KünstlerInnenporträts 64

Conversation with Donald Baechler

Donald Baechler: About fifteen or twenty years ago I was very unhappy with the way I was drawing, and I decided, as a kind of project, to relearn how to draw from the beginning, from the very simplest gestures, to reinvent a vocabulary of lines and shapes. And I started looking at children's art and art of the insane and this whole Dubuffet thing. So when I started doing sculptures, about ten years ago, I was looking again for a way to make forms as if I'd never made sculpture before. So I wanted to forget about armatures and about the proper way of using clay and the proper way of doing anything, and started just squeezing things with my hands, making shapes. And the shapes turned into these things that you saw, which were then made bigger – I think you saw the bigger ones.

Martin Prinzhorn: Yes, I saw these figures piled up on each other.

DB: So there really is no narrative intention; it's just a response to materials. And they happen to look the way they do, because that's the way they look. I think there's even less content in the sculpture than in the paintings. Less narrative. I think they're kind of mute.

MP: That was not my impression. I thought there was a lot of action going on. Maybe that's better than talking about narrative and not narrative. I thought there was quite some tension between those figures.

DB: They're all just kind of standing there. They're not really doing anything. What you saw is going to become a fountain, so then they'll be pissing. But for me they're discreet, they're kind of mute, as I said. The sculpture that interests me the most is really like Carl Andre. The sculpture you saw – where they're standing on top of each other – is named after a Carl André sculpture called "Stack", which was a pile of bricks stacked on top of each other. It's called "Stack", and I'm interested in – maybe it's not very obvious – but I'm interested in surreality. I'm interested in discreet and very mute objects, and I've never really been interested in narrative or psychology or these things which many people read into my paintings and probably into the sculptures.

MP: One thing which strikes me as interesting is that, as you said, you started out with drawings, with those very clear forms, and you still do this. You're still working on this, but there is a lot of interesting progress in the paintings, which doesn't concern the figures,but the whole surface of the painting. This is interesting, because it's a kind of good contradiction between the simple drawing forms and some surface of the painting that gives a completely different tint. .

DB: There are two reasons that the surface is the way it is. It began as a part of an editing process while I was painting – my painting is a series of erasures. A line goes down, usually it's not good, so I paint it over and over again until I get it right. Or an image is wrong, so it gets erased. And there started being this build-up of paint that I didn't like, so I thought an interesting way to erase a line, rather than painting over it, would be to glue something on top of it. And so it was an editing process. I wanted this kind of fresh surface every time I painted. And gradually it would become this kind of fractured surface. Then I started liking what that fracture did to the line, the quality of the line. It's much more interesting to paint over bumps than it is to paint over a smooth canvas. So it's these two things now. There's this kind of history of the process of the painting that you see because of the editing process, and then also, even when I don't need to change something, I want that surface, that interrupted surface. 

MP: How do you see a painter nowadays, with respect to the methods and, let's call it tricks, he or she uses?

DB: Well, unfortunately the word trick is a funny word, because somehow it has a pejorative connotation. There's something wrong with a trick. "My bag of tricks." But I think the surface that I use is certainly a trick to some extent, and I have a way of blotting the paintings that's a trick. I mean, it's not a trick, it's a device that I use over and over again. One would like to reinvent painting every time one approaches the canvas, but that's not really practical or possible. We see artists who seem to be doing this for long periods of time and then suddenly stop, and they kind of lose that capacity for reinvention. Well, a good artist has that impulse, I think. There are the other millions of artists who just are producing something they know about. They are manufacturing objects.

MP: I want to know in which sense you mean "to reinvent" painting, because there is one interpretation which to me has a negative side – namely that a problem of painters is sometimes is that they think that the medium of painting just is enough, and you just have to work within this, and you don't even have to look at the history of what happened until now in painting, or what happened up to now outside painting. And I guess that's not what you mean by this phrase "to reinvent" painting. So, I wonder what you mean exactly by reinventing painting. Do you want to cross some borders nobody has ever crossed before?

