Seeing the World Askance

John Baldessari interviewed by Simon Patterson

John Baldessari, <em>Ear Sofa; Nose Sconces with Flowers (In Stage Setting)</em>, 2009

John Baldessari, Ear Sofa; Nose Sconces with Flowers (In Stage Setting), 2009

Simon Patterson: I’d like to ask you first about the cremation project of 1970. Am I right in thinking that it coincided with you moving out of your studio in a vacant movie theatre that your father owned?

John Baldessari: Yes. That was when television became really popular and movies not so popular. The theatre became a lost cause and I asked if I could use it as a studio. I guess I painted for maybe 20 to 23 years, something like that, and artists didn’t sell works back then. So here I was in this movie theatre, painting, painting, painting, and I damn near had it filled up. So I had this idea that, number one: if I was going to go on being a painter, I’d be inundated, and two: did I really have to own them? I’d learned a lot with each painting, and I had them in my mind – I even had photographs of them.

Also I had this growing suspicion that I was on the wrong path. So I decided to be reductive and shrink everything in some way, metaphorically. My first idea was that I was going to change the photographs into microdots and put them under stamps and mail them out to my artist friends, sort of like James Bond, but that was kind of labour intensive. But I liked the idea of somehow atomising things. And then I thought, I’ll just burn them all.

That idea grew on me because I thought of some sort of eternal return – the pigments come out of the earth and at some point here they become the painting and then they return to the earth. And then I thought I could push it further in a symbolic act and actually go to a crematorium, taking that idea of a ‘body of work’ seriously. It was a little hard to find one but I found a crematorium in a low-rent district that needed the business. They said that they could do it at night and I liked that, and the guy who did the actual cremating was really into it because he had gone to art school.

It’s the sort of thing I think most artists would like to do when presented with that sort of situation – what do you do with all this stuff that you accumulate? Should you turn it into a work or just throw it out?

I didn’t think of it as art and I still don’t think of it as art now. It was just something I did, and the ashes were simply the residue from it.

It was a kind of clearing out …

… a storage solution.

These days the art storage company would probably do the burning for you.


Originally you studied art history, is that right?

Well, I got out of art school and the idea of going out and finding a job was kind of dismal. Living in Southern California then – if you told anybody you were an artist, they looked at you like some exotic flower. So I thought I would have to be something dignified and be a college professor. So I went to Berkeley and did graduate work in art history and I thought I might actually want to write about art. I know exactly the moment I stopped – it was three o’clock in the morning and I was memorising Roman coins, and I thought, I don’t want to do this.

In a way that takes me to the way you file your photographic source material. It is a form of obsessive indexing. For example, under ‘A’ you have listed: Attack, Animals, Animal man, Above, Automobiles left, Automobiles right; and ‘D’: Dwarf, Death, Division, Door etc. I know that talking about this sort of thing is a bit like trying to explain a joke – pointless in a way – but are you typecasting?

Probably. When I’m looking at photographs of people I’ve never seen before – a photograph of somebody who looks like the criminal type but who’s probably a sweetheart – I’m doing something similar to a person casting for a movie, but then I’m working with those stereotypes to try to convince you otherwise.

Some writers have talked about your work in connection with Sergei Eisenstein, in terms of your use of montage.

I think the easiest way to understand my work, or for me to understand myself, is that I’ve often said that I think of myself as a writer, but instead of using words I’m using images. I’m kind of building in the same way and, if you go on with that analogy, when a writer finds the right word there’s a kind of tautness, a correctness to it. If a word is too loose, or too obvious in its association, then it doesn’t work. My old student David Salle compares me with Jean-Luc Godard, and I did go back and look at Godard again and I could see what he was getting at – these unexpected collisions – playing with expectations, and playing with your mind in some way.

Looking at your CV, it seems that initially, although you were showing in the US, your career really took off in Europe. It seems, too, that in the US there was some resistance from the East Coast to West Coast artists, at least early on.

Resistance is too polite a word.

Joseph Kosuth said: ‘Although the amusing Pop paintings of John Baldessari allude to this sort of work, being conceptual cartoons of actual Conceptual Art, they are not relevant to this discussion.’ It seems like you hit a raw nerve there.

Sounds like it.

And ‘Pop’ was then used as a pejorative term.

It’s a tough one, because we are talking about categories, and how you understand a category. Take Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein, both very good friends of mine. On different occasions I referred to them as pop artists, and they both looked at me and said ‘I’m not a pop artist, I’m an artist’.

Can I ask you a bit about teaching? You taught for a long time.

Yes, I taught from getting out of school – that was 1957 – but I’m going to preface anything you are going to say about me being a teacher by saying that I only did it to make a living. There was nothing noble about it.

You say that in a very self-deprecating way, but you have been incredibly influential as a teacher. To a degree you also turned teaching into a way of making work.

