Glass interviews artist John Baldessari 
one of the most respected contemporary artists of the last five decades

Pure beauty – Wry, rebellious and utterly revered, John Baldessari 
is one of the most respected contemporary artists of the last five decades, but as Glass discovers, it is his wholehearted disregard for such pedestalising that has 
kept the world enraptured

An iconoclast is someone who attacks cherished institutions or beliefs. Literally, it means “one who destroys images”. John Baldessari, one of the most influential contemporary artists to emerge since the mid-60s, has done both. Rather than bridging art with life, Baldessari’s motivation from the start was to highlight that the two were already morphed. Although he is known as one of the world’s leading conceptual artists, Baldessari rejects this (and every other) label. His work is shown more in Europe and New York than California, but he is recognised as one of the vanguards of the West Coast art movement.

Writing by John Baldessari I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, 1973 John Baldessari, Lithograph, 22-1/2 x 30 in.
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York / Paris

His early career as a painter coincided with the popularity of abstract impressionism, which was criticised for being a ‘private language’. Coupling a distaste for snobbery with his awareness of the inherent artistry in quotidian events, Baldessari has produced an oeuvre of work accessible to all audiences. First introducing text and then photography to his paintings, Baldessari made a definitive break from the medium when he gathered all of the paintings he had made prior to 1966 and had them ceremonially cremated. His shrewd and often humorous works also sought to remind viewers that meaning is relative. His mutability as an artist has seen him transition from painting through photography, film, video, installations, sculpture, drawing and printmaking.

Baldessari has not only educated audiences through his work, but is also credited with mentoring some of today’s most recognisable names in contemporary art during his four decades teaching at California Institute of the Arts and UCLA. His rejection of pedagogical art directives informed the way he taught such notable students as David Salle, Cindy Sherman and Barbara Bloom. Since 2009, a retrospective of the 79-year-old Baldessari’s work has been travelling around the world reviewing his extraordinary contributions to modern art. Never one for complacency, Baldessari has continued creating during this time and has turned his savvy eye to the fashion world.

I know you are very sensitive to the city you are in. Did you ever live in New York?
I used to have a studio in the city but sold it and am now based solely in Santa Monica. That was about 10 years ago – I had the studio from 1985 to 1995. That was the point when if you were to enter any restaurant in Soho you wouldn’t hear people talking about art, instead you would hear conversations about real estate. It was at this point that a lot of money started flooding the art market … not a very attractive time.

This brings to mind one of your early text-based paintings that gave artists advice on selling their work.
Oh, yes, you’re thinking of a piece called Tips For Artists Who Want to Sell?

by John Baldessari W Magazine Project, 2007. Image: John Baldessari (American b. 1931), Three-dimensional digital print with acrylic paint, 45 1/4 x 52 in. (109.9 x 132cm), Collection of Nabil Aouad, Lisbon © John Baldessari


This was a tongue-in-cheek commentary on art instruction books. How do you think this piece would be received by today’s artists or in today’s market?
(laughing) Here is an interesting comment on it: Jeff Koons, who I used to show with at Sonnabend, says that’s his favourite work of mine! “And why is it your favourite work Jeff?” … Because it’s precisely the kind of work he does. I think there is this assumption that the higher the price, the better the art. Which we know, of course, is not true. But if something sells for five million dollars, ipso facto, then it must be really good … which is not necessarily true, of course.

It says more about the people buying it?
As one of the auctioneers at Christie’s put it, which I totally understood, (paraphrasing her) “After you’ve got several houses, after you’ve got the yachts, the private jets, what next? Art. You start collecting art.” It’s become a luxury good and I find that a bit worrying for me. As my prices get higher, I am what I’m criticising. We live in a capitalist society so it’s rather hard to escape.

Blood Fist and Head 2006 by John Baldessari Noses & Ears, Etc.: Blood, Fist, and Head (with Nose and Ear), 2006.  John Baldessari, 1 of 16 digital files.
Dimensions Variable, Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, (JB-2007.06A)

Your Catalogue Raisonné has a number of works which are listed as “missing”. Do you regard these differently than the works which are absent because they were deliberately destroyed (ceremonially cremated)?
Not really, I think that art is not meant to be hidden – it should be seen; after all it is a form of communication. When you’re a young artist, you don’t really think about who owns the work … you’re lucky to get two dollars for it. Or you give it away to friends … you don’t keep records of these things. So in this case, the work is only missing in the sense of not having a record of where it is. Since they started the work on the Catalogue Raisonné, there have been advertisements released intermittently saying “if you have a work of Baldessari’s, please contact us.”

Do you not get attached to any of your work ever?
No, I know a lot of artists grow attached to certain pieces but I do not. I think I own one or two of my own works. One in my house and one in my studio, and that’s it.

And this studio is in California … You’ve been quite open about finding LA “ugly”.
Compared to New York, it definitely is … or Paris, or London. Los Angeles is a new city; it has no centre, so it’s not a traditional city. It’s also a horizontal city – not vertical. We have no respect for the past – not that we should – but if a building dates back to, say, the 1930s it’s considered old. So we have what we call “disposable architecture”. We build it, tear it down, build it, tear it down. So it’s not about being visually attractive, but rather, whether people can do business in them. They are cheap.

I can see how you would find that vulgar.
Vulgar! Exactly. Vulgar is a good word

I think you said that you do your best work when you are not satisfied by the look of your surroundings.
That’s true – I think if my environment were visually satisfying that I would not do art. I do it to create my own ideal of what I would like to see.

You are from a place called National City, in California, which you described as a “cultural blank spot”. Can you tell me more about it?
This is the closest city to the Mexican border. It’s really a ghetto – what we politely call a “service community,” which means that all of the poor people reside there and provide service to other cities. My parents were first generation Americans so they did not have a lot of money.