DB: No, no, no. It's an individual thing. And I don't limit it just to painting, I think that's too narrow. I think a good artist, in general, is someone who doubts what he's doing and looks for ways of doing it better and looks for ways of making it more interesting. For me, if I know what the painting's going to look like, there's not really any reason to paint it. If I'm not learning something, there's no reason to do it. Or discovering something. And, looking back, often paintings that seem to me radically different start looking very similar. But what was the question again?

MP: The question was what this "reinvention" thing exactly means, because, again, it could mean something quite naive, in a sense. I always have the image that many people just seem so happy that they are painters and so fixed on the medium that they don't care much. And then it becomes really stupid. And I guess that's not what you mean by "reinventing."

DB: No, you know, I really sometimes wonder what keeps someone like Ellsworth Kelly interested in painting these same damn paintings for thirty years. And then I look at an artist like Brice Marden, who radically reinvented his pictures about ten years ago, or an artist like Francesco Clemente, who moves around the world, doing different bodies of work in different places, influenced by the cultures he's in. For me, these people are the models of what I'm talking about. There's a kind of complacency that creeps into artists of a certain level of success and a certain age that I think is deadly. It's a particularly American problem, I think. And it's an old problem. Something works, so you keep doing it. But the problem is remaining interested and remaining fresh, whatever area you're operating in.

MP: I want to follow the thing you told me last time – the importance of children's drawings as a kind of starting point in your work. And what comes to my mind there is a story – you know, my great-uncle collected art by the insane which he would always refuse to call art. And at the same time, he had friends like Nolde and Klee, and he would show them those things, and they would really use it for their paintings, and that would be art for him. So I wonder what the relation of children's drawings is to your work – how do you see that?

DB: Well, that's an interesting question. And an interesting subject. I think at a certain point I know what Dr. Prinzhorn was thinking when he thought these drawings are not art. Up to the point when there's no identity attached to them. They're some anonymous sort of thing that exists in the world – a visual information that exists in the world. But at a point where there is an identity – the artists produce one drawing, and then they produce a hundred drawings, and then it's an artist with a body of work – then I think you can no longer ignore that that's art by an artist, whether he's insane or whether it's a child producing a body of work. I tend to be interested, for my own purposes, in things I find on the street or things drawn on toilet walls or things drawn by someone I meet in a bar, who maybe has never made a drawing since he was five years old, and which somehow don't exist as part of someone's identity as an artist or as a human being, who makes drawings, whether he's an artist or a hospital patient or a child. I'm not really interested in a dialogue or a collaboration with someone else who has a clear visual identity. And I'm always looking for clues to my own way of making drawings in these things that I find and then sometimes use or which become the basis for my own graphic explorations. Does that answer your question at all?

MP: In a way. It's not only that you take children's drawings as a kind of important starting point, but in the recent paintings, what you do is you really seem to collect art or pieces from all over the place and also incorporate it into this final artwork. So, one could describe your strategy as really assembling lots of things which, for you, cannot be art, or are they?

DB: Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't. There's a lot of collecting going on before I even can start working. There's a lot of collecting drawings – my own drawings, other people's drawings, found drawings, drawings in books from art history. And there's collecting stuff that gets kind of glued on to the canvas or the paper and becomes part of the information in the background that I'm painting on top of. It's not even collecting –it's kind of a process of accumulation, and then of filtering it some way and getting it out of my house by gluing it down somewhere or copying it into a painting. I find, as I move through the world, that things kind of stick to me.

MP: Is this a conscious decision – are you interested in some kind of art historical, definable things you want to incorporate in your painting? For example, if you use things from books, what would those books typically be?

