Interview with John Baldessari

Telephone interview with John Baldessari by Henry Ward. Friday 2nd November 2012.

JB – Hello?

HW – Hello, is that John Baldessari?

JB – This is he.

HW – Hi John, it’s Henry Ward here, calling from London….

JB – Oh hi yes, I was expecting your call.

HW – It’s ok to talk?

JB – Yeah, that’s fine.

HW – I have some questions, I did email them through. I don’t know if you’ve had the opportunity to look through them?

JB – Yes, yes I did.

HW – Ok. So if I can run through these? I really appreciate you doing this.

JB – Sure, sure.

HW – When did you first decide, or realise , that you wanted to be an artist?

JB – Um, I think it happened when I, let me see, I was teaching juvenile delinquents and I saw they had a greater need for art than I did and I said, you know here are criminals, that I had nothing to do with , and they need art more than I do. So I though art was kind of masturbationary, it didn’t help anybody, I didn’t have a kind of social conscience at the time. I didn’t think art did any good, but you know that changed my mind. I thought, art must be useful somehow and I think that was it.

HW – So do you think that, it’s really interesting, in a way it was teaching it that suggested a meaning for it?

JB – Well, you know, I read all your questions and you have a heavy emphasis on teaching art?

HW – Yes.

JB – I think what’s important is, I didn’t teach by choice. I had to support myself.

HW – Yes.

JB – I did it to make a living.

HW – Absolutely.

JB – It was the closest thing to making art, I mean teaching art, you know, I mean instead of working in an automobile factory or whatever. I mean I don’t want to sound to noble about it. It was a way of supporting myself.

HW –Was that your first experience of teaching, working with the juvenile delinquents?

JB – No, no, my first experience of teaching was when I was in college and one of my art instructors got ill and he recommended that I teach his course, which I did, and that was my first experience teaching.

HW – Brilliant, ok, thank you. You’ve had a tremendous effect on many of your students that have gone off to become important artists in their own right. How do you see the role of the teacher of art in relation to the development of someone else’s practice?

JB – Um, that’s a tough one, because I think, first of all, that the student is the one that decides if they’re going to go to an art school or college or whatever, so I have no control over that, it’s just someone decides to do that. And then I try to make it, my approach, and again this was kind of selfish, I’d just try to make it as much fun for me as possible. And so I’d figure well I’m having fun then probably the students are, hopefully, they’re having fun and art should be about having fun.

HW – Yes.

JB – And somehow the equation works.

HW – Ok. I love the idea of that. I think it’s brilliant to hear the idea of the fun element, that’s so important, in education generally but particularly in art I think.

JB – Well I think, I know, one of my guidelines was I just decided to not do anything I thought was bad about teaching; so, like lecturing, I think lecturing does no good, and don’t just come in and read your notes and walk out, because, I mean, your students could read them so they don’t need that. So you sort of correct all the things that were bad and happened in your education and that’s a good way to start.

HW – I like that. Much of your teaching appears to have utilised the instructional. There are also many elements of this in your own practice. Do you think there’s an argument that all art is educational?

JB – Yes, of course. I think that’s a given, I mean you learn all your waking hours. So then looking at art, of course, you’re learning something then. Yes, exactly.

HW – I am particularly interested in the way in which a lot of your early work seems to directly relate to your role as a teacher; video pieces like “Baldessari Sings Sol Lewitt” and so on, do you think having a focus on teaching meant that you approached, at that point in your career, making art in a different way from the way you might approach it if you’re in a studio working?

JB – Well what you said there; you said ‘having a focus on teaching’, I didn’t have a focus on teaching, it was just to support myself. My focus was on making art.

HW – So, ok, so would it be that because your focus was on making art but you found yourself in that role, as you say to financially, it was imperative that you did it, did that change in any way the way in which you approached things. I just wondered because some of those very early video pieces in particular, I watched a documentary recently about you where some of the students were talking about you making those things alongside them or actually in the classroom so to speak, and I was interested in whether that changed the way in which you approached things at all when you were working within that role or whether it was all the same thing?

JB – I think it’s all the same thing. I think, that particular piece it wouldn’t have happened if I had not been teaching at CalArts because we had a lot, we had something like 26 Sony PortaPak video cameras and so I had access to the equipment and so I was able to do that. Now if I’d been on my own, you know I didn’t have any money to rent out equipment or to buy equipment so that wouldn’t have happened. I can say that.

HW – Yes. So you think it was purely a logistical thing; the space was there; the equipment was there so you could utilise it in that way? Rather than, necessarily, a conceptual difference?