Six Colorful Inside Jobs 1977 by John Baldessari 7Six Colorful Inside Jobs, 1977 (video stills). John Baldessari (American, b. 1931), 16mm colour film transferred to video, 32 min. and 53 sec. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris © John Baldessari

Your first studio was in National City: in a (failed) movie theatre that your father had opened?
Eventually, my father made some money after building houses and he opened a movie theatre – at exactly the wrong time. Television had just come out and people did not go to the movies any more. It remained vacant. I asked him if I could use it for a studio until he rented it out, which I did. It was by far the largest studio I ever had.

You held the belief that your work would not be seen – thus, you assert, you were able to create more freely during your early years? Well, I’m sure you understand, as you mentioned you also grew up in the desert – did you ever think that anything you created would be seen?
Definitely not! But it seems this “remoteness” has been done away with now by technology. I doubt there is anywhere left that has people creating without an audience in mind.

How do you think technology and the resulting interconnectivity will impact the next generation of artists?
It is amazing. You could live anywhere and be talking to an artist in New York, Paris, or London. You could be god-knows-where … on a desert island, I suppose. I think that art has become really international. The idea of ‘provincial art’ or ‘local art’? We don’t seem to have it anymore. I used to enjoy travelling to see what artists in different cities were creating. These days it all looks alike.

Speaking of things blurring: “high brow” and “low brow” – what do you think of these terms in art?
Well, they used to be distinctions. In the ’60s we had kitsch, which would have been considered “low brow” art. Then Susan Sontag wrote about it, which made it academically or intellectually of some consequence. Then the MOMA did a show focusing on “low art”. I think now it’s a serious concern because museums have to think about entertainment in order to get people to come to them. Normally, we think of entertainment as “low brow”. We know that is not true. The MOMA did a retrospective of Tim Burton’s work and it was, I think, the third most attended show they ever had. I think there will not be any high brow and low brow any more. Middle brow?

(laughing) Monobrow, yes.

You did a series called “Raised Eyebrow – Furrowed Forehead”. 
It’s hard not to think of this when discussing eyebrows.
In Beverly Hills, there are no women with furrowed foreheads! They all look alike!!
Your retrospective is called “Pure Beauty”. I imagine this is not what you had in mind?
It’s named after a work of mine which is a canvas with those words in the middle. I thought that would be a great title for a show because people would inevitably say, “I wonder what that is?” Imagination. Basically, it’s the cheapest device used in advertising … make a claim like “New and Improved” and people become curious.

And you started having works executed by signmakers at this time?
I figured that the basic requirement for a painting to be considered art is denoted by the labels on paintings; “Oil on canvas” or “Acrylic on canvas”. What happens then if I have a sign painter use oil paint to paint on canvas – it’s art isn’t it? That’s the point I was trying to make. I hate snobbishness. It’s like a person of one skin colour telling a person with a different skin colour “I’m human”, and the other replying “No, you’re not”. Or if you’re missing an arm and someone tells you “No you’re not human, you’re supposed to have two arms”. This is what the standards in the art world remind me of.

I think this work has a new relevance as people hardly use their own hand to transcribe things. Fonts and typefaces are now something everyone deals with daily. I read that cursive handwriting is going “extinct”: we’ve come to rely so heavily on using other devices to write for us.

I’m left-handed so I switched to printing (by hand) because you could never read my writing. I can’t read my own writing. If you look at the piece “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art”, my writing is so messy I am embarrassed. Even now when I look at it … I think it’s because both my parents are European and wrote so beautifully, their writing was like art. And then their child … (makes a face) … I have an assistant who went to one of the best colleges in California and she can’t spell or even really write. Why learn how to spell when you’ve got spell checker?

How do you regard fashion? Is it separate from art?
I remember reading a statement by Karl Lagerfeld that said the only rule about fashion is that it must keep changing. I think fashion changes more quickly than art – art changes very quickly but fashion seems to move even faster. It must be a terrible stress on clothing designers. I know that young artists feel tremendous amounts of pressure about being “out of style” so it must be especially stressful for a young designer. I have enjoyed a close friendship with Miuccia Prada and she feels that some things are classics – that they should not be changed. We were talking earlier about “high” and “low” culture. Not that fashion is low culture, but I think we are going to see more blurring of boundaries. Valentino did a show at MOCA. The Guggenheim did a motorcycle show. And why not?! Does art only exist on canvas? I don’t think so. What an individual regards as beautiful varies so much. A motorcycle can be beautiful. Or a Bugatti car?!

I understand that you are exhibiting your own revised versions of Giacometti sculptures at the Prada Foundation. (There is a huge Prada Book on the table, which he opens).
This is where Miuccia puts on her fashion shows (he indicates an image). I am making replicas of Giacometti standing figures. But I am extending each … making them much taller than the originals. So each figure extends in height to almost look like a column. There will be nine of them, and the placement mimics models on a catwalk. The original idea was to have a different designer make an outfit for each figure. This was inspired by the Degas bronze with the tutu. I thought, “what a great idea: metal and fabric”. The complexities of selecting the designers resulted in Miuccia asking me to do the interventions myself. On each of the figures, I have intervened in a different way.

Is it always with clothing?
Not necessarily. It could be with anything. For instance, I saw photographs of waist cinchers at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Of course, the last thing a Giacometti needs is to have its waist cinched. Which is precisely why I’ve chosen to do that. Another one has a bustle, which is just a superstructure added to the Giacometti. So it’s sort of about fashion, it is sort of not. The proportions are stretched to make a comment on models being so tall and thin. Why is that an ideal figure? Why not Botero?

by Yasmin Bilbeisi

From the Glass Archive – Icon





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