Interview by Mathew Garrison
MG: How were you introduced to Hunter?
JOHN BALDESSARI: Robert Barry was slated to teach the summer class, and asked if I would teach it for him because he had some exhibitions to do in Europe and I said I would because I was giving some thought to maybe moving to New York, and thinking about it quite a bit. And so I said, “Yes,” and then I remember one of the friends of mine at the time. There was the critic Lucy Lippard, and she rented me her loft because everybody just leaves during the summer-
JB: -I guess they can and so I lived there. I don’t know what other classes were being taught that summer-I was trying to recollect, but I don’t remember. I think I was – in my memory -the only class there [laughs] but I might have been wrong [laughs]. You know, there might have been other things going on in the building.
JB: — at least on the floor I was located, there certainly were no other classes going on.
MG: – and what class were you teaching?
JB: Well, you know, I was going to ask you [laughs].
JB: You know, it was certainly not a graduate class, it was an undergraduate class-it was some undergraduate class, and it was not specifically painting or sculpture or anything-it seemed like it was a fairly wide umbrella because I remember I had people doing sculpture and painting and Super 8 film projects. Obviously it allowed for that.
MG: And do you recall any of the faculty you might have been working with at the time?
JB: Well, I don’t know whether any for sure were teaching there that same summer, but I remember Robert Morris definitely was teaching there. Whether he was teaching that summer or not, I don’t know. I remember Vinnie Longo. I guess he is still there, isn’t he?
MG: Just retired.
MG: Yes, and Robert Morris is still there.
JB: Oh really? My God. [Laughs] But as it was told to me, he pretty much taught classes in his studio. He was showing at the same gallery, Sonnabend-
JB: -I knew him that way. I just never saw him around. And then it seemed also-oh God what was his name – he was showing this great piece at the Paula Cooper Gallery. He painted all the floor blue. What was his name? I-I think he was teaching there-Bob Huot!
MG: Oh, sure-sure.
JB: And there are just some odd things flashing in my head-I remember Twyla Tharp. She was in the art…
JB: She was just getting on her feet [laughs] then.
MG: Amazing [laughs].
JB: Yeah [laughs].
MG: That is great.
JB: It was a small class-I had fun.
JB: And I got a camera stolen out of my office. You know, because I [laughs] was too trusting.
MG: [Laughs] And what did you think of the Hunter students?
JB: Well, students are students pretty much. And I’ve taught so many situations. Yeah, I thought they were all decent. Usually there are two or three that are really good and the rest are sort of average.
MG: And did you think the New York art students were dealing with different issues and ideas than the ones on the West Coast?
JB: Well, Robert Barry was there and we shared a lot of similar ideas. And, Robert Morris. If they had been exposed to either of them-I felt pretty comfortable, and I don’t remember any difficulty.
MG: When you go into the classroom, do you have a specific approach to teaching or an emphasis during the course?
JB: You’ll lecture, and work, and a combination of both.
JB: -I set up certain problems. I’m sure somewhere in my archives I have the notes on it. I remember one project I did with them. At the moment I was occupied with the issue – when was something apart and when was something in totality. It was pretty successful. I had them find something that seemed to be damaged or broken, and it wouldn’t be obvious what it was.
JB: And then repair it and make it a totality again [laughs] even if they didn’t know its function. And they enjoyed it a lot-it was a lot of fun and it helped get into the issue.
JB: And then I remember another project-I think it was the first project I had them do as a sort of an introductory thing-it was just brainstorm and ransack their brain. Make a list of all the things, all the way from grade school up until the present-things that they were told that they couldn’t do either verbally or implied. And then we began to purposely go about doing those things-
MG: What they were told not to-
JB: Not to do-right.
JB: And it-it worked perfectly except for this one girl-I thought she was so wonderful and she said, “You know, I had a pretty good art education,” she said, “I think, because the only thing I was ever told not to do was not to get turpentine in the cut.” And so she’s [laughs] obviously excused [laughs].
MG: [Laughs] Okay.
JB: I mean I couldn’t force that on her, you know.
JB: Cut your finger and hold it in turpentine as long as you can [laughs].
MG: No [laughs]. So how long did you live in New York?
JB: Well, however long that course was. I was living down in SoHo and I would take the subway-
MG: And did Hunter have studios then or did you have to visit people’s studios?
JB: Well, it was pretty much there at Hunter. There was one woman I had to actually visit-she was living outside of New York someplace-I don’t know where.
