Interview John Baldessari und Rolf Lauter @ Sprüth Magers Berlin, 11. September 2013



Interview: John Baldessari und Rolf Lauter @ Sprüth Magers Berlin, 11.9.2013

ROLF LAUTER: When did you start to think about art? What about your first consciousness of being an artist?

JOHN BALDESSARI: I studied art in college, as an undergraduate, and then in graduate school I did art history. I supported myself by teaching art in schools, I painted on weekends and I pretty much thought that would be my life. At a certain point I had an epiphany of sorts I think. I had a strong social consciousness and I just thought, art was masturbation, it didn’t really help anybody. And, you know, I wanted to be a social worker, do some good in the world, and then I had this – I call it an epiphany – in that for a couple of months I taught young kids in Cal. Youth Authority, who were too young to go to prison but were in an honour sort of prison kind of situation. The Public school system provided education so they hired teachers that were really big size, like me, for keeping the kids in control, and I saw that these kids, who were future criminals, they cared more about art than I did! And that made me think. I said, I guess there’s a need for art in the world, it was important for these kids, who were going to be criminals as far as I could see, so then it made me think that art did have some use, I didn’t know what kind of use it had, but I could see it had some – maybe spiritual nourishment, or something like that, I have no idea. And at that point I decided I was going to be an artist.

RL: Does art mean for you creativity? Is it a creative act to start with an image, a situation a process or is it direction of a structure?

JB: I don’t have a clear answer for that. Having some sort of passion for doing what you think art might be. I don’t think I had any passion for it before I had this experience, and then once I decided that I was going to be an artist then I decided that I was going to be the best artist I knew I could possibly be. I don’t know how you go about doing that, there’s no instruction book. You just do what you think intuitively you should be doing.

RL: When I look at your works from the 60s, the first pictures with a camera, did you make it because you wanted to show where you live and exist or was it lets say some kind of ‘the other side’, a mirror of reality?

JB: I think that was multidetermined. I was living in a small little ghetto community outside of San Diego National City, I thought I would probably live there all my life and teach art in high school and paint on weekends, so nobody really cared. I was doing art for myself. So because I thought nobody cared I could do anything I wanted. And the complaint you would hear at the time was  – because I was in the midst of abstract expressionism – people said ‘my kid could do that’. I thought what would happen if you give people what they want? You say okay, they probably read newspapers and magazines, they probably have cameras and take pictures, I’ll do art that’s just text or texts and photographs, like in a magazine, and I’ll just put it on canvas, that’ll make it art, because it’s on canvas. Ah (Art) seems perfectly a logical assumption to make, but I didn’t have any success with those either.

RL: In that time you started to combine photographs together with text. The text was already lets say a second part or the same direction of meaning?

JB: same thing. I consider a text as important as an image; they’re of equal value. So I can do something that is all text, text and photo or just photo. And it didn’t matter I think. I was just trying to get away from traditional painting.

RL: And then you started to create a very specific structure: you included found imagery until the newest work images from magazines in your works. This structure of combination, of sampling, bringing elements of different content and contexts together in one, is it a principle of your thinking and your art in general?

JB: I think so, yes. I think when I was a painter, the way I learned art, it was a single sculpture, a single painting, and I never questioned that. But then, when I got into photography I realised I could have multiple photographs, multiple imagery, it didn’t have to be this one image, and it made sense for me philosophically because I think in many ways, to think about the world there’s not any one truth. I think sometimes, you can have contradictory truths together, but I think the world is more about multiplicity then just one thing, being one-dimensional. Very seldom have I used just a single image anymore because I think that’s false.

RL: Is it the anxiety of decision or the love for complexity? Every of your works is at the end a decision, but a decision for an opera aperta – after Umberto Eco -, for an open art work which makes it possible for every viewer to make interpretations in different directions, so you never give a one-way interpretation in a painting, you open it instead to different connotations for the viewer.

