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John Baldessari
John Baldessari circa the late 60sCourtesy of John Baldessari

John Baldessari: 'I couldn’t be a Hells Angel'

As the godfather of conceptual art opens a new show in New York, he talks Hedi Slimane, art as 'mutual masturbation' and why he has no fantasies

Taken from the Autumn/Winter 2014 issue of Dazed:

“Me? I couldn’t be a Hells Angel. I’m a very mild-mannered guy,” laughs John Baldessari in his West Coast timbre. The godfather of conceptual art is recalling a black and white image taken of him in the late 60s by an unknown photographer. “It was shot somewhere in California. You know these motorcycle gangs wear Levi’s jackets with patches sewn on the back of them, with things like ‘Born to Kill’? I said to a friend of mine in the Hells Angels, we’ll just do one that says ‘Born to Paint’.” Looking back, the resulting design – consisting of a skull, palette and a pair of crossed paint brushes – that made its way across the back of a denim jacket seems almost ironic. Just a few years later, in possibly the biggest statement of his career, Baldessari would burn all of his paintings (“Cremation Project”, 1970) and turn the ashes into freshly baked cookies, signalling his rebirth as a conceptual artist.

Today, Baldessari is speaking on the phone from his studio in Venice, California, where he is preparing for an expansive new show. But before he talks art, the man who confesses he lives in “mostly just a t-shirt, Levi’s and sneakers”, is getting rather excited about a rare event tomorrow. “I’m getting fitted for a Hedi Slimane suit, so I think that’s kind of cool,” he says with an air of anticipation. “He’s sending his tailor to my studio to take my measurements, so I’ll finally have a Hedi Slimane suit!” This season, the creative director of Saint Laurent paid homage to the work of Baldessari, creating three limited-edition dresses inspired by his paintings and filling his invitation manifesto with his works (including his iconic image “Goya Series: THERE ISN’T TIME”, 1997). For an artist so instrumental to the development of photo-based appropriation art, how does it feel to be deconstructed and recontextualised himself? “It was an honour. I was the inspiration for the whole collection and I liked that. The nicest thing was that he gave me credit.”

“I was the inspiration for the whole collection and I liked that. The nicest thing was that he gave me credit” – John Baldessari

Seeing the work of Baldessari reappropriated on the catwalk served as a reminder of how instrumental his role in the art world has been. “At the beginning of my career, I thought art was just some form of mutual masturbation,” he explains. “I was going to be a social worker because I didn’t think art helped anyone. Then I was asked to teach at a camp for juvenile delinquents who had the attention span of five minutes. One of the inmates asked me if I would open up the arts and crafts room in the evenings. I realised they needed art more than I did, so that was a big turning point in my life.” 

Despite recently celebrating his 83rd birthday, Baldessari doesn’t appear to be slowing down. His forthcoming show (which will open at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York before moving to the Städel Museum in Frankfurt next year) is already playing on his mind. “They wanted to do a retrospective, but I said, ‘I’ve had too many retrospectives’,” he chuckles. Instead, he will be commenting on the works in the collection and remixing them with found Hollywood movie scripts. So, what specifically was he drawn to? “Well, if you know my work, it’s always the weirdest images I can find. My favourite is one of five dancing rats in a circle. I think you get the idea!” As our conversation draws to a close, there is one last question left to ask the man who has truly opened himself up to the fantasies of what art can be. Does he have any of his own? His response is just as succinct as his work: “I have no fantasies. I just try and be the best artist I can be.”

John Baldessari 'MOVIE SCRIPTS/ART' runs until November 22, 2014 at Marian Goodman Gallery, New York