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John Baldessari: Towering Genius

In the January issue of Dazed, the iconic reinventionist John Baldessari discusses why he has always been committed to deconstructing expectations

It doesn’t get bigger than John Baldessari. The 79-year-old, six-foot-seven, bearded icon has had a huge influence on contemporary art since he emerged on the LA scene in the 70s. Although originally a painter, he burned all his work in Cremation Project in 1970 and drastically reinvented what an artist could be. He was a pioneer of the conceptual, working with text, performance, video and photography in then unknown ways – he even made pointing at a carrot an artwork, and turned movie stills into dissections of masculinity. Alongside his own work, his Post-Studio Art class at CalArts gave birth to artists including Mike Kelley and Jack Goldstein. Awarded the Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale in 2009, Baldessari is constantly reinventing his approach, and his latest project for the Fondazione Prada in Milan is no exception. Inspired by the fashion label, he has transformed and reworked ultra-emaciated Giacometti sculptures into a cool conceptual take on the mannequin.

How did the project at the Fondazione Prada come about?
It was an invitation by Germano Celant, whom I’ve known since the early 70s I guess. I had an invitation to do a retrospective or a project at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. The entrance hall is quite tall. I think the first idea I had was to have a trapeze troop to practise there every day – which I still want to do by the way!

I’m sure Hitler (who commissioned the building) would have been proud.

I know! The other idea I had was to have a row of Giacometti figures; to extrude one of his standing figures to an absurd height. To have a row of them. I think probably what I was thinking about was a fashion show of emaciated models. I liked the formality. I never got around to it. When Germano asked me to do a project, I went to the Foundation space and I saw a row of columns and thought, ‘This is perfect.’ Knowing it was Prada, my suggestion to Miuccia was to choose nine designers to design an outfit (for the sculptures). The project altered – would I intervene? I don’t so much call them garments or outfits.
I think of them as interventions. The basis in my mind was Degas’s bronze dancer with a tutu (‘Little Dancer Aged Fourteen’). I always liked that play between bronze signifying the art world and the fabric signifying the real world. That interchange… I firmly believe that art comes out of art. Nothing’s original. It came out of the Degas bronze. I’m using another sculptor, Giacometti. God knows if he had any of that in mind – I doubt it. Maybe in some feverish nightmare! I like taking an idea and where I can move it… I thought, ‘Go from there and push it to
the extreme.’ 

Your interventions change throughout the show, as if the ‘mannequins’ are actually changing looks?

There are 18 interventions and only nine figures. I’m leaving it up to the Foundation to pull one in. Whatever they want to do, I don’t care. At some point I won’t be around! (Laughs) I’ve set up the parameters.

Are you interested in how your work’s been reinterpreted by different audiences over time? We can see you singing ‘Sol LeWitt’ on YouTube.

I’m amused. I think art is a conversation with the spectator. And it’s interesting to watch how one is being viewed or interpreted. In my wildest dreams I never thought anything of mine would be on YouTube. That particular video is one of the most boring things I’ve ever seen! So that really amazes me. But I’m used to that. Sometimes I’ve done something that I think is a big masterpiece and it’s a big dud. And something I’ve done very quickly off the top of my head seeps into the public consciousness, and becomes kind of iconic in some way. Art is so unpredictable, isn’t it?

When did you first move to Los Angeles?

I was born south of San Diego in a little place called National City. I came to Los Angeles in 1970 because I was at that moment teaching at the University of California, San Diego, and the chairperson was asked to be the chairperson of CalArts and I was asked to teach there in Los Angeles… It was not a vocational choice. That seemed to be a little less boring than other jobs. I tried technical illustration, then I worked building houses. I had to make money and the good thing about teaching is you get summers off. It’s a living wage. I did that until the mid 80s when I got a Guggenheim grant and the art market became what it is now and I was able to stay away
from teaching.

You came to LA quite a few years after the period of Ed Ruscha, Ed Kienholz and the Ferus Gallery in the 60s. Was that an influence?

When I was at CalArts I was very much involved with choosing faculty and visiting artists. The one thing I tried to do was bring another aesthetic into LA, because the dominant mode was the Ferus Gallery: light and space and plastics. I thought there were a lot of other ways to do art.

You once said, ‘The artist should make things difficult for the viewer.’ Is that something you still feel to be true?

Yes I think so. I don’t have a ‘fuck the bourgeoisie’ attitude about art. I think it’s a conversation, but I do think you have to aim slightly above their heads. I always aim three quarters above the middle. I also think art should be, metaphorically maybe, layered like an onion. The more you peel off, there’s always something. Maybe the first layer is an attractive layer, which is enough to hook the most elementary viewer. But if you keep peeling it away, at the core there’s something so fascinating for the most erudite viewer. That’s a goal. Who can do it?

You often play with meaning or categories – of words, colours, images. What do you like about that process of organisation?

I’m very interested in language. I think I said someplace that I consider the word and image of equal value. I don’t prioritise one over the other. I’m interested in why they mean what they mean and how we can play with that. How slippery it is. I think that’s fundamental to my work. I’m interested in order. I remember with a friend of mine in philosophy, I asked the instructor what’s the difference between order and chaos and he said, ‘You can just think of chaos as another kind of order.’ That really got to me. 

Stylistically your work and approach has changed so much, but throughout there’s a thread of studiousness and investigation; a serious curiosity about the world.

I think that’s the duty of an artist, and if you don’t do that you’re just making product. You might as well do something else. I couldn’t do it. I would feel it wouldn’t be the ethical thing to do.

The Giacometti Variations runs until Dec 26 at Fondazione Prada, Milano.

All artwork images: The Giacometti Variations, John Baldessare, 2010; all images courtsey of the artist and Fondazione Prada