. These designs helped define the psychedelic era.
In 1968, Moscoso, Griffin, and S. Clay Wilson joined Robert Crumb on the third issue of Zap Comix. When Crumb founded the magazine, there was nothing else like it, and its seven contributors produced stories so bawdy and rowdy and inventive that comics would never be the same. Moscoso’s work for Zap is formally innovative as well; many stories are told by way of nonlinear, surrealist dreamscapes in which the imagery morphs and folds back onto itself. Moscoso made three wraparound covers for the magazine, the most famous of which appeared issue no. 4: an eye-bending, joyously vulgar transformation of a dancing Mr. Peanut into a dancing phallus. It is a masterpiece of graphic art that, as Gary Panter has put it, “will represent the twentieth-century imagination for centuries.”
Last year, Fantagraphics gave Zap Comix the deluxe treatment, reissuing the magazine’s four-decade run in a six-volume box set. And this month, a show of Moscoso’s drawings from 1967 to 1982, including his preparatory work for Zap comics and covers, opened at Andrew Edlin Gallery, in New York. Moscoso spoke with me over the phone last month from his studio in Marin County, California, about learning to make art and then having to unlearn it all.
Are you on a cell?
They’re very convenient. Especially the ones with cameras on them, man. That is dynamite. I don’t have one, but my wife does. It’s a marvel. This may be before your time, but there was this comic strip called Dick Tracy, and he had this wrist radio with a little picture on it and a wire running up his arm.
Where did the wire go?
Underneath his garments, so that when he was getting dressed, he’d get the wire on. And he could talk to headquarters at any time.
I remember the wristwatch, but I didn’t know he had a wire running up his arm.
That was a detail kids like me were really interested in. And here we are. Jesus Christ, I’m living in a comic strip. Except everybody’s got ’em. Not just the cops. In fact, the cops gotta watch out.
Did you read Dick Tracy for the story or the art?
Mainly the art, because that was before I could read. Comics was one of the places where I learned to read, because the pictures interested me.
I remember at the age of three and half watching Hoppity Goes to Town, which I saw in Spain. I was blown away, as a little child, with the fact that drawings—I could tell the difference between drawings and live action—were moving. I saw that drawings were coming to life. I think that is when I decided, without realizing it, that that was what I wanted to do. Later on I saw comics, in particular Walt Disney comics. There is one artist in there whose name is Carl Barks—he was on design at Walt Disney, and he was an excellent storyteller. I used to wait every month for the new issue of that comic book to come out.
Eventually I went through all the comic books at the time, and I came upon the EC comics, and in particular, Mad.
What did you like about Mad?
Harvey Kurtzman’s fantastic drawing ability, and his ability to put that skill into a story. That’s what comics are—pictures and words, telling a story. Take the pictures out and it’s pretty much a novel. In fact, now they’re getting really snobby about it and they’re calling comic books graphic novels. Well okay, call it what you want. It doesn’t really matter.
How old were you when you started reading Mad?
I was at the High School of Industrial Arts—the same school that Tony Bennett went to, and he’s not a bad painter, by the way—and I went one day with a couple cartoon buddies—we would hang out according to our tastes, and we’d do art cartoons and compare them and see who’s the best cartoonist, stuff like that. So we decided to go down to the EC offices, which were on Lafayette Street in New York. I remember this rickety birdcage elevator wobbling its way up to the third floor or wherever. I wanted to see Harvey Kurtzman, but he wasn’t there that day. But Al Feldstein, who was the editor of the science comics, and Jack Davis, who was one of the artists—he was not one of the better artists, but he was a pretty good artist—they were there. I had heard from a group of students that EC was planning on producing a humor comic. At that point, they were doing Tales from the Crypt, horror stories, and combat stories. Kurtzman was doing Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat war stories. And we found out there was going to be a comic called Mad coming out from EC. Since we were all EC fans, we waited with bated breath till finally Mad came out. I bought it out off the rack. Number one. Off the rack ... and my mother threw it away. I had it stored in the basement. It goes for about five to ten thousand dollars now, depending on the condition of it. She threw away number two and kept number three. I don’t know why. Mothers and wars are the greatest destroyers of art.
What did you think of the first issue?
I loved it. As an art student, it was what I was living for, to get these things and then try to copy them somehow, to draw like them.
