Take Me to the Palette
Bernie Taupin is as lyrical with a brush as with a pen
The name conjures words, descriptions of honky cats and island girls, the narratives of tiny dancers and rocket men, the dreams of Amoreena and Daniel and Levon. But the words that Bernie Taupin supplies for the music of Elton John, among others (Alice Cooper, Rod Stewart, Courtney Love, Toby Keith, and Brian Wilson, to name a few) are only half the story where his creative life is concerned. When he isn't crafting lyrics, he's often in the home painting studio he refashioned out of a racquetball court, laying down lush, vibrant colors onto canvases the size of picture windows. For 20 years, Taupin has been making abstract art, and in the past few years he's made more of a commitment to exhibiting it in galleries across the country. That's what brings him to Austin this week. The Russell Collection Fine Art Gallery is displaying some of his work in a show aptly titled "Beyond Words." The man himself will be present Friday and Saturday. In anticipation of the visit, Taupin spoke with the Chronicle by phone from his home in Santa Ynez, Calif., where this Lincolnshire, England native lives out his dream of being part of the American West.
Austin Chronicle: When you write and when you paint, you work alone. Is that the cowboy in you?
Bernie Taupin: Well, the cowboy in me isn't quite so solitary, and the cowboy in me isn't quite so prevalent these days since I had to basically give up that side of my life due to stress on my body and my shoulder giving in. So I don't cowboy anymore, but I still have the spirit in my heart, I guess.
But yeah, I think everything I do creatively is solitary, and that pretty much fits with my nature. I'm a fairly solitary beast. I like my privacy. I cherish my family and being able to keep to myself. I'm not somebody who puts himself out there too much.
AC: Does that make these trips out into the world for your exhibitions difficult at all?
BT: [Laughs] Quite honestly, it depends on the location. You know, we don't do a tremendous amount of them, although in the last year and a half, I've definitely been getting out there with my art. Once I made a decision to exhibit as much as I am, I had to make that conscious effort to follow it through, so there's baggage that comes with it. Obviously I've got no problem with Austin. I've been there many times. I know it well. And for somebody who loves the arts and I think of myself [as] relatively creative, it's the perfect fit for me. But I've never exhibited in Austin, so I'm really looking forward to this. I'm not just washing the fence here; it's quite honestly the truth.
AC: Do you enjoy being around people when they're looking at your art?
BT: It falls in the middle. I'm uncomfortable around crowds. I tend to get a little claustrophobic if the crowds get too thick. And I'm a little gun-shy, because at a lot of these exhibitions, I get a lot of ... not looky-loos; I don't mind looky-loos as long as they have an interest in the product. But I do get a hardcore fan base that occasionally turns up with plastic bags full of old albums. I try very desperately not to be rude, but at the same time, we do have a policy of leave the memorabilia at the door; this is a different animal you're dealing with here.
But one of the things I love about exhibiting my material is that it gives me the opportunity to see my work in a gallery setting. I have a very large studio – it's actually an old racquetball court. I've turned it into my studio, so there's a lot of room to throw paint about, because I'm definitely a large canvas man, and I do get messy, and it gets pretty wild and loud in there with music and the way that I paint. I'm definitely not a sit-on-the-side-of-the-road-with-my-oils-and-look-at-the-sunset kind of painter. [Laughs] But when I finish a painting, I rack it in my racks, and ultimately it goes down to my agent's warehouse in L.A. So I don't really get to appreciate them once they're done. Plus, the lighting in my studio is not as desirable as I would like it to be, 'cause it's not natural lighting. So getting to see all my work spaced out, hung properly, curated the right way, lit well – I draw immense enjoyment from that. I get to see my work as it should be seen. And luckily that's the way the public gets to see it, so that gives me a great deal of satisfaction.
I do enjoy seeing people's reaction to the paintings. I like people to be able to come up with their own assessment of the paintings. It's like a song, you know. Some of my songs can be very esoteric and abstract, and I'm not the sort of person that likes to have to go into great detail about what something represents or what it means. As Paul Simon said, sometimes other people's impressions of your work are far more interesting than what yours are. I totally subscribe to that. So when people say, "Can I ask you about a song?" I go, "Actually, no. I'd much rather you came up with your own impression."
AC: When did you first respond to abstracts? Do you remember seeing a Hans Hofmann or something that really spoke to you?
BT: I definitely remember when I first went to London in the early Sixties, and then to New York in the early Seventies, that's when I really became aware of abstract expressionism. Because in the downtime between shows, I would walk the streets and go to galleries, and that's where I really became aware of people like Rothko and de Kooning, Clyfford Still and Ellsworth Kelly and all those people. There was never one particular artist that I gravitated toward at that time, because it was all abstract expressionism, and they all made a huge impression upon me. I would drift to other parts of the galleries, but I would always come back to this because it would fascinate me, it would absolutely fascinate me. I think it was because in my songwriting I was almost doing the same thing. A lot of our material was pretty straight-ahead, but a lot of it was a little eccentric, a little bit steeped in a sort of abstractionism, so I guess for that reason I went there visually the same way [Elton and I] did sonically.
So when I had the chance to start painting for real, it was the natural place to go. I couldn't possibly think of working in any other style. You mention Hans Hofmann. I have to admit that Hofmann is the only person that I physically went, "That's what I want to do. Those are the colors." Hofmann is the only painter I know that I feel really just went straight from the tube. I loved the fact that there was something so immediate about his work and so striking – just these huge blocks of straight-from-the-tube colors that he had this wonderful way of meshing together. That, to use a corny cliché, blew my mind. If there's any artist [from whom] I can say I took the template, the blueprint, or whatever you want to call it, he was a catalyst. He definitely lit the blue touch paper.
AC: The colors in your work are so vibrant. Is that where your process begins?
BT: No, but color is hugely important to me. I'm always gratified when people say of my work, "I love the vibrancy of the colors." I love the fact that my colors can make people smile.
AC: Have you felt your art evolve since you started painting 20 years ago?
BT: Well, I hope it's got better. I hope it's improved. I hope the ideas have become more vivid. It's definitely changed. If you see the work I did in the mid- to late Nineties, it has a different structure to it. There's more what I call bleeding. There's more color upon color. It's a little thicker. It's not quite as vibrant as the work that I do now, and I think that's the key word. The material that I'm doing these days, the colors are far more vibrant. I'm letting the colors speak for themselves without mixing them up too much. My paintings, on the whole, have become much simpler. And by becoming simpler, I feel a lot freer with them. That comes with confidence, too. I think I've become more confident in my painting, and I've been able to understand that sometimes a little goes a long way.
AC: Would you say that experience extends to your writing career?
BT: Definitely. As I've got older, I've got a lot simpler all round, in every aspect of my life. And it's freed me up. It's made me see things a lot clearer. When you simplify things, things become, not necessarily more understandable, [but] freer. They have air, and they have space in between. And when you've got that air and space in between, I think things are a lot healthier. You know, I feel healthier, and I think my work looks healthier. That's a strange way of putting it, but, yeah, the colors have freed themselves from a certain state of darkness that they might have been in before, and I think that goes for everything in my life.
"Beyond Words" is on view through Saturday, Aug. 25, at the Russell Collection Fine Art Gallery, 1137 W. Sixth. Bernie Taupin will make special appearances Friday and Saturday, Aug. 24 & 25, 6-8pm. For more information, call 478-4440 or visit www.russell-collection.com.