A Conversation with John Baldessari

By Max Fierst

John Baldessari’s art is a panoramic theater of painting, photography, text, and video. His promiscuous use of many media was rare in the early 1960s when Baldessari began making his groundbreaking work. Multi-media studio practice has become commonplace among contemporary artists, at least in part because of the pervasive influence of the 80-year-old Californian, the poet of verbal images and visual puns.

Baldessari said he hates categories. He is a “conceptual artist,” a term to which any conceptual artist will object. In the purest sense, conceptual art is an oxymoron, since all artists make things no matter how “conceptual.” Even performance artists, whose work is temporary, living sculpture, leave some evidence behind of their “happenings.” Otherwise, without some object to live on after the art event is over, all would be forgotten.

Portrait of John Baldessari, Photography by Sidney B. Felsen, 2007

Conceptual artists, being particularly attentive to how ideas get pigeonholed and become clichéd, recoil at being labeled at all, especially with a title as vague and fluffy as “conceptual.” After all, every work of art has a concept, even if that concept is “the dogs are playing poker” or “this is the best bowl of fruit I can draw.”

Baldessari’s work is “conceptual” in that although it is filled with beautiful ideas, it is not produced with the idea of “making a beautiful thing.” Picasso famously claimed that any truly original work of art would, by necessity, be ugly. But what shocks the eye at first, with time, may become the eye’s own aesthetic ideal, copied everywhere. This year’s spectacle is next year’s normal.

Baldessari’s style, dumbfounding in the ’60s, is victorious in 2011. Even the combination of text and images, so radical when the artist pioneered it, has become an everyday experience as we surf the Web and stumble on Lol cats and Lilo news.

Man And Woman With Bridge (1984) is a good example of how Baldessari arranges disparate images to create the perfect tension until the electricity of a metaphor arcs between them. A pair of golden age Hollywood actors, a rake and an ingénue, are separated or connected, depending on your perspective, by an odd wolf-like, cat-like creature that seems to advance sheepishly along a bridge as narrow as a railroad trestle. Baldessari has created an open semiotic narrative that allows viewers to imbue his structure with our own associations. We bring ourselves to the work literally and even literarily. Are we looking at a wolfish stare rebuffed and crawling timidly back to the gentleman’s gaze, or does it bring to mind the kittenish flirting of a woman on the prowl? Or perhaps it is a tone not of romance, but of tragedy – perhaps we should think of how, inevitably, we end up alone. In the end, wit and silver-screen glamour outweigh the slightly macabre quality of the ominous beast. It is conceptual origami made from the imagery of Hollywood archetypes.

Just as Jackson Pollock is indelibly associated with being a New York artist, Baldessari practically defines what is unique about L.A. The city is unique among the top 5 capitals of art over the past 50 years – Tokyo, Berlin, London, New York, and L.A. – in that it is by far the least rooted in any form of ancient tradition. L.A. is itself a recent invention.

Baldessari is a native Southern Californian and has taught in L.A. since 1970, first at Cal Arts and then at U.C.L.A. He is famous in the L.A. art world for appearances at nearly every opening to support the young artists. Deeply immersed in the community of L.A., his work, like Ed Ruscha’s, gleams with intellectual sunshine and California cool.

Semi-Close-Up of Girl by Geranium (Soft View) (1966-8) is also a piece of appropriated Hollywood history, but this time text from the screenplay of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance has been placed on a canvas where the history of art tells us an image should be. Yet when reading the text, a clear image comes into viewers’ minds. We consider the question: “What are the limits of the function of a painting hung on a wall?” Again the work remains wonderfully open and free from a single interpretation.

The Spectator is Compelled… (1966-8) emerges from the other major sphere Baldessari draws from for the content of his work. Baldessari is endlessly investigating the questions that arise from being a student and teacher of art. The text in this work comes from an art instruction manual and is a lesson on how to create the illusion of perspective and depth. Baldessari himself stands in the middle of the view, ruining the effect the text instructs. If he is not teaching us perspective, what is he telling us? The work may suggest that rather than following canned advice and cliché solutions, we should look at what is in front of us with our own eyes. Perhaps he is just making fun. In any case, the image projects a strange drama, considering we are looking at nothing more than back of his head.

