'Pure Beauty' - An Interview with John Baldessari
This interview was originally published in Hotshoe International, Issue #162, Oct./Nov. 2009.
JOHN BALDESSARI was born in National City, California in 1931. He attended San Diego State University and did post-graduate work at Otis Art Institute, Chouinard Art Institute and the University of California at Berkeley. He taught at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, CA from 1970 - 1988 and the University of California at Los Angeles from 1996 - 2007. His artwork has been featured in more than 200 solo exhibitions and in over 900 group exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe. His awards and honors include memberships in the American Academy of Arts and Letters and in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Americans for the Arts Lifetime Achievement Award, the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, the Oscar Kokoschka Prize, the “Spectrum” Internationaler Preis für Fotografie, and the BACA International 2008. He has also received numerous honorary degrees. Upcoming exhibitions include a traveling retrospective that will begin at the Tate Modern in London in 2009 and travel to the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, the Los Angles County Museum of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from 2010-2011.
AS – Aaron Schuman
AS: When did photography first become an important part of your work, and why?
JB: I took photographs as a kid, but I wasn’t interested in photography any more than anybody else. Then in high school I had a chemistry class, and I found a book about mixing your own developers - for some reason that intrigued me. So I went out and got a camera, because I realized that I had to take some photographs in order to have something to develop. Also, I started going to the library to look at camera journals and photography books, and I began to notice that what I was reading about photography was very different from what I was reading about art; there seemed to be two separate histories, and the two were not commingled. I found that puzzling, but that’s about as far as I went with it at that point. Then when I began to study art, I started to have problems with the way that art was being taught to me. I was mainly taught traditional painting and sculpture, and I thought that art could be much more than that, so I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to go beyond just painting, and one of the results was that I picked my camera up again. But I primarily used it to take notes for my paintings. I would go out and look for things that sort of looked like my paintings, photograph them, make prints, put them up on my wall, and then feed the images back into my paintings. Then I‘d go out with my camera again and look for stuff that looked like the new paintings, which might have new information that I could channel back into my work, and so on. So it was a kind of looping process. Finally, I was looking at the photographs that kept looping back into my paintings up on the wall, and it hit me: ‘Why do I have to translate this stuff into painting? Why can’t these photographs just exist as art?’ So that’s when I made the break. Also, when I started teaching art myself, one of the projects that I gave my students came out of that. I figured that all of the students had cameras, so I said, ‘Find the most puzzling kind of art you can think of, and then go out and try to approximate it with your camera. Take a photograph that corresponds to it.’
AS: In your early photo-based work, you took your own photographs and applied them to a canvas. Then you had someone else take pictures of you; then you asked others to take photographs for you; and finally you started to use found imagery, such as film-stills, photos from newspapers, and so on. Why did you gradually take yourself out of the pictures, so to speak?
JB: It was mainly about trying to escape my own good taste, or good taste in general. I think that each time you do some art you get better at it, so I was trying to figure out a way to work against that. Anytime that I could not take a photograph – where I could just give instructions to somebody else to take a photograph – I would do it; if I needed a photograph of a house, I would just tell one of my assistants, ‘Go out and photograph a house.’ Then I would be honor-bound to accept it, because that’s all that I’d asked for. I didn’t say to them what kind of house, or what kind of architecture I wanted – it was just a picture of whatever they thought a house was. I had other ploys too. I’d sit a camera in front of a TV on a tripod, and put an intervalometer on it so that every five minutes it would take a picture, and I would use those photographs. Another thing that I’d do was compose a photograph perfectly using a tripod, and then pick the tripod up, move it a foot, and take the picture. It was all about getting away from good taste.
AS: Why were you intent on avoiding good taste?
AS: Were you trying to get away from the craftsmanship aspect of it all as well?
JB: The craft part of it didn’t interest me at all. Getting the perfect gradation of tone, or making a beautiful print, wasn’t an issue. Of course, I had gone through all of that in my own darkroom, so I knew what it was to make a fine print, but it didn’t interest me; I was just interested in the imagery – in the ideas that the photographs represented.
AS: It seems like many artists of your generation incorporated photography into their work in order to rebel against traditional notions of art – in a sense, the medium itself represented the antithesis of ‘high art’ or ‘fine art’, at least in the conventional sense. Today, photography plays a much more central role within fine art practice – do you feel that using photographs, and what that represents, has changed since you began to do it yourself?
