Feature

Interview with John Baldessari (1973)

Moira Roth
John Baldessari, <em>Prima Facie: Intent / Concerned</em>, 2005.

John Baldessari, Prima Facie: Intent / Concerned, 2005. Archival digital print on ultrasmooth fine art paper mounted on museum board, dimensions variable. Courtesy John Baldessari.

Photography theorist Liz Wells once noted that the paradox of fashion is that it has to be simultaneously timeless and timely. I am reminded of this when I read John Baldessari’s words and see his art, both of which have sustained historical significance and contemporary insights for over four decades. As one of Baldessari’s students in graduate school at UCLA, I found him to be tremendously influential and one of the most supportive mentors I encountered. At 74, he still teaches art at UCLA, continues to exhibit throughout the world, and works out four days a week with a personal trainer.

Moira Roth interviewed John Baldessari at his residence in Santa Monica, California, on January 6, 1973, for her University of California at Berkeley dissertation, entitled “Marcel Duchamp and America, 1915-1974.” The text below came to X-TRA from Naomi Sawelson, who edited it based on a new transcription of the audiocassettes in Roth’s possession. A few excerpts from an earlier (c. 1973) transcription have appeared in the catalogs of Baldessari’s retrospective exhibitions at The New Museum, New York (1981) and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1990).1 Below is the first publication of an extensive version of Roth and Baldessari’s original conversation.

I recently interviewed Baldessari as a follow up to the 1973 interview. I asked him about some of the themes that arose
in that original conversation with Moira Roth, inquiring as to how much he thought things had changed since the ‘70s. In particular, I asked him to speak to any differences in his views on teaching, the use of language in his work, and the role of galleries in the art world. His replies indicated that he continues to consider teaching to be an important part of his practice. He also responded that he had recently read that there are three levels in a person’s teaching career. “The first one is where you think you know it all, and then the last one is that you don’t know anything. It becomes more interesting to let the students lecture you. …I listen a lot more now.”

Baldessari’s recent show at Margo Leavin saw his return to the language-image parity of his pioneering postmodern ideas in
the 1970s. I asked him about the fact that he used language in his early practice, but for years afterwards he worked only with imagery. He replied, “At first it was an interesting battle to get language accepted as art. But when I could see that the battle had been won, that made it less interesting. And I felt uneasy about exhibiting things that were just in English. It’s ok if you’re in an English speaking country, but if you’re in a country where English is not the dominant language, then it feels a little imperialistic.”

In the recent series, Baldessari presents a series of diptychs that juxtaposes a movie-still close-up of an actor’s face with an equally sized image of a word that describes the emotional disposition that they portray. Of the work he explained, “What I was trying to do was find equivalents—one word that would have the same weight as the photograph. But knowing that, one, I’m using actors and actresses, and what they do is fake emotion, and then trying to figure out if I saw a person with that face that I might think they were angry or suspicious or unpleasant or whatever, but I could be entirely wrong. Who knows? That’s why I call it Prima Facie — first sight; that’s how we jump to conclusions. …The image size and text size are equal. I’ve always had this idea that a word and an image are interchangeable.”

Despite three retrospective exhibitions in the last year, and gallery shows around the world, Baldessari remains gracious. On the inevitability that he might be an art world celebrity,
he remarked, “I think it is a danger when one pays attention
to press; you get to believe it. …Yeah, now and then I’ll see somebody who’ll stop me on the street and ask me if I am who
I am. And I momentarily think ‘this is crazy’ but then I forget about it.” I asked Baldessari if he told people that “he was who he was” when they asked. He smiled and bashfully replied, “Yeah.”

— Micol Hebron, August 2005

Moira Roth: You said you were interested in talking about Duchamp. Is there any particular statement by Duchamp that is important to you?

John Baldessari: He said so many things that can be interpreted variously, that can get deciphered in as many ways as you want. For instance, I was reading the [Bruce] Nauman catalog again, where [Marcia] Tucker quotes Duchamp talking to some critic who said, “Well, what you do best is the way you use your time.” The way Tucker saw this statement was that Duchamp used time as an art activity.2 But what Duchamp meant — and this is my take on it, knowing what I know of Duchamp — was that he
just enjoyed living, walking around, eating in restaurants, talking, nothing in any conscious way as art. Duchamp was just having a good time, but having a good time in an incredibly sophisticated way that’s very disarming because it looks very simple. And it’s that attitude of not caring in his work that has been intriguing to me. Also, Duchamp always keeps art a little bit off balance.

Roth: Does your interest in Duchamp have to do with art history or with your own work?

Baldessari: Probably both. Although I thought I’d seen everything of his in the assemblage show,3 I remember when I opened [Robert] Lebel’s book4 and saw all his things together, it was as if I had been hit between the eyes, like I’d come across some long lost relative. All of a sudden I felt I had a home, that I wasn’t so strange.

Roth: Was that to do with language?

Baldessari: Probably it was, though probably then I didn’t understand this. At the time, I was trying to get away from art schools and had gone to San Diego to work through
a lot of things to find out what I was about rather than following certain models—and it came out that I was more interested in language than in painting.

Roth: If you were interested in language, why didn’t you write?

Baldessari: Well, I guess I’d always wanted to. All through school, I could always spell very well, write moderately well, and always loved looking up words. Words have always been a fascination for me. They’re so very magical. And words just seem to me a very viable material to use in a creative way. We always think about using forms in some creative way and that seems interesting to me, but no more interesting than using words.

Roth: Didn’t you plan to be a critic at one time?

Baldessari: I started an art history graduate degree at Berkeley [in 1954] because I wanted to be an art critic, but I didn’t find what I wanted at Berkeley. The curriculum was pretty much all archaeology. I didn’t do that well in art history, so I thought that what I did best was to paint.

Roth: What kind of paintings did you do?

Baldessari: Well, I had a funny idea about art history, which was rather cloudy. When I began college [at San Diego State] I didn’t know who Matisse was, or Picasso. I remember taking a basic art history course and just being horrified at seeing a Matisse, and the instructor said to me, “You know, tastes change, you’ll probably like him!” And sure enough by the end of the year I was copying every brush stroke of Matisse. Then I got into some kind of a cross between the structure of Cézanne and a three-dimensional configuration of Matisse, and then, working from that into some of the ideas of Pollock and Abstract Expressionism. I kept on adding things to the surface—just like Braque adding sand and collage material, I would add tar and canvas and pins to try to get more of a viscous surface going. Then I began to get into Dada and Surrealism, and saw there a way to get out from the surface, to go out from it. And then from that work—in which I sort of figured out some of the ideas of Cubism using portions of words and letters—I began
to photograph torn-down buildings that I would use as source material. They provided a model for the kind of
an image that I wanted. They would have bits of words in them, and I was interested in using those words, although fairly decoratively. And then I began to get billboard material, and I would do single words or parts of words.

