Sunshine & Noir, Art in L.A. 1960- 1997, UCLA/Armand Hammer's current exhibition, has tapped into a tremendous public appetite for those beginning to explore, appreciate and define the origins of, and major players in, LA's unique and increasingly influential art scene.
Conversations on Art , a series of three panel discussions held in conjunction with the exhibition, and featuring major figures from LA's art scene over the course of the last 40 some years, was at overflow capacity for each night, the sight of which underscored the remarkable level of enthusiasm for information.
I sat down with the UCLA/ Hammer Museum's outgoing director, Henry Hopkins, to speak with John Baldessari, who has been, as both artist and teacher, a pivotal figure in the development and thought of artists in LA and throughout the international art community.
Since the late 1960's and early 70's, when John Baldessari first began to exhibit, the artist has pioneered a re-examination of the endeavor of art, opening up rich new veins of thought which have invigorated the work of several generations of artists. Utilizing photography, text, sign painters, commissioned artists, and an often wry, ironic wit, Baldessari has questioned basic presumptions of art in search of essential truths about its nature.
Baldessari grew up in the artistic and cultural isolation of National City, a small, nondescript town southeast of San Diego. Yet, as Baldessari has repeatedly commented, the isolation allowed great freedom to develop his art, at critical stages, relatively independent from any prevailing style and theory.
As we sipped coffee in Badessari's light and book filled studio, Baldessari and Hopkins talked passionately and at length about the current state of art in LA, the museums and galleries, Baldessari's work, the early days and the future. What follows is as much as I could fit in.
Henry Hopkins: It's an interesting thing that's happening- you can't discount the importance of the Getty. We had a group come through from MOMA. They wouldn't have come for Sunshine & Noir but they come for the Getty and then they get Sunshine & Noir , and then they go down and see the Richard Serra show at MOCA, and so on.
John Baldessari: We're on an upswing. You know, I think you'd agree with me, LA art is on top and is going to stay up there for awhile-
HH: I think we've caught it on a upper curve and we're going to keep doing that. Everything leads you to think that if we don't have some kind of a great physical crisis to throw off the economy, like an earthquake...
JB: I think the backbone is always the schools and we have arguably the best place in the world to study art now- four or five art schools.
HH: No Question. You've got CalArts and Art Center. You've got UCLA, Otis, and then you have a number of things that have held on for some time like LACE and the Armory show, and the Santa Monica Museum. I've always felt the weakness, if we're going to talk about a weakness, is two things- I always harp them- one is publishing, getting the information out, and the other one is the commercial scene-
JB: The collector base. But oddly enough galleries seem to flourish. I don't know what the hell they're living on-
HH: And there is the old traditional problem. There isn't really a center. There isn't one place where everything gathers. You've been here how long John?
JB: Since '70 in Los Angeles.
HH: I remember one time coming down being with you- at your studio in National City- spending an evening and finding you to be tremendously gregarious. A bunch of students were around. Were you teaching at UC San Diego then?
JB: Well, let's see- I had a such a spotty teaching experience- high school, jr. high school, adult school, juvenile delinquents-
HH: This is before UCSD?
JB: Yeah. And then UCSD and then Cal Arts.
HH: And now UCLA.
JB: I remember having a lecture series down when I was teaching at Junior College in National City. One of the lecturer's was Sam Francis- a friend of mine intervened- knew him- and talked him into it- and somebody in the audience asked him why he would want to come to National City and he said because it's the end of the line. (laughs) We'd be lucky to grab any art person on the way to Tijuana. It'd be the only reason for going south. I remember taking him and Henry Geldzahler, (ed. note: the first curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) down to Tijuana and we almost got busted on the way back. He had a bag of pills you couldn't believe-
HH: It probably was all legitimate knowing Henry-
WT: Was Geldzahler aware of the LA artists on the scene in those days?
JB: Not a bit. No, he'd come out to San Diego State to talk about Warhol and we sort of hit it off and we drove him down to Tijuana and showed him around down there.
HH: John early on, you studied with Rico Lebrun, who is either a hero or a sinner, depending on what camp you come out of. He was an interesting draftsman. You said that he liked your work and responded to it. Were you working figuratively then? How were you working?
JB: It was still life arrangements and then we were able to do whatever we wanted. I was aware that more than once he would bring over people to look at my canvases.
HH: It was at the old Jepson school?
JB: It was over at UCLA- a summer course. I don't know if he would like my work now- it's kind of a damnation. At least he said the words that I needed to hear- that you should be an artist. I'm very, and eternally grateful for that. I'd still be teaching high school I'm sure-
HH: That's the way artist's careers are born-
JB: What is so fundamentally necessary in art school is that you have artists as role models. I didn't have that. I had teachers who painted once a year, being in some local show. I had no idea. It was a lifesaver to me.
