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“We Live in a Nuthouse!”: Zero Mostel on Art, Politics and America

Mostel perceives that drip paintings can express the scrambled feeling in your mind when you hear the federal government say that you can survive a nuclear war.

James Ensor, “Evil Doctors Maltreating a Patient” (1895), etching (after the painting “The Bad Doctors,” 1892), 7.1 x 9.9 inches, Wellcome Library, London (via Wikimedia)

Recently I was delighted to stumble upon an interview in the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, which offered excellent surprises, notably about abstract art, politics, and humor. Terkel was talking with actor Zero Mostel on August 14, 1961, a few years before Mostel began his career-defining role as Tevye in the original Broadway production of Fiddler On the Roof. About halfway through the interview — with the casualness of “How ‘bout those Mets?” — Terkel’s questions take an unexpected turn:

We speak of “non-objective painting” today, and “action painting.” What’s your feeling? What do you think is authentic, and what do you feel is false about it?

At first I was surprised that a stage actor would be asked for opinions on contemporary painting, but after listening more closely I’ve concluded that the two planned this digression: Mostel has plenty to say about it. With a folksy off-handedness, he connects Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings to a personal philosophy of spectatorship, to an unorthodox history of art, and to some original and fascinating political interpretations.

The unpredictable fun in the freighted conversation can be chalked up to Mostel’s clownish temperament and training, but it also relates to the timing of the interview. In the summer of 1961, Mostel was starring in Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros, at the Edgewater Beach Playhouse. Rhinoceros — a classic of absurdist political drama — had premiered in Paris and London the year before. When it was revived a few years ago, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the New York Times summed it up as being “about the human need to conform and the ever-present dangers of fascism.” Ionesco makes ordinary conformists turn into unlikely, proto-prehistoric beasts as they bow to social pressure. The political context, about six decades ago, is generally understood to have been a reflection on the circumstances leading up to World War II. So, the play came to New York toward the end of America’s recently trumpeted “great” era, yet Terkel frames the interview with “the question of refusing to accept certain values of our day.” Mostel’s stage performance, and the show in general, got good reviews and created “much comment” the way we now talk about creating “rigorous conversations.” It’s high time to revisit.

Zero Mostel c. 1960, studio photographer (via Wikipedia)

I was most interested in the part where Terkel and Mostel relate “challenging the mores of our day” to abstract painting. I am an artist with an abstract bent, so their conversation was refreshing after our recent flurry over “zombie abstraction.” I was reminded of that vapidity this past month, in a pair of articles tying content-challenged painting to the current, debt-oriented structure of our economy — see “The Toxic Legacy of Zombie Formalism,” Part 1 and Part 2. Anyway, Mostel is no zombie: every time Terkel offers a sound-bite summary statement, Mostel objects and strives for increased complexity. For instance, he reminds Terkel that what we might now call “resistance” is not simply rejection — either of the present or of the past.

I always like somebody who keeps you on your toes about tradition, who stimulates you. The greatness of Ionesco is that he prods you: he tells you, Think. He doesn’t make any solutions for you. He doesn’t say, “Society is like this, and this is my comment on society.” He just says, Think.

Mostel is agitating for a political art that is not pedantic or propagandistic. I will leave aside for the moment the logistical challenge of translating individuals’ independent thinking into effective mass movements — such as winning elections. More important is the result of his thought process:  Mostel talks about new sociopolitical messages in Pollock’s drip paintings. I have often heard action painting identified with male, heterosexual virility, and it is now well known that the CIA used Abstract Expressionist paintings to promote post-WWII American power in overseas exhibitions. But Mostel’s view comes out of left field. He perceives that drip paintings can express the scrambled feeling in your mind when you hear the federal government say that you can survive a nuclear war. Genius!

The interview took place 16 years after the first nuclear bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During that time, the government engaged in H-bomb research and testing, developed industries of bomb shelter construction, and created a “duck and cover” campaign of films and drills about surviving a nuclear attack (as if!). A wry 1982 documentary on this period, The Atomic Cafe, just had its run extended at Film Forum. It features footage of Vice President Richard Nixon helping to declare a Mental Health Week in 1957, and naming mental health as “the nation’s number-one problem.” Sounds like today’s talk of opioid addiction? And like support of Mostel’s theory that “all-over” paintings are like the mind going all over the place. Terkel and Mostel, living through this era, were no strangers to the devastation that a nuclear bomb could create, both physically and psychologically. From news reports during World War II and its aftermath, they had a palpable, direct sense of the unthinkably total violence that human beings could inflict upon each other. And last week, I saw more than the usual number of commemorations of the Japanese bombings, during the August anniversary — perhaps our recent saber-rattling about nuclear warfare with North Korea has awakened us again to that history.