DB: Recently I've been copying some Picasso paintings which were copied by Picasso from Oceanic masks in 1908. So for me this is interesting – this sort of sifting of things through one intelligence from another culture and then into my paintings – it's something I'm starting to do more. In fact this is another subject, I think, but a lot of the collecting you were talking about earlier is in fact a sort of vague method of autobiography. As I'm travelling, my suitcase fills up with stuff. And when I'm back in my studio, I try to find a way to use it. It may be drawings I've done on the beach, or they may be signs I've stolen from hotel toilets or something like this. And that all finds its way into this kind of soup that becomes the painting or the collage.

MP: Painting, I think, in the western context, very often functions as a kind of identity mechanism. You could identify certain paintings with a certain culture, a certain nation, and so on. And this is still going on in many contemporary paintings, so it's not only that you can talk about Flemish or Italian, but today people also like to talk a lot about typical German painting, typical Italian painting, typical American painting. And your work, in a way, is really trying to avoid such labelling.

DB: I don't think that's true, necessarily.

MP: Why not?

DB: I mean, the worst thing you can say is there may be a bit of cultural imperialism going on. I'm certainly drawing things in from all sorts of places, but in fact, in some way I'm looking for the same thing everywhere in every culture, rather than trying to bring in something. I'm looking for a way to make everything the same, rather than trying to make my work necessarily different from all these influences. You know what I mean?

MP: But maybe you misunderstood me. I was not accusing you of any cultural imperialism. I thought it's a very interesting strategy, for example, if you now decide to incorporate Picasso drawings from 1908 in the production you're doing in '96 in New York. It makes the references so direct that they somehow open up any imperialist or nationalist context. That was what I meant. But you're not satisfied with that.

DB: No, the question you seemed to be addressing was an issue of style, and somehow I was presenting an international viewpoint, which didn't have a location in America in 1996 or the last fifteen years, whereas I think my paintings are somehow extremely American. I don't think I've managed to obliterate the sort of cultural location in the paintings.

MP: Yes, but you still find all those traces of different points of reference.

DB: To me they nearly become completely meaningless after they kind of end up. I feel like I've taken such possession of them that sometimes I don't remember where they even came from, in fact. And you'll find that – in one of my big projects in the 1980's, a way to meet people in different situations and different cultures was to engage them – I'd meet a stranger on a beach or in a bar and have them do drawings for me. And I found that very often, all over the world, graffiti looks the same, pornographic graffiti in toilets looks the same. Drawings made by non-artists end up looking the same. They're similar. People have the same approach to putting lines together when they're unfamiliar with holding a pencil, all over the world. And this is something I'm looking for. How things are the same, rather than how they're different.

MP: So, when you work with assistants, you also have them producing?

DB: Well, the whole subject of assistants isn't really interesting to me. There was a point at which I'd been collecting things to use in collages, and I kind of ran out of things that I wanted to use. I'd been to Egypt and had collected lots of temple receipts and hand-written restaurant receipts and things like this. And I was working on an extended series of collages that related to my trip to Egypt, and I just ran out of stuff. Coincidentally I met an Egyptian boy and hired him as an assistant. And he was rapidly filling out, making pornographic translations into Egyptian from French pornography and funny things like this, which I then used in the collages. And this went on and on. And I realized I could just stay at home and have things made for me. So I hired, I started corresponding with prisoners and having them do drawings for me, and I hired a guy with a drug problem and payed him a dollar for each drawing he made for me. I found if I paid him by the hour, he would just sit there doing nothing, but if I gave him a dollar for every drawing, he could do a hundred drawings in an hour. And then these became part of the background, as I said before, this sort of soup in the background that I'm painting on top of. And sometimes they find their way into the actual sort of vocabulary of images that become the foreground of figures and the sorts of things which are nominally the subjects of the paintings. I'm always very interested in the foreground-background thing. For me they're two totally different occupations. The world of the background rarely blends into the world of the foreground.

MP: I didn't understand that.

DB: A characteristic painting of mine will have a kind of elaborate background of collaged things and then something painted on top. And there's a whole kind of language going on, vocabulary in the background that is usually totally separate.