Roth: Did you have friends who were doing the same thing?

Baldessari: I had a friend, a close friend, who was very interested in Dada, and we sprung ideas off one another, although he was more interested in the assemblage quality of it. Then I came to an impasse. I would always copy down fragments of conversation I’d hear or maybe a couple of words, or I’d see them someplace and I’d copy them down, and I’d use them in paintings.

Well, I got to a point where I could see that although it was interesting to me in a notebook, why did I have to put it
on a canvas and deal with it visually? And this is where
I really had to do some hard thinking. There was some sort of transition about there because I had gotten into Wittgenstein—his sentences—and so I became interested in the fragmentary nature of the work and began to make parts of paintings, rather than paintings.

Roth: What were your “parts of paintings” like?

Baldessari: Just as if you’d take a painting and tear it up. They’d be fragments of the whole, but actually they were quite big. They were metal, and I would bend the metal so they would look like fragments of paper. When I exhibited them [in 1966 at the La Jolla Museum of Art], I scattered them in a room. I found it curious when I was reading the Nauman catalog, that he was doing something similar;
his fiberglass pieces were meant to be parts of paintings. I liked the whole idea of incompleteness, where you could figure out the whole thing from one little bit, like shards of ancient pottery you’d see at the Metropolitan [Museum of Art in New York].5 At that point I started to do these things.

Roth: How would you describe those “things”?

Baldessari: Well, they are in two parts: one would have
an image and lettering, and some would be all lettering. 
At first, what I was going to do was to have one sentence I’d taken out of an art history book and to have several sign painters letter it with no instructions. I’d just give them the surface, and say “Letter this on that.” And then what would go on would be a kind of connoisseurship, comparing how each sign painter handled it. But then I got to the second sign painter and I liked him so much — or maybe I got disenchanted with the project, that I just decided to… Oh, I know what it was! I had one of those hanging up in my house, and I cut every other painting. I couldn’t figure out why, whether it was the visual thing—you know how you get hypnotized by print—or whether it was what it said, or what I knew. But clearly something was happening, so I decided to go on and do more statements that I found in art history text books, photography, definitions and so on. I would type them out. That’s all I would do. An assistant then would make the canvas and take the statement and the canvas down to the sign painter, and the sign painter would letter them, and I’d get them back.

Roth: When was this?

Baldessari: That was about late ’66.6 It went through ’67. I think mid-’68 I stopped.

Roth: Did you choose statements at random, just open art history books and pick out something?

Baldessari: Not random. Oh, sure, I was scanning and I would go through a lot of stuff, but there usually would
be something that made a comment on the state of
art that was really an in-language that maybe only a
few other artists would understand. I also did some lighted messages—there’s one up on the wall there, it’s
a dictionary definition of isocephaly, where it talks about characters all being in the same height, like in a frieze. And, of course, in the lighted message all the letters are in the same height and they are like a frieze, so it would be self-reflective, talking about itself.7

Also, at that point I realized that I had stopped doing work by myself and I was having other people do it. And along with those pure statements were these images of National City. Something perverse was going on there, too. I was thinking about painting and abstract painting, and then realized that what people really wanted was to recognize something—it was an era of Abstract Expressionism where it was a real sin if you had anything recognizable — and so I said, “Why fight it? Why don’t you just give people what they want, something they can understand very easily, and try that.” And then I said, “Well, there’s also that I have to try to paint it, do a photograph.” So I found this liquid emulsion and began working with that. The first one I did was kind of interesting. I like it because I was still being painterly about the way I put on the emulsion. The other ones get pretty pure after that.

Roth: Did you specifically choose what you were going to photograph?

Baldessari: I would drive around National City where I was living and randomly shoot out of the window with the camera without even looking and drive with the other hand. Wherever I shot, I would note down the location.

In another series, I matched random photographs with statements. For instance, there’d be a statement about photography—about how the eye depicted, how the picture frame shouldn’t be divided in half—and then
I’d have a photograph with maybe a post right down the middle, and I’d match those two. Or in another one, I’m standing in front of a palm tree—you’re not supposed
to stand in front of trees because they look like they’re growing out of your head — with an inscription that came from a book on composition about the right way and the wrong way.8 You’d have the right image and the wrong image. I loved that there’d be wrong things, so that’s why I titled it Wrong.

Roth: And you took these photographs too?

Baldessari: No, Carol [Wixom] did them.9 Then there’s another of me looking down the road [The Spectator is Compelled (1966-68)]—like the guy standing in the middle of the railroad tracks illustrating one-point perspective— and there’d be a statement about how it’s bad to compose this way because your eye is led immediately into the middle of the picture, and that’s supposed to be bad. The image comes from a book on perspective.10 So I was just trying to do everything wrong, and see if that would be right; I figured I had nothing to gain, nothing to lose. And then from there it was an easy jump to get into straight photographs, movies, and video.

Roth: Was all this involved with books or paintings or friends, or was it just you being very apart from things?

Baldessari: I was living in National City, apart from any cultural center. I read a lot, and the works were completely out of my reading. I’d spend a lot of time in library stacks.
I always did, all my life, just thumb through things. I’d read almost every art magazine ever printed, every art book—there probably wasn’t a book on art printed that
I didn’t know about. But I got into Wittgenstein because somebody turned me on to him. Also it gets to you by word of mouth whom you should read, like Merleau-Ponty and Lévi-Strauss.

Roth: When you lived in National City, were you teaching?

Baldessari: Yes, I was teaching a whole gambit of jobs. I was teaching in a high school, then a junior high school and I quit that. Then I was doing part-time jobs, like adult school, university extension, and junior college. I finally decided that I was doing a full-time job teaching art part- time, so when they offered me a job in this junior
college where I was [Southwestern College in Chula Vista], I took that.

Southwestern was a really hip school. They bought a Bruce Nauman—the one that says “dark”—for the sculpture collection; I lost my job on that one.11 Then, when the University [of California] was moving into San Diego, I met Paul Brach, who was the chairman down there. I 
was talking with him at a party and he asked me how many hours did I teach a week, and I said, “Oh, forty-five.” “That’s ridiculous,” he said, “Why don’t you come to work for us?” So he gave me a studio, and I only had to teach about twelve hours. And then when he moved to CalArts [California Institute of the Arts], he asked me to come along with him, so I moved up here.

Roth: When did you first start showing?

