John Lurie: ‘If I could teach people anything, it would be about living in the moment’

John Lurie: ‘If someone is expecting a step-by-step tutorial on painting, this is not that’  (HBO)
John Lurie: ‘If someone is expecting a step-by-step tutorial on painting, this is not that’ (HBO)

Early in 2006, the American artist John Lurie finished work on a watercolour he titled Bear Surprise. The painting depicts the animal in a meadow standing on its hind legs in front of a couple having sex on a picnic blanket, with the bear saying: “Surprise!” Within weeks the picture was uploaded to a Russian blog with the speech bubble altered to read “Preved”, a portmanteau that translates as “Hello Bear”.

This strange image captured the imagination of the Russian-language internet and by May that year The Moscow Times reported it had “gained vast popularity with the speed of an avalanche”. Lurie’s wayward bear has gone on to be referenced in Russian films and TV shows and has appeared in countless further memes, even flying improbably through the sky on a poster advertising the Russian edition of Newsweek. Last month, as Russian troops invaded Ukraine, Lurie posted his original artwork on Twitter once again. “Preved!” he wrote. “What the f*** Russia? Let Putin know he is alone in this horror.”

Needless to say, Lurie never expected any of his artworks to go viral on the other side of the planet, least of all that image. “Bear Surprise is a really bad painting,” he declares modestly from his home in the Caribbean. “That that one, of all my paintings, was out there like that – and you cannot believe the level that it was out there – just feels weird.” It goes to show that once you put art out into the world there is no telling where it might end up, a lesson echoed by Lurie’s own peripatetic journey through music, film and, most recently, his deeply contemplative and unconventional HBO series, Painting With John. During the first season, he paired footage of his artistic talents with wild tales about taking cocaine with the musician Rick James and the time Barry White’s speaking voice made his testicles vibrate. Bob Ross, this is not.

One of Lurie’s paintings, titled: ‘I thought as I grew older, life would make more sense. This is not that’ (HBO)
One of Lurie’s paintings, titled: ‘I thought as I grew older, life would make more sense. This is not that’ (HBO)

Born in Minneapolis in 1952, Lurie spent his teenage years enduring small-town tedium in Worcester, Massachusetts. In his revelatory 2021 memoir The History of Bones he recalled his early attempts to make it as a professional musician, including convincing Canned Heat to let him sit in on harmonica during their 1971 Carnegie Hall show with John Lee Hooker. By 1978, Lurie had taken up the saxophone and formed avant jazz group the Lounge Lizards with his brother Evan and an ever-changing cast of fellow musicians. The group were a mainstay of the Eighties New York art scene, where Lurie found kindred spirits in the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. He cut a rakish, effortlessly cool, outsider figure as part of a creative bubble that felt, back then, like the whole world. “Didn’t think very much about the future at that time,” he says. “In fact, for most of us, there was no universe outside the area from Houston to 14th St and Bowery to Avenue C and no other time but that one.”

In 1980, Lurie appeared as a saxophone player in indie director Jim Jarmusch’s first film, Permanent Vacation. It was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration, with Lurie playing leading roles in Jarmusch’s next two films, Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law, cast in the latter alongside Roberto Benigni and Tom Waits. In 1991, he reunited with both Jarmusch and Waits for his surreal travel series Fishing With John, which saw the decidedly nonexpert angler Lurie joined by a different celebrity guest each week as he globe-hopped from Montauk to Costa Rica to Thailand. The series seemed to be purposefully anticlimactic, with the New York Times review noting: “there is no big-bang payoff at the end of these episodes; that is part of what makes Fishing With John such an appealing alternative to the high volume, laugh track world of network television.”

After a three-decade absence from our screens, during which he survived cancer and the debilitating effects of Lyme disease, Lurie returned last year with another show that acts as an antidote to high-concept, high-stakes prestige TV. Painting With John is primarily structured around watching Lurie work on his watercolours, all the while telling a series of outlandish and sometimes completely unbelievable shaggy dog stories, such as the one about the time he kept finding coins up his nose. At no point does he offer anything so prosaic as instruction for wannabe Basquiats. “Welcome,” he announces in the first episode of the new second season, “to the show where I do not teach you how to paint.”

Nevertheless, Lurie says, after the first season, many fans told him that he’d inspired them to pick up a paintbrush, adding: “But also I have heard from people that it has inspired them in other ways, which hopefully is more the point.” He says his intention for the show is to nudge viewer’s creativity in whatever form that may take. “I am just hoping to free people up a bit,” he says. “If someone is expecting a step-by-step tutorial on painting, this is not that. Though, in a way, watching someone paint, without being instructed – ‘place the brush here, apply the paint like this…’ – is probably a much better way to learn.”

While the first season was soundtracked by music drawn from Lurie’s long and idiosyncratic career, recording a brand-new score for the second season marked an emotional breakthrough for a musician who was robbed of his ability to play by the effects of Lyme disease for more than two decades. While rehearsing last year, he wrote on Twitter: “Not sure what this feeling is, think I am nervous.” Looking back on the moment now, he says he still can’t quite articulate the state he was in. “I was feeling something but not sure it was nerves,” he says. “When you can’t do something that is your absolute reason for being for all those years and then have the opportunity to do it again, a lot of emotion comes with it.”

Ann Mary Gludd James, Nesrin Wolf and Lurie ride through a fantastical landscape of the artist’s own creation in ‘Cowboy Beckett' (HBO)
Ann Mary Gludd James, Nesrin Wolf and Lurie ride through a fantastical landscape of the artist’s own creation in ‘Cowboy Beckett' (HBO)

While the second season is still anchored by Lurie’s painting and stories, it is more visually inventive than the first. In the opening episode, through the magic of some Monty Python-ish animation, Lurie performs a synchronised swimming routine. A new segment running through several episodes is titled “Cowboy Beckett”, in which Lurie and his longtime assistants Nesrin Wolf and Ann Mary Gludd James ride horses through lush, fantastical landscapes of Lurie’s own creation while speaking in philosophical non sequiturs. “It’s really more ‘Cowboy Ionesco’, but ‘Cowboy Beckett’ has a better ring to it,” says Lurie, who opens the first segment by asking: “Why is there anything rather than nothing at all?” It’s hard to imagine any other show on television presenting such a beguiling coming together of disparate worlds. “I am not sure there is much common ground [between westerns and Samuel Beckett], which is kind of the idea,” says Lurie. “But as far as being a place in time, I am sure the Wild West was as absurd as it gets.”

Like a bear in a meadow when you think you’re alone, Lurie’s show is full of surprises. While there may be no paint-by-numbers tutorials, there are plenty of deeper lessons about what it takes to live the life of an artist. “If I could teach people anything it would be more about living in the moment,” says Lurie. “I would also like to teach people to have empathy and respect for one another, but I’m saving that for season three.” A lofty ambition, but a fitting one for a show which paints the world a little brighter.

‘Painting With John’ airs Fridays on HBO and is available on HBO Max in the USA now. A UK release date is yet to be announced. See more of Lurie’s art at