At Large  November 5, 2019  Barbara Basbanes Richter

I’ve Seen the Future and I’m Not Going: Peter McGough Looks Back

Courtesy Pantheon Press

McDermott & McGough

Peter McGough has a smartphone. That may not sound particularly newsworthy in 2019, but for an artist who famously eschewed modern conveniences like electricity, this is a surprising revelation.

Courtesy Pantheon Press

“Actually, I’ve had a phone since 2009,” McGough clarified cheerfully via telephone from his Bushwick studio during an interview late last month to discuss his memoir, I’ve Seen the Future and I’m Not Going: The Arts Scene and Downtown New York in the 1980s (Pantheon). “I also have a computer, but only because my assistant insisted that I couldn’t run a studio without one.” And yet, that’s just what he did for years alongside onetime boyfriend and collaborator David McDermott. Together, McGough and McDermott conducted their own social experiment of living and working as Victorian artists while exploring themes of gay identity and repression through their paintings, sculptures, films, and installations.

McGough escaped suburban Syracuse where he chafed against the status quo for SoHo, where he rubbed shoulders with Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and countless other artists, designers, and musicians: nearly all of them fellow creative misfits and outcasts who found a home in a city famous for taking in the poor, huddled masses.

Quintessential starving artists for years, McDermott and McGough finally found success starting in the mid-80s, showing at three Whitney Biennials and eventually at galleries around the world. In the 1990s, the duo lost everything in a tax disaster. With the money gone and McGough diagnosed with AIDS, McDermott left for Dublin, where he renounced his American citizenship and remains to this day. Their most recent project was realized in 2017, a temple to Oscar Wilde in London and a project two decades in the making.

© Katie Simon

Peter McGough

McGough’s AIDS diagnosis in 1995 very nearly turned into a death sentence, but now he embraces each day as a gift. Despite its raw, unvarnished introspection, the book remains surprisingly upbeat.  

“Look, I’m alive—I am a miracle! And part of the message of my book is that you’ve got to enjoy life because it could change in an instant,” McGough said, whose saw many of his friends suffer and succumb to the same disease. “I wanted it to be the kind of book I would want to read—I love Collette, Maupassant and Justin Stein’s The Secret Historian, for example—but the whole process was like pulling out a big rusty nail.”

At its core, I’ve Seen the Future and I’m Not Going is a celebration—an unfiltered retrospective of a life lived in the service of creating art and in search of love and acceptance. McGough hopes that, like his art that harkens to an earlier era, his story will serve as a bridge to a time gone by and will encourage people to come out from behind their smartphones and embrace life.

“History is told through art and by the writers, painters, and sculptors. The power of art can pull individuals out of their mundane lives. These screens have become all-consuming. Everyone’s going ‘click, click, click’ with their smartphones when they’re at a museum. Why? You’ve got the painting right there. Just go look at it! It’s so much more rewarding.”

About the Author

Barbara Basbanes Richter

Barbara Basbanes Richter writes for Fine Books & Collections magazine and Art & Object. She’s also a professional ghostwriter.  

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