Philip Tsiaras: ‘The Greek Warhol’

Lee Sharrock spoke to Greek-American artist Philip Tsiaras, whose inaugural UK retrospective of ‘The Superdot’ recently opened at Gallery 8 in Mayfair, presented by Varvara Roza Galleries (London) and The Blender Gallery (Athens). The solo exhibition at Gallery 8 covers 35 years of a pictorial exploration of the Dot, and is accompanied by a new 200-page book ‘Philip Tsiaras: THE SUPERDOT’, published by Key Books. 

On display are eye-catching portraits of Greek, American and British icons from the fields of Royalty, music, film and art including; Maria Callas, Marilyn Monroe, Salvador Dali, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, The Queen, Prince Philip, Aristotle Onassis, Princess Diana and Jim Morrison.  Also featured are Tsiaras’s ‘Crystal Guns’, glass sculptures hand-made by the artist in Murano over the past decade; paintings from his seminal ‘Circle of Life’ series; and his figurative ‘Horses’ works, which the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City purchased for their collection as early as I983. 

Philip Tsiaras ‘The Superdot’ is on at Gallery 8, 8  Duke Street, St. James’s, London until 7th December:

Sharrock conversed with Tsiaras at the gallery about the dual influences of American Pop Art and Greco-Roman art on his artistic practice, and discussed how an early encounter in 80s New York City with Warhol had a lasting effect on Tsiaras’s oeuvre, leading to a prolific career as ‘The Greek Warhol’.

Philip Tsiaras

I am a Modern Greek which means I carry the weight and the joy of my ancestors in my genes. Which also means I can cherry pick aspects from my cultural identity and integrate it into a modern interpretation

Philip Tsiaras

LS: There’s a distinctly Pop Art aesthetic to your Superdot portraits, so I wondered if, as a New York City resident for many years, was Andy Warhol an influence on your work?

Philip Tsiaras: I knew Andy Warhol. He wanted me to come and work at the Factory. But they were all too druggy and crazy, so I opted not to go. I was also couldn’t do the sycophant thing   

LS: So you said no?

Installation views from Philip Tsiaras Gallery 8 Mayfair

PS: I said no, politely, and I worked with another important artist, Lucas Samaras, one of the most famous Greek artists at the time. He said to me ‘don’t go there, they will mess you up, it’s all about Andy, and he was right”!

I also over the subsequent years I collected the works of Andy Warhol. At one time I had 70 Warhols, mostly the unique paintings on paper or board. I had many of his portraits, and was living with them in my home, so when I decided begin these Dot portraits, Warhol was obviously in my mind. But unlike Andy who just took a picture and gave it someone to make the silkscreen, and make 250 versions of each. I made every one meticulously detailed by hand, and there was only the one, the opposite of what Andy would do.

LS: Are they mostly originals? Because you don’t do that many prints do you?

PT: I rarely do prints, and if so, I prefer a unique print, as in a monoprint. I like original art, and I never owned any prints by Andy either, only his unique works – one of a kind. Making too many editions is like scattering your soul to the winds of commerce. 

LS:  Have you lived in New York since the 70’s?

PT:  No. The 80’s Not I’m not that old-but I’ve lived in New York from some 30+ years. I’m Greek but born in America. I grew up in the Boston area, but then moved to New York as soon as I graduated from university. I studied English literature at Amherst College, a sort of English style ivy league college.

LS: So, were you self-taught?

Installation views from Philip Tsiaras Gallery 8 Mayfair

PT: Is there anything else?

Well, I also worked with very important artists when I moved to New York, and that’s how I got my hands on training. The old style of artisan-ship, of working with a master. Also, when you live in New York you’re automatically exposed to art everywhere, there are so many galleries, those are the artist’s institutions of learning, and of course all the other artists you meet and learn from.

As it turns out London took much longer to become an art centre, taking the spotlight off Berlin or Cologne, and the Frieze definitely helped. It was not until the 90’s and 2000’s that London became the dominant European art capital. Now we have to see if with Brexit London can hold on to that.

LS So New York vs London?

New York is a training in itself, a City educator, at least for me. If you want it, it’s there for you, arm and legs open!  I find London a little different, it’s not as user friendly as New York is. In London it takes longer to get to know people. I love London, I think it’s a great city, Imperial. But it has other ways of functioning that’s not New York. In New York you can go to a dinner party and meet 10 people, they will all give you their business cards, and some of them, might invite you to their home in the Hamptons for the weekend – that will never happen in London. NY has fewer conceptual boundaries, I guess.

