Friday, October 16, 2009

'Pure Beauty' - An Interview With John Baldessari

The new issue of Seesaw Magazine is now online and contains a wonderful interview with John Baldessari conducted by Aaron Schuman. Below is an excerpt from their exchange:

"Profile with Ear and Nose, (Color) "
© John Baldessari

Aaron Schuman: In your early photo-based work, you took your own photographs and applied them to a canvas. Then you had someone else take pictures of you; then you asked others to take photographs for you; and finally you started to use found imagery, such as film-stills, photos from newspapers, and so on. Why did you gradually take yourself out of the pictures, so to speak?

John Baldessari: It was mainly about trying to escape my own good taste, or good taste in general. I think that each time you do some art you get better at it, so I was trying to figure out a way to work against that. Anytime that I could not take a photograph – where I could just give instructions to somebody else to take a photograph – I would do it; if I needed a photograph of a house, I would just tell one of my assistants, ‘Go out and photograph a house.’ Then I would be honor-bound to accept it, because that’s all that I’d asked for. I didn’t say to them what kind of house, or what kind of architecture I wanted – it was just a picture of whatever they thought a house was. I had other ploys too. I’d sit a camera in front of a TV on a tripod, and put an intervalometer on it so that every five minutes it would take a picture, and I would use those photographs. Another thing that I’d do was compose a photograph perfectly using a tripod, and then pick the tripod up, move it a foot, and take the picture. It was all about getting away from good taste.

Aaron Schuman: Why were you intent on avoiding good taste?

John Baldessari: Back then, I said that I was trying to work against my own good taste because I figured that good taste is going to come out anyway, no matter what you do, so there’s no reason to work at it.

Aaron Schuman: Were you trying to get away from the craftsmanship aspect of it all as well?

John Baldesarri: The craft part of it didn’t interest me at all. Getting the perfect gradation of tone, or making a beautiful print, wasn’t an issue. Of course, I had gone through all of that in my own darkroom, so I knew what it was to make a fine print, but it didn’t interest me; I was just interested in the imagery – in the ideas that the photographs represented.

Aaron Schuman: It seems like many artists of your generation incorporated photography into their work in order to rebel against traditional notions of art – in a sense, the medium itself represented the antithesis of ‘high art’ or ‘fine art’, at least in the conventional sense. Today, photography plays a much more central role within fine art practice – do you feel that using photographs, and what that represents, has changed since you began to do it yourself?

John Baldessari: Now all of those battles have been won, so it’s no longer an issue. Within art connoisseurship and curatorial practice, photography used to be ghettoized; paintings were at the front, photographs were at the back – they would be always be separated. And as I said earlier, back then there was a huge gap between the history of photography and the history of painting. And even at MoMA today, you still have a Photography Department and a Painting and Sculpture Department. What I love about MoMA is that, according to the Photography Department what I do is not photography, and according to the Painting Department what I do is not painting. So that just points out the ridiculousness of the situation. When I was teaching in the late 1960s and 70s, I would say to the students, ‘Just use a camera, because I can teach you everything with a camera that I could teach you with paint.’ And actually, one of my first students at the University of California, San Diego was Allen Sekula – he was always taking photographs in class, and it seemed like he could do everything he needed to do with a camera.