Late Nights at the Whitney
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ADAM WEINBERG: Good evening everyone, I’m Adam Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown director of the Whitney Museum. Great to have you all here to the fourth annual Walter Annenberg lecture. This program highlights a distinguished artist who has made a significant contribution to American art and culture, and it’s a great pleasure and honor to host John Baldessari here this evening. John’s extraordinary range of artistic styles, media, and subjects, as well as his diverse creative output mark him as one of the most significant artists of our time. A pioneering figure in his use of photography and language and a defining figure in conceptual art, Baldessari has shaped the way we view photography, painting, and the visual world for over four decades. John has said that the purpose of art is to keep us perpetually off balance. Accordingly, his multi-faceted yet singular vision combined with his constant questioning and sardonic humor has often upended the art world status quo. His work has been featured in over two hundred solo exhibitions, and over 750 group exhibitions around the world, and when his work was included in the 1969 Whitney Annual of Contemporary American painting, it was his first museum show on the east coast. Additionally, John has been featured in some thirty Whitney exhibitions—more than I believe in almost any other museum. His awards, of which there are many, included the Americans for the Arts lifetime achievement award, the California governor’s award in the visual arts . . . He is also a fellow of the American academy of arts and letters and holds several honorary degrees. John is also one of the world’s best loved and most admired teachers. He once said, “I think I probably had the worst possible arts education. That was probably one of the reasons I got into teaching myself.” John has not only taught for nearly thirty years at UCLA and at Cal Arts until he stepped down and retired, I think, a couple of years ago. He has been influential on several generations of students, mentoring artists ranging from David Salle and Ross Bleckner, to Matt Mullican and many, many others. He has done so by example, through his commitment to his own work by breaking the rules of art, as well as his belief that giving permission is what good teaching is all about. In a review of one of John’s solo shows, Peter Schjeldahl said, “It is easy to see why Baldessari is a great teacher. One who encourages kids to start with what they are, rather than what they think they ought to be.” Paying attention to his work—John’s work that is—will remind you what truth tastes like. It is John’s relationship between teaching and artistic production that we will highlight tonight: the role of the artist as educator and the ways in which pedagogy feeds practice. I would like to acknowledge this evening the members of the Annenberg family who are joining us in this evening’s program. Also, the many supporters of the Whitney’s education programs who are here this evening, our Chairman emeritus Leonard Lauder, who was the one who kicked off the first Annenberg lecture, I think some five years ago, thank you all very, very much. It is a great honor and pleasure to welcome John Baldessari.
JOHN BALDESSARI: Okay.
AW: You want to start with the other piece?
JB: Yes, okay, start someplace. I’m going to just show you very quickly some—I was a painter for some time—and so some early paintings. I had destroyed most of them, a few of them were in possession of my sister and a few other people, and so some of these that I’m going to show you do exist and don’t, but some of them were in a retrospective I had in Vienna a few years back, and I hadn’t seen them for a long time. I thought, well maybe I should get back and reexamine that material again. It’s sort of the feeling like you shut down maybe a gold mine when it’s exhausted, and then you go back, and maybe, well there might be still some gold in it, and you start digging again and see if there is. So, at any rate I did that, and I guess the larger issue is that I’ve always sort of wanted to go back and redo all my paintings and see what they would look like, but, you know, it’s too time consuming. So let’s start going here—A Bird going Downhill. This imagery comes from advertising (5:00) imagery. I don’t think they’ve done any more, but billboards used to be put up by sections, and they would be called a twenty-four sheet billboard or an eighteen. I had a friend of mine was in the business and I said, “Can I just get all that material and look at it.” Seemed like it was film, these stacks of billboard material, and so the imagery is uncropped, so this would be one of the sheets in the advertising, and then I would glue it down to some Masonite, and I would just paint over it. Okay, next.
The next ones I’m going to show you do not exist. Something you will see throughout here is my fascination with parts of things, and I think it’s something that continues in my work and seems to be one of the themes. I could never quite figure out what was a part and what was a whole, and I remember I drove an introductory to Philosophy course in graduate instructor crazy by always bombarding him with that question, and he never could come up with a good answer for me, so it still animates me. Anyway, these next, I think, four are sections of a head, and I think after you see them all you get an eyebrow and rows of the forehead, the other one was an eye, I guess, again. Part of a—let me get my pointer—nose, and I think there was a mustache here, and round there, and a part of the chin, and then the edge of the head. Next slide. Ear. Next.