But in high school you were also interested in Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth. What did you like about their work?
It was very well drawn. It was very clever. Rockwell was probably the best propaganda painter, not unlike Michelangelo when he did the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo made propaganda for the Catholic Church. Norman Rockwell made propaganda for the American way of life. At his rosiest, at his Ozzie-and-Harriet level, he was what we in Brooklyn called white bread. In Brooklyn, when I was growing up there, it was all immigrants—Irish, Italian, Spanish, Puerto Rican. That was my neighborhood. It was the United Nations. It’s changed completely now.
This was near Brooklyn Heights?
It was the neighborhood of the junior high school I went to—Kane Street, Thompson turf. It’s now called Cobble Hill. When I was going there, one kid got knifed because another kid wanted his baseball bat and he wouldn’t give it to him, so he stabbed him to death.
It’s changed quite a bit since then.
It has! Yeah, it wasn’t Cobble Hill then. When you walked to school, you walked a certain path and they would leave you alone. You can avoid trouble if you know what trouble is and where it is.
After high school, you went to Cooper Union to study painting?
When I got to Cooper Union I was sold on fine art—art that you do first. With commercial art, you get the job first, then you do the job. With fine art, you do the job first, then you go to sell it. When I finally discovered so-called fine art, it was Abstract Expressionism that I discovered besides the old-timey stuff.
And my painting career, let me tell you—at the age of eighteen, I knew more about painting than anybody in the world, and every painting that I was going to do was going to be perfect and brand new. And then I started to paint. And I was disappointed. Because it looked like crap. It was crap.
What were you trying to paint?
I think it was my stool. You got a blank canvas. Beautiful stretch—I’m very good at doing stuff like that, stretching it, pulling it tight—and I got this blank canvas. I think, Okay, what do I do now? Since I’m going to be doing perfect paintings. I looked around me and saw my stool, so I painted my stool, and it was probably the worst painting I ever did. But then I started looking at what my fellow students were doing, and I learned more from watching what my fellow students were doing than from the teachers.
What were you reading at the time?
I had bookshelves with all kinds of books in them. I bought Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols because he had a lot of pictures in it. Freud had a stick up his ass, really. He had all these rules on what your dreams could mean. It just didn’t strike me right. I finally discovered Carl Jung, who said that only the dreamer can interpret his dreams. It clicked. Freud is interpreting—in fact, to use his words, he’s projecting. He can’t help but project. Who can be absolutely subjective? It’s impossible. It’s like perfection. You can think about it, you can talk about it, you can try to do it, you can come pretty close. And sometimes it feels like perfection. But how do you measure perfection? You put it on a perfection scale?
And you went from there to Yale in 1957. Did you study with Herbert Matter there?
I had one class with Herbert Matter, and I don’t remember a goddamn thing except that he had a cigarette that he dangled from his upper lip, like an angler dangles that little lure to catch the fish as they come along. And he’s talking to me about my photographs, and the cigarette is jumping up and down and it’s very distracting. The only thing I can remember that he said to me was, It’s black.
Referring to your photographs?
Referring to my photographs. And I’m thinking, It’s black. Is that good? Is that bad? And I didn’t have the sense at the time to ask. So I learned nothing from him, other than the work he had done, his posters. And I knew that he was good, that was why I took his class.
What kind of things were you painting at Yale when you studied with Josef Albers?
I was probably painting portraits and still lifes, with an Abstract Expressionist feel to it. In other words, I would use Abstract Expressionist strokes, the way de Kooning would. So it was an Abstract Expressionist circus.
Tell me about studying with Albers.
Albers was a good teacher. He knew what he wanted. He made you go through drills and exercises with colored paper that finally just blinded you. I never had been exposed to his color theories, but that guy knew more about color, which is a very difficult element in art to teach—very difficult because it’s always changing.
He had a lot of opinions, and you could get into fights with him and it would be all right. I remember one argument when he came to my painting space. I had a broken motor scooter, and I fixed it up myself. I had the sculpture department hammer it out, because I’d been in an accident. And then I spray-painted it, and I had all the pieces in a little alcove right where I was painting. And I decided to paint a picture of that—the motor scooter in pieces—and I did it with my Abstract Expressionist style, very quick, rough brush strokes. And Albers says, I don’t like this, it’s not real and it’s not abstract. I just pointed into the corner where the motor scooter parts were. He looked at me, and he threw his hands up in the air and stormed out. We were good friends, not that he was ever effusive about it. He was very bombastic and very controlled at the same time. A strange combination. Bah, he’d say, color is painting!
