Arguably one of the most important artists of the 21st century, John Baldessari has and continues to create works that disorient cultural iconography. The series Shape of Reason Missing was specifically selected for this interview, because crowds speak to chaos. Crowds create a collective energy that is unpredictable. When the “I” is submerged in the “we” and boundaries of selfhood are dissolved, people commit obscene or violent acts that they would never do on their own. But on the opposite end of the same psychology are powerful acts of solidarity, support, and empathy. Crowds strip us of our sense of self-awareness, thus deindividualizing us. This clashes with the development of our individuality, a concept that Western society has valued for centuries. We lose our personal identifiers that let us distinguish ourselves from others. We start to think and act similarly. We are engulfed by one large being, a category essentially. Within the crowd and without personal values or norms, the sense of self is thrown into a state of chaos.
Andrea Blanch: Let’s start with your series, Crowds with the Shape of Reason Missing. Can you speak about how this came to be? Why did you choose those particular images? Does the series have any political references?
John Baldessari: Okay. Working backwards, I don’t think any political stuff was involved. At the time, I was influenced by a book called The Shape of Crowds written by a famous Vietnamese psychiatrist. I liked the idea that crowds have a certain shape. So I had a lot of movie photographs of crowd scenes, and I just blanked out the middle–painted out the middle; it looks like what I thought was attracting the crowd. And that was it. Of course there are no more authentic crowd scenes in them anymore, they’re all digitalized.
That’s intriguing. Your use of crowds in Hegel’s Cellar was fantastic.
Yeah, and I had a reason for doing that…and I forget what it was, so I can’t tell you. I figured I was interested in Hegel at the time, but I don’t know why I decided to do prints. I can’t tell you.
I think they’re fabulous. Is there something about crowds that attract you?
It’s kind of a frightening idea to think that you’re only a face in the crowd. It sort of eradicates identity.
You express that an artist shouldn’t need to reinvent the wheel or be a showoff or a virtuoso. However, you’re a serial inventor, doesn’t that get you attention and hook people?
Well, I think that’s part of the life. If you want to be an interesting person, you have to keep on reinventing yourself. I mean, imagine being at a party and you’re talking to somebody that keeps on saying the same thing. Well you’re going to walk away, aren’t you?
Absolutely. I can’t imagine you’ve ever lost your identity.
Well, no. I think that for every artist you have to sort of establish yourself as somebody that’s worthy of looking at, otherwise nobody’s going to care about looking at your work.
You once said CalArts was chaotic. Were you referring to when it first began?
It was an experimental school, our model is Black Mountain College; we gave no grades. Students didn’t have to show up for class if they didn’t want to. So it was a school in the making, so to speak–students and instructors, they created a school.
What would I have learned if I was a student in your class?
I haven’t taught in years. I believe in the trial and error thing. One thing doesn’t work, you try another thing, and I remember one of the students, Matt Mullican, who is a pretty famous artist now. He did a piece where he had somebody at the entrance of CalArts with a mirror that caught the sunlight and then somebody at the door caught that sunlight and somebody else caught that until the sunlight entered our classroom and the piece was finished. That was quite inventive I think.
And delightful. That’s really beautiful. So how do you grab people’s attention now?
I’m only as interesting as the work I do. Everyday, there is a big load on my shoulders. I can’t be the same old same old artist. I must produce work that grabs people’s attention. That kind of dictates what I do.
What artists are creative, innovative and have garnered a lot of attention during your time?
Well a lot of my students, like David Salle for instance.
Some of the devices you employ; your use of absence, eliminating the point of interest in a lot of your work captivates the audience. It makes you curious; while more importantly, makes you yearn for more.
That’s true, I think all the works I finished now are going to be at the Marian Goodman Gallery starting November 11th and they’re about Jackson Pollock and Thomas Hart Benton, who is his teacher. The middle of the paintings are all blocked out by large rectangles of pure, white paint. You see something, but you’re deprived of a lot of information too. The skill that has to come up with this of course you know, show a little skirt, but not too much.
Do you feel that this is a literary device?
No, I think of it as a universal art concept. No artist wants to come up with “this means blah blahblahyaddahyaddahyaddah.” You have to balance; you have to be economical so people will pay attention.
That addresses your preference to do things simply.
Do you think that the Crowd series is simple?
Well I hope it’s a paradox. It’s simple and complex at the same time.
Well, I think it’s complex. What led you to choose the pictures for the Crowd series? Was it the subject, or where you were able to use negative space?
It really didn’t matter; it just had to be a generic crowd scene.
You’ve also said that you find the imagery to escape your own good taste. Can you explain that?
Well I think we all hate connoisseurs that are so exquisite in their taste that we can’t stand listening to them. You’ve got to have a rougher profile than just being a connoisseur.
You’re selecting everything that goes into your work. That’s still a question of taste, no?
Well yeah, but there are reasons for selecting imagery. In the history of my work, I’ve used parts of the anatomy, like a hand or a nose. A lot of times when I pick an image, it’s because in that image there’s somebody’s arm or eye that attracts me and that’s enough.
I went to see Hieronymus Bosch: Touched By The Devil. At the bottom of one of his paintings, there were all these eyes. “Oh my god! It’s just like John,” I thought of you right away.
That sounds great! I’ll have to look at them.
Before you cremated yourself inThe Cremation Project, you had already begun to do fragments of things in your work. How did this come about?
About that same time, I had a friend who worked for a billboard company, and I asked him if I could have the leftover billboards. There’s a term in the billboard industry that’s called 24 sheet billboard, which means there would be 24 sheets of paper on that billboard to be pasted to it. Because of that, I got the idea of doing parts of things. I have 1/24th of an image, and that influenced me a lot.