Baldessari: Well, my whole involvement with art in the public scene has been fairly late in my life. When I got
out of art school, I tried the gallery rounds and was so discouraged that I thought, God, just forget it, I was going to paint for myself and for other artists. I really was a closet artist. I didn’t know how to get into the galleries— that situation — so I set works up as shows. I have a whole list of those kinds of shows, like juried shows, that sort of thing. Then I tried again around ’67, ’68. I guess I had just completely shut out the idea of showing when things began to escalate. David Antin, who was down in San Diego — he came to teach at the university the same time I did — took a real interest in my work and encouraged me.

David was tremendously supportive. He was going around saying that I was the best artist he had seen on the West Coast. That just bowled me over and gave me some belief in myself. He literally got me a show in Los Angeles, and then talked me up in New York.

John Baldessari, <em>The Spectator is Compelled</em>, 1966 – 68.

John Baldessari, The Spectator is Compelled, 1966 – 68. Acrylic and photo emulsion on canvas, 59 x 45 inches. Courtesy John Baldessari.

Roth: Was there anyone else who was interested in your work?

Baldessari: When I did the statements and those other works, I showed them around Los Angeles and people just laughed. In California, the whole idea of plastic and so on was one I couldn’t get into and I knew I couldn’t do that. I felt nobody was interested in what I was doing. I showed my work to Nicholas Wilder. He was a little better, but he said he was at a loss. He thought Richard Bellamy might be interested. So Wilder got me together with Bellamy when he was out here, and also Walter De Maria — he was doing a show then in L.A. at Wilder’s gallery [in April 1968] — and they all came to look at my things. They didn’t say anything. And then Bellamy said, “Well, I don’t quite understand what you’re doing either, but here are the names of people who might be interested in your work in New York. I don’t know what they’re doing, but it seems like you might be interested in what they’re doing.” And so I thought there was a whole world for me in New York, and I decided to go and find out what that was all about.

It was ridiculous. I just pounded the pavement, went from gallery to gallery to gallery. I remember going into one gallery and somebody was screaming at this artist: “I don’t want to see any of your slides!” Oh God, it was really a terrorizing experience doing all of that.

Roth: But you did finally show in New York?

Baldessari: In ’68 at [Richard] Feigen’s downtown gallery— Feigen was the second gallery in downtown New York after Paula Cooper—in its first show, a group show, and then I had a solo show with him after that [in 1970].12 Actually Feigen was the one gallery I didn’t have any introduction to. I just walked in. About a year ago, I talked to a secretary there who said, “Oh, yes, we always used to call you ‘the artist who walked in off the street.’” I didn’t realize it was so unusual. But then, after a while, you begin to build up some currency and it’s not so hard.

Roth: Did you meet other artists in New York and talk about or show them your work?

Baldessari: Well, Paul Brach gave me a lot of names of people to see there but I didn’t know they were all first and second generation abstractionists, so when I showed them my work, they said, “Ha, ha.” I didn’t know whom 
to talk to! Finally, however, I got to talk to some people from the list that Bellamy gave me—Mel Bochner, Dan Graham, Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth. Actually, I was very surprised how open artists were in New York. I would just call up anybody who I wanted to meet and they’d say, “Sure, come on over,” and that was really fantastic. I don’t think that happens so much in California because of distances, no artists’ bars. Whereas in New York, all you do is go to a bar and hang out and talk about art. I don’t know how to express this, but when I began to meet artists in New York, it was a burst of energy for me simply because they’re into a whole different attitude about talk. And that was a kind of unveiling for me. Also when I was in New York, I found that there were other people interested in similar things that I was, and liked to talk about art. So that, and Europe, were very important to me.

Roth: How was Europe important?

Baldessari: Well, there was a German art critic—Hans Strelow — full-time in New York who wrote for the Frankfurter Allgemeine and followed my work, and unbeknownst to me was writing about it in Germany. He was a good friend of Konrad Fischer, and suggested me to Konrad—although other people had recommended me, too, such as Sol LeWitt, who liked my work a lot, I think. So that’s how I got my first solo show in Europe. 
But while there was some interest in my work, I couldn’t see why Konrad would be interested because the artists he was showing, like LeWitt and Carl Andre, were real formalist people, and I really didn’t feel into that at all. I guess though Konrad sensed a common denominator, or he felt there was a similar mind. Konrad — who was an artist himself and then gave it up to start his gallery in Düsseldorf—would show something in the gallery, maybe drawings or photographs or plans or something. That wasn’t important. The idea of his gallery was not so much to show art but to bring American artists over to Germany, to get them into the culture and talk with German artists. So he would bring the artist over, and what was important was that you were there.

Roth: Why do you think there was more interest in your work in Europe than here?

Baldessari: I don’t know whether it’s me in particular. I think, generally, more ephemeral work has currency in Europe than in the United States.

Roth: Has that to do with money?

Baldessari: Well, I’m at a loss to nail it down, and I’ve heard countless arguments about it. But certainly, money enters in the whole postwar-Europe situation. All the European museums are well endowed and funded. I know a lot of the German artists would grumble, thinking, “Well, they don’t show us at all.” But at that point, there was still an infatuation with America, so American art would get shown over there in museums, because you’ve always have to have a new show on, right? And before long, a lot of new American artists were showing in Europe who had never been shown here. Also, the galleries in New York are a big money proposition. At that time, all the New York galleries were uptown, and at a minimum a gallery is going to be paying two grand a month for rent alone so that the gallery isn’t going to take any chances on anybody. So all these artists, who were really pretty interesting but with no names, were being picked up and shown in Europe because galleries there have a very low overhead. It may be that the New York downtown gallery scene was also a result of Americans showing over in Europe—they picked up the message that you don’t have to have a posh place to show art. It seems pretty obvious. But now it’s all getting very posh downtown, so the lesson has been lost, I guess. A lot of those New York galleries have duplicated what they have uptown downtown, and they’ve not learned anything at all.

Roth: Are there any other differences between the New York gallery scene, or art scene in general, to that in Europe?

Baldessari: Well, another thing that’s crucial, I think, is
 the whole legacy of art in Europe. In Europe, art is really something—I mean, an artist is a recognized member of society over there and when the artist says something it’s on the front page. That doesn’t happen here because art’s still kind of a toy, something you do. Here we really haven’t gotten out of the mechanical age yet. We have farmers and technologists, all of the idea of making life simple so we can get into the leisurely pursuit of knowledge, but we still feel guilty about this knowledge. We still have to build things and move things. Art isn’t something that’s given any credence at all. In California, an artist is like a rare plant, and if you look away for a while it might wither. Nor do we have any art monuments around us every day, like someone growing up in Florence where it’s all around. We’re beginning to spot things in our own culture and giving them currency but they’re really not labeled.

Roth: What are you doing now?

Baldessari: Currently I’m working on some videotapes, and in a week or so I’m going to start some film, some photographic things, and some written material—that seems to be a convenient vehicle.