Did your use of color change substantially after taking his class?
Nope, not at all. I liked his color class. But I painted in mud—yellow ochre, lead white, you know, cheap. Yellow ochre is a lot cheaper than cadmium red. I was doing student art work, mainly portraits and still lifes. That’s what I liked to do. So what I learned with Albers got filed in the back of my mind. Then three or four years later, I got into the posters. Wes Wilson did a poster for a group called the Association and what it is is this plain lettering. He only had one drawing class, so he wasn’t tainted by good design. And he had this flaming poster—it was red and green of equal intensity. It vibrated. Unfortunately, the printer wasn’t very good and the colors weren’t in register as much as they could have been, so there was a white line between the colors. If there’s a white line between them, or a stained glass window, it won’t vibrate. The colors have to touch.
But the moment I saw that poster, I said, Bada boom! Bring out the Albers file on vibrating colors! Now, you’re not supposed to use vibrating colors, and his book actually gives me an out. He says, Do not use vibrating colors, unless you’re screaming and you want to advertise something. It fits the posters perfectly. Every poster that was made in those days was an advertisement. It was the only means of advertising the dance-hall events and the psychedelic-music gigs.
In Interaction of Color, Albers writes, “Experiences teaches that in visual perception there is a discrepancy between the physical fact and psychic effect.”
Ah! He used to say that over and over again.
It’s such a perfect description of psychedelic art.
Right. Between the colors that are equal at the opposite end of the color wheel, and your mind, which has been trained to read figure and ground, you can’t figure which is ground and which is figure. That’s why it vibrates. The mind can’t handle it.
Albers also wrote about the importance of fantasy and imagination in the perception of color. That, too, strikes me as a perfect description of psychedelia. Did you apply that notion of a discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect to the designs themselves, the intricate line work, the lettering that looks like it says something but doesn’t?
One of my revelations was to reverse everything I’d been taught. Making lettering as illegible as possible falls into that way of thinking. I’d been taught at Cooper Union that lettering should always be legible. So I said, no, my lettering ain’t ever gonna be legible. The goal of my posters was, ideally, if somebody was across the street, they’d see the vibrating colors and say, What’s that? They’d cross the street and spend a half hour or a week trying to read it. It was a game, and I wasn’t the only guy doing this. Here are these advertisements telling you who’s playing and where, but you can’t read it … or can you? Can you read this? Are you hip? We never said that, but that’s what it implied. And each artist would be competing with other artists.
When you’re making a poster, do you think about form first and then color, or are you thinking about color at the same time?
I think of what I’m gonna do. I make a little sketch—it can be very rough but I find if I don’t do that, I may get myself in a jam. Before I go on a trip, I look at the road map. So the sketch could be very rough, but I gotta have an idea, and the idea comes to me on its own usually.
At a certain point in your poster designs you started drawing the negative space between letters instead of drawing the letters themselves.
And that saves time?
Yes. It saves time. It’s much faster for me. Wes Wilson had the fastest method because he used just a single, uniform line that he would put in between. He developed it to perfection when he saw the Alfred Roller exhibition and saw Roller’s lettering on the Secession poster.
Which exhibition was this?
The museum at UC Berkeley had a show in 1965 that included Alfred Roller’s work. His poster for the 1903 Vienna Secession was there, and Wes saw it. But Wes was heading that direction anyway. So his was the most efficient form of lettering. Mine curved more because I used Playbill as the basis and that has serifs on it, which I loved because I could do anything I wanted to with serifs—make them as long as I wanted to, as wide as I wanted to. It was my form—it was mine.
Was your move into making comics a natural extension of making posters?
Yeah, because of Rick Griffin. Rick Griffin, who was the last of the so-called Big Five to come along. He was from Palos Verdes, which is down south of LA, and he was a surfer. And he was doing a comic strip book called Murphy for a surfer magazine. So he already had a reputation, and when he saw what was going on with the posters up here in San Francisco, he moved here and started doing posters. And after a while he was one of the better poster artists around—it didn’t take him long.
