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"It's almost like Doctor Frankenstein": An Interview with John Baldessari

It's two days before the opening of Somewhere Between Almost Right and Not Quite (With Orange) at the Deutsche Guggenheim. John Baldessari , 73, is in the middle of putting up his show; pictures are being hung all around him, and he's discussing the final details of the art edition planned to appear in time for the show. He's put in a long day, but all in all he seems quite pleased. When he walks, it becomes clear that he's limping: he sprained his left ankle a few days ago, and now it's enclosed in a discreet and elegant brace, black like the jeans and T-shirt he's wearing. Then, in the conference room, he's suddenly highly concentrated despite his fatigue. A gentle giant, and - without a question - a pro to the core. An interview by Ulrich Clewing.

John Baldessari at Deutsche Guggenheim, October 2004 Photo: Maria Morais

Mr Baldessari, in the catalogue I found an old quotation of yours. You once said that the artists you most admired were Giotto and then Henri Matisse. Why these two painters in particular?

John Baldessari: I think the reason would be that they are both paradoxes. They might look very simple, but they're complex. They offer something for the most average viewer and for the most sophisticated viewer at the same time. It seems like a paradox, but it also seems to work. Their work can be communicated on both levels. I think that's a very rare quality, and I suspect for any artist it would be inspiring to do that. So in a way they became role models for me.

Henri Matisse: Goldfish and Sculpture (Le Poissons), 1911 Giotto di Bondone: The Sacrifice of Joachim, Scrovegni-Chapel in Padua, 1305/06

Some critics say you're a pop artist, others regard you as a conceptual artist. Where would you locate yourself?

Well, I'd locate myself as an artist [laughs], but I understand the question. The categories are difficult, because they often don't quite hit the point. For instance, if I would ask you the names of impressionist artists, you'd probably start with Monet and then you could find that nobody else would seem to fit into that. A close friend of mine is Claes Oldenburg, and I once called him a pop artist. And he said, no, I'm just an artist. I don't know, but it seems that nobody likes to be in that kind of category. But I will say that I emerged around the late sixties, and so you're either a minimal artist or a conceptual artist or a painter. As I'd given up painting, I seemed to be classified as a conceptual artist. But I wouldn't choose that. The Hayward Gallery once showed my work and included me in Pop Art. People like to put you into categories. That's the way it is.

You started your career as a painter. And then you stopped. Why?

Well, I didn't have any problems with painting. The way I've been taught art was: art was painting, and painting was art. But after a while I began to think beyond that. I thought that I could be more into art than just painting and sculpture.

For your work Somewhere Behind Almost Right and Not Quite (With Orange), you used film stills from movies. What's the idea behind that?

John Baldessari: from the series Black Dice, 1982 Deutsche Bank Collection

When I first started using film stills, it was just because they were cheaply available. And what I was interested in was what you would call a profound imagery. It didn't necessarily have to be from film, it could also be from a photo album or on the street or in the newspaper. In other words, it would be imagery that's out in the world, and then you adapt it to your own ways. It's like words in a dictionary: you just use them, rather than make up your own words.

By that time, I was living in Los Angeles, where the movies are made. I found a place where film stills could be bought very cheaply. But I actually mixed them as well with photographs from newspapers. Then I realized that the movie stills fell into categories. Of course that seems obvious: the ones with guns would mean violence, people kissing would be love and so on. In the end, they're all clichés. I found the attempt particularly appealing to put some meaning back into something that has been completely emptied of meaning. It's almost like Dr. Frankenstein [laughs]. You try to make something come alive again, but it's never going to be alive as it was before. That's not a bad metaphor.

John Baldessari: Beast (Orange)
Being Stared At: With Two Figures (Green, Blue), 2004
©2004 John Baldessari

You made a series of works with photographs printed on canvas.

The dominant movement when I gave up painting was Abstract Expressionism. And the normal complaint you hear is that a child could paint like that. I just got tired of that, and so I thought, why not give people what they want? To me, it seemed the most obvious thing would be photographic imagery and text, words that you see in the magazines or newspapers. That would be more in their immediate experience. That's why I started doing that. I put those photographic pieces on canvas because it made them into art. If it's canvas, you don't even have to have anything on it and people still think it's art.

John Baldessari: Econ-O-Wash, 14th and Highland,
National City, Calif., 1967-68
©2004 John Baldessari

I'd like to name a few topics now and ask you to tell me what you think about them. What comes to your mind when you hear the word "photograph?"

Well, I come out of painting, so as a painter I'm an artist using brushes and paint. And if I pick up a camera, I'm an artist using a camera. Anyway, I think there's only a very small difference. As a student, I remember finding it strange that there would be a history of art and a history of photography. I thought, why couldn't they just join. In the end, it's all visual images. I would say that a photograph is just a visual statement, like a painting is. It's also an arrangement in a formalistic way, of lights and darks and colors, just like a painting. They're only different materials.

What about the term color?

As a painter, you normally use color in an intuitive fashion: So much green here, so much red here. I wanted to go against that. I tried to use color just as a signal, like a colored coding. Red might be dangerous, and green might be safe. Like in a color wheel you see in a show: red will be here, orange will be here, so you don't have to think much about it.

Fissures (Orange) and Ribbons (Orange, Blue):
With Multiple: Figures (Red, Green, Yellow),
Plus Single Figure (Yellow) in Harness (Violet) and
Balloons (Violet, Red, Yellow, Grey), 2004
©2004 John Baldessari

And beauty?

Oh, "beauty" used to be a dirty word as a conceptual artist. In the last few years it's become OK again to talk about beauty. I think there's nothing wrong with it. Everybody has his own definition about what's beautiful. I think the English critic John Ruskin once said that he regarded artists as dangerous because garbage on the street looked beautiful to them.

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