Roth: Are you doing paintings?

Baldessari: I haven’t done any paintings since ’65 or ’66.

Roth: Then you truly meant it in the Software show with the Cremation Piece—you really did burn all your paintings?13

Baldessari: Oh, yes.

Roth: How did it feel to do that?

Baldessari: Well, it was therapeutic for me and I had
to make a ritual out of that at the time, although I look back on it now and I think it should have been more of
a private ritual, that I didn’t need to advertise it. But I think then I had to advertise it. It’s sort of like when you’re dieting, you’re supposed to put a picture of yourself on the refrigerator door and tell people you’re dieting, so
that if you don’t diet, then they say, “Well, I thought you were dieting.” So if anybody caught me painting, they’d say, “I thought you’d stopped painting.” And painting, too, seemed exhausted at the time. It still seems exhausted to me, except for a few people. Everybody who’s pretty much interesting now isn’t working in painting. But I can’t say that I’d never get back to painting.

Roth: Have you ever done drawings?

Baldessari: Yes. But the drawings I do, I wouldn’t exhibit, because they’re simply to convey information. I always carry around a notebook in my back pocket and make some shorthand note to jog my memory.

Roth: Do you write snatches of conversation in your notebooks?

Baldessari: Yes, I always did. Conversation always meant
a lot to me, and so much of my work comes out of it. Somebody will say things that change the way I view things, or it seems to be so beautiful, that I have to write it down.

Paul Brach once said I had 360-degree perception, something like radar. He said while I’m talking about something, my radar is going around, so I’m catching everything in the room that’s being said and done. And 
I guess that’s true. I have a real garbage-can kind of mentality, picking up all kinds of peripheral information. That always bogged me down a lot in school. I would always remember all of the incidental information, but never remember the main points. I would know somebody’s grandmother’s name on his father’s side or something. And, of course, once I would read that, I could no more get that out of my mind than I could get what he did important in history into my mind. One seemed much more important to me than the other.

John Baldessari, <em>Cremation Project</em>, 1970.

John Baldessari, Cremation Project, 1970. Five color photographs of Cremation, framed graphic “John Anthony Baldessari” with dates of cremated works, bronze urn in shape of book (9.5 x 8.25 x 7.5 inches), flat bronze
plaque that states “John Anthony Baldessari” with dates of Cremation works (9.45 x 16.14 inches), mounted affidavit (8.5 x 11.75 inches), cookies in jar; dimensions variable. Courtesy John Baldessari.

Roth: Have you ever written poetry?

Baldessari: Poetry? Yes. Well, I like writing a lot. That’s why I’ll say it with writing.

Roth: But you haven’t written criticism?

Baldessari: I’ve had a lot of opportunities recently to do various pages for magazines, and, well, I guess it’s put up or shut up. I don’t do it because I think somehow that I don’t want to do any kind of apology or exposition. I want just to do the work I do. I don’t have enough time. And because I do a lot of reading, I have a feeling what good writing is, and I always will be falling short of that.

Roth: Are you talking about writing in terms of elegance?

Baldessari: Yes. When I write, I think a lot about the rhythm, of how the words sound, of how they look on a page. I’m aware that somebody can always look at that.

Roth: Do you think very carefully about any text you do?

Baldessari: Well, the most recent thing was those parables I wrote, Ingres and Other Parables. They’re coming out in a book, with translations in German, French and Italian.14
 I had a lot of rounds with the various translators. They’d say, “How about this word?” and I’d say, “No, that wouldn’t be good.” Or they’d say, “Why don’t you punctuate it this way?” and I’d say, “No, it has to be this way. I thought about all that, and the syntax, the sequence, has to be this way.” And, you know, I rewrote those things, and rewrote them and rewrote them, so they have a certain, funny kind of rhythm. They just seem very offhand, but they’re not at all.

Roth: Do you want that discrepancy between the texts being written very carefully yet appearing very casual?

Baldessari: I think any good art is deceptively simple. I remember Matisse talking about putting the drawing back on the anvil twenty times—which was a great metaphor— so it looks effortless.15 But that’s another thing: to make something seemingly effortless is a difficulty too. It’s tough. It’s just the hardest thing in the world. People will look at it and say, “Well, that can’t be art. It’s just too easy.” But then, there’s easy and there’s easy. It’s the same old argument, “My kid can do that.” I guess now the argument has to change from “My kid can paint like that” to “My kid can write like that.”

Roth: Are you going to do more writings like the parables?

Baldessari: I do something to where I’ve demonstrated to myself, or made my point, and then I stop. It just doesn’t interest me any longer. The stories in Ingres and Other Parables were fun and I could go on with that, but I’ve made my point. When you are telling a parable or a fable, you can also take it at a story level, and that is what I set myself to deal with. Those stories came out of a very simple comment in my notebook that said “Tell stories like Jesus.”16 I liked the whole idea of teaching with a
story — not naming names or anything, or being heavy. You know, there is an implicit moral going on.

Roth: Is that similar to the work you did where you talk about different problems, and that one should consider one’s compensation [Solving Each Problem As It Arises (1967)]?

Baldessari: Well, I love all those kind of statements because they’re like self-help; they’re like Norman Vincent Peale.17 I guess a lot of it comes from teaching and having all those free books coming across my desk and looking 
at them. You read all that stuff and you’ve got to agree it’s true, but so what?

Roth: Does the videotape Choosing (A Game for Two Players) (1972) talk about the same things?

Baldessari: No. I did a variety of things there. I guess what videotapes allow me to do is to work in time, which I enjoy, because I’ve always been interested in movies and in music. It’s always bothered me going to museums and seeing things on the wall—one, two, three—and I always wonder what happens in the space between two paintings. When I was teaching painting, I used to give exercises to students where they would have to put a reproduction postcard on a canvas, let’s say, a van Gogh, and they would have to extend it out to a six-foot canvas what van Gogh might have seen beyond that. Or put a Picasso postcard up here and a Matisse down here, and they have to start painting out with Matisse and down there with Picasso, and make the two worlds merge as a total ground rather than piecemeal. Video and film allows me to do that. Also the nice thing about video, it’s like a movie-Polaroid. You instantly see what you are doing and react to that and go on from there, whereas film you have to send to a lab, look at rushes, and so on. One video that I enjoyed doing a lot—I made the first version here and I did the second version over in Germany [for Prospect 71] — is Folding Hat. It was just folding a hat, for about thirty minutes. It was a very boring activity.

Roth: When you were doing that, there was some sort of sound to go with it?

Baldessari: I was just whistling [an aria from the opera The Barber of Seville].

Roth: Did the idea of Folding Hat come from some text?

