Coming…interviews with Sue
Coe, Mike Bidlo, James Hayward, John Miller, Mary Corse,
Osseus Labrynt or for copies of the transcripts you can
email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
JOHN BALDESSARI INTERVIEW
DVL: Do you have any art world jokes?
JB: God…I haven’t gotten any jokes lately.
DVL: That’s funny. Why isn’t anyone making
jokes about the art world? So what are some of the differences
in the way gallery business was conducted in the 60’s
and the 90’s?
JB: The way business was conducted in the 60’s is
that there was no business. Looking back at it I don’t
know how galleries stayed on. I think probably the way
it worked was that they would have maybe one person or
two that sold and those profits would support the rest
of the gallery. There was more commitment back then as
well. Now dealers want everyone to sell and they weed
out the people that don’t. It’s more like
business now. I’m not saying that committed galleries
don’t exist, that’s too harsh but in the ‘80’s
everyone got used to everybody selling. This goes for
artists as well. If they’re with a gallery and do
a show and nothing sells they think there’s something
wrong with the gallery and not with them and they’ll
say, "I’m going to this other gallery. So there’s
a lot of shopping around and one-night stands by artists
DVL: What aspect of the business do you find most difficult?
JB: The business part.
DVL: What stands out as the most annoying ongoing problem?
JB: Money. It’s always money.
DVL: You mean they’re not selling or not giving
you what they owe?
JB: Any and all of these reasons. Money is the lubrication
that makes the wheels turn. There has to be money there,
but somehow we always want it to be pure money. Like in
the MOCA show of conceptual art lots of artists got upset
that the money came from Phillip Morris. Well what money
isn’t tainted in some fashion?
DVL: Big money at least…
JB: But also there is just less money in the art world.
It’s pretty much done on a shoestring. People aren’t
printing catalogues like they used to or they aren’t
using four colors in posters anymore, just one. It’s
cheaper white wine at the openings. Cost cutting everywhere.
But that’s okay because I came into it when there
was no money anyway. I guess what’s most difficult
for me is the business of business. I just don’t
have a head for it. No expertise. I forget that it is
a business. I kinda think that it’s a wonderful
playground and it’s not. It’s a business.
If there is any money involved it’s not there because
they think you’re good looking. It’s because
they expect money back. A friend of mine said that you
should call gallery dealers merchants and then the relationship
becomes clear. There are artists who are also very astute
business people, it can happen, but a lot of the time
I am so much into what I’m doing I forget about
the business end.
I’m giving the gallery 50% of what I make but then
I have to hire someone to look after the people that are
looking after the 50% I make.
DVL: What aspect of the business do you find most useful?
JB: That I get paid to do something I would probably pay
DVL: What aspect of the way galleries do business would
you like to see changed?
JB: I would like to see galleries become more adventurous.
You always have to keep one foot on the shore and you
test what’s risky with the other foot. As one gallerist
put it "I’d like to show things I like but
I can’t…it’s a business.
DVL: Do you notice any difference in the way business
is handled in America and Europe?
JB: It’s pretty much the same.
DVL: There are galleries that withhold money owed to their
artists, then dole it out to them at their convenience.
Have you had any experience with these situations?
JB: Some artists use their gallery as a bank. They would
just rather have a set amount like a salary so that they
don’t blow it all at one time and that’s a
smart idea. Of course you have to have a lot of trust
in the gallery because you can be swindled and that’s
a problem. At its best the gallery is nurturing the artist
and it's trustworthy and is doling out money systematically.
Now if they are doling out money because they are using
the rest for other purposes, then that is unethical.
The old "I’ll pay you back later." And
the artist has no idea whether or not that will happen
unless the gallery sets up separate trust funds for each
artist, which doesn’t happen. A lot of galleries
failed in the 80’s because they were doing that.
They were paying their bills first and the artists last
if at all. And the artist has no way to check on it unless
every week they say, "Give me all my paintings back
and/or money". You have no way of getting an accounting
because any gallery can
falsify accountings. Just last night I was with a collector
from Boston and we were talking about unscrupulous galleries
and I asked about this one gallery in Philadelphia where
I had a show and they owed me money and she was totally
surprised. She said "Oh my god! We bought works of
yours from him!" So he got the money. I didn’t
get it. It’s not unusual. This is a chance that
galleries take…that a collector will tell you that
they bought a work that you didn’t receive money
DVL: Do you find that this practice is the exception to
the rule or common?
JB: I’ve been showing now since the late ‘60’s
and I’ve had a gallery in Philadelphia, Milan and
Paris turn sour so that’s in the minority. Three
galleries out of a lot more so I’d say it’s
DVL: the exception but not a rarity?