MP: But what would the foreground then do to the background?

DB: It just sort of sits on top of it. A classic figure-ground relationship.

MP: Does it have an effect, because I think that sometimes if I look at your paintings and walk up close, then I see this enormous amount of information and richness, and then you have a foreground which somehow controls this.

DB: In fact it's a kind of random juxtaposition of something on top of something else.

MP: Who do you like in painting and where do you feel connections, and are there other artists who you feel have a similar approach and try to do, not necessarily the same, but work in a similar direction, or a direction which is relevant for you?

DB: Well, in a funny way I think we touched on this before. Philip Taaffe and I, I think, while ending up in totally different places, somehow our working methods are similar in an odd way. We both collect information and then somehow reorganize it in a kind of deliberate, in his case very scholarly, sort of way. In my case it's more kind of impulsive and idiotic. And other artists who I feel strongly about? Well, Julian Schnabel was one of my heroes – you mean contemporary artists, my contemporaries? Painters or artists in general?

MP: Artists in general.

DB: Well I've always said, for many, many years I've always said that Joseph Kosuth is one of my big heroes. Partly because his early work was so important to me with the clarity of thought that it seemed to present. But also because he always was, I think still is, one of the very few artists of an older generation who remains really engaged with what younger artists are doing. And I think there's a kind of tendency among American artists and maybe artists in general to become very complacent at a certain point, after a certain success, and just withdraw and stay home and get the check in the mail. I was very surprised, I was with Julian Schnabel in Salzburg this summer, and we were talking about younger artists, and he'd never heard of some people like Fabian Marcaccio, who I think is one of – I know from talking to students – he's one of the most widely looked at younger artists. So it amazed me that somehow that information hadn't reached someone like Julian, who's pretty aware of what's going on in general. I make it a point to visit schools a lot, to find out what's happening, because I'm very interested in what's going on in general.

MP: I always have the feeling that, especially in painting, there is a big gap between Europe and America. There are lots of misunderstandings going on. Since you were describing yourself before as a very American painter, how would you, mainly with respect to your work, describe what American painting, as opposed to European painting, is?

DB: That's a good. I don't know. You know, there used to be this very clear difference that Americans seemed to have more money to spend on things like paint and good quality canvas. And in the early days – not the early days, the early eighties – for instance, we would see a show of paintings by someone like Penck, which were selling for tons and tons of money, painted on the shittiest muslin with the shittiest paint and these warped stretchers twisting all over the place – and I remember some of my European friends used to laugh about the American obsession with art, the artwork as a piece of furniture – the stretcher had to be a certain quality, everything had to be a certain quality. But, for instance, there's a Richter show in New York now, and those look very well made.

MP: Yeah, Richter's very famous for his canvases – they're thousands of dollars each.

DB: The world is so international now, I don't know. That's something that's been going on for quite a while.

MP: So what would be European painting or European art that you find interesting?

DB: These days?

MP: These days.

DB: What is interesting? In a way I'm trapped in a dialogue with my own generation. I think Albert Oehlen remains one of the most interesting painters. And also, as I was saying about Fabian Marcaccio, talking to students, Albert is one of the artists students are most curious about in general. This kind of younger generation of painters who want to paint, but want to be critical about it and make painting a process of thought as well as action, physical action, I guess Albert engages them somehow. 
You know, Joseph Kosuth used to always say, speaking of absinthe, that Picasso was the enemy. He still says it, probably, I haven't seen him recently. But for me, and Picasso is sometimes just an atrocious painter, an atrocious artist, but he also had this endless capacity for self-reinvention, which I think is extraordinary, and very inspirational.

MP: Well, of course, that's another problem – if you base your artwork on the idea that only these specific media are allowed and the rest is disallowed, then it's very hard to change and reinvent this.

