Portraits of Artists 50

Conversation with John Baldessari

Stella Rollig: Your whole body of work today is considered one of the most important, one of the central contributions to conceptual art. It has been shown widely, right now for instance in "Reconsidering the Object of Art, 1965–1975", the big concept art survey in Los Angeles (1). I was wondering how the reactions back then in the sixties were to your work compared to the reactions now?

John Baldessari: Back in the sixties I don't remember much reaction at all. These early works were dealing with textual information and photographic information – I actually put them on canvas, so there would be a signal that they were meant to be shown in an art context. But amazing as it might sound to you, back then it was very hard to get photos into an art gallery. (.)

SR: I'm even more surprised when you say that there was so little reaction. Because when I think of your, let's say, photo paintings – it's always a revelation about the construction of meaning and about the construction of value in the art system. So it seems to me that it must have been kind of offensive to the art world, to people like critics – I remember a painting in which you quote Clement Greenberg – or to art dealers. So there were no problems?

JB: I think people could be offended. But one way to react if you are offended is just to ignore it, just don't pay attention. But there was a particular moment where painting in the US was beginning – in my mind – to get a little bit exhausted. And the only reaction I got was when I was visiting some painter I'd never met before, and he was hostile, he said, "Why should I talk to you? You are the enemy." There was something going on, but it wasn't quite clear what was happening.
And that was when I first heard the names of people like Kosuth, Weiner, Mel Bochner. And then I began to feel that I wasn't so crazy, and that there were people having similar ideas.

SR: Maybe you should be a little more descriptive and talk about what you actually did. You included text on canvases, text that referred either to the making of paintings or photography or to the process that's happening with a work after it's finished – like in the one painting that is the documentation of its own exhibition venues. Could you explain from which sources you draw these texts?

JB: Since I was also teaching at that time a lot of the things were coming from my reading – I'm trying to remember where that particular one came from. Anyway, the writer was talking about the difficulty of documentation existing and the work of art existing. Quite often documentation gets lost and we don't know about the history of the work. We don't even know what owners it went through and so on. And I think something clicked in my mind, I said, I make a work of art that's its own documentation. You know, they never get separated. You always know it's history. It's sort of like – I don't know – maybe people who would have tattooed on their chest all the places they always lived, or their partners or whatever. And I like the idea of it: A work also growing and being organic. Now it's been shown in La Jolla, and it already had two canvases added and another third one has just been added. So if it goes on, it will take up a whole room at some point, I suppose.

SR: At the same time it can be read as a critique of the art system, because this is exactly how value is constructed or increased in art dealing.

JB: Exactly.

SR: Dealers always try to get works in museums or in big shows to increase their market value.

JB: I've this show now of these old works down in La Jolla, California, going two years up, and a collector would say, "Well, my piece can be shown in this museum, but not in that museum." You know the idea, well, this exhibition may not be important enough. There is one piece that I wanted in the show, and the collector finally said, "Well, it doesn't have to be in the show. It's going to be in the catalogue." In the collector's mind it doesn't have to be in the museum. It just has to be in the show, and a work that was in the show has to be in the catalogue – because nobody ever checks whether it was in the show or not. So it's a commentary on museums, absolutely.

SR: It seems one of your consistent strategies to show how things work, very generally spoken. I mean, you also show the viewer his own anticipation. You sometimes write it on the picture or on the painting to maybe make him think that there could be other ways to look at it. Like for example another famous work of yours – "The Wrong Painting" – a picture of yourself standing at a corner in front of a palm tree that seems to be growing out of your head, and the word on the canvas says "wrong." So you refer to a photo manual that says, "You shouldn't take pictures like that."