Your lack of attachment to your work intrigues me.
I have photos of everything, so I don’t need to own anything.
How do you live with chaos in your day to day life?
Think of all the downers.
I read that you don’t like to do your bills; you don’t enjoy mundane work. Everyone can relate to that. I saw that your studio has a lot of clutter. How does that filter into your life?
I’m fortunate now because I can afford assistants.
Is there a personal quirk of yours that has served you well?
People say that I’m witty, and I always think, “Oh I’m a witty artist!” People seem to be satisfied with that idea. Unfortunately, it sounds very much like “shitty,” but that’s okay. [laughs]
Not at all. I think you make the distinction when you say Bill Wegman is funny, whereas you don’t think you’re funny.
I don’t. No. When the average person looks at one of Bill’s work, you smile and identify with it because you might have a dog. It seems kind of homey. I don’t think I get that kind of response.
Not at all, I don’t have that response when I look at your work. So, I’m curious about this: I had a lover who was 6’6” and we went out to take pictures together. Our pictures were of the same subjects, but his were superior to mine because of the different perspective his height allowed him.
I hope you got rid of him. [Laugh]
I did because he was a son of a bitch! [both laugh] Excuse me. My point being, have you ever thought about what effect your height has on your work?
The only time it eludes me is when I had a show in La Jolla, California at the La Jolla Museum of Art. The poster for the show was a frontal shot of me from head to toe, printed out as 6 foot 7 inches so it came to you in a roll. Best announcement I’ve ever done.
It’s a collector’s item! During an interview with Susan Collins, you said that images and words could be interchangeable. Would you give a good example of this?
Well, if we think of our language, sometimes in conversation when somebody is trying to explain something they say, “Well, let me draw you a picture of that.” That’s a chosen device to explain something. It would be great if someone developed a picture dictionary for kids.
There are emojis, which serve as a visual language. I’m curious to hear what you have to say about interdisciplinary work and how artistic languages contaminate each other. What are your thoughts about that, and how has that informed your art practice?
I believe what you’re saying is how different practices can contaminate or influence each other. I guess that would be so. I know John Kane was a huge influence on me and my work. It was his music that influenced me a lot, so yeah I think so.
The other thing that you’ve spoken about in interviews is that you don’t like to be called an LA artist.
Right, but people still do. How has living or being brought up in LA influenced your work? You’ve said that you had nobody looking over your shoulder; you seem to be a very independent person. Why would it matter where you lived? You would still do what you want, no? Or do you feel that there would be more peer pressure elsewhere?
Well, I don’t know. I know I was bicoastal for years, and I had an apartment in New York. I tried to do art there, I couldn’t do art there. I think something about LA is so boring, it’s all upward from there. You can’t get any worse, you just have to get better than it is. [Laughs]
You’ve also said that LA is ugly, but seductive. Why?
Yes, I think so. Ugly and boring; I probably use the two words interchangeably.
Wouldn’t you use your work as a way to cure your boredom?
I do that everyday, it’s like a state of mortem. It seems like I would make something that interests me or interests one of my assistants or anybody else.
I’ve read you look at thousands of images, but is it true that you want to slow down this process?
Well, I look at images like when you’re in a dentist’s office in the magazines flipping through it. All of the sudden you flip a couple of pages back and you’re thinking “What did I just see?” If I could develop that kind of perception, I would like it.
Wouldn’t everybody? What’s your routine like?
I meet with one of my assistants to go through all of my business mail, emails, and so on. I usually start looking at some artists that interest me. Right now it’s Miro and Picabia, I keep looking at them till they give me some sort of idea for a work. Then I start playing with that imagery.
Your show coming up at Marian Goodman’s is about Jackson Pollock and Thomas Hart Benton. I know that you said Pollock inspired you to take risks in your work but how else did he give you inspiration?
There’s before Pollock and there’s after Pollock. Jackson Pollock changed the whole game of art. That was what motivated me.
And Thomas Hart Benton?
Because he was the teacher of Jackson Pollock.
I wasn’t familiar with him before I knew he was going to be in the show, and his work is wonderful.
And the interesting thing, if you read about Benton, a lot of his production was in Hollywood. He was doing things for movies, drawings and backdrops. Things like that.
Were you ever tempted to do any work in Hollywood, with the movies?
Nobody has asked so far. But, I would probably say yes, of course.
As someone who has had over two hundred shows, why do you think of yourself as being lazy. You’ve been so prolific and have produced so much.
Well because I came from a strict religious background and my parents always said I was lazy. So I’ve always had an image of myself as being lazy.
I read an article where you said you had a very religious attitude about making art, meaning that you have to be more focused; that artists have to give up something. When they asked what you had to give up, you said, “being an international playboy.”[Both laugh]
Hah, I like that.
How very funny! Do you miss that?
Well you know that’s all about celebrity and that’s a big word right now, being a celebrity. Now and then, I’m someplace and somebody says, “Can I have my picture taken with you?” and I say, “Yeah, okay.” So I guess somebody recognized me; I don’t know how they recognized me. But they did, and they wanted their picture taken so I say, “Okay, why not?”
You’re an extraordinary artist. Thank you for giving me this time. Everyone says you’re very generous, is this the reason why?
Wait a minute…are you trying to get bonbons out of me? [Both laugh]
Interview by Andrea Blanch
Andrea Blanch is the founder and editor in chief of Musee Magazine, a photography publication based in New York, and a fashion, fine art and conceptual photographer.
This interview was published in the issue 16 of Musée Magazine that came out this month of October and is available for $65.