Baldessari Talks

Jesy Odio


Among a myriad of theatres in disuse and disrepair on Broadway Street stands the new acquisition of Downtown L.A.’s Ace Hotel. On February 1st, The United Artists Theatre at the Ace Hotel opened its doors to the public for one night before its grand opening with a conversation between John Baldessari, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Meg Cranston, co-editors of the upcoming book, More Than You Wanted To Know About John Baldessari. The event was put together as part of Surface Magazine's“Design Dialogues” series.

Baldessari & Cranston. Keep It Simple. Keep It Fresh. (Poppy Red). 2013

Here are some of the night’s highlights:

Meg Cranston: I thought I’d maybe start with my favorite line in the book. A line that has really helped me a lot in my life as an artist. This is from a piece written in 1968 and it’s called “Advice to Young Artists”: You say,Whatever you decide to do, remember to keep it simple, keep it fresh, and have some idea what you’re going to do.” Can you talk about that in terms of the writing?

John Baldessari: I think I keep “Keep it Simple” a working principle of simplicity. Try to take as much out as possible. Just be very direct. Writing, taking notes, keeping lists help me keep focused. Make a cheat sheet for yourself about what you want to accomplish that day–not just staring out the window- but what part of the body of work you want to focus on…

Hans Ulrich Obrist: At the very beginning of the book, you write about all the jobs and aspirations you’ve had, and the very first one was that you wanted to be a novelist.

JB: Yeah, I’m still in a quandary about that. I love to tell stories and my methods of teaching is to tell stories to illustrate a point. I think what got in the way is that also I consider an image and a word of equal importance. So what happened is that I began writing images and that’s how I became a novelist.

MG: I know that William Carlos Williams is someone who influenced you a lot as a writer, and quite recently you illustrated some of his poems.

JB: I read a lot when I was younger and somehow I discovered William Carlos Williams, and the first book I bought had the title Red Wheelbarrow in it. And I remember thinking that was such a strange thing to have a poem about. And I like ordinary things, so I picked it up. And I liked the terse phraseology, and you know monosyllables and his use of talking about ordinary stuff like a Red Wheelbarrow. And I guess that’s it.

MC: A lot [of people] describe you as “helpful.” You want to help somebody out. You want to help a young artist to succeed to avoid the things you had to phase. You want to help the gallery explain the work more succinctly, more accurately. Art tells stories, like Jesus, do you see the writing in the book as potentially helpful?

JB: Well you never know what will trigger somebody’s need. It could be anywhere. I think because I had a very lousy art education. I mean it was so bad we didn’t even have college counseling. When I got to college, I didn’t even know who Picasso was, or Matisse. I had no idea so I was a sponge. But I’m a quick reader, and I pick up things pretty easily. And I realized what a lousy education I was getting in art. And I had to make a living right, so I ended up teaching junior high, high school, pre-school, you name it, I taught everything. And those classes became kind of a laboratory. Okay, what in my mind would be a good art education? And that was my goal.

MC: When we started the book we didn’t know how we were going to handle imagery. We talked a lot and one of the things you said many times is that you think of yourself as a writer. So we decided to challenge that idea or to experiment with that idea and there are no images on the book. How did that strike you to have a book that in many places you are writing about works but there are no images?

JB: I don’t think you always need images. You can have an idea in your mind and that’s probably a more fruitful idea and probably more fruitful image than the actual image could provide.

MC: We designed this book, we recognize this book as a work of literature; how do you feel about that?

JB: Yeah, I think it’s okay. Why not?

MG: Where is the dividing line? Like people say a telephone book is literature. When does art become literature? Or do you have an interest in literature? Or do you say, please don’t think about it as having aesthetic purposes–it’s just information?

JB: Yeah, I can see that. Does art have to be realistic or can be sort of a fantasy?

HUO: Could you tell us about why you say ‘art is a document of thinking’?

JB: Yeah I think so. Whenever I hear that I think about a story about Nixon meeting Einstein at some social gathering and Nixon saying that he always kept a notebook at his bedside and flash light so that when he had an idea he could write it down. And he asked Einstein if he did something similar and Einstein said he thought he was able to remember his ideas.

To learn more about Baldessari, watch this hilarious and highly informative short film directed by Henry Joost and Rel Schulman and narrated by Tom Waits.