HH: You'd read about Rico Lebrun?
JB: I'd read about him. I remember so clearly. I was teaching at Hoover High School- you taught at Grossman, right?
JB: And somebody had a UCLA summer catalogue and I was thumbing through it and saw Rico Lebrun and I said God, he's a real artist. I said, "I've got to go up there and take that course and meet a real artist".
HH: At that time, later, when you reached that point of frustration or what when you burned your paintings?
JB: Oh that- that was more- it was a frustration about- Probably, I was better educated than most artists because I had to import my knowledge by books and magazines and looking at a lot of shows and so on- I'm not bragging, but just by circumstances, I was forced into it-
How did that affect you?
JB: I had this increasing awareness. I defined painting as art, and art as painting & all of the sudden, I said, now this definition is not going to hold. Art's more than that. Which is so stupid to say now, but I really began to understand that-
HH: But not many people were saying that when you were saying that.
JB: Probably not. In a way, I'm glad that I was so isolated because I wasn't bombarded by a lot influences. I was in National City in the back of this laundry with no windows, just reading all the time. I was more aware of art internationally because I was subscribing to a lot of international art journals. I think had a better global picture than most people.
HH: You did say that people said your work is so European-
JB: Yeah. I don't remember who that was. I remember schlepping my paintings around the galleries on La Cienega. Total confusion. But someone did say that-
HH: I can certainly see that relationship to the newer work obviously.
JB: It was the text.
HH: OK. When you think of that transition, that break-
JB: Actually the most insightful person was Nick Wilder, ( ed. note: owner of Nick Wilder Gallery in L.A. ). He said, "I don't really know what you're doing, but I'll get you in contact with Richard Green Gallery in New York."
HH: One of our heroes-
JB: Yeah. Richard came to look. I didn't know him them. He has this habit. He was well known for sitting and staring for a couple of hours. He said," I don't quite know what you're doing but there are some people in New York you might want to meet". I looked everybody up and all the sudden I felt I wasn't quite so crazy- this is happening all over the world. As a matter of fact, Joseph Kosuth and I had our first shows in the U.S. on the same night on La Cienega.
HH: That's amazing.
JB: We got reviewed in Art Forum. He was at Eugenia Butler Gallery and I was at Molly Barnes Gallery. We opened the same night.
HH: You never know how it works- but if you're reading a lot-
JB: I came out with the direction, being discontented with painting, and what would happen if you just took an ultimately populist position. Give people what they want, you know.
HH: Did you visualize that or think of that as a step beyond Pop Art?
JB: I don't know what I was thinking at the time. I think it was really not caring. That helped a lot. I was pretty discouraged about ever showing my work in LA, being down there in National City, figuring I'd just teach high school all my life and do art and be in local shows- just abandoning all hope. Then I said, "I'm just doing this for myself and my friends. What the hell, I can do anything I want!"
HH: The ultimate freedom. That's what drove abstract expressionism. Lack of interest gives you more freedom than anything else.
JB: I think that if I had any idea that I'd have any hope of ever showing those, I wouldn't have done them.
HH: It always seems to me that American art has been driven by the object, and then suddenly, at this period of time, in the 60's, American art became engaged with what I've always thought of as European principals, theoretical principals. I think that's why somebody would say your work looks European in flavor- and the fact that you read alot- words meant something to you. It seems that since that time, that transition has been made. How much emphasis do you place on theories? I'd say at UCLA and Cal Arts, you talk to young students now and they can give you a 45 minute dissertation on a line.
JB: I know. But the upshot of it was that I had a pretty quick approval in Europe.
How did the attention from Europe come about? Was that through the exhibition in LA?
JB: I'll try to make it as brief as possible. I went into New York to schlep my work around there. I was going to three galleries a day for a week with no response and the very last day- the last gallery- I went into Richard Feigen Gallery. It wasn't Richard. It was Michael Findlay and Michael actually seemed interested. He said, "I just did an exhibit of artists- Picasso, Duchamp-using text and work" and he said "Can I hold on to this stuff?" I said sure and did that and then he said, "Well actually we're going to have a show". It was a three person show. I don't remember who the other two people were. That was my first show. Then I did another one person show. I remember going into town when my second show was up- I walked in, and there was Harold Rosenberg and Jasper Johns-
HH: What a duo.