The interview contains another type of awakening, one that is less of a jolt: though their themes are weighty, the two have a blast. Mostel plays it for laughs as well as for subtleties — he calls Terkel “Studsy” and the audio recording lets us hear Terkel’s cackle, along with Mostel’s clownish physical gags. Fifty-seven years later, the conversation retains spontaneity, vitality, relevance, and insight. While my editing sacrifices some content and humor, I have tried to retain the inimitable tone that you can hear, starting at 25:45, at the Studs Terkel Radio Archive:

Terkel: Your feelings about trends in painting today.

Mostel: […] I’m just fascinated by the wonderful things that the human hand and mind do. As soon as it’s done by hand, and the mind, I accept it. And then I hope I have the tolerance to sit through it and maybe find something out about it. The Action Painters have something — they reflect something. Jackson Pollock’s drips reflect something of our time. [pause] The worthlessness of it, maybe. Of a certain section of it … John Berger — the English art critic — he gave a wonderful picture of Jackson Pollock, and he said, “He paints as if he never had any communication in the world — he lived in a cell — and there happened to be paint there, and this is how he expressed himself since there was no language.” Now, we live in a nuthouse! A large section of our thinking is nutty. And [Pollock] reflects it. There is something about it! The busy-ness that we always get ourselves involved with, which will produce nothing at all, it’s reflected in his painting. [pause] It is a reflection of our time. And it’s done by hand, and it’s done with the imagination. So I like to sit through it […]

Terkel: That itself is sufficient: from the hand and mind — and so you will sit through it. In other words, if you sit through it —

Mostel: Bah! That doesn’t say — it might be rotten after I sit through it. But you know, our conception of art is based on a little sampling of it — it’s never based on a huge knowledge of it.

Mostel spits out his cigarette and it flies across the room; they joke around and lose track of their conversation.

Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights (Ecclesia’s Paradise),” center panel (c.1500), oil on wood, 86.6 x 76.8 inches (via Wikimedia)

Terkel: This [slapstick] is connected with something you said earlier: we live in a nuthouse, you said.

Mostel: Yeah. Well, I don’t say we — there is a part of our house that’s terribly nutty.

Terkel: It’s a big part.

Mostel: Yeah — when you read all the literature about atomic energy, and you still read about the missile race, that’s nutty. When anybody thinks there can be any war-like uses of missiles. It’s nutty! It’s crazy. The building of shelters — to protect us from what? We’re doomed if it’s dropped! [pause] We’re in a nuthouse! We’re in Pollock’s little shelter, when we’re gonna go down there and hide from something.

Terkel: So Jackson Pollock makes sense, then.

Mostel: Yes, he does! Of course. Jackson Pollock — and nobody is nudging my shoulder — is a great artist …

Terkel: But he couldn’t have … done this work in the time of the Flemish, could he? I mean, could he?

Mostel: I see a parallel between the work of Bosch, and Bruegel, and Pollock. I see an almost natural development. I see it develop down to Ensor, and to Pollock. They reflected the nuthouse.

Terkel: Could you expand this more?

Mostel: Well, you have to know the Bosch paintings, like “The Garden of [Earthly] Delights.” You know, his feelings of hell. Of religious fanaticism. Bruegel’s painting of the Flemish proverbs. Ensor’s paintings of medicine, and doctors, and quacks. And although it’s more representational, that doesn’t make it better. It still reflects: it’s still by the hand, and the eye.

Terkel: So they — the hand, and the eye — in that time, reflected nuthouses of that time, perhaps.

Mostel: Of course.

They discuss the variety and honesty of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, then after a solemn silence turn to clowns and then to acting.

Terkel: I think it’s clear to…everybody who’s seen Rhinoceros, that Mostel on the stage — I speak in third person! — Mostel on the stage doesn’t waste a motion. There’s a great deal of activity; there’s a great deal of juice, and life …I don’t know who said this [of Mostel] — “even your gestures are those of a painter.”

Mostel: They say that because I paint. [See, for example, “Figure in Uniform,” “Unknown Meeting” and “Modernist Owl.”] My gestures come from some — inner urge. I don’t know why you do a certain gesture. But I think that’s the greatest effect of a certain gesture. I think it should be clean. Clarity is a great thing in art. And you must make everything simple, so that they get it.