Baldessari: A lot of my works arise out of chance comments, from a text, a conversation. Well, for Folding Hat, I remember some writer said a work had no more ephemerality, no more durability, even than a hat. That stuck in my mind because it was not a current critic who said it but someone like [Amédéé] Ozenfant.18 And then I was talking to a friend about wearing hats in high school, and I said, “Oh, we never wore any hats,” and he said he did, and that you would fold hats and by the way you folded it, it would be a code, so somebody would know the code and you could fold certain messages.

Roth: When you showed the video in Germany, was there any mention of these associations?

Baldessari: No. If anything comes across, it’s an impetus to make it. I don’t think any of that came across, though it might have.

Roth: Would it matter if it did?

Baldessari: No, I don’t think so. I think at some base level, it probably would have an appeal because people can identify with folding, feeling the hat, feeling the felt and so on. I think you have memories of shaping things like that. Also, I liked the idea of the hat being very sculptural and just changing all the time.

John Baldessari, Commissioned Painting: A Painting by Jane Moore, 1969.

John Baldessari, Commissioned Painting: A Painting by Jane Moore, 1969. Acrylic and oil on canvas, 59.25 x 45.5 inches. Courtesy John Baldessari.

Roth: Were you curious of how people reacted to it?

Baldessari: Yes, I’m curious about what people have to say. I remember once I was in a group show at Reese Palley
in San Francisco—I stopped off to see it on my way to Seattle — and somebody left me a note.19 And I could tell from what they wrote that they really did understand what I was doing. Now and then you hear things like that, but it’s usually five years after you’ve done something. You just never get any immediate feedback. But you know that just being human, that you’re going to hit a chord with some other human in some place, and it gives you the courage to take more chances. So it was really a surprise that Folding Hat was a take-off success in Germany. I knew it was a good tape, but I didn’t think it was anything extraordinary. Perhaps in Germany there might have been some connection with Joseph Beuys’ hat that the people were relating to, but I have no idea if that was true.

Roth: Were the reasons you did those similar to that series of paintings where someone else would do them?

Baldessari: That Commissioned Paintings series came out of a comment, too. Although I was certainly aware of Duchamp’s Tu m’, the photographs I did of pointing to things were triggered by someone who was complaining to me about Conceptual art who said, “Well, Al Held says that’s nothing but pointing to things.” And then I had a conversation with David Antin. We both like Sunday painters, or buck-eye painters, and the argument went something like this: a lot of those guys painted really well, except that the subject matter they chose blanked that out for us. So I went to one exhibit after another until I finally found a person who I really thought painted pretty well, and I would ask if they’d like to do it. It took a long time finding them.

Roth: So you chose the subject matter?

Baldessari: Well, I didn’t even do that. I forced it a little bit. I would take a handful of slides I’d selected and say to them, “Pick out any one of these and paint it, but don’t try to make art, just paint it as straight as you can, and the art will take care of itself.” I loved the idea that these things would get exhibited in some place where they would never normally be exhibited, and that the painters would be using a subject matter they would not normally use. On one hand, it’s a real old-fashioned case of connoisseurship. When I was showing these at Feigen, some guy was comparing all the thumb nails on every hand. That was exactly one of the things I wanted to happen. The other idea was not even touching the works. I had one in the ’69 Whitney painting annual [A Painting by Pat Perdue (1969)].

Roth: Are there parallels with video where you make the image and someone else does the recording of it?

Baldessari: With video it doesn’t matter. Sometimes other people would do it, and sometimes I would do it. I don’t think video takes a lot of skill. It’s somehow just pointing at something, like doing a snapshot. With super-8 film, you can do that too. But when you get into 16mm, you need flatboards and editing, and those take a little skill. You can teach yourself that or you can get somebody else to do
it. But something I constantly keep in front of me is that what’s important is the idea, and to try not to get bogged down in busy work. Where I can afford it and I don’t feel I have to do it, I let somebody else do it. Especially in the case of photographs. I can process photographs very well — I used to have my own darkroom for a long time — and
one way especially I try to keep out of that is that I start making pretty photographs, which I can make very easily, but that’s what I don’t want to do. So I just shoot and then I just print exactly what it is, and don’t do negative crop, or lighten here and darken there.

Roth: Are you getting more interested in sound? You mentioned that the two departments at UCSD [University of California, San Diego] and CalArts that have most intrigued you are the music departments?

Baldessari: Oh, yes. I’ve learned a lot. We have this World Music department at CalArts with Indian music, Japanese shadow plays and so on. They’re tremendously appealing to me because they just start and there’s no high point and then they end, whereas there’s a whole Western aesthetic of beginning high, peaking out at a high point and ending. But there’s more than sound to do with it.

It’s something about the ongoing-ness of it. There’s time. But it’s syntactical too. For instance, I find myself putting photographs on a wall and arranging them like a musical composition or a sentence. I love the flow. I hate the single thing. And also there’s so much investigation going on about drone music, where potentially it’s very boring.

Roth: Are you interested in the idea of boredom?

Baldessari: Very much, yes. I remember Sol LeWitt phrased it very well for me. He said, “Once you work through boredom, it gets pretty interesting.”

Roth: I was wondering about teaching, because you’ve taught for a number of years now. Do you like teaching?

Baldessari: I enjoy teaching a lot. Although I initially got into it just as a way of supporting myself, I found I was pretty good at it. I don’t make a great deal of separation between communication by teaching, and communication by the work I do. I find it very much the same. In one case I’m there, and in the other case I’m incognito, but I hope I’m getting essentially the same message out. I think I do. One thing I try to do a lot with students is to keep them off balance, also imparting an attitude that I have of simply being skeptical, of being perverse, not believing everything I read and so on.

Roth: You said earlier that’s why Duchamp interests you, that he keeps art off balance.

Baldessari: Yes, I see a kinship of lines there. There’s a real serious unseriousness going on, whereas too much art
I look at is just too serious, which is okay, but something within me rejects that.

Roth: Why do you reject that?

Baldessari: Basically, I’m perverse. Somebody tells me
to do one thing and I’ll do the other thing, just out of spite. So the more pressure there would be to be serious, the less I could become serious. But I use that serious- unserious in a very special way. I think Charles Manson, somewhere, is quoted as saying during his trials that the only sense is nonsense.20 I’m sure he cribbed that from somebody else. But it’s true, you know. When I read the newspapers, I laugh just over straight news. So maybe the only way to make sense out of the world is to do nonsense.

