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Interview with John Baldessari
by Nicole Davis

Nicole Davis interviewed John Baldessari in his studio in Santa Monica, Ca., on Apr. 12, 2004.

John Baldessari: So, fire away.

Nicole Davis: What led you to become an artist?

JB: I always had this idea that doing art was just a masturbatory activity, and didn't really help anybody. I was teaching kids in the California Youth Authority, an honor camp where they send kids instead of sending them to prison. One kid came to me one day and asked if I would open up the arts and crafts building at night so they could work. I said, "If all of you guys will cool it in the classes, then I'll baby-sit you." Worked like a charm. Here were these kids that had no values I could embrace, that cared about art more than I. So, I said, "Well, I guess art has some function in society," and I haven't gotten beyond that yet, but it was enough to convince me that art did some good somehow. I just needed a reason that wasn't all about myself.

ND: I'm sorry, I hate to interject, but how tall are you?

JB: 6 feet 7 inches.

ND: You're so tall! It's amazing!

JB: I know.

ND: Okay, sorry, how did you end up in Los Angeles and why are you still here?

JB: Why am I still here? A job. I was born south of San Diego in a kind of service community. That's a euphemism for ghetto. I taught at a couple of schools, and then I got a job teaching at the University of California in San Diego. Then, the chairperson of the art department there was asked to be the new chairperson of the art department of Cal Arts, and he asked me if I'd want to come and be on the faculty here. So, I changed because Cal Arts at the time had all this buzz that it was going to be "the" art school of the U.S. You know, that sounded really attractive, so I moved up here, and, the first studio, it's still here.

ND: So this is your first studio?

JB: Yeah, I've had it since 1970. So I came here in 1970. "Why am I still here?" I thought for a moment about moving to New York, but I was then married and didn't want to raise children in New York. I had taught the prior summer at Columbia, and they had offered me a job there, so I could have gone, but you know I wanted to abide by what my wife wanted to do, so I stayed here.

ND: Did you feel like you wanted to be in New York because that was where more action was, and where more artists were?

JB: Probably, yeah. Probably, of course. You know it was the art center. I don't know if it is now. In one way you could say yes. In one way no. I think it still has the best museums. I think also art is more in your face there. You can't avoid it. Here you can, which is good because one gets a lot of work done that way.

ND: Do you think your work would have been different if you moved to New York?

JB: That's a tough one. It just seems logical that one's work is effected by where he or she is living. It's a moot point, kind of. I don't know if you know the artist Allan McCollum, he's from here, and he used really bright colors and even sparkle dust in his paintings. Then he goes to New York and all of a sudden he's doing all these black paintings.

ND: That's a little extreme. How do you feel that the esthetic and lifestyle of Los Angeles effects the art work created here?

JB: You know, there is just so much trading of information in magazines and web sites on the internet, I don't know that it pertains anymore. But, I always thought there was this kind of "why not" attitude. You can't call this a European city. We have no history, relatively speaking. I remember way back in the late ‘60s, hanging out in New York at Max's Kansas City. You'd just go there every night, and it's like every artist, always at least six, ten or eight artists at the same table. And, I said something, some art idea, and you could hear a pin drop. And someone said, "Well, how does that fit into art history?" And, I'm thinking inside, "Who the fuck cares?" Out here you don't worry about how things fit into art history. You just do what you're going to do.

ND: Who were some of the first artists that you were having a dialogue with in New York?

JB: Well, you know, because I was doing all that text stuff and text with photography, at first I was directed to painters, and they said, "This isn't painting." And then, there's this one guy, Dick Bellamy, he was a very famous gallerist for a while, the Green Gallery, where a lot of Minimalists had first shown. He looked at my work, and he said, "I don't quite know what you're doing, but there are some people here in New York that you might want to meet." And so, there are people who are now good friends of mine that I was introduced to, like Lawrence Weiner, Mel Bochner, Sol LeWitt and Bruce Nauman.

ND: Are you still friendly with them?

JB: Oh, yeah.

ND: What was the mission behind your early works?

JB: My mission for my own art I think was to break the certain "no-no's" and "taboos" for galleries. One: that you never saw photographs in art galleries, they were always in photo galleries. So, I wanted to do that. . . photography as a tool that an artist can use. Then, I was very much interested as using language as a tool for art and just information, rather than something visual. Both of those battles have been won.

Now, you see so much photography and text stuff. Do I have any mission right now? My current one is that I'm somehow trying to jam the media world together with what we would call the "real world." And sort of, like a square peg in a round hole, I keep on doing that, like a kid, trying to make it work. Also, on a formal level, I'm trying to make something that's neither painting nor photograph.

ND: What do you feel is going on in the art world in L.A. right now?