JB: I don’t believe in giving art lectures. I think there are many ways of viewing the world, all three of us could talk about your pen and we’d be all talking about it differently.

RL: You told me a simple story about the meaning of a chair and an apple. What does it mean if you see two different objects in one of your paintings?

JB: I don’t know what it means I’m just putting it out there. I could think of my father, you showed him an apple and a chair, or an image of apple and chair and he’d say ‘oh it’s a picture of an apple and a chair’, that’s it. And he’s probably … you know, it’s true, that’s what it is. But somebody else can read it in a completely different way. Art in one way you could say is a conversation, and I think when I’m talking to people I’d like to ask questions more than give answers. I like to suggest things rather than say ‘this is the way it is.’

RL: If you create an image with lets say, a chair, an apple, together with a face from a Goya painting, what makes it different in the painting?

JB: What makes it different is that you see the Goya in a different context, and the chair in a different context, and the apple. And you can ignore it, and say, ‘oh it’s a picture of Goya and all this other stuff’ but it would be like a doctor ignoring different symptoms and only focusing on one. It’s up to you.

Sleek: Because the reading of the work is so reliant on the viewers, does the possibility of misinterpretation bother you at all?

JB: We misread things all the time! How do you know you’re interpreting things correctly, how do I know? That’s what we think. I don’t know who’s right. What I have to say is just as good as what anyone else has to say.

Sleek: ok, but let’s return to your epiphany early on, your ability to believe in art relied on the relationship it had struck between you and your viewer.

JB: I don’t know that, I’m not talking to the viewers; I’m not like an actor on stage getting immediate feedback. I don’t know, I get people 20 yrs after they’ve seen a work of mine saying how much a work of mine affected them, but I didn’t know ‘till then. A stage player is going to get applause, they get instant feedback. Artists don’t get that. There’s no way.

RL: If you put 4 elements from different contexts and levels of society in one work you open some kind of a story, a narration. Furthermore you open the space of our mind with these elements, you don’t give a direction but you give a frame, inside which we can go in different directions of interpretation. Do you like perception as fantasy, as subjective level or is it a dialogue between the artist and the viewer, through the painting?

JB: Ideally I think it’s a dialogue. But you never hear the conversation. I think it sounds very elitist but I also think art is a conversation with other artists, because we all look at each other’s works and I say something and If I think it’s good, I think another artist is going to say something back to me by what he or she does. And I might respond the same way. It’s not a conversation with words, but it’s a conversation with works.

RL: Is an art work for you something like a ‚pars pro toto’ of the world, which means partially truth? The structure of your works is like the world itself: elements come together to create new meanings, like migration of people … If you migrate you find for yourself different meanings, bringing your cultural context in a new culture and you learn at the same time from the other. Do your works have a similar structure of what we call the world’s structure?

JB: I don’t know how to answer that. I think I’m an intelligent person in the world, I keep informed and I read a lot, but in other ways I probably only know that much. I don’t know. Some people can’t even talk to each other. Before I left I had dinner with a world famous and publicised neuro scientist, we had a great conversation, but we certainly live in two different worlds, he probably knows more about how the human mind is structured than anybody, but we were able to talk. I don’t know how to answer that. I’m saying that because I don’t know that there is an answer.

RL: I don’t think that your works are structurized like a system, your works are not systematic, they are intuitive and organized in some way, and for me they’re in some way a mirror of the world.

JB: I think so, I’m more a listener than I am a dictator. And based on what I hear, I do my work. I’m making judgements of course. I’m saying my responses to what I’m experiencing.

RL: you once said perception is erotic. Does it mean perception is your archive, the images of the world, and you do some kind of reconstruction of what you have seen?

JB: I think I distrust conventional logic, I have an absurdist view of the world, and that might be why I appreciate dada and surreal artists and Duchamp, but that’s not all. I love Matisse, I love Giotto, and that’s my toolbox, that’s what I work with. I distrust conventional opinion. I would rather listen to what an artist has to say about the world than a politician.