It’s probably too simplistic of an equation, but I love
 the idea that in a world of things for use, of doing just gratuitous things. And to make people stumble a bit. That’s where it gets very much like Zen, like cracking somebody over the head with a timber and giving them enlightenment. Well, they’re countless stories that teach 
a very different sense of order — like Thelonious Monk in his apartment hanging pictures askew and his wife going back and straighten them and he would hang them askew again, or a painting instructor having people paint on 
one foot.21 We don’t know that the color red universally means danger and blood; to another culture it might mean something else. So it’s a whole thing about presenting alternatives, another way of seeing the world. I think we’re beginning to realize that the whole idea of rationality really hasn’t gotten us that far, that it has gotten us mired down and brought us to conclusions that we don’t really want.

We’re beginning to explore other attitudes. I recall that the Salk Institute was beginning to consider having artists sitting in on some of their sessions, in a real think-tank atmosphere. Artists sometimes have a way of seeing the world from another ostensibly ridiculous viewpoint, but sometimes it makes a lot of sense. It’s just like the whole thing of systems theory. Let’s say we’re going to design
a better car — a mono-wheeler, or two-wheel car, maybe
a three-wheel car — and the artist would come in and
say, “Well, the real idea we’re dealing with is transportation. Why do we have to have wheels at all?” So here’s a fresher way of seeing things. That’s why Duchamp stays interesting. He didn’t attack things in a linear fashion; he did things obliquely. That’s back to painting on one foot again, isn’t it?

John Baldessari, <em>Commissioned Painting: A Painting by Patrick X. Nidorf O.S.A</em>, 1969.

John Baldessari, Commissioned Painting: A Painting by Patrick X. Nidorf O.S.A, 1969. Acrylic and oil on canvas, 59.25 x 45.5 inches. Courtesy John Baldessari.

Roth: Do you think that your text paintings and your videos have the same intent in mind — of making people stumble?

Baldessari: Oh, I’m sure they don’t. I’m sure they’re very tame. But I think that’s always at the basis of my activity.

Roth: Are there other aspects that you find a kinship with Duchamp?

Baldessari: Of course, language play also gets very involved. Constantly, when I go down the street and see some sign, I’m spelling it backwards in my mind or making up puns with the words or changing the syntax around and so on. And also a punning with images. While you like something that is nice to look at, you’d go beyond that and you’d have it more content laden than probably another person, so that certain things in images would mean things. But then also Duchamp says that once a work’s out in public, you mainly have no control over it.22

Roth: Do you think that’s true?

Baldessari: Yes, I really think it’s true. I got a feeling that why I did it and why people like it are two different things. I do some things and they strike some public nerve, and are swept up, but then I do something that I really think is a knockout and nothing happens.

Roth: Why don’t people react in the way you thought they would?

Baldessari: Well, apparently I didn’t read them right.
You get a certain feel for people and how their minds
will operate. I suspect that I’m doing things instinctively. Maybe I did it knowledgeably at first, but probably now
it’s instinctively. I’m doing something that will, on one level, maybe just talk to very few people—a kind of elite group of artists—but at another time it would have a great mass appeal too. I enjoy addressing myself to both communities. I shouldn’t polarize it, but at least those two. Sometimes, I’m sure what I’m doing is so completely hermetic and obscure to a lay audience that they wouldn’t catch on at all. But I like that.

I like being difficult. That was a real turning point in my life, this thing about being difficult. In my early thirties,
I still hadn’t decided what I wanted to do in life. I was really dancing around. I remember reading something by Kierkegaard about the same troubles he had. He said he finally decided what he wanted to do in life was to make things difficult for people.23 And I just instantly knew that was it, I knew that’s what I wanted to do: make things difficult for people. I think that really is a clue to a lot that I do — where it might look easy, but it’s a real false lead.

Roth: Does that apply both to paintings and videos?

Baldessari: Yes. I don’t feel that I have any one medium. I think what I do, when teaching, is a real performance. Most of them are for video, where I hide behind the tape, right? Although I’m really reluctant, I’ve done a few performance things. I did one at CalArts last year with an Optigan.24

Do you know what that is?

Roth: No.

Baldessari: They’re optically printed records, and you put them into this organ, and when you play the organ it can make any kind of noise—you can do South American music, circus music and so on. So we had a concert at CalArts with several artists and some composers—it was called The Optigan—and I did a piece where I played the Optigan and then arbitrarily stopped two or three times. I just turned around and told the audience a story or a joke, and then I would go back and play again, so it was like a very sharp interruption. In that sense, it was almost a Dada activity.

Roth: Did you mean it as a Dada activity?

Baldessari: No. I just thought it’d be terrific to have two things that really didn’t relate. You don’t expect to see a performer all of a sudden stop what he’s doing and start talking to you and then go back. Although after I got thinking about what I did—what’s that Danish pianist, Victor Borge?25—he possibly does things like that. I hope mine was a little bit better than his.

Roth: Do you think of performing as an art form?

Baldessari: I keep on thinking about performance, although I really don’t find myself suited to it. I put on
a performance in class, but there it’s because I know everybody. Well, that’s not true either, because when I talk in front of public bodies, I put on a performance too. But somehow, when I think of doing performance as art, it becomes more of a bogus activity for me. I don’t know why that is. It seems a little bit narcissistic.

John Baldessari, <em>Brutus Killed Caesar</em>, 1976.

John Baldessari, Brutus Killed Caesar, 1976. Gelatin silver print mounted on museum board, 107.25 x 32.75 inches. Courtesy John Baldessari.

Roth: Whereas doing it in teaching is okay?

Baldessari: Teaching’s okay, because everyone knows what teaching is, right? I realize the fallacy there, but I haven’t been able to resolve it in my own mind.

Roth: Would it matter if you were narcissistic?

Baldessari: I recall something about God talking and also writing, and Moses bringing down the tablets, that sort
of thing. Somehow, I think, performance for me is a little bit too hot an activity, and I think once it is in a vehicle
of tape, film, or writing, somehow it’s diffused a little bit.
I hate that idea of the artist as a movie star. I just like things to be not so important, and performance seems
to be too important. I wouldn’t mind performing without anybody knowing it, without calling attention to it. You say, “Okay, here we have a performance,” and you make a proscenium arch, that sort of thing. That seems to be so hokey. It’s something about art being too important. That’s why I like the idea of art in New York, because everybody knows an artist in New York. There are 40,000 of them.

Roth: Beyond Duchamp, were there other artists who have intrigued you or challenged your ideas?