Anyway, those are all part of the same head. And now this is another sheet where fortunately I decided to isolate the ear and just have the rest of the head fight it out. Next. This one is a composition of my own invention, and, I think I was just running it by Adam, I think it was the best title I ever came up with. If you look at the colors and if you know Motherwell, they look like Motherwell’s colors, so the title of it . . . he would never paint a big toe or a sock . . . but the title is My heart belongs to Dada but I know Motherwell. Pretty bad.
JB: But I had to do it. Okay next. Thumb. Next. A nose in the sky.
AW: What’s the scale of these, John? Just roughly?
JB: Probably five and a half feet tall or something like that. And you see I made it rather flat nosed, but I gave it some dimension, you know like it might be a piece of candy or what have you. I’m going back to that too, you’ll see later on. The title of this is God Nose, and I’ve gone back and done another one of those too. Next.
Okay, now these are the more recent works, and I think maybe around five years ago or so it started, and I started out with noses, so I just will keep going and you’ll see here. And this was in the Whitney Biennial, I think. Now, in this case, I think you can see there’s some dimensionality here, where the relief might be about nine inches I think on the nose and on the ear, so they’re like sculptural objects, they’re things. The color is painted on the wall, so each time the piece is exhibited, the paint has to be applied again and the ear hung and the nose hung. Next.
I’m very happy with this piece. The arm is painted on the wall and the leg, again, it’s about nine inches deep, it’s an object. So this right there is a part of the object and the other part is here. Again, the red has to be painted on the wall and the green is placed on the wall, and it’s on a rectangle of semi-gloss white paint, and the walls in the gallery are usually flat so you’ll just see (10:00) that slight change in reflectivity. Next. And that was, again, that was often in your body work and knees and elbows, and so, here again, you see that theme, knees and elbows. Next. Elbow.
Okay, now, this is pretty well bleached out I guess, but these are what I’m currently involved with and it harkens back then to one of those earlier paintings where you have the eyebrow and the furrows of the forehead. It’s an object, so it’s kind of bleached out here, but the edge is here I think you can see it go up here and down like that. So all these pieces exist on three levels: the eyebrow is above the surface, and the furrows are actually gouged out, they are real furrows. They’re all based on photographs, so you’ll see remnants of the photographs, here and up in here, and I think the overall tone is slightly pinkish-purplish, which I’ve also altered. Next. Next.
Then another part of them where you have the, again the raised eyebrow and furrowed foreheads, but I’m including a reason for that occurring so in this case it’s, well, okay, next. Next, I think that’s it.
AW: Yeah, might be.
JB: That the end?
AW: That’s the end of that group I think, yeah.
JB: I think that’s it, we stop there, yeah?
AW: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure. Wrong. Actually maybe this is a good way to end and begin. You started as a painter, but then you became a photographer, in quotes, but, yet, as soon as you took up photography, you started disrupting photography. Where do you see yourself, I mean, in relation to painting and photography? Do you see yourself as a painter who uses photography, a photographer who likes to paint? Do you see yourself as a conceptual artist first? How did you make that shift?
JB: Well I think how the shift occurred, I was getting dissatisfied with art the way was taught to me. It was basically art was about painting or sculpture, you know using marble, bronze, etc. and I thought well that’s true, but it could mean much more. And I think simultaneously I was interested in photography and I would look at books of photography and books of history and books of art history and I could never understand why they had to be two separate histories. I mean, they seem to be dealing with the same kind of information but for some reason they were put in two different baskets. So that was one reason, and then the first reason I just gave up painting and thought I would explore photography, film, video getting outside of galleries like billboards, artist books, that sort of thing, trying to expand or think about what art might be, and I guess that still propels me.
AW: You said at one point that one of the worst things to happen to photography is that cameras have viewfinders.
JB: Well, I . . . that issue is certainly there with painting as well, that you have certain height-width proportions for paintings, but it never really dawned on me because I used to make all my own stretcher bars with any scrap lumber I could find, so there really weren’t multiples of two inches for the stretcher bars. But when I started doing photography, then I felt really constrained because you’d buy paper and it’d be 8×10, 11×14, and so on. Well, I guess not those proportions, and then the viewfinder would have certain height-width proportions and it would drive me crazy that I would have to deal with that, so I had an old Rolleiflex and I would drop in masks on the ground glass, so I would have a triangle mask, a circle mask, a very long rectangle mask, and I would use that as a framing device instead. But, you know, you were specific about your comment that I was kind of trying to work against my own good taste (15:00), I think. And so I would have a camera and a tripod and, you know, carefully composing the shot, and then just to test my courage I would sort of move the camera over a foot and take that shot instead, to get something I hadn’t planned.
AW: And were you at all looking at classic photography at the time, and just feeling that?
JB: Oh yeah. I’d go over history of photography books, yeah of course. Yeah.