JB: Now all of those battles have been won, so it’s no longer an issue. Within art connoisseurship and curatorial practice, photography used to be ghettoized; paintings were at the front, photographs were at the back – they would be always be separated. And as I said earlier, back then there was a huge gap between the history of photography and the history of painting. And even at MoMA today, you still have a Photography Department and a Painting and Sculpture Department. What I love about MoMA is that, according to the Photography Department what I do is not photography, and according to the Painting Department what I do is not painting. So that just points out the ridiculousness of the situation. When I was teaching in the late 1960s and 70s, I would say to the students, ‘Just use a camera, because I can teach you everything with a camera that I could teach you with paint.’ And actually, one of my first students at the University of California, San Diego was Allen Sekula – he was always taking photographs in class, and it seemed like he could do everything he needed to do with a camera.
AS: Do you think that it’s important for artist to have battles to fight?
JB: The way that I’ve always put it is, ‘If I saw the art around me that I liked I wouldn’t do art.’ So really it’s about trying to satisfy yourself - you think of something that you’d like to happen, and of course you never get there, but you can work at it.
AS: Your upcoming exhibition at Tate Modern is entitled, ‘Pure Beauty’. Is beauty something that is important to your work, and is your work beautiful?
JB: I’ll leave that to others. The title is taken from a 1967 work of mine, where I just painted the words, ‘PURE BEAUTY’ on a canvas. At the time I was making a point: ‘Why make a painting? Why not just say it’s beautiful and if people believe it, fine. If they don’t, then they don’t have to.’
AS: You have been quoted as saying, ‘I tend to think of words as substitutes for images. I can never seem to figure out what one does that the other doesn’t do.’ Could you elaborate on this a bit more, and how it relates to your own work?
JB: I’m very interested in both language and imagery; I don’t really know why, but I find word and image equally important. So if I go back to my example of taking a photograph of a house: I can use the word ‘house’ and an image of a house interchangeably. A lot of my early work was simply that. With the images that I was getting off of the TV, I would have an assistant write on the back of the photograph a surrogate for the image. So if it were an image of a house, she might write ‘house’ on the back of it, and I’d work out different strategies and games where sometimes I’d use the word and sometimes I’d use the image. I tend to use imagery kind of like a writer. Of course, even though English is now fairly universal, in a lot of countries somebody might still see the word ‘house’ and not know what it means, because it wouldn’t be their word for a house. But if they saw an image of a house, they would say, ‘Yeah, that’s some kind of shelter’. They would get it. So it really depends on how you apply it – language is pretty arbitrary, whereas imagery is not arbitrary.
AS: So what makes you choose to use an arbitrary medium rather than an unarbitrary one, or vice versa – why use a photograph of a house in one instance, and the word in another?
JB: Really, I’m just interested in fucking people up when they’re looking at my work. I think the artist should make things difficult for the viewer.
AS: Your work is often categorized within ‘Conceptual Art’ – is that a title that you accept?
JB: That’s somebody else’s title. When I emerged, there was a group of artists who were all thinking in a similar way – all trying to get away from painting – and somebody decided to call it ‘Conceptual Art’. But categories are really just useful for writers; if you asked any of those artists today if they were conceptual artists, they would deny it - except maybe Joseph Kosuth.
AS: But is the ‘concept’ of a work, or the ideas that lie behind your work, something that you consider to be of central importance to your art?
JB: I guess so, in the sense that it would be very easy for me to just come up with ideas and never do anything physical – really, anybody could make the work itself. But I think that’s true with any art; an artist always has some kind of idea as their starting point, so all art is conceptual.
AS: You’ve mentioned teaching several times – is teaching something that’s been particularly important to your practice?
JB: I think that everything is important. I never chose teaching as a vocation – art is my vocation, and I taught just to be able to make a living. But I did learn a lot about communication through teaching. As a teacher, you’re always looking for a light to turn on in students’ eyes, so that you know that they understand – you keep trying until, finally, you communicate successfully and see them light up, and I think that art has to do the same thing. You can’t just say, ‘Fuck the bourgeoisie’, or whatever. There are people out there who you somehow have to communicate with, so you try to find the best way to do that.
AS: You’ve often talked about how people such as Marcel Duchamp were deeply influential to you as a young artist, and now you yourself have become an incredibly influential figure in your own right. What’s it like to play such an important role in the lives of other artists?
JB: I think that it’s incredibly flattering to have an effect on other artists. I’ve always seen art as a conversation between artists – I do something that is trying to speak to other artists, and if they’re listening, they do something that tries to speak back to me. It’s kind of like a cocktail party full of artists, but their not talking; they’re making art. I don’t work at trying to influence other artists, but I’m happy that I do, because it means that I’m doing something that’s worthwhile.