JB – Yes, I remember very succinctly, very accurately, it was a Sunday afternoon and I was kind of bored, and I drove out to school, and into the classroom that I used and I decided that my Sunday I would spend making videos. That’s it. I never saw it as being very important, it was just, you know, trying to escape boredom. I think that’s always been one of my reasons for doing art. I think it applies. You know, we try to escape boredom. That’s why we do art.

HW – Ok. I like that. I’m interested in, I really like, a lot of those early video pieces in particular….

JB – Thank you.

HW – I think there’s something really interesting about the way in which they may be viewed differently as time progresses as well and I wondered, do you think, on the documentary I referred to I heard students talking about them and I’m assuming that you did use your work almost as a teaching resource, I don’t know whether that’s the right term, but where you might show things you were doing, to students, and that would kind of be a starting point. You said about showing things you were interested in or…..

JB – Well I didn’t show finished…I didn’t say “you know, look at my work”…

HW – No.

JB – I didn’t show them slides, but you know I think the way I approached it was to treat them as young artists rather than students and they would show me work they were working on, I would show them work I was working on, and sometimes I would help them on their work, they would help me on my work, so it was almost like a big collaboration in some way. The only difference was that I was older and they were younger.

HW – Yes. But in terms of, that’s a fantastic thing the approach of ‘they’re already artists’. I teach 11 – 18 year olds and that’s always been my idea that at 11 years old they’re an artist, at 18 years old they’re an artist, the way they make work at that age is the way they make work, it’s just up for discussion….

JB – Yes.

HW – We just talk about things, and I think it’s refreshing. It’s an exciting way to look at things. Again in that documentary the students were talking about a John Baldessari class being a lot of sitting around talking about stuff and people showing stuff and I really like that idea.

JB – Yeah well the metaphor I always use is that there has to be a wall between you and the students but you can keep the wall as low as you possibly can.

HW – That’s really nice. So when did you retire from teaching, I know you left CalArts in 1986 was it but….

JB – Yeah I got a Guggenheim fellowship so I was able to, you know in the mid eighties money started to come into the art market and my gallery started to sell some of my work so I was able to stop teaching. And then some years later the market took a dip again and I taught half-time at the University of California in San Diego, at Los Angeles, UCLA. Then when things got better I left again. So I haven’t taught for maybe 10 years.

HW – So do you think since, in the last 10 years, do you think your approach to the way you do things has changed, or perhaps it hasn’t, in respect to what you said earlier?

JB – I don’t think I’ve changed.

HW – The way you go about things is still the same way. Ok. One of the things I was interested in; you were really influential when you were at CalArts, not just in your teaching but also in the way that ended up gathering a team of people around you that were interesting…..

JB – Yes, yes.

HW – I read somewhere that you described your role as a bit like ‘Cupid’, kind of putting people together and seeing what happened, could you expand a little bit on that and explain, perhaps, your rationale when selecting artists that you wanted to work with?

JB – I think the approach I used, well Los Angeles there was a, perhaps I shouldn’t say it, but a dominant style, light and space artists, artists using plastics, and I thought there were a lot of other ways to do art. So I encouraged the faculty that we would not hire artists from Los Angeles we would hire artists only from New York or Europe. So there would be other sort of ways of doing art that the students would be exposed to. And then I developed a rigorous visiting artists programme, having artists coming from Europe and New York and they could stay as long as they wanted; a week, a month, whatever. So students really got a lot of exposure to practicing artists, but not from Los Angeles.

HW – So was it a very conscience effort, a conscience decision, to bring in the alien in a way. This isn’t what you’re going to bump into round the corner, so I’m going to make sure that you’re exposed to it. That sounds like an exciting thing for student to be exposed to.

JB – Well yes I think it’s important, you know as you mention, I said that I don’t think art can be taught, but I think a situation can be created where art might happen, and I think, as part of that, having working, practicing artists around students is a way to start. Students learn art, not just by listening but also by watching. You know you don’t know how they’re doing it.

HW – Yes, absolutely. In a way it’s one of those, one of the dilemmas in talking about this, I suppose, is the danger of trying to unpick what’s going on, the fear that if you come up with a formula….

JB – Yes, here’s an example, one of my early students was the artist David Salle. One of the artists I had out was the French artist Daniel Buran. And I said, David, work with Daniel all week, whatever he wants to do, drive him around. You take care of him. You see, I didn’t do any teaching there, I just set up a situation where David was going to learn a lot.