JB: You know, one of the reasons I teach is to get a sense of what's going on at the grass-roots level. There is one thing that came up in the painting department just a month ago. We didn't see any really good abstract painters. What I saw in painting that I thought was interesting was translating photographs into paintings. The kids are taking snapshots and then using it as the basis of their paintings. So, this is a curious fusion of photographic vision into paint.

ND: Did you like it?

JB: I see a lot of it. For me it's not particular. I just like good art when I see it. Doesn't matter where I see it. That's what excites me. It can happen any place. Sometimes, it's done by an artist I really hate. That's a real falsity; there is no connection between the artist and the work.

ND: Well there is, but you can still somehow appreciate the work.

JB: A lot of times, you've probably gone through this, there is an artist you really like and you wish their work was better, and you really want to like it. One of the most obnoxious people in the world, I've known him forever, is Richard Serra, but he does great work.

ND: Who would you consider to be a breakthrough artist within the last decade?

JB: There are certain artists that interest me. Not so much in what they're doing now, but why there's attention given to them at a particular time. For example, in 1985 I did a two-person show in Chicago with Gerhard Richter. Neither of us sold anything, which was not unusual back then, but the paintings he had in the show were the candle paintings, which are now $23 million each. I find that so puzzling. What was wrong with them then? Plus, he was doing pretty much the same art when I came across him in the late ‘60s. He didn't have much of a following.

And in the ‘80s there was this surge of interest in German artists in the U.S. The one that was embraced by everyone was Anselm Kiefer. I don't think he was the most interesting artist that was available. I think it was the whole thing about German guilt that the Americans seemed to embrace. And now he's completely off the radar. You can't say he's on everybody's tongue. It would be Richter, wouldn't it? And of course, we are going to get tired of Richter. I think the best of them is Polke. But, I think he's just a little bit too much for everybody. And somebody who had always wanted to inherit that position, but unfortunately died, was Kippenberger. But, he's now getting revered in Germany. And there's a big show of his at the Tate.

ND: Yes, and there's a huge explosion of interest for German artists right now, young German artists.

JB: I guess it's like fashion. Why something gets embraced at one moment and then it's dropped. Well, so, anyway, all I was saying is someone who interested me some years ago is very popular. He's always interested me as a painter. I don't know why.

ND: Are you still friendly with Richter?

JB: Oh sure. Yeah, yeah.

ND: I would almost be a little wary of work that is accepted immediately.

JB. Yeah, you know something that just struck me, do you know the artist Thomas Kinkade, who does these schlock paintings? He's a huge industry. He has all these satellite galleries that sell his work. He's licensed all of his imagery so there's all his tchotchkes out there. It's enormous. Just enormous. There's even now been a housing development with cottages that look like his paintings.

ND: A housing development? Where?

JB: It's up in Northern California. So anyway, the point I'm trying to make, if you listen to Kinkade's argument, it's exactly the same argument as Jeff Koons. Exactly. "This is what America likes." The only difference is that they operate in two different territories. Jeff operates in the avant-garde art world, and this other guy operates on the other end of the spectrum, but they talk exactly alike. He went to art school, he went to Art Center. He just figured out what America wants. They want Hallmark Cards. I thought it would be great to have a public debate with Kinkade and Koons. Well, it wouldn't be a debate. They wouldn't argue. It would just be the two of them talking.

ND: To me, someone like Kinkade is a big turnoff. It seems to be all marketing and branding.

JB: Kinkade probably thinks he's being totally genuine. I don't know. I would just love to hear him talk. Jeff I know very well because we show in the same gallery. And that guy I can't. . . I still can't. . . that's part of his mystique because nobody can figure out whether he's just tongue and cheek, or whether he believes this stuff.

ND: And he looks so...

JB: Like Howdy Doody.

ND: Exactly! It's almost like pathological liars. You do something enough, you tell a lie enough, and you believe it to be true. So really, they blur the lines themselves.

JB: Everything is getting blurred now. I mean between fashion and art. A couple years back they came up with the idea of pairing up an artist with a fashion designer. Now architects are trying to be artists. It's all turning into one big soup. Frank Gehry is an old friend of mine, and he's designing everything. This weekend there's a party for an unveiling of a vodka bottle that Frank has designed. Last time I saw him he was designing a car for one of the Japanese brands.

ND: What next, hygiene products?

JB: I mean I've done some things. I did a few T-shirts, and I did two posters for New Order. Then I started to get phone calls. I got a call from Lenny Kravitz and I didn't know who he was. I said, well can you send some tapes? The first time was fun, but then I said this is has to stop. I don't want this to be my life.

ND: Well, music is different. You know, there's something about artists and musicians, they've always had a running dialogue.

JB: Yeah, yeah. Michael Stipe from REM used to live around here. This woman who runs Blind Spot Magazine, she knows Michael. She said he was interested in photography, "He wants to come visit you is that okay?" So, I had dinner with him. We talked about photography, and music, and so on. And there are continually all these crossovers going on.

ND: What is inspiring your work right now?