Sleek: Does that mean then that artists have a certain responsibility to comment on the world, to give an alternative reading of things?

JB: No, I think artists have a responsibility to themselves. I don’t think artists should be burdened with responsibility. Shakespeare wrote, ‘be true to yourself and you can’t be false to anybody.’

RL: Does it mean an artist is free?

JB: Well, who’s the poet who said, ‘with dreams comes responsibility.’ [In dreams begins responsibility, W.B. Yeats]

RL: Once you said that whenever you go to a museum, you see an image as a part of a film.

JB: It’s my distrust, again, of a single truth, a single painting seems to be one truth, but you can also say, well, if that image was not a painting but a frame in a film, you wonder what were the frames that came before and after, if you had a wide angle shot what would you see that’s not in the painting. Art’s about editing, we don’t think it’s about that, but it’s about what you’re leaving out.

RL: If you look at a ‘world’ museum like the Metropolitan, and you look at different artworks from different cultures. Do you think they speak to each other?

JB: I don’t know. It’s about the times, it was de Kooning who said, a masterpiece is only a masterpiece if it speaks to the present. If it doesn’t say anything to us than it’s dead. You can say that about any art, I think. Some art is dead, some art is not. But that doesn’t mean that 20 yrs from now dead art can’t be alive again.

RL: What artworks from history are still alive for you?

JB: Well I have my favourites, I think I mentioned a couple already, going back to Goya, I mentioned Matisse, Duchamp, Sol LeWitt, that’s a wide range. They’re still alive for me, I’m not saying they’re alive for other people. They speak to me.

RL: let’s talk about meaning. If you take an everyday object and bring it into the context of your art work, certainly its meaning is transformed, but are you interested in giving a daily object another meaning or is it only a part of a different meaning in the art world?

JB: One of my favourite poets is William Carlos Williams, and I like him a lot because he talks about very ordinary things like a wheelbarrow or a plum, I don’t think about plums or wheelbarrows much but when he talks about them I do! I think about them a lot. I would like to do that.

RL: Are your works aesthetic or are they real?

JB: That’s a question I can’t answer!

RL: I mean an object is real, but in a painting it’s an image of reality.

JB: I can’t say that either. You’re saying that.

RL: You are based in America

JB: I live in America

RL: Ok, are you American?

JB: I’m an American citizen?

RL: And more than that, you’re a human being of the world…

JB: I’m a first generation American. I think that influences me somehow

RL: That’s what I mean, but I think you also have a deep relationship to Europe or other cultures.

JB: My first audience was in Europe; I think that’s interesting.

RL: Do you think your works are in some way culturally based in the US?

JB: That’s a question that doesn’t interest me. I think people like to categorize artists, California artist and NY artists, but I think you’re just an artist.

RL: Do you see influences that have been important for you?

JB: I can look at these gloves right now and think of gloves a lot. For some reason I needed to see that glove and remember it. Tomorrow or yesterday I wouldn’t have noticed it at all. We notice things and remember them.

RL: If I understand it well, for you reality is a very open structure.

JB: I don’t know what reality is!

RL: It’s not one truth but many truths.

JB: I’m not prepared to speak about reality. I don’t know what reality is. I guess this is real (knocks on table). Does a table have any more reality than a thought? I don’t know.

RL: I mean reality in the sense of presence. History, present and future can be at the same time. In our heads certainly, but also in society and objects. What is the source of your interest artistically. Is it everything you see?

JB: Everything I see, everything I hear. And then more than that, an old friend of mine was the critic Lucy Lippard, and I remember running her place one summer and she had a great library and she had a little piece of paper pinned up on the wall, and on it was written “and on the other hand”. She didn’t believe everything, anything you say you can think of something opposite to that.

