Allan McCollum: In Charge of His Own Destiny

The following is an excerpt from a previously unpublished interview between Art21 and artist Allan McCollum originally conducted in 2009, wherein the artist reflects on his path and the many different influences along the way, from his famous uncle to post-war mass production to science fiction.

ART21: Another thing that seems to play a big part in your work is the drama of quantities. The project can go on and on and on. What is that about? Where does that come from?

MCCOLLUM: When I first started making the Surrogate Paintings I was working very hard trying to figure out how to make them seem like a symbol that stood for a painting. One of the solutions I came up with was to make a lot of them so that any one of them just seemed like a small part of the whole. We grow up in a world filled with huge quantities of things, not only objects made by factories, but grains of sand, tree leaves, etcetera. Repetition is a huge part of daily life. And there’s a pleasure in it or we wouldn’t do it. I felt there was prejudice against including that in art and I found myself resisting this prejudice. I wanted to work in quantities and make things that were singular and unique at the same time. You can’t say that something is unique or that something that’s the same as something else is not unique. They’re both sides of the same coin. I wanted to sort of resolve that on a higher level. But there is, as you said, the drama of thousands of things. It can be nightmarish or it can be a wonderful feeling of abundance. Some people want to run out of a room when there are too many objects to look at and other people stand there in awe.

I grew up during the Cold War and it’s interesting when you think back on the number of newsreels, magazine articles, and things on television that showed huge quantities of production. Americans wanted to show that they could produce thousands of automobiles and raise fields and fields of wheat and feed thousands of people. There were constantly shots of mass production and factory work. And they made it look very beautiful. I think that growing up with this constant imagery of productivity, love of productivity, and pride in productivity probably influenced everyone in my generation.

ART21: Can you talk more specifically about how production in popular culture filtered into your life?

MCCOLLUM: My parents worked at a number of different factories. My mother worked at the Frito Company for a while. She would bring home bags of Fritos that she got at half price or less than half price. To this day, when I see a bag of Fritos I think I have a different response to them than someone whose mother didn’t work in the Frito factory. My parents worked in a ceramics factory for a while, too. We had plates that came from the factory where they worked. There are families that work in factories and find pleasure in it.

ART21: Did this experience in your childhood give you a certain fondness for repetitive imagery, shape, or color?

MCCOLLUM: Repetition is something I have always enjoyed. My parents participated in little theater groups and in one of their plays, every time a door opened on the set somebody would throw torn up bits of paper so it looked like the actor or actress was coming in from a snowstorm. For some reason it became my mother’s job to tear up all the little bits of paper. Me and my parents and brother and sister all sat around tearing up little bits of newspaper. We went on doing it for hours. Now I guess it’s boring, but when you’re a child it’s kind of exciting. It’s a game. That is one of my very first memories. So I guess there is some sort of joy in my mind when I think of working together to produce lots of things.

Allan McCollum was first featured by Art21 in Season 5 of the series, "Art in the Twenty-First Century." Read the full interview and watch videos featuring the artist at Art21.org.

Additional images: Allan McCollum installs "Drawings" (1989-93) at the Sao Paulo Biennial, Brazil, 2008. Production stills from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 5 episode, "Systems," 2009. © Art21, Inc. 2009.