Baldessari: Well, I always thought it was really curious that when I finally got to show in L.A. in 1968, two galleries down and opening the same night was a show by Kosuth.26 I just flipped. I felt like when I’d seen Duchamp, at least there’s somebody else. I remember when I was first presented with Pollock, I felt a little bit threatened, thinking that can’t be painting, you’re just messing around, you have to paint in a certain place, right? I felt the same way when I saw Yves Klein’s work in a show here at the Dwan Gallery in 1961. Jesus, you just can’t have an all-blue canvas! That challenged the basic assumption I had that you have got to have some mark on a canvas. But usually good art has that authority: “I’ll tell you what art is.” That’s why I like Marsden Hartley. When I look at his paintings,
I feel he really believed in painting! Whereas de Kooning who at one time just knocked me on my ass, now seems very decorative and just doesn’t hold up for me. Maybe he’s trying too hard to make art. If you’re working in, let’s say, traditional painting, it’s almost like a musician working within a symphonic form—you can make strategies and ploys and shifts—but basically it’s an ongoing form that you relate to. But with Duchamp, there’s no kind of form you latch onto. That’s what I like about him so much.

Roth: What about Beuys? Are you interested in him?

Baldessari: Well, not so much now as I used to be. When
 I first saw his work I was knocked out, but then that was just because I was so delayed in my education. But I like Beuys just because of the dumbness of the material, which is something I also like in Duchamp.

Roth: What does dumbness of material mean?

Baldessari: The whole witlessness of the thing. Just giving out no art signals. You have to constantly counteract good taste, and I think that’s hard to do. It’s very hard to escape your own taste because each time you paint you’re getting more tasteful, so it’s a vicious circle.

Roth: Are there other reasons why Beuys interests you?

Baldessari: I’m really interested in why Beuys is such a good teacher. As I said earlier, I consider teaching and art very similar. I think teaching is in a real crisis now. If one is to do anything that can in any way be labeled teaching, one has to be fairly inventive, which is about what is called for in art. Teaching is not relaying information; it’s about getting through to somebody else. I can say something to you and it’ll go in one ear and right out the other. But if I do some action, or say something that will essentially get the same truth across where you’ll notice it, then contact will have been made. My teaching is a whole performance, constantly thinking on my feet, and I have a whole battery of devices. I link those together in an ad-lib sort of way where I’m constantly creating or recreating sort of thing.

Roth: Can you imagine teaching being a form of art?

Baldessari: It’s possible. I wouldn’t want to get labeled, however, that I was doing teaching as an art form. But maybe, in some way, the two activities are coming together, they’re going to constantly grow together organically, but I don’t know how that would happen. I’ve quit teaching several times because I got so much into teaching that I couldn’t do my work. But I’ve always felt you can’t really talk about art if you don’t do it. I can see where eventually I could bring it to the point where my teaching and art became one, as Beuys, I think, has certainly made it now.27 But I don’t think of myself as a polemicist, in the sense that Beuys is. I think of Beuys as a model, but I don’t like that whole charismatic attitude. He’s like a god, or a cult figure.

I like being behind the scenes. I think one shouldn’t be visible but yet be visible for students. I’ve worked it out
in teaching where I have a very low profile and I think I’ve worked it out in art where I have a very low profile. See, I like to participate but I don’t like to lead. That’s how I teach. I figure I’m teaching best when I can walk out of the room. I don’t want to be central or anything like that. It could very well be that if I were in a metropolitan center, like New York, I could bring the two together; it’s conceivable. I can’t out here because I still feel stranded.

Roth: Why would it bother you being labeled a teacher- artist?

Baldessari: It’s something that I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it’s because my audience would be too captive for me — could that be it? At CalArts there’s no penalty
of grades. When students are bored, they leave. Still it’s a captive audience because they wouldn’t be staying there if they didn’t agree with you.

Roth: You talk about performance as if it were a state between teaching and being a traditional artist, as a possible solution rather than what you’d like to do?

Baldessari: Well, I only talk about performance in that
I know I have some gifts there, and I think you only do good art when you are most yourself. I like the idea of the person being in the canvas rather than the canvas being out there. I like the idea of ongoing activity. I’ve always been interested in theater, but I never see the right kind of theater. To me, that theater is when one’s very aware that a person is acting. And here we’re back to the whole secret thing again: one’s acting and one doesn’t know one’s acting. But then we’re back to Duchamp again, that ideally everything you do in life would be art and there’d be no separation.

Roth: Do you think that way?

Baldessari: Well, I think it’s an impossible ideal in that one can’t keep going twenty-four hours around the clock.

Roth: You mentioned that you were interested in how viewers react to your work. Do you want to tell them how to react?

Baldessari: I’m always curious why people react to the things I do, but I can’t tell people how to react. I could never do that. That bores the hell out of me when somebody does that. That’s why I like Duchamp — he always plants the bomb and runs.

Roth: Do you think of yourself as planting bombs and running?

Baldessari: Yes, that’s what I was saying earlier about performance. They’re not going to stick around, you know. That seems a little preposterous to me. I haven’t worked it all out, but it’s the hidden act somehow that’s very intriguing, that anybody who has any sense can read.

 

