Michael Stipe, former frontman of the epochal rock band R.E.M. and a multivalent visual artist in the years since, recently released Michael Stipe, a new book of literal and figurative portraits of some of his favorite people in the world. The third in a series of volumes published by Damiani, the new offering follows Volume 1 and Our Interference Times: A Visual Record. Some of the new portraits are photographic—including shots of Tilda Swinton, John Giorno, Kirsten Dunst, and friends and family in and around Stipe’s homes in New York, Berlin, and Athens, Georgia. Others take more oblique forms, such as commissioned ceramic pots and empty book covers with names emblazoned on their fabric fronts; subjects of those range widely from figures like Gore Vidal and Bryan Stevenson to Thurgood Marshall, Jonas Mekas, Neneh Cherry, and Greta Thunberg.
From his home in New York, Stipe talked to ARTnews about paying tribute to people around him while expanding his activities in different realms of art.
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ARTnews: You’ve made tributes to people in the form of objects—book covers, ceramic pots, and so on. How did you arrive at that approach?
Michael Stipe: I’m interested in tangibility. Most of my life’s work that people know me for is intangible: music, melody, the written word sung—not even written down. I find myself to be a very object-obsessed person—I think in objects. So the idea of creating a portrait using an object was appealing to me. For the book cover, I worked with Ruth Lingen, who worked on a book I did called Giants of the 20th Century that was a part of a show I did it at Journal Gallery [in New York]. I also approached Caroline Wallner, a ceramicist who is one of my oldest friends and the mother of my goddaughter. We went to art school and she’s an incredible artist who has a business upstate in Bearsville, New York, called Tivoli Tile. She makes beautiful pottery and plates and mugs. Everything in my kitchen is by Caroline.
But the idea overall was to create objects that represented the spirit of a person. Empty book covers—with just the skin of a book with nothing inside—and ceramic vases are vessels.
ARTnews: How did that process of creating the pots work? What kinds of conversations did you have about each person?
Stipe: Part of it was choosing people that I knew Caroline would respond to. I wanted to choose people that I knew would excite her, because she’s got a business going and I was kind of asking her to do an art favor. I said, “I want you to be the artist. I’ll give you the name and then you create something that you think represents this person.” There was a bit of conversation back and forth, but I wanted her to feel free to create.
ARTnews: How would you describe the scope of the new book overall?
Stipe: It’s really about my year of 2020 under lockdown. A lot of the people in it came to me or were people I was reaching out to. Some were just incredibly inspiring, like I saw them do one interview on CNN and I was like, “Oh my God, this person’s on fire and they’re amazing and I love them.” There are a lot of fierce heroes of mine who are not in the book, so it’s in no way complete. But it’s a portrait of a dire situation and trying to make the most of a project to keep myself from going batshit crazy through lockdown.
ARTnews: Did you succeed in keeping yourself from going batshit crazy?
Stipe: I discovered aspects of myself that I never anticipated were so strong and other aspects that I never anticipated were so fragile. I’m a very fortunate person, but I lost some people and, as for everyone, 2020 was incredibly difficult in terms of allowing space for exactly what this book is about, which is being vulnerable and allowing vulnerability. What the book represents are people who are heroic to me because of their strength and also allowing vulnerability. I think of myself as a not very courageous person. My father thought of me as incredibly courageous because I would get up on stage and perform in front of 80,000 people and, to him, that was the most terrifying thing he could imagine. But he was a helicopter pilot. He was running reconnaissance and being shot at and saving people’s lives. That’s one way of being heroic, to me. But starting with Tilda Swinton on the cover are these ideas that we have of strength and vulnerability and courage, and how we’ve allowed these to become gendered, culturally. To me, what the 21st century is really about, a lot, is pulling back and looking at this very male/female way of looking at things and saying, “That’s not at all who we are. That doesn’t represent now. This doesn’t represent me. This doesn’t represent the people who I find incredibly brave.”
People like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James … I don’t know the first thing about sports, but what I do know is how phenomenally heroic they were to put everything on the line—their reputations, their careers—in order to speak up for something that they felt really strongly about. And then there are people like Breonna Taylor, who I’ll never meet—none of us will, unless we knew her before the tragic ending of her life: I’m haunted by that photograph of her receiving an award and smiling with her incredibly open, beautiful face. It broke my heart when I saw it, and it’s seared into my memory forever. She represents something very beautiful and very heroic in all of us.