JB: Well, that's true. You know, I had this parallel sort of – I don't want to call it career, but – teaching. I never did it by choice, only because I needed to make money. My teaching has affected my art and my art my teaching. I used to collect a lot of books about how to teach art. I always thought that it was amusing that there are several ways to teach art – because I don't believe that art can be taught at all. And I came to a book about composition. It always had two compositions of the same subject and one would be right and one would be wrong. I always liked the ones that were wrong, they always were more interesting to me. This whole idea that exists in the world about a certain rightness about things – where do these ideas come from?
I've been redoing some of these older works, and I've done that piece again at the same location. The only difference is the palm tree has grown taller now. It has grown out of the page. That's called "Wrong #2." A critic was just writing about it, and he said I should have titled it "Wrong Again" – which is maybe a better title.

SR: And why did you do this other work, the second one?

JB: Actually, in the last few months in terms of this exhibit in La Jolla, I've been doing new old pieces. Just redoing them to see how my thinking has changed.

SR: And it also shows that some rules don't change at all. There are rules and regulations that do change, like, you definitely see more photographs in museums now than, as you said, in the sixties. But then again – a picture with a palm tree coming out of someone's head would still be considered wrong, wouldn't it?

JB: I have no idea. Anyway, of course it's always interesting why we like something and don't like something else. And in terms of museums – on one hand, yes, they very easily show photographs now and text-based works and so on. But there still are departments of a museum, there still is a department of photography, a department of painting and sculpture. And I think that still keeps work in a ghetto in some way. You know, even now, when museums will buy my work, the department of photography will say, "It's not photography," the department of painting will say, "It's not painting." There's no real place for it. (.)

SR: I would say that after the sixties, when you worked mainly about the construction of meaning and value of works of art, in the seventies I see your interest shifting to the rules of perception. Could you talk a little bit about that, how that developed?

JB: Well, give me an idea. What works are you thinking of when you say that?

SR: When you throw objects in the air and try to construct certain formations. Or the work in which you blow smoke and try to imitate pictures of clouds. When I say, this seems to be more about perception – of course it's also about reproduction, that became more and more important later on with the use of prefabricated images. But I also see you interested in isolating certain moments of time and making the viewer aware of how these moments in photography will form his or her notion of a certain process.

JB: I think, at this period I was still formed by these notions of what might make a work of art and what might not make a work of art. And it seemed to me like it could be just the moment recorded. There are some early works that are titled "Choosing." They were just where I would pick. My finger would be documented choosing, be it three photographs or three vegetables. That moment I'm making a choice. I think what I was trying to gather was what would be essential to making art. It seemed at a very fundamental, primary level making a choice of saying, "I like this red more than this red." That could be a work of art very easily.
It still interests me today: Why do I reject certain things and what kind of biases do I have when I say, "Well, that can't be art"? Usually, I think when I reject something it is because I don't see any thinking going on. It's just that something is being repeated again. It's something I already know. So I suppose that when I'm interested in something it's because somebody is getting me to look at something in a way I haven't seen it before. And, yes, that's about reception. How do we see what makes up the world? Is it stuff out there, always there in a given state? Or is it how we approach it? I was trying myself to break these kind of habits. Instead of looking at things, you know, that chair, or that power plug, I would always try to look between them. Instead of looking at something, I would look at every place I didn't seem to look. I was doing a whole series about that, the spaces between things and how do things look at different kinds of light, and on, and on, and on.
The Renaissance viewed at eye level. Why do you set it up here or down here? We don't have a lot of works in museums that are on the ceiling. Why is that? So that's about thinking about reception. Well, I hope that's answering your question.

SR: Or what makes a picture complete for the viewer? I mean, it seems to be another strategy or way of working of yours that you deny the viewer certain parts of a picture.

JB: I'm leaving certain things out, yeah.

SR: .that usually are delivered to him.

JB: Well, I think – and it's a good thing that you said that – it was something about me I never noticed. Then one of my teaching colleagues in 1970 told me, what always interested him about my works was what I left out, not what I had put in. I thought it was an interesting way of looking at my work. I began to notice that I would purposely leave things out. I can't describe where that comes from. Well, it might be that – just because of my own size, I have a feeling very awkward – as a child, I never thought of myself as a one whole person. I always thought, you know, I was two arms and two legs and a head. I was just these parts walking around. I think that's probably gotten into a lot of my works.