Baldessari’s recent works, such as Noses & Ears, Etc.: Head (With Nose) (2006), display a refined simplicity and lightness. Replacing the faces of people in photographs with circles of pure color has been part of the artist’s vocabulary for years. However, unlike in Frames and Ribbon (1988), where this gesture has the comic effect of making anonymous the prideful recipients of honors, in Noses & Ears we see a kind of magical hybrid between color field painting and Groucho Marx.

Today, John Baldessari may be the dean of the avant-garde in America. With Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol preceding him in this title, we cannot imagine that Baldessari would mind. Baldessari, who originally wanted to be an art historian, has gone on to write art history himself by generously shaping the discourse of our time.

I spoke with Baldessari recently from his L.A. studio, where the octogenarian keeps regular weekday hours and still produces work.

MF: You’re known for being a very visible presence in the L.A. art world. Do you still go to a lot of art openings?

JB: Well, less and less for two reasons. One, my time gets more and more valuable I guess. And the other one is, as I get to be more of a familiar face, the social aspect of openings I don’t care for. Of course if there is an artist I know or a student emerging, then I would go to the opening to be supportive. But now I can’t deal with this social stuff.

MF: In the 1990s there seemed to be a big boom of young artists based in L.A., and L.A. today remains a global presence in the art world. Do you have a sense of how the L.A. art scene is today?

JB: I wouldn’t pin it to the ’90s. I think it’s been burgeoning longer than that. I think the reasons have been that the schools are really good. Arguably, L.A. is the best place in the world to study art right now. And for the galleries there is so much talent; it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. And then the high rents of New York; so [artists] are more inclined to stay here. Los Angeles as a tag or a label has become very sexy and a lot of galleries in Europe just want a Los Angeles artist, and it doesn’t even matter.

MF: You’ve said that teaching at the California Youth Authority was the experience that convinced you of the authentic value of making art and being an artist.

JB: It really was. It was an epiphany for me to see these. They were gangsters really, and they had more of a need for art than I did. At that moment I just thought art was masturbation. I wanted to be some use in the world, and I thought art was kind of useless.

MF: You got the students to behave by giving them extra opportunities to make art?

JB: That was a deal I made, because it was a place with no walls in the mountains behind San Diego; and if they tried to escape, well then they really got busted. So it was a live-in situation, you know, I had to be there during the week. So one of the gang leaders came up to me and asked if I would open the arts and crafts room at night. And I just had this light go on over my head and I said, “Well, if you can kind of cool it in the classroom during the day,” because I was teaching academic subjects as well. And it worked like a charm.

MF: They had a motivation to make art that had nothing to do with economics or status?

JB: Right, there was a deep need. That really turned me around to witness that. It said to me that art does some good, that there is some spiritual hunger or something. I don’t know what it is; I’m still not clear on it.

MF: Throughout your career you’ve been a teacher as well as a studio artist, and you’ve spoken about how those two go together. Do you feel like your teaching informs your studio practice?

JB: Well, first of all, anything I say about teaching I have to preface by saying I had to make a living. I did it for money. I don’t want anybody to think it was a noble calling. Of all the jobs I tried, teaching seemed to be the most fun. So one day I decided to teach. It just turned out that I was good at it. My job in life was not as a teacher. I was an artist, and I taught to support myself. I could have been a very good plumber, as well. Who knows? But anyway, then one thing intersected the other. So in my art I think I was saying, “This is what I’m talking about.” And in the classroom I’d try to make it as much like art or an art experience as possible. I think that accounted for my success, and I also learned a lot about communication and making contact with other people, which helped me in my art making.

MF: What was it like at the beginning of your career when you didn’t have a community of your peers to react to your work?

JB: I got grounded when I was living in L.A. for a few years, having gotten out of art school there. And then I moved backed to San Diego, actually National City, even better, which is south of there. Well, there may have been two or three artists that I had contact with. So basically I had a situation with nobody looking over my shoulder, as you might have in L.A. or New York or some other large city. So pretty much my attitude was, well, since nobody cares, I can pretty much just do whatever I want.

MF: So it was actually a positive thing to have no audience?

JB: Yeah…. Yeah.

New York and L.A. April 13, 2011

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  1. Michelle Grant-Blair says:

    This is fantastic……love all of it……..

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