interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
portrait by GIASCO BERTOLI
All works courtesy of the artist
The private life of the ironic French fashion illustrator is one of a literary writer and a painter of elegant cityscapes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you started off right away in illustration…
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — I don’t really like using the word “illustration,” because it implies a subordinate relationship of drawing and graphics to text. I prefer to think of drawing as autonomous, having its own existence, even if it is clearly included in a commercial context. Once I was at an art opening with my friend Martin Veyron, at this Guy Bourdin retrospective, and we ran into the great William Klein, whom we approached, planning to say something nice. Klein was wearing jeans, and for some reason we were both wearing suits. He asked us what we did for a living. We said we were artists. “I’ve never seen artists wearing suits,” he said. “Yes, but we’re commercial artists,” said Martin, and Klein got this disgusted look on his face. When I first started going to art schools (I attended several of them), I didn’t even know illustration existed as a profession.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In the ’70s, there was a whole slew of alternative magazines and fanzines in which illustration was extremely important.
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — Yes, I think they were mostly comic books or political cartoons.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Well, illustration was a significant part of magazine vocabulary at the time.
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — Yes, and I dreamed of being part of that world. At the beginning I thought I would create a different kind of comic book — graphic novels before they existed. The daughter of the art director at Rock & Folk magazine, Philippe Koechlin, was working in my atelier, and one day she told me to go in and show him my work. And for me, Rock & Folk was the absolute trendsetter, the top magazine. Koechlin was in his office with two or three other guys. They were listening to a live album by Serge Gainsbourg on the largest speakers I have ever seen. I mean I was expecting a member of the Rolling Stones to walk into the office and tap me on the shoulder. Koechlin was very nice to me, he looked at my drawings and he did publish some of them in the magazine. They were little black-and-white drawings, quite simple, with humorous comments about the musical culture at that time. They were maybe only 1.5” high, but they made quite an impression. Anyway, then I went to the Arts Décoratifs school thinking I would do some painting. That was at the very beginning of street art: a few artists (Les Ripoulins) were slapping up posters around Paris. For me it was an interesting mix of the ’50s posters I had always admired, by Raymond Savignac and his crowd, and the “savage” painting, all that graffiti. I totally got the poetry of street painting. It was back when there were the cars covered with graffiti in the New York subways and the beginning of rap music, that whole culture.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Were you influenced by street art and the emerging grafitti scene?
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — There was a book by Bruce Davidson, Subway, which I had found at the Arts Décos library, that fascinated me. It was also visually exciting because it showed photography and painting at the same time — it had photos taken in the New York subway in the ’70s, with these deep, intense colors, with three or four angles visible at the same time in the images. You could see people’s faces standing out against the giant graffiti on the walls of the cars, like paintings by Jackson Pollock, and on the windows there would be other graffiti, as well as a view of the cloudy skies or the burnt-out landscapes of the Bronx and Harlem. It was all there. Street art has always been a source of inspiration for me. I quickly realized that what I liked most was creating images for printing, for publication, a part of our daily setting.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you didn’t go into illustration as just illustration. You chose a slightly diffracted medium instead of framed painting, which then brought you into illustration.
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — It was also a way of earning a living, but what I enjoyed most was the fantasy that my images were traveling — I remember something a graffiti artist who painted the subways said: “I wanted my name to travel everywhere.” The day I read that line, I thought it was what I was trying to do with my images. I like thinking of my illustrations as the equivalent of a song or a music clip, which can be heard anywhere, on a taxi radio or in a store somewhere. It can be perceived as a noise, an annoyance, or it can suddenly touch us. It’s part of the commercial system and at the same time it’s poetic and unexpected, something you can pick up, something you find. That works with the printed image too — I prefer it to the idea of a painting.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Painting intimidated you a little, maybe?
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — An image that is to be printed is by definition deconsecrated, I prefer that. “Low” art can be saved, but “high” art, if it isn’t really high art — even if no one realizes it, can be appallingly pretentious.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re a child of the ’80s, a time when interest in the media was just beginning to take off. Cable TV, video clips, posters, advertising … a whole world of exciting images. Whereas in the ’70s it was all about being opposed to the world and the media, which was supposedly government-controlled. In the ’80’s, the artists took over, introducing the independent radio stations, et cetera. Even advertising became a new kind of self-expression…
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — True, there was a period, rather short, when advertising was like that. Some ad execs and publicists came across as real artists. They would appropriate and have things created instead of creating them themselves. In fact the most impressive component in their “artistic” undertakings was the finding of the funding for the work. However this did not apply to Jean-Paul Goude, whose productions were truly artistic, filled with fantasy and poetic improvisations.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you thought you were going to be a poster designer?