MG: And what led you to Hunter? How did you know about the position?
JB: Well, through Robert Barry. He was a faculty member there.
JB: And a friend. We joined the same gallery.
MG: And you continued to teach?
JB: Well, I had been teaching at CAL-Arts, but we didn’t have a summer program. So, I was free for the summer.
JB: And I was curious about maybe going to New York. And the course would be in a teaching job, so I figured this will get my foot in the door in some teaching institution. Hunter seemed a pretty good place. And then I had to drop the whole thing because I was married and my wife – We had young children. She didn’t want to leave.
MG: So were you traveling back and forth to New York quite often-
JB: -quite a bit and-and to Europe. I met a lot of artists that way. In the living room, rather Max’s Kansas City – Just go there every night.
JB: I ended up talking all the time with other artists. I enjoyed it a lot.
MG: And what was the feel of the New York art world in 1971?
JB: Well, it was pretty much polarized between people, you know, like me [laughs], the conceptual or minimal artists, and the people that painted. And there was sort of set-different areas of Max’s Kansas City. It was a good time because there was really this feeling of excitement that something could happen in art.
MG: So, what was an evening at Max’s like-
JB: People. I would be talking to, Jesus, I could just go down a whole list. Well, I mentioned Robert Barry. And Robert Smithson–Richard Serra –Lucy Lippard-Carl Andre-Mel Bochner-Joseph Kosuth. And then the Europeans like Richard Long – Conrad Finchner and Daniel Burren.
MG: A pretty incredible list.
MG: And who might have been in the other camp-the painting camp?
JB: Oh, those other guys [laughs]? Well, I didn’t hang out with them. The only painters that seemed to crossover were Robert Ryman and Brice Martin.
JB: I mean, you know, painting- I don’t want to say it-it’s a terrible thing-is kind of on its last legs. I think people then were totally abstract impressionism.
MG: And do you think New York influenced your work in any way either through the images you were collecting or the way you were thinking?
JB: You know, probably, certainly all the talk-because I was more in tune with artists there and in Europe than I was in tune with any artists here in LA. Probably the only person here in LA would be Ed Ruscha.
MG: Right. And did you feel somewhat disconnected on the West Coast at the time?
JB: Well, yes-of course, sometimes, but what I did was just invite all my friends from New York to come to CAL-Arts and to Europe to lecture and teach.
JB: And I made my own social situation.
MG: And do you think that that disconnection might have been useful to your work?
JB: Sure. I think it was mutually useful. I got many of the artists I mentioned out to California for the first time and talking and meeting people and doing shows.
JB: Yeah, it’s always useful. It made for an LA-New York connection which continued to grow. Before long CAL-Arts students began coming to New York. David Salle, Eric Fischl, Ross Bleckner, Jack Goldstein on and on and on.
MG: And now, of course, the crossover is pretty consistent.
JB: Yeah-yeah. Any one month there’s a good handful of LA contemporary artists – young artists showing in New York.
JB: Back then it was unheard of.
MG: And did you keep an image file of things that you utilized in your work?
MG: While you were here in New York did any of those images enter your work or did you bring them back to LA?
JB: Well, I did some Super 8 films while I was there about a normal work day-and I did some writing but none of it wasn’t about New York.
MG: Right. So, you were still doing your work independent of your teaching.
JB: What happened at that time was to gather information -basically-I spent my evenings going through a loose-leaf library [laughs].
MG: [Laughs] â€¦And did you have any other thoughts on Hunter in general?
JB: No-no other than my camera getting stolen and I learned about locking doors [laughs].
MG: Right-yeah [laughs].
JB: No-good summer.
MG: Good. And you were fairly well integrated into the New York art scene by then.
JB: Pretty much-yeah.
MG: Because I read that early on in National City you were working on your own-independent of everything.
MG: -that might have had some value at the time [laughs].
JB: [Laughs] Yeah, well isolation at the right moment is a good idea.
MG: And when did you start learning about the art world in a broader context?
JB: Well, I would read and see galleries and so on. I think when I first started getting to know the larger art world in Europe and New York and so on was in the late sixties -’67-’68.
MG: And how does teaching interact with art making? Are they somewhat similar?
JB: Well, I think for me I tried to make my teaching pretty much like making art, and then in the art I’m also teaching about art. Saying “well this is what I’m talking about.” So I think it’s interrelated.
MG: Okay, that’s great. Thank you very much.
JB: Good luck.
MG: Thank you.
[End of Interview]