AW: And another thing you once said is that, “I wonder how artless one can get and still have art” (16:00), and you know maybe making a little reference here to wrong. Could you, what did you mean by artless then and also is it even possible to make something that is truly artless now?
JB: Well yeah it’s impossible to do that because you—to totally escape your own good taste. But you know I don’t think one has to work at being tasteful because it’s going to come out anyway, so why work at it? It’ll occur. I think that’s a big goal for a lot of artists, and certainly one of those I really admire is Sigmar Polke, you know, that’s certainly been one of his goals, and it’s not a new idea anymore, trying to look offhand or casual.
AW: Well, when you did this piece were you trying to be artless at that point, or . . .
JB: Well yeah I think what I had in mind there that, again, you know, my cynicism that as long as it was on canvas, that’s all you needed. I mean canvas and stretcher bars, it’s such a signal, what else is it going to be? It’s automatically art as long as you put that on it. So then I figured I could do anything I wanted.
JB: I did want to escape painting, but I was still involved with photography, so these are actually done with, and it’s still produced, it’s a liquid photographic emulsion you expose, you paint it on the surface and then you expose it this like, photographic paper, and then I’d take it to a sign painter and get whatever text they wanted on it. The genesis of the work, you’d get Kodak film or sometimes just these kind of manuals, you’d get for free in the photo store, tips on composition, how to take a photograph, and one of the no-nos is that you shouldn’t stand in front of a tree because it would look like the tree was growing out of your head, and that sounded pretty good to me. And then I also encountered this—I usually collect a lot of how to do art books—and I had this book on how to make a good composition, and this guy, he would have thumbnail sketches it might be a landscape or a still life or whatever, and he would show you a good composition and a bad composition, and sure enough, I always liked the wrong ones.
AW: Hence you became a teacher.
JB: And I thought well, I would just do something that was wrong.
AW: At what point did you start appropriating images as opposed to taking them? And why did you make that shift?
JB: I think it was, um, yeah I used to go dumpster diving at photo shops, I mean, photo processing plants, and any place, books, magazines, any place I could find, and then I started using movie stills; not because they were from movies, but somebody told me about this place outside a building in Burbank where one could get 8×10 glossies from movies and also from newspapers, I don’t know why newspapers, were all mixed together. There were these giant bins and you could get them for ten cents each, and whenever I had some free time I would just go through things and say “Oh well this looks interesting,” and I’d think that I might use them sometime. So the first show I did of using imagery from movies, I think, was with Jim Kirkman in 1978.
AW: And we could probably pull up one of the images there from the 1970s maybe.
JB: But this is one that somebody else took
AW: Yeah, yeah exactly
JB: And that’s me.
AW: You in your youth. (20:00)
JB: Yeah, yeah, right.
AW: And so the things that you started collecting, did you start building up an archive from which you then . . .
JB: I did, and began to put them in different baskets, and so there are a lot of stuff with guys with guns, a lot of people kissing, and so those sort of fell into two giant categories, and then you begin to subdivide those. So the guns, you’d have westerns, and then you’d have cowboys with guns and Indians with guns or bows and arrows, and then you’d get subcategories like cowboys falling off of horses, you know, on and on . . .
JB: You see where I’m going with this.
JB: And I finally gave up because of course you can classify any photograph a hundred different ways. And but it was a noble attempt. Just after sifting through that material over and over and over again, I mean a lot of that stuff is just stored in my head, and that’s the way I go about it now.
AW: And then say you kind of have an inventory, and then . . .
JB: I kind of yeah, I kind of, and I have images still I’ve had for maybe twenty years that I want to use them and I can’t think of how, but then sometimes it hits, I said oh, of course, yeah.
AW: Now you pretty much always work in series of—
AW: Series of works. And I think of that as sort of analogous in a way to the archive; I mean the sense of the collection of images. Um, when you’re working in series, first of all, where do you begin, how do you know when you’ve actually played out a series, and you know is it conceptual construct for you that you sort of have set in your head, or is it really just a process you’re working through that ends up as a series?
JB: No, I can never seem to solve a problem just doing it once, and that’s how it seems to develop into a series. I get this idea in my head that’s something I want to work on, like okay let’s say it’s about elbows and knees, well okay, that’s pretty clear, and then I start working on that. Now, can I, well first of all it’s a pretty stupid idea, so . . .
AW: That’s being an artist, making smart things out of stupid ideas.
JB: Yeah I know. So the first problem is, how do I make—how do I do this so it doesn’t look stupid. So that’s the first hurdle to overcome. And then, yeah, I just keep working at it to where I think if I did one more piece, I would be copying myself, something I did, you know, just before that. So when I can’t see any place else to go with it, time to stop.
