How Paul McCarthy befriended Bobby Fischer
McCarthy reveals benign figure staring through the window at his 1974 artwork was the troubled chess champion
Although it only covers 23 square miles, the southern Californian town of Pasadena has shaped much of the cultural landscape of the 20th century. Home to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and The Gamble House, a masterpiece of early 20th century architecture (which also featured in Back to the Future); Pasadena is where L Ron Hubbard formulated his ideas prior to his foundation of Scientology; and a young Bruce Nauman created some of his most challenging works in the early 1970s. It also gave the world WC Fields (and Eddie Van Halen).
The city is also the location for one of the less likely encounters in contemporary art history. By 1974, the US chess Grand Master Bobby Fischer was living in Pasadena. Fischer had won the chess World Championship two years earlier and was, in July of that year ranked number one in the world (for the last time). Alas, Fischer’s more eccentric lifestyle choices had begun to contribute towards his overall decline. The chess player had relocated to southern California to devote himself to an eccentric religious group called The Worldwide Church of God, donating a large proportion of his chess winnings to the religious organisation.
In return for the payment, Fischer took modest accommodation close by the home of a contemporary artist who had moved to the city a few years earlier. His name was Paul McCarthy. At this point in his career, McCarthy was just beginning to experiment with the messy, post-action-painting style of performance art that has been described by some commentators as Abject Expressionism.
The artist’s 1974 performance, Whipping a Window and a Wall with Paint, wherein a topless McCarthy slathers a store frontage with a mixture of paint and motor oil, to the shock and amazement of passers-by, captures this early style perfectly. The performance is all the more noteworthy since one of the passers-by, the guy with the decrepit mac and the benign - if vacant - expression on his face looking through the window, is none other than Bobby Fischer.
Indeed, the chess player and the artist did a bit more than pass one another on the street. When the pair first met and fell into conversation, Fischer asked after McCarthy’s profession. McCarthy told Fischer that he was an artist. In reply, Fischer asked McCarthy what, in his opinion, was the greatest work of art ever made?
At a loss for words, McCarthy replied 'I don't know. What do you think is the greatest artwork ever made?' For reasons best known to himself, Fischer replied “the train.”
It's probably for the best he stuck to chess. For more on Paul McCarthy order our completely updated and revised monograph here.