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — I don’t know why, but I had this romantic idea about doing posters. There are the two verses of “Zone,” a poem by Apollinaire, which I read when I was in high school, and which I still interpret as a kind of encouragement, or is it poetic justification? Maybe it’s because when I was a kid I lived in the suburbs, and when we would drive into town in a car, I would look at what was written on the walls.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You chose to work in magazines. You became known in the late ’80s for your succesful “Polaroids de Jeunes Filles” column in French Glamour.
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — They gave me a double page, and I had the complete freedom to draw and write what I wanted in a fashion magazine, the only requirement being to make people smile. I did portraits of young girls, using Polaroids, with these little captions, you know, “What I do with my life is…” I used the little paragraphs they would put on the magazine’s contributor pages, those nice little blurbs they put in, they’re meant to stroke the occasional contributors instead of paying them what they’re worth. I was also fascinated by Polaroids. The Polaroid was a kind of staging for the self, like Instagram is today. Obviously people didn’t have Instagram accounts then, but they would stick Polaroids up over their desks: shots of them on a commercial set in Arizona, on an airplane, hanging out with someone famous, partying, etc. And the somewhat uncertain quality of the Polaroid was like another filter that made everything more fragile, more interesting. I was doing these parodies of Polaroids, in gouache; a lot of them were conceived as imaginary self-portraits of young girls, like selfies before they even existed.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why did you decide to make fashion the principle subject of your drawings?
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — Fashion, but not only that — anything staged, meaning design, art, traveling, the books you’re reading. Everything that is specific and makes us interesting in a certain cultural context.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, you’re an observer, someone who picks up on the microscopic signs and signals in the fashion world, in the artistic and cultural worlds, and who can then draw what he sees. All of a sudden the two worlds seem to have converged. Did you say to yourself: here is my observational space and here is my expressive space?
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — I’ve always been interested in writing, but it was thanks to that series of Polaroids that I began associating drawing and text. It was drawing that brought me to writing, even if I think of drawing as a form of writing. If you want to push things, when you want people to react to cultural ideas such as fashion or art, or if you’re working in the literary world, which really is not that visual, you need to be able to use both text and image. You need both if you’re trying to get people to react.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But if you’re combining drawing and writing, it becomes satire. It’s a slightly sarcastic yet tender reinterpretation of these cultural areas. What attracted you to this? It must be because you’re obsessed with fashion, art openings, trends; you’re a child of the ’80s, when the word “trendy” came into being. In the ’50s and ’60s, there were these marginal groups that were interested in an alternative reality, whereas in the ’80s, trendiness was the idea of copying the artist, a contrived appearance, an outfit.
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — Well, during the ’70s, there was this illusion of refusing to look good, whereas in the ’80s people created an aristocracy based entirely on appearance and tokens of wealth, it was really quite aggressive. But in reality, a Trotskyist in a torn turtleneck could be trendy, as well as a goatherd. Same thing for the Punks. I read recently that the Clash were jealous of the Sex Pistols being dressed by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. They envied them for their nicer clothes. I’m not sure that the story is true, but it’s certainly possible!
OLIVIER ZAHM — You could reexamine the history of certain alternative movements by looking at their style?
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — Sure. I think a lot of it has to do with the clothes, the hairstyles, the beards, even their physical condition: the stick-thin rockers vs. the rappers and their six-packs and toned biceps.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You have such an eye for style. Do you think about it, or a certain attitude when you’re thinking about a drawing you’re going to do?
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — No, my observations do not necessarily lead to the idea of drawing things.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But there are some things you can’t overlook?
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — Yes, there are little things that catch the eye, you don’t really know why. It’s amusing to pick up on a change in style because of some detail you’re not supposed to see. When you’re looking at a guy in a suit, what is it that tells you he works in an art gallery, that he is not a lawyer or a marketing director — it’s the fact that the suit is slightly fitted under the arms and sits nicely squared on the shoulders — and we’re talking about the exact same suit! Most people don’t actually analyze this stuff, but they somehow get what I mean: it has to do with how the suit is maintained, the tailoring done just so — and of course its juxtaposition to so many other little details.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you’re not going to admit you’re obsessed with style, with these tiny details only you can see…
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — Okay, fine, I can’t not see them. And I do take them seriously. But it’s less the style than the story it tells about the person, the psychology of his character, what it all means — that’s what interests me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The way you portray subjects has to do essentially with style … you use these stylistic details as central elements in your drawings…
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — It also has a lot to do with people’s physicality, their presence. Take Emmanuel Perrotin for example. It’s not the suit he’s wearing so much as the way he wears it, a slight inclination of the top of his body. Maurizio Cattelan, same thing: it’s not his leather jacket or the t-shirt he’s wearing, which says “Failure by design.” Those are just trivial details.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When I think of style, I also think about attitude.