AW: You know this may be a good way to segway a little bit about teaching. When you’re working with students, how do you approach it? I mean I think, I don’t know but I think you said something like, “You can’t really teach art,” in a sense, when you have students, where do you begin? Do you begin with just looking at their work and responding to it? How do you begin the process of teaching?
JB: Wow, that’s a tough one. Well, first of all, I just try and see what they’ve done, and you get a pretty clear idea of what they might be thinking about. And then as you begin working with them, they’re going to say things that sort of give you clues, or they’re going to do things. And I’m looking; I’m trying to figure out where they’re headed. And so, and then I say, well you might go this way, you might go that way, and you just watch for the light in their eyes, so to speak, and see where they’re, what land they’re trying to navigate the ship to. And eventually, you try to give them the courage of their idea so it’ll come out that, students don’t want to feel, look stupid. And so eventually they’ll betray themselves that they’ll and sometimes it’s a terrific idea and then you just say well you’ve really got to run with it and give them that confidence that it’s okay. And that’s such an ethical point because I can imagine a student’s in some (25:00) art school or a college art department some place and where you’re finally having the courage to do something, and the teacher saying, “You know, that’s a really stupid idea.”
JB: And it’s over. You seed and sow, it’s like some plant you’re trying to get to grow.
AW: Well you starting teaching very early on in your career and actually, for many an artist, teaching is sort of an evil necessity that they have in order to make a living, but it’s something you’ve been committed to for thirty years, I mean until recently.
JB: Well, committed to making a living.
AW: But did you do it just to make a living, because you probably didn’t have to do it the last ten or fifteen years just to make a living. And yet you continued to teach.
JB: Listen, I don’t want to appear too noble here. I think I ought to, my sister’s in the audience, so you might think about making a living. So I got the teaching credential, you know junior high, high school, you know, to stay afloat, but looking back it was good because I think I really know about teaching. I’ve taught everything from pre-school to graduate school, and private art schools, university, public art school, I even taught juvenile delinquents.
AW: Yeah I like the story; actually, you’ve told that story before about how you began teaching with juvenile delinquents, which I think is interesting if you wanted to repeat it.
JB: Well I think, I really didn’t think it was, I didn’t want, I was interested in art but didn’t see that it had any usefulness to me, and I wanted to go into social service and then I was able to talk to a guy who ran the social services department in San Diego, and he said, “Well, you would have to go back to school again” and so on, and he said, “Why don’t you continue in what you’re doing and that way you can do what you want to do.” So I had this opportunity when I was teaching to teach juvenile delinquents and I was chosen as a teacher and it was only because I was big, and . . .
AW: They wouldn’t mug you.
JB: Exactly. It was in the mountains, back of San Diego, and no walls or anything, but they were criminals and if they tried to escape they would really go to prison. They would be busted. But I had a general secondary credential so I could teach anything, but they had attention spans of like five minute in a forty minute classroom, and my opportunity came when one of the kids said would I open up the arts and crafts room at night. The teachers just stay there during the week. I said, “Yeah, you know, I’ll make a deal. If you guys will just try to pay attention in class, I’ll do it. I’ll open it up.” Worked like a charm and I realized here these kids are junior criminals, and they cared more about art than I did! It was such an epiphany for me; I said well art is somehow necessary. I haven’t gotten more beyond that, I’ve got to tell you, but it does seem to be necessary.
AW: And, did you find, that over years of teaching, that the teaching fed your work at all in the process of working.
AW: Because I think, I’ve known many an artist who’ve taught and then they feel that it actually just sucks them dry, is the expression I’ve heard them say, that it just empties them out.
JB: Well the term I’ve always used is the students are like vampires, and you have to save a little blood for yourself. But, yeah, I got out of, I quit teaching, I thought I could maybe support myself by part time teaching which I did for a while. One of the jobs I tried was technical illustration, I was drawing missiles and you know, that sort of thing, it was so boring, and so I went back into teaching, at least you never know what’s going to happen in the classroom, you know, it’s always different. And so I stayed with that and then, so further, so I get bored very easily, and I said I’m going to think of the teaching like I’m doing art, and that saved me. Then, it sort of flipped on itself and I really learned how to communicate (30:00), you’re lost when you’re teaching, and then I said well, art’s about communication, I can use—I might think about how I communicate with what I’m doing in my art. So, in fact, I guess my art might be like, “Well this is what I’m talking about.” There would be examples. And I think if I teach at all it’s like I’m saying well I’m a role model; I say well, if I can give this a shot, you can too.
AW: This is a piece I think you did with students originally, is that right?
AW: Was it a low-budget project or something?