ARTnews: The book has a mix of different kinds of photography and portraits made by other means. How did that combination evolve?
Stipe: I had this idea that I was going to fly around the world to photograph people. I was going to find Jane Goodall, because she’s fucking amazing, and I was going to convince Joan Didion to let me photograph her. Then lockdown happened. I decided I would just take it to my archive and do a different type of book. But then I was like, That’s me being cowardly. I want to be courageous. I want to try to embrace the moment and figure out what I think is a very seminal and important moment in humanity’s history. How can I represent that in this book without sledgehammering it? How can I talk about what 2020 was for me and for a lot of people? What better way than to hopefully portray strength and vulnerability as these heroic states to strive for?
ARTnews: You described the empty book covers as vessels. How did you come to extend the idea of working them you’d started long ago?
Stipe: I’ve had an obsession with books as a material for sculptural work. I made a plinth using encyclopedias and dictionaries that I blasted with plastic, so it’s a single solid piece. I started working with books around 2008 because that was when people were convinced that computers and digital technology were destroying the idea of books and libraries—that everything was going to be uploaded to the cloud and books were no longer going to be a part of our lives. I became fascinated with what they represent to people and this analogue versus digital way of remembering. Not in a nostalgic or sentimental way, but [I’m interested in] how different generations have radically different ways of organizing and categorizing memory based on what we grew up with and how that’s organized and cataloged, versus people who have had backlit screens as a main source of information their whole lives. We’re in a very fascinating period of time.
ARTnews: How did you approach book covers formally as a form for portraiture? The one for Thom Yorke, for instance, is yellow, with his name in a kind of blocky, stocky font…
Stipe: The names are so important. Some of the people are really famous and some are not, but most of them are pretty searchable online. It’s funny that you chose that example because I texted Thom to say, “Do you like the color yellow?” And he said, “Yeah, it’s fine.” So he got yellow. That one has metal-plate lettering that’s stamped on, and what I love about what I love about the books is that they almost look like computer-generated images. But they’re not—they’re all real, and they’ve all been photographed. For Cher, I found these beautiful, giant letters. For some I made choices to embarrass people I know really well. For Wolfgang Tillmans, I chose this really dumb putty color and then used it in kind of a rainbow ’70s thing. I wanted him to wince when he saw it. [Laughs.] For PJ Harvey, I had a conversation once with her in the ’90s about about breathing technique to use while singing. During the conversation she was dressed head to toe in a hot-pink catsuit. So I made hers pink—I thought she would appreciate that.
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ARTnews: Some of the people are paid tribute with their names represented in all kinds of different fonts and forms of typography. Is that type of design something you’ve been interested in for a long time?
Stipe: Oh my God, yes! Had I not discovered music, I would be a failed photographer or a deeply failed graphic designer. I’m so obsessed with graphic design. I also know that the people who are really good at graphic design would look at this book and laugh out loud. It’s extremely untrained and uneducated graphic design. I want to tell graphic designers around the world that their jobs are intact and secure—they don’t need to worry about me!
ARTnews: Behind the camera, how would you describe your approach to taking portraits—especially as someone whose had his own picture taken a lot?
Stipe: Some of the photographs are of my friends and family, as close as I could get during lockdown because no one was vaccinated yet. But for the ones that were studio-shot before—I’ve been obsessed with Richard Avedon. When photographing someone I want to create an image that they’re happy and proud of. And I want beauty. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed to admit that. It comes from trust, basically, and openness.
ARTnews: How did you arrive upon the beautiful blue in the portrait of Tilda Swinton on the cover?
Stipe: I have this incredible printer I work with in Italy, and we looked at all these different techniques for how to get that blue. The idea was to create something that felt futuristic and at the same time references Xeroxes and color-process printing where you strip away everything but one color. I wanted it to look like an old mimeograph or Risograph but also look like the future in a way that represents 2031 instead of 2021. Tilda embodies that and—if I may say—engenders that. The only other color in the book [for tinted photo portraits] is glowing pink—blue and pink, you can put that together. But there’s also one page that has yellow on it. Yellow presents itself as the non-gender color. The world is not binary, and the more we’re able to acknowledge that, however abstractly, the closer we are to fully realizing who we are in the 21st century.