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — It’s the whole package, the whole person. There’s a book by Nicolas Bouvier, photos of Japan in the ’60s, in which he explains that for the Japanese, a portrait is not just the face but the entire person, whereas in our culture, we consider a serious portrait to be of the face only. And in fact when I am drawing, I cannot properly synthesize someone if I have not been able to feel, to grasp his or her attitude.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Would you say that the world you depict is totally fabricated?
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — Fashion and style magazines can make you think that life is completely different from what you see in your own life, perhaps slightly less so now that things are more diffracted; the magazines have lost ground a bit because of the timeliness of the blogs. I like to play with how trendy people talk, how they dress, how they present themselves in the media… As if this were reality.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You reveal the artifice.
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — Yes, showing how absurd it is when you try to apply it. I wrote a book called Design Addicts, a sort of chronicle I was doing for A.D. about a couple who were trying to get the perfect apartment. I was using the rhetoric of those decorating magazines to tell their story.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you were hijacking the texts, taking specific phrases out of context…
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — But it wasn’t really collage work, I was taking certain expressions, certain brand names, playing with the sonorities as sounds completely unrelated to their meaning, but which generally are considered commercial or cultural icons.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you ever inspired by something you might overhear at an art opening, for example?
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — That’s pretty rare. Generally they are phrases that just come to me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you start with sketching or with the words?
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — For me the trigger is usually a line, a phrase. But sometimes it’s a particular situation, a scene I see. This often happens in the art world, where the visual language of the venue, the installation, the people who go inside it — or don’t — seem already to be part of a drawing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you include yourself in your satires, as you are part of the world you are criticizing, which you seem to be mocking? Your blog, The Unknown Hipster, that’s you, a guy who is a little transparent, who gets around.
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — Yes, that’s true except that the Unknown Hipster is way cooler than me. And he’s more a neo-hippie than one of today’s hipsters. The idea was to treat people with the same naive admiration whether they were celebrities or not.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You draw, you paint, you write, you’re working on several different levels all day long. How do you start your day?
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — In an ideal world, I’d just like to go from one thing to the next. I can do that on good days. I’m better at it in New York than in Paris. For example I might do a painting of the view I have in the morning when I come in. In Bushwick, my workshop has a view of an extensive industrial landscape. I love looking at it, and I do a lot of little oil paintings of it, details of the landscape, storage warehouses, a tree, a parked truck, things seen in a specific light. Then after that I might work on a commission or some drawings, then maybe I move on to larger format paintings. Sometimes I ask people to pose for me to do their portraits. Or I might go up on the roof to paint the last rays of sun on Flushing Avenue at sunset, with the Manhattan skyline in the distance. It is just as beautiful as being in the mountains or at the ocean, maybe even more so.
OLIVIER ZAHM — From 1993 to ’95, when you were doing those Barneys campaigns, the digital camera had not yet been invented.
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — No, I was doing Polaroids on a fit model wearing the garments, in order to analyze them afterward.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Were you drawing as if you were looking through a lens?
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — Yes, and I found it amusing that the characters might be off-center, that there might be emptiness in the picture, the edge of the frame might get in the way. I thought a lot about that. And most of all — it seems so natural, even — I was drawing characters who never smiled. You never see anyone smiling in a fashion photo. The preference is for the girl to maintain a mildly introspective expression.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What brought you to New York?
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — When I began drawing I envied the way of life the photographers had, the fact that they traveled and worked all over the world. So I tried doing that with my drawings. I showed my work in London, then in New York.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You were attracted to New York right away.
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — I worked for several magazines, and then I had my chance at Barneys, thanks to Debbie Smith, who had been the art director at Glamour, and because of meeting the art director Ronnie Newhouse, and also the writer, Glenn O’Brien, who wrote captions for the drawings and who then became a friend. Just before that I had met some other people in New York who were doing ads for the big name brands in fashion and who said to me, “Oh it would be great to do an ad campaign with drawings, but it’s not possible, you can’t sell fashion with drawings.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — So it was thanks to Barneys. But also because New York is a graphics town, in a way. The cover of The New Yorker is always a drawing, you know.