JB: Well this was when I was at Cal Arts, and there was another school in Nova Scotia, called the Nova Scotia College of Art, and they were going at art education kind of like we would be doing, inviting artists from Europe and New York there, and similarly, also, we were trading instructors back and forth. Eric Fischl went up there to teach in Nova Scotia, and . . .
AW: He was one of your students also?
JB: Well, he was more in the painting department.
AW: The other side.
JB: Yeah, the other guys. So they had a gallery up there, and they asked if I would do a show, but of course no money, and I couldn’t go up there and, you know, no money to do anything, and so how do you do a show. So I had this—I used to keep notebooks at the time—and I wrote this down that I will not make any more boring art, just so I, I could have embroidered on a sampler, just to remind me. So I said okay, this is it: any student that wants to write that on the gallery wall this many times, let them do it. I thought it would be just an exercise in futility, and there would be blank walls. The gallery was full! And so a lot of guilty students up there that felt compelled to somehow make amends. And so then to raise money for the gallery they asked if they could make a print, and that’s this image. This is my own clumsy handwriting.
AW: Do you see art making as play?
JB: Very much, yeah, yeah.
AW: And do you find, I mean, do you feel that you’re a player, I mean in the sense that you’re just kind of, I don’t mean the metaphor but in the sense that, here’s actually a perfect example, the Four balls in the air which is up on the screen. I mean one of the things I most love about your work is the freshness of vision; you see things that, or think of things that are almost always there that you don’t pay attention to, and in fact, I think a lot of your work has to do with pointing at things that we’re not necessarily paying attention to. If you would comment on that a little bit.
JB: Well having, as I say taught in so many levels, what you really see are, and this is nothing new, if you watch kids you know, play with or doing art, they’re not thinking about making art, they’re just—it’s some kind of language. It’s a visual sort of language and it’s wonderful. And then about, just out of elementary school as they’re going into junior high, it stops. The women start drawing horses and beautiful women, the guys are drawing fighter planes and tanks and they lose it. And it takes a long time for that to come back, if at all.
AW: I mean this piece that’s up, I forget the title, what is it? Throwing four balls in the air trying to make a . . . I forget the exact title, what was the impetus for doing this and works like this? Was it . . .
JB: I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what art was for me, you know some kind of Cartesian way, what was bedrock, and certainly one of them, well maybe not, but I haven’t gotten beyond this one: the element of choice. You have to choose this color over this, this line and so on, blah blah blah, and so a lot of my early works were about choosing, and then another approach I would take, not having any prior idea, but what would happen (35:00) if I did this? Could this possibly happen? So with the three balls up in the air, and there were other successive ones, if somebody throws three balls up in the air, and I tried to capture all of them in the plane of film, using a standard role of thirty-six exposure, thirty-five millimeter, would I get an equilateral triangle? And then I would show the ones that got closest to that.
AW: Now, so much of your work—
JB: This one was the square.
AW: I know the audience was wondering what happened to the other ball. Your work is about different kinds of sign systems: photographs, words, you know, the piece that we just looked at, I mean, for you, are words and images kind of interchangeable? Are you trying to kind of see the words as images and the images as words?
JB: Well it’s not an attempt, I just can’t not do that I guess. I think I’m a failed writer; I’ve always enjoyed language and collecting dictionaries, books about etymology and on and on and on. I thought at one point I wanted to be an art historian or art critic and write about art, so that’s always there, and for some reason I seem to think of a word and an image as equally weighted: one could be the other. I actually in some pieces I would take photographs just randomly off a television and an assistant would try to find an equivalent word for that image and put it back. And I played games where I could either use words but then flip it and use the image that stood for that word or vice versa, it was a great way to pass time.
AW: Can you talk a little bit about this piece for example? This is part of a series of works that you were doing, I mean, were you very conscious of the composition of this and thinking about that, or were the words that suggested it—
JB: Well first of all you can’t see the edge of the page. It’s not all that wide around it.
AW: Right, it’s fifty-seven inches tall or something like that.
JB: Yeah, but, again, there’s this idea that as long as it’s on canvas it’s fine. And the idea of using text rather than imagery was something I wanted to see if I could get away with it, and also with somebody else doing it. I didn’t do this at all: somebody made the stretcher bars, somebody primed it, took it to a sign painter. I didn’t even write the text, it came out of my shirt pocket. And when the guy change, he said [inaudible] so why can’t you have a perfect painting?
AW: You said you’re a bit of a failed writer in a sense, but I think that your works have a very literary quality to them.
JB: I think so, yeah.
AW: And, I mean, to me and actually it’s interesting to see a whole series of works from one series because you really do kind of read through them and see what’s going on. Do you see them as kind of linked images or as . . .
