Bruce Claypool’s cultural impact is considerable, possibly greater than anyone we have ever featured in Outsideleft. In 1981 Bruce designed the iconic tiger striped football helmets for the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals (2022 Super Bowl finalists). The design has endured for forty years, I can’t think of anything else that has lasted that long. Following his time with the NFL, Bruce turned to teaching at the world famous ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. His impact there, as his students fan out across the world, is immeasurable. We’re here to discuss his current work, his totally amazing abstract painting. But those Bengals Helmets… Can’t resist.
Ancient Champion: I want to talk about your painting of which I am much enamored, love, crazy about. So I don’t how you feel about this, but can we begin by going way back, way, way back… To when you were working with the NFL in 1981… I think everyone in California keeps an eye on some or other sports team, were you a football fan, what drew you to that?
Bruce Claypool: In 1977, I graduated from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Shortly after, in 1980, I was hired full time as Art Director for NFL Properties. We worked as a graphic design team in service to the various NFL teams.
I’m not a devout football fan, nor in any sports, but I grew up in a family that loved the Los Angeles Rams. So my family was thrilled when I went to work for the NFL and I loved working for them. They would provide me with tickets to the Super Bowl, which I would pass on to my parents. I recalled that they were flown out to Hawaii one year for a Super Bowl event.
Ancient Champion: Designing a football helmet that has endured for 41 years for the Cincinnati Bengals, that is a massive cultural impact. (I’ve been trying to figure out why you don’t have a Wikipedia page) - and I always for some reason was under the illusion that those helmets were designed by Andy Warhol!
Bruce Claypool: I see Andy Warhol as a visual commentator of modern society. Ultimately, he became an icon in his own right.
Ancient Champion: To keep the same helmet for 41 years seems exciting and implausible - I can’t think of another design that has lasted for 41 years. Also, because it’s such a target for redesigns?
Bruce Claypool: The need for anything to be “redesigned” is seen as a need for change. So I’m proud that the helmet design has endured the test of time.
Ancient Champion: And for the first time ever, next season, White Stripes…
Bruce Claypool: Public opinion will probably act as the jury. Personally, I think one of the strengths of the current design is the strong color contrast of black and orange. White is a weaker choice as it is sometimes associated with being “pretty” and I don’t think that is the right look for a football team.
Ancient Champion: What pulled you away and back into Art and Design academia?
Bruce Claypool: Working for the NFL was a great experience. But I felt that I needed to move on. I found that the classroom environment was extremely challenging and rewarding at the same time. It’s so much better than sitting in an isolated cubicle and staring at a monitor for 8 or more hours a day. I’ve been teaching full time since 1991 and I feel that retirement from the Art Center is very near. But I will never retire from the pull of my personal work.
What you don’t do is as important as what you do.
- Bruce Claypool
Ancient Champion: Had you been painting all along. (I am going to begin when I am 70. Once I’ve finished learning to write. I have no intrinsic, trenchant ability. To learn will be my last great adventure…)?
Bruce Claypool: The pursuit of “art” is a never ending process. There is always the next canvas that keeps you going.
Ancient Champion: Your painting has evolved or resolved itself to its current abstract style, I liked one of the earlier ones with the stylized aircraft. With abstract work, I just don’t know where to look. How did your work evolve, was it sudden, did aircraft slowly dissolve to the point where there was little objective representation remaining. What? How? Can you talk about what happened?
Bruce Claypool: Currently I’m focusing on a variety of formal relationships between shape, color, space and the relative hierarchical effects. In my early work, I needed a solid plan to feel somewhat secure. I needed to know what the work was going to look like before I started to paint. But now the plan has to be open and free enough that I would never know exactly where the work ends until it tells me.
I’m interested in what the viewer thinks but not to the extent that I would have to change the work to suit the viewer. I love the ambiguity that the viewer may need to resolve. Can the viewer let go of it having to look like objective representations they have seen in the real world? Can they just enjoy the pure formal relationships? Is there an illusion of something that they see? Where is that illusion? Is it in the artwork or is it in the viewer’s personal psyche?
I believe “we see the world the way we were conditioned to see it” and the way we want to see it. In my world, the way is the way I create it and the way I create it now, is the way I see it.
Life is a collage.
- Bruce Claypool
Ancient Champion: Tom Waits once talked about the struggle, as a musician, as a pianist to sit down at the piano and to not let your hands go where they have gone before. How do you combat that? How do you disassociate colour from mood or things like that…
Bruce Claypool: My current process is what I call “anti-process”. If process means that I have to layout a solid plan before I begin a new work then this is what I will avoid. If I want to go deeper, I have to let go of any dominant preconceived ideas. If I can learn to tap into the deeper parts of myself and allow the painting to paint itself, I have to trust my instincts. I think Tom Waits may be saying the same thing.
I love when the painting does something that I did not anticipate, which may lead me in an interesting direction. In working this way, I must be free to destroy the painting. I’m learning to follow this non-process part of myself and this has something to do with ego and non-ego. Most of the time I don’t know and I may never know if a painting is “good”. But if I follow the process of non-process, I believe it may have a chance. In other words, I need to get out of my own way and allow the work to grow on its own. If there is something in me that needs to get out, I don’t want anything to get in its way. I want to give it a chance.
Ancient Champion: Because your colours, the shapes, the inference, it’s all together almost a mesmerizing overwhelm. In a very great way.
Bruce Claypool: If one day you see one thing and then another day you see the same thing differently, that is fine. That is a reflection of how we change day to day without really being consciously aware of it. I want my work to go beyond just color, shape and space. But these are necessary vehicles that can take us to a deeper place. Metaphorically, it is like a beautiful combination of basic food ingredients that lead to a very pleasurable sensation. I always like the quote
“The whole is greater than the sum of its’ parts”
Ancient Champion: One time I met an ex-CIA or FBI agent or something like that, in South Pasadena? And you know how the CIA promoted American abstract expressionism around the world… And you’re in Pasadena and you’re an abstract artist… Too many coincidences or can you not talk about it?
Bruce Claypool: I wasn’t aware of the CIA’s involvement in abstract art.
Ancient Champion: What’s your favorite piece of art currently in a gallery in Los Angeles or outside a gallery… That you are able to see? Hey as aside, did LACMA ever get that vertical Jeff Koons locomotive?
Bruce Claypool: Yes, one of my favorite works of art is the photo-painting of David Hockney (In the permanent collection of the Getty Museum), titled “Pearlblossom Highway”. To me this is a beautiful example of what could be called “abstract-realism”, it’s a balance of these two principles in one work.
Ancient Champion: It’s a small world. My friend Victoria is closing out her show, As It Is To Be, at SPARC in mid March. Are you familiar with those guys, part of that scene?
Bruce Claypool: I’m not familiar with them.
Ancient Champion: Finally Bruce, your work has come this far. Where next?
Bruce Claypool: We really never know what is next until it actually happens. I may be retiring soon and moving out of LA and stay at a tropical paradise.