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — Sure, there’s that whole incredible history. And there’s a certain trust in looking at images, there’s less of the folly that consists of deciding what is commercial and what is pure art. And in New York, I felt that the people were less closed-off culturally than in France, they can even grasp multiple spheres, moving from one domain to the next — not just in art, fashion, or literature.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why did you move to Brooklyn? Is it to follow the footsteps of the hipsters.
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — I share a workshop with two other artists. I love Bushwick, but over the last three or four years I’ve seen it changing so fast. Before there were a lot of car and truck repair places, which then became artists’ ateliers, trendy carpenters’ workshops or set-building shops. Fortunately there are still a few tire stores and auto junkyards a bit farther out on Flushing Avenue. Visually I find it all wonderful; there’s an amazing light and a feeling of space. In Manhattan, there are still some fantastic moments, but there are also others where you feel like you’re stuck in a kind of real-estate collection, a series of real-estate agencies, lacking a certain transcendence.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s true, it’s good having all those car-repair places. Like in those little Moroccan towns.
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — Yes. That reminds me of the suburbs where I lived as a kid. It’s odd, because my neighborhood is now full of artists, sculptors, and painters, but obviously nothing is more striking visually than the sight of those giant SUVs with the broken-down engines, the beat-up vans, the rusty Camaros, which the guys are repairing and repainting right out on the sidewalk.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Have you always needed a certain distance, a certain solitude in order to do your work? You seem like a solitary person, even when you’re traveling?
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — When I travel, when I am writing or looking for ideas, I do kind of need to isolate myself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So what is it that pushed you into literature? Is it a serious endeavor for you?
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — Yes, it’s a serious activity, even if I am only trying to write novels that will amuse my readers. I don’t write every day, just during certain periods, when I have an idea for a novel. For me I think it is a more profound means of communicating than drawing, but I think that less and less these days. When you draw, you have no idea what people see. Perhaps it’s not really necessary.
OLIVIER ZAHM — This Journal Lacustre seems to be a sort of self-portrait. You get the feeling that all the male figures are you in a way — the painter friend, Fourroux. He goes from woman to woman and invites his friends to this retreat, giving each of them the chance to share his intimate space, always in quite cordial circumstances, but at the same time, it’s slightly problematic, because people are always slightly off at his place, slightly ill-at-ease on the island…
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — It’s a parody of a writer’s journal, which is its own genre. A writer — not me — shares with us, with a great deal of satisfaction, his views on literature, cooking, fishing, and, of course, a list of his female conquests. The character lives on an island in the middle of a river. It’s a sort of literary micro-paradise. But it is also a parody of certain American novels, about writers living on ranches, telling fishing stories, with rivers…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Channeling a bit of Richard Brautigan there…
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — Exactly. I am making fun of all that kind of literature, of my obsession with that kind of writing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s done with a great deal of taste, and the drawings in it make it seem quite precious; you are working on two levels: quality and mockery.
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — The idea was that the character of the writer would have his book illustrated by a fictional old friend, Fourroux, a painter from Montparnasse who only paints nudes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It is also a portrait of a playboy.
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — Yes, I am amused by the character of the playboy, especially when he takes himself so seriously, as this writer does.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So for you, literature follows the same path as drawing. You seem to have lost your inhibitions when it comes to painting, in spite of its historical weight, its presence.
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — There are so many reasons to be intimidated by the historical weight of painting, its lack of usefulness. So yes, this is why I work with prints, it’s because painting is not that easy. In general I prefer doing “lighter” things than a painting on canvas. Some of them are large format. Having done so many things in the areas of humor and culture, I became interested in painting things in an entirely different register, free of all that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why haven’t you integrated text in your paintings, as you do in your drawings?
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — I’ve been tempted to use words in my paintings, but I try not to. Words irradiate things immediately in one sense, becoming a little too facile and predictable. They’re usually portraits, landscapes, or images, things I have seen, like the “truck paintings,” or they’re constructions, references to other artists, like my “motorcycle painters.” I never do stuff that would be laborious to paint.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you explain your constant success? Most illustrators seem to be prisoners of their own time, then they fade away. Whereas you’ve been around since the ’80s, and you’re still here!