JB: Well yeah, that’s kind of the whole thing about what’s a part and what’s a whole. What’s a sentence and what’s a word? I don’t know. Yeah, I think so, I think probably—I think like a poet, and putting the right word after the right word is, yeah.
AW: Could we pull up the image of Gavel? I think that would help because I want to talk a little bit about your notion of figuration. Do we have somebody back there? There we go. As we were talking about that I started thinking about a lot of your works, not only the kind of literary connotations but also having certain kinds of Freudian or other psychological connotations. And I remember reading something about you talking about the elbows and the mouths and all of that, and I was just wondering, first of all what are some, I mean, do you think of these as being psychological readings of, you know, having psychological readings for your work, some of them?
JB: I mean, I can’t really. I’m too close to that one. I can’t tell you. I mean, these, again, found images and these are mostly not from movies but from newspapers (40:00), but, you know, local news, that sort of thing so it, you know, it meant something to some event, let’s say. And you know, they were so incredibly banal that, that’s what interested me about them.
AW: And then how did you pick the colors? Was it a total random choice of color?
JB: Well yeah, you know, I try to use colors as not aesthetically as I can. Not, you know, mixing this great red or this great yellow or whatever, just straight out of the tube or jar or whatever. Because it’s going to be tasteful anyway, as I said before. These, I always insisted I paint them myself so you’ll see brushwork. I do enjoy putting paint down so that part of painting I still like a lot, but I wanted to make it very clear that these were hybrids; they were neither paintings nor photographs.
AW: And, did you see these as sort of anti-portraits when you were doing them, or in any way?
JB: No . . .
AW: No, you don’t?
JB: No, I think I wanted to make things look as banal as possible, and not very interesting, but this idea of blocking out faces, I think these kinds of photographs were the reason because I just couldn’t stand looking at the faces. I said, well, these are people that somehow controlled my life, but I’m in my studio here working, you know, I just, I don’t get it. I’m hiding from life somehow, but I don’t want that kind of life either. It made me feel very strange. So one day I just had these price stickers I was working with, and I put them on the faces, and I said “wow that really leveled the playing field” and no longer did I feel they had this grip on me. And I realized I had figured that one out years before. I was teaching a life drawing class at a junior college. The life drawing classes would be about three hours. Students would spend about two and a half hours drawing the face and then say “Uh-oh I better do the rest of the figure.” I’d say, “listen, the body’s an organic thing in its totality” so in desperation, what I would do for the first two hours was put a drape over the model’s head so they couldn’t draw it, they would have to pay attention to something else, and then the last half hour they could attach the head on it. And I realized then that there’s obviously a priority of looking, you know, we look at somebody, we look at their face first. Uh, and then, you know, [inaudible] you might see their stance, what kind of clothes they’re wearing, or the ambiance in which they’re occupying space, or whatever. So that’s pretty much what I was doing here, and so you really see what they’re doing. And what they’re doing is looking really stupid.
AW: And did you start with the photographs in your head with these? Did you have these in your head, putting these two particular ones together or did you just kind of, do you test one, you know, one next to another, in other words just put one out and then put another one out until you find it works or you had a kind of male, female.
JB: They were involved; I think it’s just gender here. You know, guy’s down below, woman’s on top, and they’re both doing the same stupid thing.
AW: I think it was one of the things that Nam June Paik said about your work that he liked was not just what you chose but what you didn’t choose? Something like that.
JB: Yes, it’s the best left handed praise I ever got. He said, Nam June said what he liked about my work was what I left out.
AW: And your works are often describing social situations. I mean, I’m looking at this piece here, and this was sort of the opposite of the previous piece, isn’t it, in the sense that the image existed and the spots highlight.
JB: Yeah, well, here the height-width relationship is the, I think it was an 8×10 glossy print and it was either a fake or a real accident scene. So there was a prone body, and you see the upturned shoes here kind of going across this way, and then some spectators around, looking. And so I thought okay, what I’m going to do is show you the least interesting thing of the photograph, which are the shoes (45:00). So the shoes are in the position they were in in the photograph, and I’ve eliminated everything else.
AW: So that’s an inversion in a way of what you were doing in the other one. You know, one of the things I think you’ve said about working in California is that you know, you sort of had a tabula rasa there, being there in the seventies and eighties because you had the ability in a way to experiment outside of what was seen as the center of the art world in New York, and I’m just wondering whether that’s something that really had a critical influence on your work over the decades.
JB: Well first of all, I have to work in a city or in a situation where it’s kind of ugly, and nothing beats L.A. for ugliness. Because I always have to be slightly angry. I couldn’t work in New York because I like New York too much, so that’s one issue. And, but then, L.A. is a young city compared to New York, it has very little history.