JB: If you’re doing a business and have money coming
in it’s called a cash flow and that’s what
keeps business afloat. You aren’t using your money
but other people’s (money) which works perfectly
well if business is good. If it’s not good you are
left with a lot of bills and you start saying that this
collector hasn’t paid or is slow in paying. Unless
the artist is very much on top of it, they are always
the last to get paid.
DVL: And dealers don’t like the artist to get on
JB: There’s no way the artist can.
DVL: What’s your definition of success?
JB: I was just reading a piece in the New York Times about
Paul Simon and the writer said Paul had that look of somebody
who’s saying "don’t look at me. Don’t
look at me. Don’t look at me. Don’t look at
me. LOOK AT ME!" Artists have egos and everybody
likes to be massaged. I think the danger is that you let
the tail wag the dog and you start believing your own
press clippings. It’s really difficult not to do
especially if you have quick success. You begin to think
the whole world should be at your feet. Maybe for that
year and then Boom! It’s gone and the world is at
somebody else’s feet. One has to have a long-term
view of it. I suppose I’d define success as people
listening to you in your work or that you are able to
occasionally bring your work past just an acceptable level
to a higher plane. But there you’re just pushing
yourself. It’s like an interior thing where you
are able to reinvent yourself a little bit more.
DVL: Do you remember an incident or time when you felt
you had finally achieved success?
JB: I suppose there are two kinds of success. An interior
and exterior. You can be working by yourself all your
life and you get to a point where you say, "I did
it! My god I did it!" Matisse talks about it in some
of his letters where he would get despondent and then
he realized whenever he did painting he was one slight
increment towards getting at what he wanted to do. I think
that’s a good way of doing it. You think "I’m
just repeating myself" but if you’re really
trying you’re not. You’re getting a little
closer and a little closer each time. But that’s
the interior thing. Then there’s the exterior thing
about being applauded by others. I think they’re
really quite separate. A lot of the exterior thing is
DVL: You really think so?
JB: Well again…it’s like when you were talking
about advising women who sit at home and moan about being
lonely to put on lipstick and get out. Well you can say
the same thing to an artist. Put on lipstick and get out!
There’s not a fairy godmother who’s going
to come tapping on their heads. As embarrassing and awkward
as it is you have to get out there and have other people
look at your work. It’s very discouraging because
you don’t know the people you’re exposing
yourself to. And then there’s the problem of collectors
looking at each other to see what they should do. There
are very few risk takers.
DVL: In terms of collectors?
JB: Yeah. There was this one collector I was talking to
last night who was asked by a museum to buy the work of
this wildly acclaimed young artist. They insisted they
must have one in their (the museum's) collection. So the
collector called the artist and said they needed a work
of his for the museum and how did he feel about it? Normally
an artist would say "Fine! Lets do it!" But
this artist said "No. They had their chance and could
have bought me when I wasn’t well known so I don’t
want you to do it." I thought that was a very ethical
thing to do. This museum didn’t have the courage
to buy when he was an unknown but had to wait until the
artist was established. There are very few people who
will take risks like that. So when you find a gallery
or museum curator who will take risks like that you want
to continue working with them.
DVL: Other than doing the work and putting on lipstick
and getting out, what else does an artist have to do to
JB: Well the rest is really…it’s like finding
a mate. It’s very akin to that. A marriage of minds.
The rest is just fate.
DVL: You achieved success later than your contemporaries.
What do you think turned it around for you?
JB: Well we’re assuming a given portion of talent.
Again, I think there’s some luck quotient. I was
teaching in a junior college and I was asked to teach
at the University of California in San Diego and on the
basis of that more people in the art world began to pass
through the University so I was meeting people I would
have never met. And luckily I had the right work at the
right time and they became interested in it and one thing
led to another. But it's just chance. If I hadn’t
gotten that job I’d probably still be back in National
City. So using the analogy of putting on lipstick and
getting out. I should have been in Los Angeles. National
City was about sitting at home and Los Angeles is about
DVL: Was there anything about success you didn’t
JB: Well it’s a rocky ride. I’ll tell you
that. Nobody is unaffected by success. It’s important
not to believe your press clippings. I heard of a very
successful actor who kept his old clothes and would occasionally
dress up and go back to his old bar to remember what it
was like. Success is like a merry-go-round that’s
easier to get on than off of…you tend to get less
time to do things you like to do. Drinks with friends,
DVL: When do you feel most successful these days?