First of all you need a job and I tried various things, but with teaching the time passed the fastest. And teaching art was not so bad; you had the summers when you could work and a salary – you could live. And then, selfishly, I thought that I could get through the day better if I made teaching a kind of creative thing. I figured that if I was having fun, then maybe the students would be having fun also. It was a good equation.

And you had access to equipment to make video pieces, for instance the 1972 work Baldessari Sings LeWitt.

Yes. I was teaching at University of California San Diego and I left in 1970 when CalArts started up in Valencia near Los Angeles – I was on the original faculty there. That’s when the Sony Portapak came out and a lot of artists got interested in using it. At CalArts we had 26 of them and we didn’t have one drawing class – we got busted for that by the accreditation committee – but sure, I didn’t have any money and CalArts gave me access to the equipment. That’s where those pieces came from.

Baldessari Sings LeWitt seems like a very affectionate piece.

Sol was a great old friend to the end and a role model for me. I called him up and asked if I could do this and he said ‘Sure’. Of course, any artist who is any good is not going to suffer. The work will stand up, believe me.

One of the works I saw for the first time in ‘Reconsidering the Object of Art’ in Los Angeles in 1995 was A Painting That Is Its Own Documentation, dated 1968 to the present, which is a kind of inventory of its own exhibition history. What amused me particularly was that it was ‘full’, so you had added a new canvas.

That is included in the instructions, and I just added another new one. Maybe I should talk about the genesis of that work, which comes out of studying art history and the continual problem of the work of art and its provenance getting lost or separated. I thought it might be interesting to make the provenance the work of art so that they were never apart. The work starts with the actual moment of the day when I had the idea, and then at the first showing and so on. Each time the work is shown it is documented and recorded on canvas, and as long as it is exhibited it will keep on expanding.

You used signwriters presumably because you wanted to take away your own hand from the process.

Yes. Maybe it’s too reductive – and yet I abide by it – but when you have paint on canvas on stretcher bars you have a painting.

And using canvas was quite a radical thing to do then, because it wasn’t where people were looking with the kind of work you were doing.

Let me back up a bit here. A common complaint you would hear back then about first and second generation Abstract Expressionism was ‘my kid can do that’. It gets so tiring hearing that, so I thought: change the language, speak the language of the realm. People read magazines and newspapers so I thought, OK, I’ll just use text and photographs. The reason that I very consciously put it on canvas was because if something is on canvas and has stretcher bars it is immediately ‘art’ – trust me.

The ‘Commissioned Paintings’ series, paintings painted for you by amateur painters, took this idea further.

I always had a fondness for that kind of painting and I’d search them out. A lot of times I would really look at those paintings – forget about the subject-matter – look at the way the paint was put down and they were really not so bad. And I thought, what if I could use that as raw material for work? If I could change the subject-matter and get the paintings into a different context then you could really look at the paintings. So I looked up some of these painters and said: ‘If I pay you X amount of dollars, will you paint a painting for me?’ Then I had a friend of mine walk around and, any time he saw something interesting, he would point to it and I would document it. Then I offered the painters a handful of those slides and said: ‘Pick one, copy it and don’t try to make art out of it. Just copy it faithfully and your signature painting style will show up.’ Then I found a fairly avant-garde gallery in LA and a fairly avant-garde gallery in New York and showed them, and then the project was over.

There are other works that are formally similar to the ‘Commissioned Paintings’, the ‘Scenarios’ series of photographs of 1972-73, where you are pointing at text and highlighting, for example, ‘the sound of a pen scratching a quick signature’.

I think in this early period, when I was painting in this ghetto area south of National City, San Diego, I was totally shut off from art. I was trying to figure out what art was for me, and I figured out that it has to be essentially about choosing something, choosing this colour over that one, or this subject over that one.

You returned to painting in the 1980s when you started using paint in combination with your photographic work. You said at the time that there was something ‘inert’ or ‘flat’ about the surface of photographs.

Well, I think I started painting into the photograph for a variety of reasons, one because the surface of a photograph is uniform, and you could take another jump and say, ‘therefore all photographs look alike’. Then I wanted to change the reflectivity of the surface. But also, I hate categories and what’s wrong with painting on a photograph? So it’s a hybrid, it’s neither a painting nor a photograph.

There is some unexpected anger in your work; I’m thinking of Inventory from 1987.

That’s not anger, that’s just disillusion.

Going back to that Kosuth comment, do you think the fact that your art can be funny was a factor in it not being taken seriously initially?

I think the answer I’ve always given to that question is that if I was trying to be funny, I’d be doing something entirely different. It’s not part of the intent. I think it is seeing the world askance, or trying to make sense of the world.

In 1988 you illustrated Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. In some ways you were an obvious choice as, for me, the book is almost a proto-Baldessari work.