JB: I was knocked out. Then Michael called me up and said there was a journalist working for the Frankfurt Alpine . He was based in New York, writing about U.S. art, and wanted to meet me. He'd been writing about my shows in Germany. So I met him. He said, "I have a friend who I went to school with who has a gallery and I think would like your work and that was Conrad Fischer. I met Conrad and that actually turned out to be my second show. I had one a week before in Art & Project in Amsterdam. .
HH: I still want to go back. I'm trying to visualize you painting and then suddenly saying, "This is not enough, art is something beyond that. Art is some other thing". Did you go almost overnight from one direction to the other?
JB: No. No. Of course nothing is that quick a transition. I'd always had an interest in photography. But I'd put it aside as a useful enthusiasm. And then when I was painting, in retrospect, I was doing sort of a looping procedure where I would paint and then I'd go out and photograph things that looked like my paintings. I'd put those photographs up on the wall as research material for the paintings and then keep on doing that. Eventually I had all these photographs on the wall as resource material. Then, because I was always teaching, I'd constantly have notes and index cards and things scribbled down- those would be up on the wall. Text and photos up on the wall. And then having about four different classes. Running here, coming back...and trying to paint in the meantime. Time becomes a premium. Then you say, "Why do I have to translate this information into paint? There's no reason". That's a strong motivation. To just bypass the painting process.
Given that New York and Europe were responding to your work, were you tempted to move closer to where that was happening?
JB: Actually, I taught at Hunter college in '70. And Robert Barry who was teaching at UCSB asked if I'd take one of his classes because he was having his shows in Europe and I got a tentative job offer. But I was married and I had a young child. My wife said, "I don't want to raise our child in New York." By that time I had enough going- I had a place to show in New York. I had galleries in Europe. I said I could probably manage it from L.A., which I do.
HH: You talk about Harold Rosenberg being in the gallery when you had your second show in New York with Jasper and in those days it was Harold Rosenberg and then it was Clement Greenberg and then it was Michael Freed and Martin Lowe. You had your schools and they were clearly defined. There were four five critics who were dominating the scene, but that's not how the way it is anymore it's validation comes from alot of money?
JB: Well, I always loved that term, a friend of mine calls them gatekeepers. It says it all.
HH: It does. We're not being as careful as gatekeepers as we might have been. Or I don't know. It bothers me somewhat because you obviously want art to flourish and creativity to flourish and at the same time that means expositions, exhibition. For each new thing that goes on a wall, something has to come off a wall and that's not been happening a lot lately.
JB: You can be chewed up pretty quickly.
You've both made the point about the importance of publishing and critical recognition, and how limited L.A. has been relative New York. Do think that had an impact on the LA artists, that there were no critically defined movements?
HH: They were independent- That was one of the things that I've always liked- Ken Price or Billy Al Bengston or Robert Irwin , you can't really put a name to cover all that stuff. People were doing what they liked to do.
JB: I remember that what I had to knock my head against in LA was basically plastics.
HH: In that generation.
JB: And I said well I had nothing to do with this, and in New York, when I got there, it was painters-
HH: That's right. I guess it had to do with experimentation with new materials, obviously it was a big thing here in California, maybe because of the aerospace industry, or maybe even related to Maurice's Art & Technology exhibition at the LA County Museum.
HH: I have to tell you about your replacement piece, Space Available , in Sunshine & Noir . The next Monday our receptionist received a call from a woman who said she saw the sign and her daughter has about ten paintings and she wondered if it would be-
JB: That's the best response ever-
John, how do you feel about the Sunshine & Noir show being curated from an international perspective?
JB: That's a tough question. Obviously it's from their point of view. On one hand, I want to say that it'd probably take an outsider- to get any distance and see things. Anybody that's in the situation probably has blinders on, can't see it.
HH: It'd be hard for any of us to make it manageable-
JB: Yeah, it'd be impossible. It'd just like New York doing a show of art in New York, how could you do it?
HH: So what's going to happen next? What do you see ahead in terms of Los Angeles? L.A. and young artists?
JB: Well I think for the moment there's not that much money around, so artists can't really travel and get out to New York. When they do get to New York, it doesn't look that attractive.
HH: Europe seems to be the place.
JB: Also, I think the stranglehold is broken because you can routinely show in New York when it's time. It's not that feeling so much that one has to be there. You can have a very decent career and not live there. I think we're going to have an increasingly abundant talent pool here of young artists, because of the schools.
Do you find more of your students are choosing to stay here?
JB: Yeah, very few are moving. For a gallerist like you, it should be easy. It's like shooting fish in a barrel- there so many good artists.