JB: Again it’s about the interior/exterior. The
artist should be the harshest critic. I’m never
DVL: So when the work is working you feel fine?
JB: Yes. And the exterior thing is when I have the money
I need to keep doing the things I do.
DVL: That’s pretty straightforward. When the work
is going well and the check has cleared.
JB: Well the struggle for anyone in the arts is that you
can work at an outside job and you have enough money but
not the time to do your art or you can do your art and
not have enough money on which to live. The secret is
to get a balance between the two. I always loved Duchamp's
response to this issue, which was that an artist should
make living expenses plus ten percent.
DVL: Name some artists whose work you favor and whom you
also admire as people.
JB: One that always comes to mind is Sol Lewitt because
he’s a very intelligent artist and one who seems
to be able to continually reinvent himself. He’s
also a very good person. He buys young peoples’
art and he helps other artists in general and he’s
not snobbish. He seems to be all that I would ever want
DVL: Is there any artist that you feel has failed to get
the attention they deserve? Whom you feel has fallen through
JB: Gordon Matta-Clark!?
DVL: (chuckles) But seriously folks….
JB: There’s Richard Artschwagger. He’s a name
most people in the art world would recognize and yet I
think he should be even more famous. I think he’s
a very inventive artist and should be more famous. Everyone
agrees that he is a great artist so why isn’t he
more famous? I just don’t get it? Another artist
I’ve been really interested in and reading a lot
about is Phillip Guston. Vastly admired
as well and someone who I think should be really well
known. Again I don’t get it.
DVL: What is the most difficult obstacle you think artists
face these days?
JB: Well I’d want to say, themselves. Art is a thing
that nobody asks you to do. There’s no need for
it. The world doesn’t panic because there’s
not enough art this year. El Nino isn’t going to
affect it. It’s basically doing something that’s
gratuitous. Nobody is asking you to do it but you do it.
In your darkest moments you ask yourself, "Why don’t
I just get a life? Why am I doing this? Why don’t
I just grow up? There’s that old phrase ‘the
business of the world is business’ and I’m
certainly not doing that. I’m just masturbating"
And so I think that’s the greatest thing you have
to face which is why should I go on?"
DVL: What do you find most enjoyable about artists?
JB: With artists, anywhere you go in the world there’s
a common language. I found this out years back when there
was a show at the Pompidou in Paris. It was called Magicians
of the Earth and had artists from all cultures and all
ethnic groups. And even though I didn’t share their
language I found we could still communicate. You could
almost talk in sign language and you can just get it.
It’s a universal common denominator. I suppose plumbers
would say this about other plumbers… but I just
find artists more interesting to talk to.
DVL: What do you find most annoying about artists?
JB: Artists that name drop.
DVL: What function do you think artists perform in this
end of the millennium, visually overwhelmed, media saturated,
attention deficit disordered culture?
JB: I could be facetious and say to act as guides through
the trauma of the millennium.
DVL: Was there ever an avenue of interest you regret not
JB: Well that’s an existential question in the sense
that any direction you do take means saying no to others
and you could never know if you’ve made the right
choice. I suppose I’ve always thought I should have
DVL: Do you have any quirky habits when you start to work?
JB: Well obviously there’s procrastination in its
many various guises and forms. That urgent need to suddenly
polish your nails and sort out your socks.
DVL: Is there a specific approach you take when beginning
to work? A particular ritual.
JB: Well I think of the symbol for the creative process
as a funnel. You have this barrage of information around
you that comes in the large end and dribbles out the small
end. It gets sorted out. I try to keep a 360 degree radar.
It might be something someone says, an image I see, something
I thought of in the shower while brushing my teeth. Something
suddenly goes "click." There are ideas that
do and should remain in your notebook or your head and
those that cry out to be executed get done. If you keep
on thinking about it you probably need to take some action.
I also believe that what you’d call armchair philosophy
can only go on so long, theorizing. I believe ideas come
out of working. You just can’t do it all sitting
in a chair.
DVL: What is most frustrating to you about making artwork?
JB: Having an idea that is stillborn. Something you’d
like to do and it’s just stupid. It has the life
of a fruit fly. It’s that alchemy or magic in making
something that will stay alive. It’s always unnerving
for me to see a work I haven’t seen in twenty years
and to see if it’s still going to be alive for you
or just an embarrassment. You say "Oh my god! I’m
so sorry that you’ve had this corpse in your house
all these years!"
DVL: I’ve always said time is the only critic. What’s
most enjoyable to you about making art?
JB: When I’m doing art and things are going well
I really wonder how things could ever be better.