Artist, Auteur and Icon: Duggie Fields, In His Own Words

“A sexy pair of legs and gravel: that’s all I’m getting.” And so begins a wonderful discussion with debatably a foundational brick in the wall of London (that will be the only pun on Pink Floyd, I swear), the multidisciplinary artist and all-round figure of influence, Duggie Fields. He has been accredited with starting the Free The Nipple Movement (he denies this but it is a good accreditation regardless). He was asked by Andy Warhol to participate in his Oxydation paintings (pissing on copper canvasses) and he counts the late Marc Bolan and Syd Barrett as friends. Who is the artist Duggie Fields, and what does he make of London’s DNA of creativity and chaos?

On how he would define himself

“An artist. It took me a long time to say I was an artist, actually. A painter is all I would say for a long time, and then I thought to accept the label artist. I am still a painter, but digitally I make music, film, still images through digital and place my images on objects. Prior to digital I still made objects, as I like making things.”

On his introduction to London

“After spending the first 15 years in the countryside, I spent two miserable years in the outer suburbs of London. The only upside? I discovered London. I got a job in a record shop in 1961, at the birth of British rock and American soul. Music was always my passion, apart from art, and through the record shop I met all sorts of people, and I also started going to clubs. I was supposed to go to university in Liverpool but instead, I discovered this jazz club in Leicester Square and then I started going on my own, from the suburbs and still in school.

At the jazz club they had a rhythm and blues night with unknown bands, and the band of choice, that were completely unknown, were the Rolling Stones. I was this schoolboy, returning back to my classmates telling them, “you gotta see this band!” and after that, I didn’t want to leave London. I thought this is too great! In the suburbs I didn’t fit in, but in this club, listening to this band, I thought “wow this is my home.” When I ended up living in London, my flatmate was in another band that would leave their mark on the world: Syd Barratt of Pink Floyd. I still work and live in this flat over 50 years on. I never expected I would still be here, but this apartment lets me do my art and live very happily.”

On being a muse for Rei Kawakubo and modelling in a Comme Des Garçons show

“Yes, that was quite something! It wasn’t my first catwalk in Paris, in fact my second (the first of which was for Ozwald Boateng). Rei was something else, and it was very flattering. However, on the day of the catwalk, I was very sick with diarrhoea! I had people comment “why didn’t you smile?” and I was thinking – if you know what I was feeling like! Not the height of glamour, but it was a fabulous experience, taking me back to Japan again.

I had started going to Japan in the 1980s, when the skincare giant Shiseido sponsored and built a gallery for an exhibition of my work in conjunction with a range of TV commercials, magazine editorials, window displays and billboards across Japan I did for them. The whole experience was very much like Lost In Translation without the Scarlett Johansson character. Lots of confusing TV programs, not having a clue what is going on, in a car with people and you don’t know where you are, you don’t understand what anyone is saying!”

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On his love of New York

“I loved the energy of New York: there was a similarity between late 1960s New York and Late 1960s London, and it was a sort of home from home culturally, in a lot of ways. I think London is a great place to live in that you are still very rooted to nature in London. That is something I really missed in London: New York is noise and energy, amazing culture, but London has all this as well as pockets of peace and quiet. It has this flora growth! I can walk around my streets thinking how beautifully it is architecturally, but also there is growth of plants and foliage. New York can also be a brutal place, while London lets you be who you want to be. I cannot ever conceive of living anywhere else.”

On being called a modern-day dandy

“I try not to call myself anything. I have been labelled a dandy, but it is not a word I particularly associate to. I also don’t like labelling myself. I aspire to improve myself so when I go out I make myself feel I am the best version of me for the moment. It helps me function to feel that, but its not really about other people’s reaction.”

On Andy Warhol

“The last thing I went to in London before lockdown was the Andy Warhol show opening at the Tate Modern. I loved the exhibition as it reminded me of the New York I knew and lived: I went to every Factory except the first one. Whenever I was being given a tour, someone would re-introduce me to Andy’s assistant, saying you know Duggie, of which he would look at me and say “yeah”, as I was thinking ‘no you don’t!’ It always felt a privilege to go to the Factory. In the Tate exhibition, they had one of his Oxidation paintings – sheets of copper canvas. I got asked to participate in one of his Oxydation paintings, which involved people pissing on these big copper sheets. I declined, thinking this is literally a piss-take! And now they are in museums all over the world. No regrets though, as I like the story.”

On being assumed the Godfather of Free The Nipple campaign

“I would never claim I created the Free The Nipple campaign, in spite of that being said about me on the internet. Its funny as my first awareness of exposure as acceptability was the likes of Courrėges in Paris, but you go back in history and the idea that the nipple needs to be covered up is kind of prudish. I don’t claim to have started that movement, it was my way in my art to define the figure as female in my early abstractionist artwork.”

On his artistic evolution

“I had a minimal conceptual period, I had a period when I felt the blank canvas could contain all the possibilities within it, so any mark you made was a limitation. But I enjoyed making marks. I then started seeing things in the abstract images I had made, and that was a real turning point. I thought ‘let’s make it deliberately resemble something’. Nowadays, I still see my art as abstract as well as figurative, but the figure is usually the strongest development. But the abstract shapes that go with them are just as significant to me, in terms of what the painting is about. You are always making an illusion, that is what a flat canvas is all about.”

On how music and art integrates

“I started painting in my early teens at the same time pop music was coming into existence, mostly American. I worked in a record shop as a teen because I was good at the role and I liked selling a lot. I would go to the clubs and there would be bands like The Rolling Stones forming around me, and then I would go home and my flatmates had a band… music is an essential part of my life. In those days there was very little play on the radio, but being in the record shop, I would choose what we would play. It was like in John Waters’ film Hairspray, my record shop was just like his characterised version: people would come in to dance and get stoned. We imported rare blues music from America otherwise unavailable in the UK, and so this job acted as a great education for me too. I always had people around me making music, such as Marc Bolan, who was a friend of mine and would come round to mine to listen to the old records I was buying. I had a period of purchasing Doo Wop in street markets when no one was collecting that sort of thing.”

On being inspired during lockdown

“I do as I am: making things. Something I have dedicated my life to. Right now I am making a canvas and making a video with a new track. Certainly, the virus has entered this work in words as well as images, as it is impossible not to respond to what is around us right now. We don’t know what the world will look like afterward, except that it will be quite a changed place.”

On leaving with some parting wisdom

“Definitions can apply limitations, and the last thing you want to do is limit yourself.”


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