PORTRAITS OF AN ARTIST
Tucked into the hillside of Santa Monica Canyon, guarding the western view, sits the spacious 20's bungalow I have heard so much about. Don Bachardy is back in the kitchen, and welcomes me with his distinctive voice, warm and inviting as a low whistling teakettle. The front two rooms, living room and dining room, follow the hillside and paint a vivid portrait of the artist. They are filled with light and art and reveal a life passionately engaged in creative pursuit. Yet, of all of the many paintings, drawings and sculptures one sees, none are by Don Bachardy. They are a collection of the work of his many, many friends. Works by Peter Alexander, Chuck Arnoldi, Billy Al Bengston, Guy Dill, Peter Lodato, are some of the few that I immediately recognize.
To see Bachardy's own work, you need to walk to his adjacent, zen-like studio, where white floors, walls and ceiling resonate with a soothing melody of ocean light It is here, and throughout Los Angeles, that for some forty years, Don Bachardy has chronicled in portraiture, the many and varied faces that distinguish his work. Most are in someway connected with the arts-artists, writers, poets, musicians, actors, directors, friends and acquaintances, famous and unknown. All look you right in the eye, as they did Bachardy, engaging you in silent dialogues of the soul.
Bachardy's unwavering pursuit of portraiture and his talent at capturing the likeness and spirit of his subjects, have brought the artist international recognition and created a rich visual history of the many important and interesting people of our time. As I sat down to talk with Bachardy, I was struck by his warmth, intelligence and quiet intensity. The release of a new book and an extensive exhibition of the artist's work opening this month, offer an opportunity to share the vision of one of Los Angeles' great treasures.
Venice: Let's start with "Stars in my Eyes: Portraits by Don Bachardy" the show you're having at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, opening October 13 th . Does the content of the show relate to the work featured in your soon to be released book of the same title?
Don Bachardy: Yes. A lot of the drawings that are in the new book are in the show at the Academy. The Academy show is devoted to movie makers- not just actors, but writers, directors, producers, cameramen, costume designers. I even had a drawing of a make-up person. It's going to be about 90 pieces. It covers 40 years of work.
Some years ago, I recall seeing an exhibition of yours at James Corcoran's Gallery based on everyone involved in Robert Altman's film "Short Cuts". It looked like a lot of the works that resulted from that experience came from your being on the set. How did that come about?
It was a dream job for me because all of the actors in the film-and as you'll remember it had a big cast of good actors - had it in their contract that they had to come to my studio and sit for four hours.
Really. That's unusual, who arranged that?
Mike Kaplan. He's a longtime associate of Altman's. I loved it because I was considered a working member of the company and as such, I was allowed to see the rushes of the film. I've always been fascinated by rushes and movies, but never been in a position to see them over a long period of time. I never missed a set until the very end. The last two sets of dailies I couldn't go to because I had sittings with two of the actors. But otherwise I saw them all.
Let's talk for a moment about portraiture, as it relates to that experience and then more generally. In that experience, did you find any difference in approach to the sittings between the actors, who are perhaps more used to being observed, and some of the other people involved in the film. Was it more difficult to get to the essence of the actors, or were they more open?
I already had a lot of experience working with actors. My experience has been on the whole that they are very good sitters, and of course they are used to being looked at, so it's not embarrassing for them as it is for some sitters, who have not been photographed much and maybe never sat for an artist before. Working under any kind of time limit creates an extra pressure, as does with working with well known people, who often have a limited amount of time and often have a lot of people grabbing at them for their attention.
In so many of the works I've seen, you work in very unforgiving materials - watercolor in particular, because it requires a precision and irrevocable certainty...
That's what makes it exciting, yes. It doesn't allow for many mistakes. Also I do it without any underdrawing. I start right in with the color. Really, my style of working is very much related to my subject matter. I always work from life and because of that I learned to be spontaneous and to trust my first instinct. Because, you see, I can't waste time. I'm always working under a time pressure. I sometimes feel my whole style as an artist has evolved under those conditions of time and pressure.
You are known to view the portrait process as a collaboration between yourself and the sitter, to the extent that you even have your sitter sign the drawing as well.
Oh, it seems to me a perfect collaboration. I couldn't possibly do it without my sitter. The more cooperative my sitter, the better the chances are that I'll do something good.
What are the things you look for in that collaboration?
A stillness and concentration. Openness, a willingness to be open, to let me look to my fullest.