Footnotes

  1. Marcia Tucker, “John Baldessari: Pursuing the Unpredictable,” in John Baldessari (New York: The New Museum, 1981), pp. 8, 10, 15, 17 and 23; and Coosje van Bruggen, John Baldessari (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art; New York: Rizzoli, 1990), pp. 69, 70, 75, 76, 80.
  2. Marcia Tucker quoting from Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. Ron Padgett (New York: Viking Press, 1971), p. 72, in her essay “Bruce Nauman,” in Jane Livingston and Marcia Tucker, Bruce Nauman: Work from 1965 to 1972 (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1972), p. 33. “Nauman’s attitude toward making art, and those pieces which most reflect it—records of his activities in the studio such as breathing, clapping, stamping, playing the violin, tossing a ball, arranging flour, or making a mess on the floor—parallel many of Duchamp’s ideas. For example: Duchamp: I like living, breathing, better than working. Cabanne: That’s what [Henri-Pierre] Roché said. Your best work has been the use of your time. Duchamp: That’s right. I really think that’s right.”
  3. The Art of Assemblage, curated by William C. Seitz, traveled from the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2 October-12 November 1961) to the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts (9 January-11 February 1962) and the San Francisco Museum of Art (5 March-14 April 1962). While the New York showing included thirteen works by Duchamp, only six of them were exhibited in Dallas and San Francisco.
  4. Robert Lebel, Marcel Duchamp, trans. George Heard Hamilton (New York: Grove Press, 1959).
  5. Baldessari would cite a different ancient reference, Roman wall fragments, to Marilyn Hagberg. See her reviews of his La Jolla Museum of Art exhibition in San Diego Magazine 18, no. 3 (January 1966), p. 67; and Artforum 4, no. 9 (May 1966), p. 18.
  6. According to van Bruggen, p. 28, the first work of this series, A Two-Dimensional Surface…, was dated 26 April 1967, the
    date it was completed by the sign painter.
  7. Lighted Moving Message: Isocephaly… (1968), commercial lighted moving message
    unit with Formica-laminated plywood base: ISOCEPHALY—A STYLE OF COMPOSITION CHARACTERISTIC OF THE CLASSICAL PERIOD—ESPECIALLY IN RELATION TO GREEK ART—IN WHICH THE FIGURES IN A COMPOSITION ARE SO ARRANGED THAT THEY ARE ALL OF THE SAME HEIGHT; AS FOR INSTANCE, IN A FRIEZE. JB 68.
  8. The specific reference has yet to be identified.
  9. Wixom was Baldessari’s wife at the time.
  10. Ernest Ralph Norling, Perspective Made Easy: A step-by-step method for learning the basis of drawing (New York: Macmillan, 1939; reprinted 1949), identified by van Bruggen, John Baldessari, p. 32.
  11. Bruce Nauman, Dark (1968), Southwest- ern College, Chula Vista, California.
  12. John Baldessari, Carol Brown, David Milne, Ralph Pomeroy, Richard Feigen Gallery, New York (12 October-16 November 1968)—the upstairs space showed Baldessari, Milne and Pomeroy, and the downstairs space Brown, according to Ralph Pomeroy, “New York: Moving Out,” Art and Artists 3, no. 10 (January 1969), p. 55—and John Baldessari: Recent Paintings, Richard Feigen Gallery, New York (1 March- 8 April 1970).
  13. Software, curated by Jack Burnham, was held at the Jewish Museum, New York (16 September-8 November 1970). In the catalog, Baldessari’s Cremation Piece (June 1969) consisted of a double two-page photographic spread captioned “A LIFE’S WORK / …GOES UP IN FLAMES,” along with a single page that had a photographic portrait of Baldessari below which was a plaque akin to that used in a cemetery with the name “John Anthony Baldessari” and the dates “May 1953 March 1966.” The text beneath the work’s title stated: “One of several proposals to rid my life of accumulated art. With this project I will have all of my accumulated paintings cremated by a mortuary. The container of ashes will be interred inside a wall of the Jewish Museum. For the length of the show, there will be a commemorative plaque on the wall behind which the ashes are located. It is a reductive, recycling piece. I consider all these paintings a body of work in the real sense of the word. Will I save my life by losing it? Will a Phoenix arise from the ashes? Will the paintings having become dust become art materials again? I don’t know, but I feel better.”
  14. Ingres and Other Parables (1971) (London: Studio International, 1972), with texts in English, French, German and Italian.
  15. Matisse wrote in “How I Made My Books” (1946): “…Put your work back on the anvil twenty times over and then…begin over again until you’re satisfied.” Quoted in Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Matisse: His Art and His Public (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1951), p. 563.
  16. Van Bruggen, p. 75, notes that his “journal entry written before 1965 reads: ‘Make up art fables. Be a good teacher like Jesus.’”
  17. Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993), U.S. clergyman, whose 1952 The Power of Positive Thinking was then a perennial best seller second only to the Bible.
  18. Amédée Ozenfant (1886-1966), in his Foundations of Modern Art, trans. John Rodker (rev. ed., New York: Dover, 1952), p. 210: “What would our art be like if the works we produce with so much difficulty were to have the duration of a hat, say?” Quoted in van Bruggen, p. 121.
  19. The Other City, Gallery Reese Palley, San Francisco (11 August-13 September 1969)—in which Baldessari exhibited his Ghetto Boundary Project (1969)—was a group show of Los Angeles area artists (among them John McCracken, Larry Bell, Ron Cooper, William Pettet, Dewain Valentine, Ken Price, Ed Ruscha, Marvin Harden and Perpetua Butler). Baldessari probably went to Seattle for 557,087, in which he was included, that was on view at the Seattle Pavilion at the World’s Fair (5 September-5 October 1969), curated by Lucy Lippard.
  20. Charles Manson was on trial (1969-70) for the Tate-LaBianca murders.
  21. A Different Kind of Order (The Thelonious
    Monk Story) (1972-73), with the story based on Nat Hentoff, The Jazz Life (London: Peter Davies, 1962) p. 203 (cited in van Bruggen, John Baldessari, pp. 80-81); and A New Sense of Order (The Art Teacher Story) (1972-73), with the story based the teaching method of one of Baldessari’s friends who would have his painting students “stand in front of their easels balancing on one foot only, in the conviction that by keeping them off balance a new sense of order would emerge in their paintings” (van Bruggen, p. 127 n. 4).
  22. Marcel Duchamp, “The Creative Act,” Art News 56, no. 4 (Summer 1957): 58-59; reprinted in Lebel, pp. 77-78.
  23. Baldessari is recalling passages from Søren Kierkegaard’s “Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments”: “You are getting on in years, I said to myself, and are becoming an old man without being anything and without actually undertaking anything. On the other hand, wherever you look in literature or
    in life, you see the names and figures of celebrities, the prized and highly acclaimed people, prominent or much discussed, the many benefactors of the age who know how to benefit humankind by making life easier and easier…—and what are you doing? …[A]nd then suddenly this thought crossed my mind: You must do something, but since with your limited capabilities it will be impossible to make anything easier than it has become, you must, with the same humanitarian enthusiasm as the others have, take it upon yourself to make something more difficult. …I comprehend- ed that it was my task: to make difficulties everywhere.” The Essential Kierkegaard, ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), pp. 188-189.
  24. The Optigan (Optical Organ; in use 1971-73) was developed as a toy by Mattel. Stephen [Lucky] L. Mosko (nephew of Mattel’s founders), then a student in CalArts’ music department who met Baldessari through Wolfgang Stoerchle, brought an Optigan to CalArts and
    invited the faculty to play with it. Mosko arranged a concert, held on the campus sometime during the late fall 1971/early spring 1972, with each participant having a turn playing the Optigan. Among those who participated were Baldessari, Nam June Paik, Dick Higgins, James Tenney, Alison Knowles, Simone Forti and Richard Teittelbaum. I am indebted to Richard Teittelbaum for his assistance, and to Lucky Mosko for providing an in-depth explanation both of the Optigan and its use at CalArts.
  25. Victor Borge (1909-2000), Danish-born pianist who combined classical music with comedic antics in his performances, including stopping playing to address the audience, orchestra and conductor.
  26. John Baldessari: Pure Beauty, Molly Barnes Gallery, Los Angeles (6-28 October 1968); and Joseph Kosuth: The First Investigation, Gallery 669, Los Angeles (October 1968). Both galleries were nearby each other on North La Cienega Boulevard.
  27. Joseph Beuys, who was then teaching at the Düsseldorf art academy, stated that “To be a teacher is my greatest work of art. The rest is the waste product, a demonstration.” Willoughby Sharp, “An Interview with Joseph Beuys,” Artforum 8, no. 4 (December 1969).