AW: And yet, when you were teaching you were bringing New York artists to California. That was your primary.
JB: Well yeah, I wanted to break the aesthetic that obtained there at the time, so yeah, from Europe and from New York, and, but also, what I like about L.A., not just for art, but just for anything, there’s this kind of “why not?” attitude. Why not do that? Why not try it out? And I realized that one time in a conversation with a lot of New York artists at some bar talking, and you know, I just spontaneously came up with this really stupid idea for doing some art, and all of a sudden you could hear a pin drop. Oh jeez, what did I say? And then one of the artists said, “Well, one couldn’t really do that, could you?” And I’m thinking why in the hell, why not? And but then, well I asked why not, and he said, “How would that fit into Art History?” And that question would never be asked in L.A. because we don’t know anything about Art History.
AW: The question is: Did they ask it today?
JB: I don’t know. But there’s a great deal of professionalism in New York, but a lot of it, today, of course in L.A. too. You can’t tell the difference.
AW: Well, was it harder to do; would it be harder to do stupid art in New York in the sense that, well, I mean “dumb” in quotes. I’m looking at this one for example, this piece here, the old pencil and the dashboard, you know, were you in a situation in Los Angeles where things were much more wide open, given the lack of the Academy, so to speak, and just the openness of the attitude.
JB: Well where it was really open for me was in Europe. I think in one year in the 1970s I had, somebody said I had seven one-person shows. So, a lot more acceptance there than in the U.S. Not that I didn’t have some, you know, a few early shows, which I did, but in Europe they just sort of got it.
AW: And did they not get it in Los Angeles?
JB: No, not really.
AW: They didn’t.
JB: No, I guess I remember showing my work around and people just shaking their heads. I went to New York and people around were shaking their heads too. You know, I would just go around the galleries and I think I hit three galleries a day. And the last day I went into Richard Feigen Gallery, and Michael Finley was working for him then, and he actually liked my work, and so eventually I started doing shows with them. They had, I think, the second gallery in SoHo after Paula . . .
AW: I mean, one of the things I’ve always been impressed with is that your work is incredibly accessible and you once said: “I’m going to give people what they want, and they probably don’t want this either,” and I like the idea that it is what it is, and you’re just kind of laying bare certain kinds of facts.
JB: I’ve always had this sort of mantra that art is what you can get away with, and you know, how much can you push the envelope until it’s utter boredom and nobody’s interested (50:00). But you know, how do you get someone interested in something that probably there’s no reason for them to be interested in?
AW: Did you ever get to the point that you felt there was something you couldn’t get away with though?
JB: Hmm, well that’s a good question. Yeah, but then I would keep on thinking about how I could get away with it.
AW: You know, we were saying one of the things that matters to you is to still put paint down and you actually enjoy the process, and I find it intriguing because in some ways you’re so removing yourself from the work, and you’re just letting it be the idea or a concept or what you can get away with, but then, on the other hand, you say, “I like the feeling of the material,” and when I hear you talk about it, you’re talking about the depth of particular things, the choice of the materials, the scale of materials, you know, in many ways you’re really a formalist.
JB: I am. Once in an essay they said, “Well, you’re a formalist.” And I said yeah, but I’m a closet formalist.
AW: See, looking at something like this I don’t see you as a closet formalist. I think you’re out of the closet, John.
JB: I think so.
AW: Now I just wonder, because so much of your work has had to do with different kinds of edges and arrangements of works, you talk also about the difference of composing things from within as opposed, I think, to composing things from without, and composition really seems to be key because on one hand I might get the impression especially from the questions about making stupid art and showing boring things that, you know, you don’t care about facture and making things that are actually pleasing and beautiful, which so many of them are.
JB: I’ve got some point here. I don’t know if it’s the appropriate moment, but you know I learned a lot from Sol Lewitt. I’ve always admired him, and I thought about him when I looked at this one, and then I remember having this found photograph that had just a lot of blemishes on it, but I really wanted to use it, and you know, of course, laborious air brushing, this was before Photoshop, and I said, “Okay, here’s a good case, let me see if I can get away with this.” So I just, with red paint, I painted out all the blemishes, so the paint is where the blemish is, and it looked pretty good. You know, I just made lemonade out of a lemon I suppose.
AW: And in a piece like this, it’s what? A tracery series or something?
AW: Can you talk a little bit about this series? To me I think this is a really good example of work that is very formal in quality, and very, you know, almost . . .