HH: You've got to find the right barrel. It that there is a major shift. Many of your students are getting out of Cal Arts or UCLA or Art Center and in a year are in exhibitions. Within three years they are kind of heroes, in one way or another-
JB: It's almost faster than that. Margo Leavin just did a show of younger artists, for Margo. I made a list up of UCLA students and she took a couple of them. One of them has already sold to three major collectors in town and he said it's dizzying. He said, "I was a nobody and now I'm sort of a somebody. And it happened so quickly".
HH: Is it too much, too soon? What do you think?
JB: That's the danger isn't it? You know that there are a few artists whose names I won't mention, from UCLA, who were like comets and now are in so much demand that they can't produce the work or it's weak because they can't produce enough for the demand. It's a merry-go-round. It's a damnation and a blessing. You don't want to miss your chance, on the other hand with this merry-go-round, you just can't get off.
Did you find that pressure for yourself as you started to be known. Did it become a threat to that sense of freedom you were talking about earlier on?
JB: No. And that's a good point. One, there wasn't any money involved. Money hit in the eighties, so that's an added devil to several devils for an artist starting out. But the other thing is, I had an argument with a well known artist in New York and he criticized me for teaching. I said to him, "Well you know, I can do anything I want and economically I'm not going to suffer. You have to depend on your art to live off of, and when you change, you've got to worry about a lot.
HH: That's the Diebenkorn syndrome. Everybody wanted Ocean Park paintings. Very difficult for him to change. I do think that too much too soon is a really risky business, nobody can control it.
HH: I have a dumb question, but I'll ask it. When you were doing the word paintings, the field paintings, the photo paintings, the text paintings- how did the spot come in?
JB: As long as I can remember, I'd collect found imagery. I found this place out in Burbank to get these unsorted unclassified movie stills, movies you've never heard of, and I would go through them just because there would be stuff that I thought I could use- not because they were from movies. Actually, I used to go in photo processing plants and go through dumpsters looking for photographs- any place- so I wasn't getting these photographs because they were from movies, but because they were cheap imagery. You'd get them for 10 cents a piece. I spent hours going through these bins of photographs. Anyway, in that they were not all movie stuff but also from the LA times or from the Valley newspapers, a lot of 8 x 10s. I noticed a lot of these shots, probably from the metro page- the new kiwanas club president all standing there with the gavel, or somebody cutting a ribbon in front of a new gas station. That kind of stuff. And I think it's a love/hate kind of thing. I thought God, "I just can't stand to look at this". I tried to analyze it and I said, "Why do I have this repulsion?" I said, "Well, because if I'm in my studio, these are people who are controlling my life and I'm not doing anything about it. I'm not involved with any of this stuff. I think that was really it. I always wanted to somehow bring that stuff into my work and I couldn't do it. I didn't know how to do it. And one day I had a spray can of paint, and I started to instinctively spray paint out their faces-
HH: Make them every man by-
JB: Yeah, I felt better about it. And then I was doing some works where I was using circular price tags for another purpose and I started putting them on the faces and I felt this flood of release. I guess that I reduced their power, symbolic power, over me. Something like that.
HH: That goes right back to primitive society. Take my photograph and you collect my soul.
JB: I remember, having taught life drawing, that when you get a beginning student in a drawing class, the first thing they do is draw the face. They'd spend hours on that and the last thirty minutes of the class they'd try to put in the arms and the body and so on. So you get them to look at the body with equal weight, the entire anatomy. I usually have the model turn their head away, or sometimes I'd even drape a cloth over the model's head, so they couldn't draw it. I realized that putting this dot over the head, you began to look at how the bodies positioned themselves- their attitude, how they dressed- into the ambiance in which they were standing. Because you couldn't focus on the face and the expression, it really was a perceptual device to get people to look other places.
HH: Interesting. I went to see the Man Ray films at the Getty. There was one called "The Castle", where Man Ray made them all wear stockings over their heads-
JB: Yeah. In retrospect it became a trademark, which I didn't realize at the time. It's funny what you get identified with.
HH: Those things happen in an artists work and you wonder what the reason was. Everything is kind of moving. You use much less text now, much more imagery-
JB: The last series of work, I brought text back again. Again it's this love/hate sort of thing- it's always trying to get the recipe right and getting the perfect work. You never get it right because you can never get the mix right. But in this last series of work I said, " OK I'm not going to use multiple panels, I'm not going to use a single object, I'm not going to use any color, I'm going to try to use text again. You set parameters for yourself. But doing that, then you don't do something else-
HH: That means something else is yet to be done-
JB: Eventually, you hope you're going to get the composition right. You're going to write the symphony you should, or whatever. The great American novel. Of course, it never happens. It's always a dream.
HH: But the search remains.