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — I think it’s the same as it is for photographers. Some photographers belong to a specific era: Doisneau in the ’40s, for example, or the great William Eggleston: people are more comfortable when he shoots an old model Chevrolet or a corner of a 1950s cafeteria. And there are a lot of illustrations that are decorative, which relate to a particular style of graphics, or which perpetuate them, as in Monocle, for example — I’ve just tried to see how things change and are characteristic of the time in which we live.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I think it’s also your sense of humor, the way you portray the ridiculous; even if you manage to avoid caricature.
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — I like keeping things a little off-balance, putting them in different perspectives. I consider humor a defense against too much seriousness and being obsessed.
OLIVIER ZAHM — This is one of the reasons you have been successful for more than three decades.
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — Humor is also a way of distancing yourself from society. We are constantly being asked to attach ourselves, to join things, to venerate commercial or cultural icons. And the refuge of the counter-culture is — alas — gone.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You say that your work is a way of protecting yourself, of undoing all these cultural imperatives and obligations…
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — Yes, it’s about hitting the ball back, not allowing myself to drop into the role of the docile cultural tourist. This is why I sometimes like art shows in which not everything is controlled, where some things have escaped the curators’ taste.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What magazines interest you these days?
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — For a long time, I bought lots and lots of magazines; they were my source of inspiration. The artificial perspective they offered of society fascinated me, and my reactions to them generated plenty of ideas for drawings or texts. But these days it seems more difficult, probably because the excesses are immediately absorbed by the all-encompassing commerciality of things. It’s the same thing for fashion magazines: it is rare to find something in them that is poetic, touching, even a little sexy. And it’s even more difficult to find a magazine in which you feel a sense of freedom. Happily I still find this in Purple, and I am still inspired by your fashion spreads, maybe because they’re never just about fashion, they’re also about the women wearing it. The women in Purple seem to me to be more interesting, more real — and yet they must also be the models appearing in other magazines?
OLIVIER ZAHM — The magazine as medium is a vector for your work. What do you like about magazines today?
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — A magazine is exciting when you can feel in it an intuitive sharing of intelligence, that there’s a place where people are having fun, where they feel free to cross the lines. We need a certain freedom in our choices of subjects, interests, and surprises, which never happens in the “institutional” magazines where nothing is gratuitous, in the sense that nothing stands against the requirements of advertising or the commercial world of that moment: objects, the films they want us to see, the latest creations of the latest fashion designer.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When do you accept to work for magazines?
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELHOMME — The question is more about approaching the commissions in an interesting way. Answering the request by proposing something more. But it is true that with books or blogs you are working without limitations. That’s where I feel the most free
[Table of contents]
Petra CollinsRead the article
Katsuya KamoRead the article
Mark MahoneyRead the article
Jon RafmanRead the article
Torbjørn RødlandRead the article
Aaron SternRead the article
Jeanette HayesRead the article
Midnight MagicRead the article
Joseph KosuthRead the article
Bruno PietersRead the article
Remi ParingauxRead the article
Kerim SeilerRead the article
Christophe BrunquellRead the article
Anna-Sophie BergerRead the article
by Hans Ulrich Obrist
Mike KriegerRead the article
by Miltos Manetas
FlucTRead the article
by Xerxes Cook
Elias RedstoneRead the article
Masafumi SanaiRead the article
Delfina DelettrezRead the article
Miroslav TichýRead the article
Aron MorelRead the article
The Spring/Summer 2014 collections
by Terry Richardson
by Olivier Zahm and Lily McMenamy
by Jeff Rian
by Olivier Zham
by Olivier Zahm
by Sven Schumann
by Francesco Bonami and Olivier Zahm
Graphic Jackets and Coats
by Benjamin Alexander Huseby
by Katerina Jebb
by Camille Bidault Waddington
by Theo Wenner
by Roe Etheridge
by Chikashi Suzuki
by Mark Borthwick
The Night Will Be Black and White
by Carter Smith
by Karim Sadli
Waiting for the Wave
by Michael Hauptman
by Vanina Sorrenti
by Glenn O'Brien
The Inventory of Balthus
by Katerina Jebb
by Dustin Dollin
by Gianni Oprandi
by Arto Saari
by Katja Rahlwes
When Everyday Life Becomes Forms: Surinami, South America
by Viviane Sassen
by Sante D'Orazio
by Olivier Zahm and Stéphane Feugère with a portfolio on Area nightclub by Glenn O'Brien
by Ryan McGinley
Introducing the World of Ren HangRead the article