JB: I think this was the moment in San Francisco and I was bored because things were getting more and more simple, so I said I was going to do something that was very clotted and busy and a vacuum of a work, and I had these three images that seemed to be similar in structure, and I just decided to use that linear quality, and emphasize some of the linearity of it with paint.
AW: And did it matter to you what the images themselves were? I mean, here they seem to be much more sublimated to the color and the formal qualities. I mean . . .
JB: Probably not.
AW: Yeah because I can, I can see the little bodies sticking out of the bottom one, the hand there, and all that but, and do you think of yourself when you’re making the images as kind of constructing them in almost an architectural fashion because in some cases you actually have different shapes and forms which . . .
JB: Well, here again, it happened not in a way I planned, but, um, I was a purist with my first show, and certainly after Feigen, for many years after that with Ileana Sonnabend. When I was a purist I would not put my photos in a frame, but just wanted them on the wall so I would just use double stick tape, or Velcro, or something, but then there got to be a lot of damage doing that, and Ileana said “You know, we’ve got to put these things in frames,” and I said “Oh no, frames? Mom, do I have to?” And so I thought, well okay, if I have to do that, then I’m going to use the frame as a material, so then I began using multiple frames, and building, almost like building blocks, and that’s how I got into that.
AW: So many of these pieces have a really performative quality, and this is probably a good image to end on, maybe, with the guy kind of hanging from the flagpole. (55:00) I mean, do you see your work as, you’ve done videos, you’ve done films, and do you see it as performances too?
JB: Well, I actually thought about this the other day because I read some catalogue essay where the person began saying that, you know, I’d done everything, and I thought well, I haven’t done performance, and then I thought in some of those videos I am really. I didn’t want an audience but I am performing, so I guess maybe that could be performative. I mean, I get a lot of imagery of just shooting randomly off of TV or movies, this is from [inaudible]. I’ve always liked that bit where [inaudible] the flagpole. But I didn’t choose it for that, I was trying, I wanted to get a shape that was vaguely figurative, but if you just get your normal poses they’re really clearly figurative but if you get something that’s kind of absolute in a way, and you paint it out, it might be a figure, it could be something else, so I said, you know, of course the time comes where you have to use your body. And especially this one, working with really contorted body positions, so I use them because I wanted to get that shape that was a figure but maybe not, the sort of thing this one . . .
AW: I’m struck by, you know, so many of these works having to do with absence in a way, and it’s interesting because I find also there’s sort of that sense of the loss of the aura of the work, the kind of preciousness of the work, and then you start looking. Your work, I always tend to look at as sort of an object that’s not necessarily a precious object, you sort of drain some of that preciousness out. And, I don’t know, it’s sort of the flat colors, it’s the denying of faces, whatever.
JB: Well yeah, I think so, the next move, the patient, what we did, so how do you keep it alive?
AW: One last question for you, and maybe we have time for a couple from the audience. We started with some of your earliest work, this piece is a little bit later. I’m just curious how you think of “late style” in an artist’s work? You know, when you showed us that first group, you had sort of come full circle in some respects. I mean, do you think of there being a “late style?” Or do you think of it as being an extension of everything else you do?
JB: No, I think there is a late style, at least, I think when you’re starting out, I’m going to switch to a musical metaphor now, that you’re on a piano doing scales, and then eventually you’re playing some pieces, and then if you went on with it, let’s say you would learn other instruments, and then we might think of it, you’re going to be a composer. So you may be doing a duet, and then a trio, and then an octet, and then a full orchestra, right? And so all of those things that you’ve been learning, you’re finding that its additive and it’s growing and growing, and you’re getting more expert at what you’re doing, and so I think I’m at the phase in my life when I’m working with a full orchestra.
AW: And I think you said something to the effect that you now feel you have the permission to do whatever you want to do, and it reminds me, actually, of one of the last times I saw Sol Lewitt, and I went to his studio and saw him painting, just painting away. So I said, “Sol, what’s the system for this?” “No system, just painting.” And that just reminded me of what you had said, having the permission to do whatever you damn please.
JB: Did you tell him he couldn’t do that?
AW: No, I did scratch my head. I thought maybe there was a system in that.
JB: Well, knowing Sol there was.
AW: Anyway, thank you for this. Much appreciated.
JB: Well thank you for having me.
In honor of the late Walter H. Annenberg, philanthropist, patron of the arts, and former ambassador, the Whitney Museum of American Art established the Walter Annenberg Annual Lecture to advance this country’s understanding of its art and culture. In this fourth Annenberg Lecture, John Baldessari speaks about his work in conversation with Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney’s Alice Pratt Brown Director. For more than fifty years, Baldessari has masterfully juxtaposed painting, photography, sculpture, and other media to probe how meaning is created through images, objects, and text.