We almost wet our pants with a mix of excitement and nerves before we interviewed the Godfather of conceptual art, John Baldessari. And that was just over the phone. God knows what would have happened if we’d been there sat face to face with the big man himself. Standing at 6 feet, 7inches tall, he’s not only big in contemporary art, he’s big in stature, making him a rather intimidating figure.  Instantly recognisable for his flock of white hair and beard – dare we say it, not unlike Father Christmas – (we’re in the festive mood, it is nearly December after all), Baldessari has left a very large footprint on contemporary art and is still stomping.

Born and raised in California and now living and working in Santa Monica, LA, Baldessari is famous for using text and layering images – reworking old, found photos, newspaper and magazine cuttings, and images to create new humorous works that challenge the viewer. He’s taught the likes of Mike Kelley and he inspired Cindy Sherman and another of our favourite artists, Barbara Kruger. He was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Americans for the Arts in 2005, the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009 and this year he was awarded the City of Goslar’s Kaiser Ring. We talked about why LA makes him angry, how he likes to make art that keeps the viewer guessing and about his new show, ‘Double Play’ at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York.

Art Wednesday: You turned 81 this year – what keeps you young?

John Baldessari: My work – art! Doing art is what I do, I can’t think of anything else I would do.

AW: What inspired you to become an artist?

JB: It was what I did best, number 1 and number 2, it was a bit of a difficulty for me, because I happen to have a social consciousness and I didn’t think art helped any one. But it finally dawned on me that art did help somebody, so that wasn’t a problem.

AW: You’ve been working for over five decades now and taught some of the world’s most well-known artists, how have you remained current? For example you burnt the paintings you made between 1953 and 1966 for your Cremation Project piece. Is the best way to stay fresh and modern, to start every now and again with a clean slate?

JB: Not necessarily – that was something I needed to do then – there was more to art than just painting and sculpture. I had paintings and sculptures and I didn’t really need to keep all of my paintings and my photographic records – there was no way that I could keep them.

AW: So it was really a way of clearing out and making space for the new?

JB: Well, that’s the more practical side of it. I mean I don’t need to own my work. And there was no art market then; there was certainly no need for me to store all of those paintings. The value was in doing them, so I didn’t really need to keep them.

AW: You like to breath new life into old images, as you’ve been quoted for your new show on now in NYC: “art comes out of art; if any artist doesn’t admit to that, it doesn’t ring true…” The job of an artist is to keep art alive. Is that how you view your role as an artist? 

JB: I’ve always seen art as a conversation with other artists and the public, I guess, of course, so if you don’t add something to the conversation, it’s kind of useless.

AW: Is that why you layer a text over old images – to literally create a conversation in your work?

JB: I don’t have any loyalty towards text. I sort of have a love and loath for it – I subconsciously put them together and when I layer them together, I don’t prioritise either over the other.

AW: Is Henri Magritte’s ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ a personal favourite?

JB: Yes – and I think it was doing the same thing – it’s close to me.

AW: You like to call a spade a spade and invert the obvious, do you think art historians are trying too hard to over intellectualise art?

JB: I don’t know. That’s a tough question, I think people look at art whichever way they want to go at it, i don’t think it should shut people out. It should engage people, and whatever that takes. At least I think that’s my task.

AW: You live in LA, is location important? 

JB: No. I don’t think so – I think I said some place that I can’t live in a place that’s beautiful. I have to be a little angry and not like where I live. I guess I don’t think that LA is very beautiful and that’s why I’m out here, because it makes me angry. It’s really not a city, it has no centre – it’s an area and just seems to go on and on forever. There are not really many beautiful, good looking buildings in it – it’s functional I suppose. You know, what I do is art, and I’m able to do art here. I don’t really think it’s necessarily about where you want to live, it’s more about where you can work.

AW: How have you seen the art scene change in California? And what is it like now? 

JB: I don’t think it’s any different from any place else – in terms of the media and the internet – everyone knows what what everybody else is doing. Pretty much what you see in one city, is what you see in another. I think that really now, in the last 10 years, it’s become more important in the art world. Some years back, you may recall, there was an exhibition of art from Los Angeles at the Pompidou. There was a curator there, and she said that art in New York was all over, that it was finished and now in Los Angeles. I think that’s a little bit exaggerated, but a lot of American art comes out of Los Angeles and its artists of Los Angeles, and a lot of galleries want to show your work – it just goes to show that Los Angeles is coming more and more into people’s minds.

AW: You made a famous piece – ‘I will not make any more boring art’ – is there anyone living and working today that particularly excites you?

JB: I don’t want to name names – I might make enemies if I name names…

AW: You taught art for many years, and taught many artists such as Mike Kelley in their early years. How important is it for you to teach others?

JB: I only did it to make money, I wasn’t selling anything- i needed money. When I looked for a job, I taught art.

AW: How important is it to study art to practise as an artist? 

JB: I think it’s important to know what artists have done before you.

AW: Do you respect those who are self-taught and gone against academia?

JB: It doenss’t matter to me. You can be self-taught, but you should know about art, in doing art. Absolutely.

AW: And what advice you would give an aspiring/young artist?

JB: I think you have to be really obsessed to do art. It’s not something you really decide on – you either do it or you don’t. It’s not a question of making a decision. I have no advice, other than good luck!

AW: Actually that’s pretty good advice! We watched the Tom Waits-narrated ‘A Brief History of John Baldessari’ (below). In it you say you’ll probably be remembered as the guy that put dots on people’s faces. What would you like to remembered for?

JB: Being a good artist – I can’t think of any one thing. I think what I’ve tried to do is keep on adding to the conversation. I think I’ve done that and I’d like to be remembered for that. That’s part of being a good artist.

AW: You have a new show in New York. Can you tell us a bit about it? 

JB: Basically, what I’ve done and what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years is working with newspapers, magazines and photographs – I’ve appropriated many things from photographs over the years. So the photographs have been photographs from books on art and then I use with them, language that has nothing to do with the art. In this particular show I used popular song titles. Prior to this show, in Berlin, I used titles of horror movies.  I’m really trying to confuse people. I don’t want myself to make any connection. People will make a connection, whether I want them to or not. So I try to make it a little bit difficult for them.

AW: Like a puzzle? You like to make people think for themselves? 

JB: I think art shouldn’t be so easy – I think it should a bit difficult.

AW: What are you working on next?

JB: For the last 10 years I’ve been working on sculpture, so I’m working on a sculptural project. I can’t talk about it right now, but that’s what I’m working on.

AW: Thanks John, we really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us today.

John is exhibiting at Marian Goodman Gallery until 21 November. For more information [click here]

Words by Marissa Cox & images courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery.

A Brief History of John Baldessari from Supermarché: Henry & Rel on Vimeo.

John Baldessari by John Sidney

Double Play: ‘Animal crackers in my soup’, 2012

Double Play: ‘Moon River’, 2012

Double Play: ‘Eggs and Sausage’, 2012

Double Play: ‘New Coat of Paint’, 2012

Raises Eyebrows/Furrowed foreheads (black and white eyebrows), 2008

Noses & ears, etc. (part two): two (flesh) faces with (blue) ears and noses, two (flesh), hands and hobby horse, 2006

Blockage (yellow): with person (white), oar (blue) and rope (red), 2004

Radial saw (orange): with two person fight (blue and red), 2004

Person on bed (blue): with large shadow (orange) and lamp (green), 2004

Noses & ears, etc. (part two): (blue) face with (yellow) nose and (red) hand, candle and skull, 2006

Exulting Figure (with coins) and witness, 1990