JOHN BALDESSARI INTERVIEW
Coagula: Do you have any art world jokes?
JB: God…I haven’t gotten any jokes lately.
Coagula: 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 and galleries.
Coagula: What aspect of the business do you find most difficult?
JB: The business part.
Coagula: What stands out as the most annoying ongoing problem?
JB: Money. It’s always money.
Coagula: 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?
Coagula: 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.
Coagula: What aspect of the business do you find most useful?
JB: That I get paid to do something I would probably pay to do.
Coagula: 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.
Coagula: Do you notice any difference in the way business is handled in America and Europe?
JB: It’s pretty much the same.
Coagula: 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 for.
Coagula: 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 the exception.
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.
Coagula: And dealers don’t like the artist to get on top.
JB: There’s no way the artist can.
Coagula: 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.
Coagula:: 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 about luck.
Coagula: 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.
Coagula: 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.
Coagula: Other than doing the work and putting on lipstick and getting out, what else does an artist have to do to succeed?
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.
Coagula: 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 going out.
Coagula: Was there anything about success you didn’t count on?
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, et cetera.
Coagula: 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 satisfied.
Coagula: 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.
Coagula: 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.
Coagula: 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 to be.
Coagula: Is there any artist that you feel has failed to get the attention they deserve? Whom you feel has fallen through the cracks?
JB: Gordon Matta-Clark!?
Coagula: (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.
Coagula: 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?"
Coagula: 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.
Coagula: What do you find most annoying about artists?
JB: Artists that name drop.
Coagulate: 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.
Coagula: Was there ever an avenue of interest you regret not pursuing?
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 tried sculpture.
Coagula: 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.
Coagula: 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.
Coagula: 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!"
Coagula: I’ve always said time is the only true 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.