I think of Sterne as my doppelganger, or vice versa. It has always been a favourite book of mine. When I read it I thought ‘This guy thinks like I do’. And sure, I just jumped at it. One I’ll do eventually is my second favourite novel, Don Quixote, which I also feel very close to.

There’s a piece that I particularly like that I saw in your show at Marian Goodman’s gallery in Paris in 2004: a photograph of a high rise that is part of a series of works using a panoramic camera.

I decided to explore the panoramic camera, which is basically used for landscapes, seascapes, whatever, but in my perverse nature, I decided that no, I was not going to use it horizontally but vertically. But then you’ve got to find subject-matter and I thought, ‘palm trees are good’, and then I started doing condominium high rises and it worked perfectly.

The sculptural installation, Beethoven’s Trumpet: In One Ear and Out the Same Ear, relates to the new work you have made for your show at Sprüth Magers in London.

I was asked to do a retrospective show in 2007 in Bonn with all the works I’d done about music. Bonn is the birthplace of Beethoven, and I visited his house and he had a whole cabinet of ear trumpets that he used. I was really fascinated with them as sculptural forms, especially one that he had designed himself that I thought was quite beautiful. And then for maybe four or five years I’ve been doing these works about body parts and I think it started out with noses and ears, so ears were on my mind. And then probably there was one of those three o’clock in the morning moments when you are awake and all of a sudden I thought, ‘wait a minute – ear/ear trumpet’. I think it was my first venture into sculpture, though it was still on the wall so I don’t know if that counts, but it was sculptural. I made six of them because one of my favourite Beethoven works is the six last quartets. And it’s interactive – you can put your head into a trumpet and say something into the ear, and it’ll play back a section of the quartets.

In 2001, you were invited to make a public project for the campus of the University of California, San Diego – READ/ WRITE/ THINK/ DREAM.

They have something called the Stuart Sculpture Collection that funds sculptural projects for the university campus. They have an international jury that selects the artists and they’d been after me for some time to do a project and I kept on saying ‘I’m not a sculptor, I don’t do scuplture’. But they persisted anyway. So I had this idea that I would do Baptistery doors, like Ghiberti’s in Florence, but instead of the bronze panels they would be scenes from movies, and they liked that idea. And then we looked all over the campus and we couldn’t find any appropriate doors. So then they showed me the entrance to the main library and the doors were all glass. It was a pretty challenging piece of real estate, but I took on the whole façade and atrium.

Let me say this about public art projects, I’ve always pretty much – 99% – said ‘no’, because you have to go through so many committees, so many compromises, so many lawyers, so many architects that it’s just not worth the agony. But the people who run this project are with you 100%. And they have some great pieces – the piece that Bruce Nauman showed at the Venice Biennale, Vices and Virtues, was first done there.

One of the components of the work was a series of student portraits taken by a graduate student and selected by you, representing different ages, ethnicities and so on that can be periodically updated. And on the left is a whole row of giant pencils and pens and on the right …

… palm trees etched on the glass and then behind the glass you see a La Jolla beach scene of surfers. When I was teaching art there, kids would come and lean their surfboards against the classroom wall and then come into class. It was very much a part of surfing culture.

The effect is not dissimilar to your piece for the former Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which looked like a classical villa in Malibu. Was that part of your intention?

Very much so.

But it was not your first proposal.

The first proposal was not turned down because of the organisers, really. It was because the signage on the pavilion was going to change, and I had based it on the signage. I had proposed bisecting the building and then, on the right side, there would be a panel like a stage set with a replication of the building, but flipped on its side so it would be upside down. And it worked perfectly with the signage, but then the signage was going to change.

Was that when you proposed the sign that said ‘No more boring art’?

I guess at that point I was getting mildly irritated. So then I proposed to place a black panel that would say ‘No more boring art’ on top of the building, running the same length and about the same width as the strip saying ‘La Biennale’. I guess maybe they thought that that would be a comment on other artists. So that was axed. So then I came up with this and I thought yeah, I’ll make this like a Roman villa in Malibu.

For Berlusconi, and his ‘girls’.

Exactly. You can’t argue with it; it’s so pleasant – it’s a photo op.

And you did in fact manage to show the I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art piece in Venice after all.

Yes. It was very sweet of them. I guess they felt obliged that they should hang it somewhere. What I particularly liked was that it was hung right across from the François Pinault building on the Punto della Dogana.

I remember bumping into you at the Duchamp exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi during the Venice Biennale in 1993. It was an amazing show and afterwards you commented: ‘It was so well curated that you almost thought you understood it.’

Yes – it was too perfect!

This is an edited version of Art Monthly’s live Talking Art interview held at Tate Modern on 8 October.

John Baldessari was at Tate Modern from 13 October 2009 to 10 January 2010, Sprüth Magers, London from 12 October to 14 November 2009 and Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris from 17 October to 28 November 2009.

Simon Patterson is an artist.

First published in Art Monthly 331: November 2009.

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