London is more European and reserved and NYC is still the “American Wild West.” 

LS:  What of Athens, do you spend much time in Athens?

Installation views from Philip Tsiaras Gallery 8 Mayfair

PS:  I do, quite a lot. I keep an apartment in Athens, Kolonaki, for those who know, and go several times a year.  The art scene in Athens is getting better, you know even the Financial Times called Athens the ‘New Berlin’.  I don’t think it’s the ‘New Berlin’ yet, but it has great potential. It’s a city of 5 million people, the size of Paris. Athens has really become a destination city, as opposed to a stop off to the Islands. It is definitely and finally on the upswing, after much beating by the EU, meaning primarily Germany.  

For artists Athens is great. They can live at a fraction of the price it costs to live in London or New York, or even in Berlin for that matter. The fruits and vegetable are to die for, exotic and healthy food inexpensive and delicious, the sun and sea intoxicating, What’s not to like. I’ve built a villa on the West coast of Greece, on the Island of Lefkada- can’t wait to get back there.

LS: Enough geography, let’s get back to your Art, and the influences in your work. There is modernist Pop Art but is there also an influence of Ancient Greek and Byzantine art, such as the dotted mosaics?

PT: I am a Modern Greek which means I carry the weight and the joy of my ancestors in my genes. Which also means I can cherry pick aspects from my cultural identity and integrate it into a modern interpretation. The Byzantines for instance never had any background in the portrait picture. The subject, religious of course, was a portrait with heightened intensity, by flat gold and silver backgrounds, making the subject- all mighty. The Dots do somewhat the same thing, isolating the portrait, in my case infusing the dots as well into the portrait together creating a dizzying, modern hagiography. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that the portrait had perspective and horizon.

LS:  Did you start with the Circular paintings and then the portraits came later?

PT: Circle of Life first but If you look at this new book of mine, it’s 35 years of the Dot. It’s certainly not the only thing I do, I even make glass sculptures in Venice, but I realised I had been doing these dotted works since as early as the 80s.

So, when we started to do this book for London, I thought, well there’s the portraits that are brand new, and then there are the circular paintings. And then, I was looking through my other works I realised I’d been doing dotted works all along. So, this book, with the quintessential title “Superdot”, is in fact a compendium of 35 years of dot paintings. A lot of it is the early works, those days in the 80’s when I worked and exhibited with Basquiat, Haring, and people like that in New York…LS You knew them. Oh wow!

Installation views from Philip Tsiaras Gallery 8 Mayfair

PT: It wasn’t oh wow for me then, Basquiat for me was just another bloke, as you English say.

In those days we even made exhibitions in Clubs together.

LS: That’s an amazing subject for another time, but the SUPERDOT, that’s a real dedication, to spend over 3 decades crafting a technique.

PT:It’s all accidentally on purpose!.

So, let’s just say that theDot forces the subject to a kind of crisis, to use T.S. Elliot. The Portraits are more immediate, the Circle paintings more metaphysical, meaning both cosmic and microscopic, embryonic and galactic at the same time. I love to make them, and I would love even more for the Londoner’s to come and see them.  There are some cool portraits of Alexander the Great too.

 LS: And the Dotted Alexander the Great paintings, how long does each one take?

PT: Too Long, you can watch your hair turn gray!

Actually, each one takes several weeks and I usually work on 2 different portraits at the same time. Doing these portraits, you really get into the mind of the person, so you can imagine how schizoid it is going between Churchill and Jimi Hendrix at the same time. And you know, oddly enough, there are always some similarities!! 

LS: Finally, how did you meet your new gallerist Varvara Roza?

PT: We met at a dinner party in Athens, and she invited me to exhibit in London. And now here I am eating fish and chips, and drinking Guinness. (laughter) 

Philip Tsiaras is an international artist of Greek origin who lives and works in New York City. He has had more than 80 one-person exhibitions. He has been the recipient of many national prizes including: The American Academy Award for Poetry, the Thomas Watson Fellowship, two National Endowment Grants for the Arts (NEA), nomination for the Blickle Stiftung Photography Prize, Germany, Gold Medal Award “Civiltà dell’ Acqua”, Venice, and Lifetime Cultural Achievement Award, the Alexandrion International Foundation, New York. His works are widely collected in prominent museums and private collections, including the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Twenty books and catalogues are attributed to his work. 

Philip Tsiaras ‘The Superdot’ is on at Gallery 8, 8  Duke Street, St. James’s, London until 7th December

©2021 Philip Tsiaras, Varva Roza Galleries