DB: On the other hand, I think it's very peculiar Joseph has made such a point that painting is excluded. He is actually a great hero of mine, because he's one of the very few artists of his generation who is still engaged with younger artists and with what's going on.

MP: Yeah, I admire him too, and I've also had this painting discussion with him lots of times; but I just think it was very important at that particular point in the sixties to have this attitude against painting. It was really liberating.

DB: Yeah, but is it important now?

MP: But it is changing a little bit, don't you think?

DB: He seems unwilling to change his mind about it. Or admit that the world is changing.

MP: I once heard a very funny – this discussion again, Joseph with Albert, and I was always convinced that maybe Albert hates painting more than Joseph, although he defended painting. Not painting per se, but painters, other people.

DB: It can be a pretty depressing arena.

MP: Right.

DB: You know, I don't actually like making paintings. There's a certain kind of pleasure in throwing paint around, but it's really a job. It's not like a great wonderful visceral pleasure; it's something that demands a lot of concentration, and it can be boring. I love having made paintings. There's an incredible satisfaction of having this thing at the end of the labour. But the labour itself is no great joy. 

MP: So what would be a medium for you? Which other one ?

DB: I don't know. I don't think it should necessarily be great pleasure. But I think someone like Julian (Schnabel) really gets .

MP: Excited?

DB: .gets excited slinging those mops around.

MP: Did you ever think of doing something completely different than painting or sculpture?

DB: Like what? Directing a movie?

MP: Well that's fashionable now, for example. Yeah, directing a movie or doing videos, or are you not interested in these things at all?

DB: Nobody's asked. Well, I'm going to do a rock video. But nobody's asked me to do a movie yet. I can't imagine directing all those people. For me, the creative process is really solitary, and I can't even have my assistant around when I'm painting. So I can't imagine organizing all those people on a movie set. I think it would be a nightmare.

MP: But you would like to do a stage set, you told me.

DB: I've done a lot of stage sets. It's interesting, but it's not art. It's something else, it's like designing furniture. There's an objectivity, you're not making an object for history. You're creating illusions, and by nature it's a collaborative process. But what fascinates me about stage sets is the process of fabrication and enlargement of scale. Because I'll do something on a quite small scale, hand the drawing to someone, and a couple of weeks later it's 30 x 50 feet. And I think that's remarkable. I have great respect for the skills of these people, and I'm always trying to think of some way to use them in my painting and sculpture process, but I have this neurosis about my own hand being involved in things too much. I agreed to do ballet sets when I was first asked by Bill T. Jones, because I hate – I did then and still do actually really dislike modern dance. I thought I must be wrong – and a way to learn about it would be to do sets and collaborate with choreographers. So I've done six productions so far.

MP: All ballet, or theatre too?

DB: Modern dance, you would call it. With the Lyon Opera Ballet and the Florence Opera Ballet and Bill T. Jones and some other choreographers. And I basically still think modern dance is pretty silly. It's somehow, I don't know – there is of course a wonderful tradition of artists collaborating with choreographers, so I was interested in working in this tradition. I'm just missing something about dance, I don't know what it is. But anyway, I also know very little about opera. I've been to the opera, but it's not something that get's me viscerally. somehow. So now I'm hoping to get a commission to do an opera. You know, for me the creative process is all about learning things, and I always want to know things that I don't know. And I want to learn about opera now. So I'm hoping to somehow engage myself with that, but we'll see. Have you had absinthe?

MP: I had it once in Madrid, yeah.

DB: And what did it taste like? Pernod?

MP: A little bit like Pernod, yeah.

DB: Did you add water to it?

MP: Not into it. It was on the side.

DB: My understanding was that you were supposed to add water to it, and it became milky, like Pernod. And that Pernod was invented as a substitute for absinthe when they outlawed absinthe. So I added water to this stuff, and it didn't turn white. I think it's just some kind of bogus Czech absinthe. Too bad.

(Vienna, August and November 1996)