SR: At this point, we should mention your works where you delete or cut parts of pictures by overprinting or overlapping them with colour circles. Mostly you have covered people's faces. Why did you choose to do that – to erase the individuality?

JB: Well, the way I could answer that, probably – I just thought right now why do you have the camera like this on my face? Because when there is a person that's the most interesting part of them. At one point of my life I was teaching life-drawing. The students normally would start drawing the face first and spend an hour on that. And then they'd maybe in 15 minutes draw the arms and legs and so on. And you are trying to get them to understand that a person is a whole, you know, not just that. At one point I remember having the model maybe drawn from the back, or put a rag on the model's head.
In my own work. where I first did that, was, I had a lot of photographs of people – people like the mayor, you know, or the fire chief, or the chief of police or a businessman. I don't know where I got these photographs. They were used, you know, left over from newspapers. And I was attracted, yet repulsed, by these photographs. I think, it was because I felt that they had power in my life in some way that I didn't understand. And one day I had these little stickers and I began putting them over the photographs. I felt much more relieved. If you have a photograph and there is a person in the photograph or two people, what happens: we look at the faces. They have a sort of hypnotic power. If you obliterate the face then you see how the person is standing or relating to another person. If you obliterate the whole person then you begin to see the environment. We have a hierarchy of looking. You know, I talked earlier about looking between things. You ask anybody to do that for an hour and they're gonna go crazy. If I'm looking at you I'm not gonna look at your feet. I'm gonna look at your head and probably gonna look at your eyes. And so, I think, anything I can do to break these habits of seeing – that's why I do these things. (.)

SR: So you are collecting a lot of pictures and use them as a source for your conceptual work. Do you see any common characteristics to these pictures? I was wondering if they are all pictures that have been constructed for reproduction – like movie settings – or also the representation of people of power.

JB: It's interesting: When I begin collecting things – at first I do them just because there's something there I think I might use, or I'm fascinated by it in some way I don't particulary know. But then after a while I begin to see certain patterns that occur. I mean, early on, let's say, when I was collecting stills from the movies, all of a sudden I noticed that I have a whole set of photographs of somebody falling off a horse – or certain images, you know, somebody with a gun, or people kissing. Or just recently I've done two works for magazines where people are toasting, you know, with the glasses in the air like this – all of a sudden I had a whole group of these. And then I did another recent work where people are playing chess. But it seems it's always some social interaction that's going on. Now, that they are playing chess is more interesting to me than how their faces look. It's how people are relating and how their bodies are. And in the context whether the people are playing chess or whether they're toasting, I find that interesting. (.)

SR: Are you aware of the fact that during the eighties your work might have become less understandable or less accessible? It seems to me that a kind of enigmatic quality has increased. It's more a kind of story-telling, more about a kind of dreamlike story-telling. It seems to me that on one hand the freedom of the viewer has increased to construct his own meaning and interpretation. But on the other hand it might have become less accessible.

JB: I agree totally with what you're saying. It's not accidental. Looking backward, I can see that my work is going from a very sort of rational approach, a very reasoned sort of approach to a very subjective sort of approach. And, yes, I'm trying to construct these sort of paths or reference of meaning: That you follow a trail and then you end up in a dead end and you follow another trail and end up in a dead end and so on. It's like a writer, let's say, who is writing a detective story. The danger, of course, is that I can lose the viewer. So it's a kind of game of seduction that's going on with the viewer, whether I can interest him enough in order to get involved in this kind of construction that I'm making. The dangers of failure are of course very great. But once you can make it work then it seems like something, you know, that's worthwhile. Now, lately, I've been thinking about doing some works that are incredibly simple. So, just because I'm getting bored. But – that's a danger, too, you know. How simple can you be and get away with it? Doing something and getting away with it.

(Vienna, March 1996)

(1) Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, October 1995 – February 1996