RL: You once included in a work from the „Tetrad series“ the words ‘real shadows’.  There was a scene from a Goya painting, a minimal sculpture wit a shadow, a film still in black and white and the text. Everything was objectively together with the shadows. That’s why I ask, is a shadow in some way real? Or do you want to ask us?

JB: It was from Pessoa’s writing, he said ‘real shadows’ – in one way it’s an obvious contradiction, people are going to say ‘shadows are not real,’ and he was saying ’real shadows’ and I like contradictory statements, and the idea of a shadow being real and also Goya who was a master of light and dark, I mean you can begin to make these connections, at least I can, very easily.

RL: If you look at things in a different light it’s all different. Is it something you are thinking about also?

JB: Of course I do. I mean, look at the impressionists, it’s all about how subtly it was lighted, and how a cathedral can look differently, somebody can make a hay stack look like a cow. In the right light. Light changes everything. Film makers know this. That’s what photography is about, you’re using light.

RL: When you use film stills it’s mostly B/W?

JB: It’s because they were cheap. I don’t care.

RL: You usually use American films?

JB: No. Nothing cultural at all. It’s about images. I don’t even care if they’re from the movies. It’s the images. I would find a lot of them in places that sold stills that were in newspapers and movies and they were just selling them. I could get them for 10 cents a piece, I didn’t care where they came from. I was just interested in images. I took them from books and magazines, any place I could find them.

RL: The image has the same importance as an object? When you bring them together.

JB: It’s real for me. Otherwise I’d be using a real shoe and a real apple. Nobody is going to be looking at real shoe and apple because they’ll say, ‘it’s a shoe and an apple.’ If I can change things, the idea of a shoe and an apple, then it means something.

RL: Is your work the simplicity of complexity?

JB: Well hopefully it’s both, simple and complex. That’s why I like Matisse, why I like Goya.

RL: You are interpreting the world? Or is an artwork every time a new statement of your individual identity?

JB: I hope I don’t repeat myself, then I’m just a hack. I hope I continue to say something new – other people might not read it that way – but otherwise I’d just be making a product.

RL: When I see the new works they show us a common structure with older works, but also a difference. You included colour plates, to talk about the colours in the images. And this is a reaction inside the frame. I never saw the colour structures before in your work. Is this a more abstract thinking in your work?

JB: it’s an adjunct. I can’t separate it out. You have 4 things there. The One section with the colour notation is about the way a film maker might have notes for how a film is supposed to look. And that’s the way I’m presenting them, these are abstract distillation of the look of these images. I can have a picture of you and it will be what you are wearing, it will be this and that colour, and say these are the colours you felt best about today. It’s an abstraction, a distillation. It says something about you, absolutely, without the interference of the face or the hair. Or anything else. It’s about the way you were thinking about yourself today as you dressed.

RL: In your new paintings you include images from magazines, writing, text, and the structure of the colours what means that the works go forward from history of thinking about painting and image, into the present. Discussing something that is now to be discussed – what is a painting?

JB: Ok. Seems ok to me.

RL: Do you have any kind of vision you would like to realise?

JB: I think after many decades of doing art thinking about art most of my waking hours that I hope I’m getting better and better at it. And I’m curious to see what will I come up with next.

I’m at a point where I have command, like a composer, a thorough understanding of all the instruments available for me to make a symphony and I’m interested how I’m going to use those. And what will I say next. I will keep the best parts of what I did last and leave get rid of the parts I thought didn’t work so well. It’s always a distillation, to get to a purer and purer statement.

Sleek: since that moment of epiphany about art, have you ever revisited the doubting?

JB: no, I haven’t I don’t doubt me, I doubt that area of knowledge we call art. That has become contaminated by money. And that sometimes I think I’m not making art I’m making trinkets for rich people. Yeah I have my doubts. But I say, I can’t help it, I just have to be true to myself. […] You have to be a master navigator. I’m not starving. I can say no to certain things.

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