In today's high-tech art world, 46-year-old Donald Baechler is an artist with a personal touch. His seemingly brutish paintings have a witty naiveté. Baechler is a master of duality, clashing adolescent innocence with arch sophistication. As stealthy a thief as Picasso, Baechler's brand of appropriation favors the obscure, the commonplace. Baechler's trademark surfaces are thick and intensely worked, a forest of signs hidden beneath layers of paint.
Remarkably boyish in appearance, Baechler could be accused of being a modern incarnation of Dorian Gray. He seems shy and soft-spoken. But such timidity belies Baechler's ability to cultivate celebrated patrons. From their humble beginnings in New York's East Village during the 1980s, Baechler's works have rocketed into the homes of the stars. Baechler's A-list of collectors reads like the pages of People magazine: Johnny Depp, Claudia Schiffer, Bono, Elton John, Valentino, Versace, Dennis Hopper, Ellen Barkin, Owen Wilson, Lauren Hutton. No surprise. In world of manufactured personalities, acquiring a Baechler painting is like buying back a piece of one's soul.
Baechler recently opened a solo show at Hamiltons Gallery in London, his first in England in over 15 years. During the conversation that follows, Donald and I were joined by the gallery's owner, Tim Jefferies.
JLP: Do you consider your motifs -- flowers, cartoons, Christmas trees -- to be part of low-brow culture?
DB: Low brow? Isn't the history of art all about flowers?
JLP: Maybe. But what about the Christmas trees?
DB: I don't paint Christmas trees. They're pine trees, emblems of great northern forests. I'm much more in the romantic tradition of Casper David Friedrich than I am in dime-store camp.
TJ: People see a fur tree and it's not a simple pine tree, but immediately a Christmas tree.
JLP: But how do you explain the paintings that contain identifiable cartoon characters?
DB: Name one! Can you identify any character?
JLP: Now that you mention it, I can't. Actually, they're more like amalgamations of cartoon characters -- the Jetsons meets. . . .
DB: I never painted the Jetsons. This is another common misperception.
JLP: Glad we're cleaning them up.
JLP: Your use of black gives your paintings a special weight, as if the blooms were made of antimatter. How does the use of black function, particularly in this show?
DB: In this case, it was a decision not to have to think about color -- to reduce my options. The foundation of all my work -- whatever work it is -- is drawing. It's a kind of obsessive doodling. All of the paintings have some kind of doodle at their base. This could be something I've done while waiting for a train, looking at art history books and making sketches and copying other peoples' drawings.
In the 1980s, I used to engage people in conversation in bars. I'd always have a pad and maker and would get them to do drawings for me. These would sometimes serve as the basis of my paintings, along with my own drawings.
TJ: Like your series of crowd paintings. So those were actually real people you met in bars?
DB: That's how they started. To make a painting from something as small as a doodle, the strongest way, was to reduce it to black and white. That's changed and expanded over the years, but I'm always coming back to it.
The paintings that really pushed my buttons when I was 12 years old -- when I knew I was going to be an artist -- were Warhol's hand-painted black and white paintings of the late '50s and early '60s -- the wigs and fridges. I really thought "That's what art should be." I saw that really clearly. So that's always in the back of my mind too.
There's also an element of appropriation in my work. In the crowd paintings, I lifted drawings from cartoons. They're really obscure -- totally unrecognizable. You'd never see Mickey Mouse...
JL:I see. So you DID use cartoons but they were totally obscure references.
DB: So obscure that they don't even exist. They are characters that may have appeared in a frame somewhere only once. Or they could be moments from Picasso drawings that I appropriated. I used a lot of them. Other sources: African masks, a portrait of Igor Stravinsky, art history cartoons. It's a more complicated process.
JLP: How do you compare your work to the "New Image" movement during the '80s in New York?
DB: That's stuff I looked at a lot. Marcia Tucker did a very important show of New Image painters at the Grey Art Gallery during that period. Although I didn't see the show, the catalogue was very important to me when I was at art school. I looked at Susan Rothenberg and Robert Moskowitz a lot. They were highly influential.
JLP: Like the New Image painters, you use single images that become monumental. The centrality and frontality of your subjects seem to make a claim to a form of figuration, even as their drawn and cut-out quality render them abstract.
DB: That is what I hope they do, so I'm glad you see it. I often say I'm an abstract painter at heart. But I just can't find it in myself to make an abstract painting. I need something to hook it onto.
JL: Carter Ratcliff wrote: "The crudeness and deliberateness of Baechler's line suggests his pastoral is the time of childhood but a particularly dysfunctional one, that shows the very idea of picture-making in ruin."
DB: I didn't have a dysfunctional childhood. It was ordinary and suburban.
JLP: But surely your work is inhabited by a childlike quality so characteristic of Art Brut. Have children's drawings been an influence on your work?
DB: Not really children but teenagers -- particularly 14 year olds. Younger children draw reflexively. They draw all the time. It's part of being a kid. But there's a point when they stop -- around ten to 12. But that's when it gets interesting for me. Because there's some other psychological need that takes over that makes certain kids continue to draw.
Young children's drawings are basically interchangeable. There's no personality in them. When the personality takes over is when I start to like them.
JLP: Your trademark collage surfaces seem to seem to be constructed of an assortment of linens, cloth and fabrics that imbue the canvas with the pre-industrial aura of the hand of the artist -- the craftsman's touch.
Today's tendency seems to be the opposite. Many contemporary artists don't physically make their own work. Koons and Hirst have their wares manufactured by fabricators and assistants.
DB: I have assistants too. They do a lot of the gluing of the backgrounds. We'll set the canvases out on the floor and arrange the various collage elements for the background surfaces. And they'll do the rest. Gluing is a tedious job.
JLP: None of that for you?
DB: No, I do a lot myself, too. Most of the paintings in the Hamilton show are 100 percent by me. I painted them at my house in Amaganset, where I work alone.
I don't think there's anything wrong with delegating. Somebody has to shop for the paint, mix it, clean the brushes. . . . There's a lot of stuff people have to do.
JLP: But what about actually painting the paintings?
DB: The only time I ever had anyone painting was in the late '80s when I had the artist Ricci Albenda working as my studio assistant. Great assistant.
I had this idea of painting vegetables. I had a period where I was painting these black figures, usually standing figures -- cucumbers, onions, leeks -- and I was having a bitch of a time painting them. We were copying them from Indian vegetable charts we found in Bombay. They were like food group charts.
Ricci was working. He saw me having trouble and said, "I can do that. Let me do it." So I placed the onions where I wanted them and he painted them in. And it was amazing. He did a great job.
Watching him paint, I figured out what tricks he was using. Then I could paint them myself. Once I could paint the onions, I got bored with the whole enterprise and stopped doing them. But it lasted for about a year.
I thought about this issue a lot. At what point does a painting become a collaboration? It's interesting that Ricci never once even hinted that he thought he deserved any credit for those paintings. When it comes to my work, the authorship belongs to me. What I'm doing, the things I'm choosing -- it's my decisions that make it art.
Donald Baechler, "New Works," Oct. 15-Nov. 22, 2003, at Hamiltons Gallery, 13 Carlos Place, London W1Y 2EU