Terkel: Clarity in art. Do you find — is a lack of clarity a great deal of what’s happening today, in all of the arts?

Mostel: Yeah. [pause; spluttering] But don’t get me, you know, on the word “clarity,” to mean that everything’d be so simple that even an idiot could understand it. It must be more complex, too, you know — it must have substance, as well. [pause] You have a puzzled look on your face. That’s because you’re looking at the microphone, and you think it’s me!

Terkel: [laughing]

Mostel: I’m the fatter object, to the right of the microphone …

Terkel: You spoke earlier of Jackson Pollock … you spoke of a nuthouse, and, in a sense, what [the action painters] are doing reflects the nuthouse.

Mostel: Yeah, but don’t get me about the nuthouse — it’s more than the nuthouse, too. It’s an attitude about the nuthouse, and very often a healthy attitude about the nuthouse. It also is — like all great art — it’s an exposure. You’re exposed to yourself. You’re exposed to your times. I like art which always enters into you, and tears you apart, and you find out what is … in the middle of everything. And I like it because that tears away a façade. And it’s good. It’s healthy.

Mostel goes on to praise James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) for telling social truths with a bald humor whose discomforts are salutary. We might say something similar, these days, about comic Hannah Gadsby’s one-person, one-hour show on Netflix, Nanette. Both writers, like Mostel himself, deliver deft insights with a twinkle as well as a sword, and this wryness has a power that is distinct from irony, sarcasm, or a late-night-show roast. Mostel performs a “healthy attitude about the nuthouse” in which he laughs with genuine, lighthearted dismay — his term “nuthouse” seems derisive, but without acrimony. Instead of a “resistance,” which locks two parties in bitter conflict, he laughs away the ground on which his opposition stands, and thereby dissolves the falsity. He simply chuckles in genuine disbelief about lies that are too absurd to be believed.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Netherlandish Proverbs” (1559), oil on oak wood, 46 x 64.1 inches (via Wikipedia)

Perhaps this strategy was so effective that it was deemed politically dangerous. Mostel was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, and his talents proved him impossible to frame. Actor Jim Brochu performed a six-minute condensation of Mostel’s many hours of testimony in his 2006 one-person biographical tribute, Zero Hour, some of which is pointedly hilarious. And in 1976, Mostel showed that his comic strategy was still in fine form when he dismantled the logic of the blacklist during a retrospective lecture to Harvard students, asking: “What could actors be guilty of? Of passing secrets to Russian actors?” He even lampooned the Red Scare anxiety during his 1977 appearance on The Muppet Show.

My concern, in all of the examples discussed in this essay, is that they reach audiences mainly through rarified educational and art institutions. Current exhibitions by Julie Mehretu and Mark Bradford could expand and update Mostel’s category of abstract, all-over paintings that expose outrageous American sociopolitical dynamics. The Muppet Show is, of course, in another category altogether, but here Mostel’s strategy is different: his gags are more coded, made simultaneously accessible and impenetrable. How can the discomforts that can be so salutary — in Joyce, Ionesco, Bosch, Pollock, and the rest — do their work in the general culture, if the books and plays and artworks lay beyond everyday experience? This points toward a major reason for why I find Mostel’s interview so welcome. As he brings these materials onto the open radio waves, he talks about their — and his — serious concerns in an approachable way. Sure, he’s clowning around, but all the while he’s making challenging points. His tastes are intellectual while his techniques are visceral, and he uses the theatrical tradition of the “wise fool” to spin an effective, witty mix. He demonstrates that a person outside of the visual art community can make good sense out of abstraction by patiently “sitting through” it. And all of this can be done without losing one’s heart.

I say that Mostel’s technique is visceral: perhaps he taps into the same vein of raw energy as the primitivistic rhinoceros his character Jean turned into, in 1961. We have seen what visceral speeches can do, in politics, when they are not congruent with truth. Yet what would a truth-based politics be, if it did not include deep and generous laughter? While Mostel’s reframing of Pollock’s drip paintings is eye-opening, I think that this interview is most useful now for its savvy performance of a political discourse: fresh, potent, and ever relevant.

Many thanks to the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, radio station WFMT, and the Chicago History Museum, for helping to bring this audio file and transcript into the public domain. The Terkel-Mostel interview from August 14, 1961 is archived in two sections: Part 1 and Part 2. The excerpt in this article is from Part 1, starting at 25:45.

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