Do you generally talk to your sitters, or is it a more quiet experience?
I prefer to be quiet because if I'm talking my full concentration isn't devoted to my work. But some people find it unbearable to sit without talking and my number one consideration is to make my sitter as comfortable as possible, whatever that requires because an unhappy sitter, an uncomfortable sitter, is likely to be more restless. So I sometimes do talk but with a very small percentage of my mind. Sometimes things that I've said come to me after a sitting and because the best part of my attention was on my work, I'm sometimes appalled at some of the things I've said. (Laughs).
I know how that goes. Does it take you a long time to get a pose that both you and your sitter feel is evocative of who they are?
Well, when I'm working with somebody for the first time, I just take a simple straightforward position. Years ago I used to suggest positions for my sitters but I've learned that it is really much better that my sitter find a pose. Something that is comfortable for him and characteristic. If I enter into that then I'm likely to get my sitter doing something which he feels is uncharacteristic, and that leads to restlessness. If it's something he or she finds by themselves it's usually almost always better.
I know with photographs, oftentimes what the subject feels would be the best that view of them, the most flattering and so on, isn't necessarily what will make the best photograph. Do you have to deal with the self-conscious preconceptions of what someone wants to get out of the portrait?
That tends to happen most often with actors. Because, of course, they have been photographed so much that many of them have an idea of what is their best angle, and ultimately they suggest that to me. Some of them impose it on me. I don't really have an opinion about the best angle of somebody. It would take me many pictures of a person to discover what I would consider the best angle. Also, what is the best angle from my point of view, is not at all my sitter's idea of the best way for them to be seen.
With your book and your exhibition, you have some 40 years of work involving portraits of movie stars and other film people. What is it that has continued to sustain your interest in this area?
I've been a lifelong moviegoer from a very early age. Movies and movie people have always fascinated me. I've had the experience several times of having sittings with actors who were legends, great personalities in my childhood.
Was that intimidating?
Oh, very intimidating. Very scary, yes.
Give me some examples if you can.
Betty Davis, Fred Astaire, Lawrence Olivier, Marlene Deitrich, Vivian Leigh, yes.
When working with someone of that stature, or with your subjects in general, is there a prelude to the sitting where you try to develop a rapport, to get them and yourself comfortable with each other?
The only way for me to develop any kind of relaxation and rapport with my sitters is to simply begin work. It's by the work itself that I begin to relax and warm up to my work and the person I'm working with. My instinct is to begin as soon as possible because I know it's only by working that I'll begin to relax and gain confidence.
Sitters are notoriously sensitive about their portraits. How do you deal with conflicts in perception about the success of the portrait? Do you ever have people who are dissatisfied with the result and want you to change aspects of the drawing?
Oh yes. Well of course, we all have an idea of ourselves and how we look and that doesn't necessarily correspond to reality, to any kind of objectivity. And of course my view of how somebody looks is very likely not going to correspond with their own idea of themselves. And you see, just after finishing a picture, even I don't know what I think of it. I don't know whether it's an accurate likeness. I have to get away from it for at least several hours before I get any kind of objectivity. And that is a very real difficulty of sitting with a live person. A photographer, you see, takes it away in a box, develops it, chooses the pictures he thinks are best and then comes back feeling at least fairly sure of what he thinks of his own work. And then maybe he deals with a person who says "Oh, well that doesn't look like me at all" or "That's unflattering", but I often have to defend my work right then and their, when even I don't know how I feel about it.
How do you deal with that?
The best way I can, you know. Often by saying " Well I don't know what I think" and I'm so uncertain of myself that if they say it's perfectly awful, I'm inclined to agree with them. But then I say, "Let me do another, see if I can do better. A first drawing is always a warm up for me, let me try a second one". And if they're agreeable I'll do a third and a fourth if I can. It is a developing process and I feel the more I can do, the closer I can get.
Let's talk a little about your background. You went to Chouinard-
Yes, from 1956 to 1960.
Who was there at the time?
Ed Ruscha, Joe Goode, Robert Irwin was teaching a class. Larry Bell was there. Oh it was the last Golden Age at Chouinard.
When you were a student, had you already decided on portraiture as the focal point for your art?
Yes. I knew that my subject matter had to be people. It was people or nothing. And that's been true all of my life. I started drawing very early in my childhood and even then my drawings were always of people.
At Chouinard, how did that play with the current vogue at the time?