JB: One of the questions that I've always pursued or has pursued me is, "Why is something art, and why is something else not art?" That I always find fascinating. And, then another thing is that I never want to copy myself or repeat successes. So, now we've just finished this project for the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin and the next show I have to do is a show in New York, which is, you know, a tough place to show.

And I'm always thinking about that, and what it might look like. So, right now it's just this hazy image in my mind. I want it to go beyond the Deutsche Guggenheim.

ND: Where did you get the photographic images that you use in your work?

JB: I collected them for years. They are all the stuff that nobody wants, because they're always from some movie that never made it. I used to buy them for 15 cents each. I use found photography a lot. I think I'm going to continue using photographic imagery and painting. Right now, I got fascinated with orange, as you can see.

ND: Why orange?

JB: I don't know. I think, why it might be, I have this house, which is an old Arts and Craft house that's being redone by an architect friend of mine. That's actually another story with Frank Gehry, but anyway, I made this one bathroom downstairs all orange tile. It just seemed the right thing to do, I don't know why. And then my kitchen is all cobalt blue tile. Then the upstairs bathroom is this beautiful green.

So, I have these three colors, but you can never see them at the same time, you just have this memory. I think what it is, every morning taking a shower in this orange bathroom. It seems so simple minded. I think it's a lot about how that color feels, you know, that I've never been around orange.

ND: Do you think orange is an unnatural color?

JB: Well, you have oranges and you have carrots.

ND: Yes, but even when you see oranges in a tree they seem so striking and unnatural.

JB: Yeah, I see what you're saying. It's an interesting thing. It's between red and yellow. It doesn't have that memory of blood so much. It seems friendly, but you can also think of fire. Yellow, for me, always signals some kind of craziness. So, I don't know if I want to do that. I thought maybe I could try another color for New York. I want to see when I'm done with this stuff if I have orange out of my system. I don't know; we'll see.

But, I think what I want to do, because I realized that the work prior to this was using images of slapstick comedy, which gets really physical, so, if you just see them as shapes, they get really abstract. I think what I'm going to do is a lot of research, and find a principal shape that is a thing rather than a person that's really big, and then go from there. I think what's happening is that the orange stuff is occupying more and more of the space of the picture plane. I would like to up the ante even more.

ND: Who represents you in New York?

JB: In the last three or four years, I changed galleries, and that was like a divorce for me. I got divorced and that was probably worse than getting divorced.

ND: Which gallery?

JB: I was at Sonnabend Gallery in New York, and you know, they're a fantastic gallery, and after over 30 years, I've gone to Marian Goodman Gallery. They are both very powerful women, but I began to panic a bit about what would happen to my kids after I died, and how they would support themselves. With Ileana Sonnabend, she has all the money in the world, and so she doesn't have to make money, and they only have a staff of about five or so, and they were just overworked all the time, so they could never pay attention to things. She didn't go out actively and try to sell work, and so I just decided I had to get somebody who was a little more aggressive, and Marian Goodman, I looked around, and she seems the best for me, but it was really really difficult for me after 30 years.

ND: Are you reading anything interesting right now?

JB: Two books just came in the mail yesterday, you're gonna laugh at this one. One, is the South Beach Diet. . .

ND: No, you're not going on a diet, are you?

JB: No, no. I'm always curious about why some foods are not good for you and others are.

ND: You know who loves that book, Bill Clinton.

JB: Yeah, well, I pick up certain things. Like, I've always had orange juice in the morning and that's a no-no.

ND: No more orange juice to follow your orange shower?

JB: No.

ND: What was the other book?

JB: Godard at Seventy.

ND: Are you into movies?

JB: Yes and no. I am into people that are creative.

ND: What about the whole movie thing here in L.A.?

JB: You know there's no crossover, at least for me. I know a couple of people involved. I am interested from a distance, but I don't want to be close to it.

ND: Do you go to the movies a lot?

JB: I'm pretty much a workaholic. I used to go to movies a lot, but now I don't do that, because I realized I used to go mostly with my son, and now he's agoraphobic. You know, I have Tivo, but I don't watch that much. But, on the other hand I draw a lot of my imagery from the movies.

ND: Why's that then?

JB: Well, I think it's just that it mirrors the real world, but it's in another place. It's always set up. And, when it gets really confusing, especially like when I'm traveling some place and watching a movie and a lot of locations are around Santa Monica, and then you say, "How can this be a movie," because I live there. The worst it ever got, was when I was married, and I was living up the street, and I came down here to my studio and there were movie trucks all over. In the parking lot out there they had some chairs set up and it was Jack Nicholson and Mike Nichols. They were doing this shot in Chinatown, and I said, "Pardon me, can I get into my studio?" I'm thinking, "Okay so, the line between reality is my door."

ND: "The line between reality is my door." I'm going to quote you on that.

NICOLE DAVIS is associate editor of Artnet Magazine.