HW – I think it’s brilliant. We have a, in the school I teach in, we have an unusually large faculty of visual arts for a secondary school, and in a similar kind of way we, being very English, we built the faculty around the idea of it being somebody’s job to get in first in the morning and make sure that there’s a big pot of tea on the go. And then this idea that conversations happen. When I read that idea that David and Daniel sharing a car, I love the idea that you sort of set up circumstances where you know something is going to happen though you don’t necessarily know what that is?

JB – Well that’s a very good example of me playing Cupid, I just brought two people together.

HW – And something happens.

JB – Yeah. Well you hope something happens.

HW – As a teacher and artist myself I feel that my role, within the classroom, forces me to continually experiment and explore a wide range of media and approaches. You once said that one of the best things about teaching young artists was that some of them would eventually be your competition and you could get a head start. I wondered how you felt about, having been involved as a teacher for so much of your career, whether that had had a positive effect on the development of your own work and ideas?

JB – I don’t think so. I enjoy seeing students succeed, and feeling that I might have had a part in it, in the success, but that’s all. No I don’t think anything beyond that.

HW – Ok. Your work has often been labelled as conceptual, but you’ve gone on record as saying that all art is conceptual. And, as you’ve just mentioned, you’ve said that you believe one can’t teach art. Art education seems to have spent much of the past fifty years struggling to decide whether to teach skills or concepts or perhaps something else. What do you think is the most important thing to teach someone? Something you think was important that you’d like students to take away?

JB – Well I certainly mentioned that art should be fun, that students should enjoy what they’re doing, I mean that would be number one. I think that you can’t will to be an artist, I think I said that in that Tom Waits video. You have to be obsessed. You can’t will that. And since I don’t think art can be taught I really have no central thing to teach.

HW – No. I suppose not, fair enough. Before I went into teaching a friend said to me that I would never make any more art if I became a teacher. On the contrary I have found that teaching art has been the best way to maintain my practice and develop as an artist….

JB – You could come right back and say “if you’re gonna do art you’ll never teach!”

HW – There is that, of course. I read somewhere that you once described yourself as “a teacher and father first, artist second”. I really like the idea that you were making things as an artist despite/inspite/because of these commitments…..

JB – That wasn’t something where I made choices. I had gotten married, I had children, so I had to be responsible for my children, of course….

HW – Yeah. But history is full of artists who’ve not done that and I think there’s something brilliant about the idea that you described yourself as that but were 100% an artist; making things, continuing to make things, to develop things. There’s a kind of, I suppose there’s a modesty in the statement but there’s also something quite exciting about the idea of making stuff with these commitments and juggling these commitments and I wonder, I mean you’ve sort of answered this but I’ll ask it anyway, when do you think that changed? That description changed? Would it be purely, in the 80’s as you said, when suddenly the art market meant that things were going to be a bit easier?

JB – What was it I’d said about supporting my children? What was the quote?

HW – You’d described yourself, I just wondered whether there was a point, was it in the 80’s when suddenly the art market shifted that you would change that description, because I think that…..

JB – What was the description, tell me again?

HW – You’d said you were a ‘Teacher and father first, artist second”.

JB – Yes well the teaching and being a parent were givens, that was my life. I had to teach to support myself, I mean I couldn’t be a bum. I had a family. I had to support them, so they were intertwined. So once I was not able to teach I got a little bit, you know the burden was gone. But I’ve got to say I only thought I never neglected my children for art, at the time, I thought I was doing the best I could.

HW – Yeah. Ok I’ve got one last question….

JB – But you know if I was in a confessional booth I would have to admit that I always put art first.

HW – Well this is it, isn’t it. I have kids too and it’s about the balance. But you can’t ‘not be an artist’. It’s there all the time…..

JB – Well I think it literally destroyed my marriage. I’m divorced. I think that was one of the reasons. I was just too occupied with art.

HW – Ok, John, I’ve got one last question…

JB – Sure.

HW – You’ve referred to this already, and I think it’s an amazing thing, a Youtube sensation, this video. In the brilliant “A Brief History of John Baldessari”, narrated by Tom Waits, you said that you thought you might be remembered as the man who put dots on peoples’ faces. Your legacy to the art teaching profession, however, is undeniable and you are an incredibly inspiring figure in this field. How do you feel about the prospect of being remembered as a great artist, but also a great teacher?

JB – I don’t really care about being a great teacher. I just want to be remembered as a great artist.

HW – It’s a good answer but I think you will be remembered as both.

JB – Well I hope that my answers have been of use to you?

HW – Yes, thank you very much.