Oh well, it couldn't have been more against it. It was the height of Abstract Expressionism and I felt like a real weirdo. Here I was, only wanting to do pictures of people, and the whole spirit of the time was into Abstract Expressionism and lot's of color and throwing paint around. I felt like a real anachronism, but I knew enough about myself, even then, to know that I had to do it my way. Unless I could draw and paint people, I wouldn't be any kind of artist.
How did your career develop. How did you start getting exhibitions?
I had my first one man exhibition in London, in 1961. Early in '61, I went to London and spent the whole of the year there. I studied at the Slade School. While I was living in London I made a point of drawing almost everybody I met. School was really a thin excuse for living in London. About six months after I'd been there, I met the people who ran the Redfern Gallery. I showed them my work, all the drawings I'd been doing of London people. They liked them and offered me a show on the spot. It was a big success. It opened in October and I sold a lot of work out of the show, got a lot of commissions. I've always done very well in London.
How long did you stay there?
Just the year, 1961. But I was there long enough, and liked it well enough, that I really came back at the end of the year thinking that I'd take one more look at Santa Monica but I that maybe I'd like to go back to London for much longer. But that last look at Santa Monica was very attractive and I knew that once I was back here, I was home again. But I did for many years make three and four trips a year to London. I really had enough commissions there to not only pay for my trip, but make some money as well.
It's interesting that David Hockney, another artist known for his portraiture, found himself travelling in just the opposite direction, from London to LA, at the beginning of his career.
Yes. Yes, he really did it in reverse. And when he arrived here in '64, I think Chris [Ed. Note: Christopher Isherwood, Bachardy's longtime companion and renowned writer], was almost the first person he called. I was in New York at the time and I remember Chris saying, "I've met the most extraordinary Englishman. He's an artist, he wears owl glasses and has bleach blonde hair. Very intelligent and very enterprising. He already has a studio downtown and he rides his bike everywhere." He said, "I'm sure you'll like him." I came home in a week or two, met him right away and indeed I did. We've been friends ever since.
Have you talked with Hockney much about your approaches to portraiture?
Oh yes, yes. And we've sat for each other. And in fact, I think the most recent drawing he did of me was one he did last year that was in his show at the UCLA Hammer Museum. I think it was one of the best likenesses in the show and I think it's one of the best he's done of me.
I know that you always work from life. What is it about working from life that is so essential for you?
Well you see, I never work on the pictures after the sitter goes. To me it's like a spell that is broken when my sitter leaves and I don't trust myself to add or detract from the work I've done. Like it or not, it remains as it was when my sitter left.
Is that why you haven't worked in oils much?
I have worked in oils, but because of time pressure and working spontaneously, acrylic paint suits me much better because it's fast drying. Oils take so long to dry. And I must work quickly. One advantage of working with people is that I never work alone. I always have company. Also, because of my interest in people, part of the process of drawing and painting them is a conscious or unconscious effort to identify with them. So that in a way I'm doing a portrait of myself pretending to be my sitter. By doing that, I often get very close to forgetting myself completely. I'm so identifying with the person I'm looking at that I'm not thinking "I'm Don, doing a drawing". I'm right in there, being the person as much as I can. There is exquisite relief to stop being oneself, even for a few moments. It's a wonderful experience. I don't often manage it but when I do, oh boy, I really enjoy it.
Is there one aspect of your approach that you find particularly challenging?
Well, the hardest situation for me as a portrait artist, is working with somebody I've known for perhaps 10 or 15 or 20 years whose never done a sitting. When I exert that scrutiny, which I only do when I'm working, I suddenly realize that this person that I thought I knew well, doesn't look at all like my mental image of him or her. There's always a scary moment when I ask myself "Should I draw what I think ought to be there, or what is in fact there." And of course, the answer is always, I must draw what I see is there, whether it corresponds to my mental image or not. That's true of working with those movie actors. Often I was working with them maybe twenty or thirty years after I'd known them in my childhood. Not only would they seem to look different under close observation, but they were twenty or thirty years older. And that was both disconcerting and fascinating, to try and find in the person I was working with, some hint of the image that I had in my head from all those years ago.
That would be quite a challenge - to balance the idealized conception with the reality of perception and to really see those changes to the body.
And we're all continually changing. One of the fascinations of my work is to try to record all of the changes that have taken place, and are taking place, and still to try to find something basic, which has always been there. Both are present, the changes and something constant.