He came to me because he had designed his first poster and wanted some help. It was a wonderful experience to be working with someone else, because if you ran into a jam you’d give it to the other guy. We’d cut boards into two or divide it somehow so that we could both be working at the same time. We did a series of about six posters together. I’ve never worked that well or that close with another artist. With Zap, I collaborated with comic-book artists, but there’s seven of us and sometimes it gets to be a traffic jam. When you just have two, then you’ve got a tennis match—ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom. I get to a place where I’m in a jam, I say, Hey, Rick, can you do something here? And then he shows me something I never would have dreamed of, something marvelous.
Before you met, you and Griffin introduced elements from comics into your posters, right at the same moment.
Yes. Rick had already done a comic-book poster. He imitated the San Francisco Chronicle’s comics page, except the word balloons were empty. The poster was a knockout. It impressed Crumb. I’d just gotten back from New York, where I had done a serial poster, the Pablo Ferro poster. It had six panels that you read like a comic strip. I said, Holy shit! Wow! I couldn’t believe the synchronicity.
Rick and I did a poster together, one with three panels, and almost at the same time we came to the conclusion that we should be working on a comic magazine. We drew panels that didn’t make any sense with each other. We would just draw a panel and stick it next to the next panel at random and color them. We had gotten part of the magazine done, and Rick Griffin comes over to my house and he’s got a copy of Crumb’s Zap no. 1. I looked at it and said, Wow! Newsprint—love the smell, reminded me of my youth. That was what comics should be on—newsprint. And also it’s cheap. It was the same format as the comics I was raised on. So I said, Yeah, let’s get in with this.
And S. Clay Wilson joined the group at about the same time.
He showed up from Nebraska drawing the raunchiest, most taboo-breaking comics. I like to say he blew the doors off the church. And then we realized that we were all censoring ourselves, not showing people in frontal nudity. In other words, we were still stuck with the comic-book code authority. So we stopped censoring ourselves. Then women’s comics came out, black comics came out, homosexual comics came out. The cheap, underground press was printing everything—they printed a lot of crap, but they printed a lot of good stuff, too.
Some of the stuff in Zap can stand on its own. Forget the comics. There are spreads and pages that I enjoy looking at as works of art. That was a bunch of very talented, and very different, artists. And it was artist owned. No artist told the other artists what he could or could not do. There was no editor.
I once had an argument at the School of Visual Arts with Art Spiegelman—he put down Zap because we didn’t have an editor. I said, Who are you to tell Charles Burns or Gary Panter or any of these talented artists how to do their story? At Zap it was hands-off—you could tell somebody what you thought but rarely did you, and I could ignore anything anybody said to me. It was my page.
The comics you did for Zap were black-and-white. Was it a strange experience for you to leave them uncolored after creating the posters in which the color is so vibrant and so much a part of the design?
Nah, I only work with color as indicators. I drew them in black-and-white, and the color went on at the end. I would take color swatches and a color tracing over the original black-and-white art board and say, These are the colors I want and where I want them. Printers love this because we were bringing in weird things, man. Prior to doing the posters, they were doing A3 road maps. How boring can that be?
You mentioned reading Jung’s Man and His Symbols and the idea that only the dreamer can interpret his dreams. In your comics for Zap, you use a lot of repeated imagery—cartoon animals but also planets, pyramids, elements from Catholicism. And of the pyramids you once said that you dig the symbol value. Do you think of yourself as working in symbols?
I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I don’t see why not.
Did reading Jung influence that aspect of your work?
Not really. But Jung really likes the artist. He says that it’s one of the professions that deals on a regular basis with the unconscious. Beautiful! Exactly! I’ll go to a client, take down what he wants. If I don’t have the design by the end of the session, I’ll get it later that night. I just turn it over to the unconscious, and let it do the work.
Is that what you did with strips like “Loop de Loop,” which circles back on itself, and “Luna Toon,” which makes a kind of narrative out of variations of the same imagery?
The pyramids and the Egyptian-looking women with the snakes—are those from your unconscious?
Nah, I got those out of books. But I like them, and what I like, I draw. That’s the nice thing about art. There are no limits. Except for the edge of the paper.
Nicole Rudick is managing editor of The Paris Review.