Studio visit

Baldessari: The artist behind the 19th BMW Art Car

John Baldessari is the grand master of conceptual art. He has just presented his latest work, the new BMW Art Car, at Art Basel Miami Beach. BMW Magazine was given the opportunity to meet with the 85-year-old in his Los Angeles studio for an exclusive interview.

Jordy Cordy
Lars Jensen

It was the fastest artwork he has ever created, said John Baldessari of the 19th BMW Art Car. “I think I’ve only done one work of art involving a car in my life, and that was an image of a car. So for me it was unknown terrain that I ventured into with the BMW Art Car project.” But it was terrain that Baldessari conquered with ease. He put a red dot on the roof of the BMW M6 GTML race car – with its engine output of 585 horsepower that enables it to reach speeds of over 186 mph – so that it can be seen from above. The word “FAST” is written in capital letters on one side and there is an image of the vehicle itself on the other. “Considering the car as an icon of contemporary life, my concept turned out playfully satirical, but it also highlights some of the trademark ideas that I use. So you can say, the BMW Art Car is definitely a typical Baldessari!”

But what is a typical Baldessari? For many he is one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Yet on a visit by BMW Magazine ahead of the premiere of his BMW Art Car, when the invariably nonchalant Baldessari tells the story of how he invented conceptual art, he makes it sound as if it could have happened to anyone. As a young man, he had painted a great many pictures in the abstract expressionist style that was all the rage in the post-war years, but neither he nor the public was particularly enamored with the results. So he consigned his entire collection of pre-1966 works to a crematorium – which obligingly burned them all!

From then on, he sought to make art something other than just color on canvas. Baldessari began blending photographic material with printed words and made Dadaistic films, in which, for instance, he wrote the phrase “I will not make any more boring art” over and over again until his pen ran dry – as if he’d been punished at school. Later, he started to stick colored dots over the faces of the figures in his pictures, which was to become his trademark.

“I experimented a little, but at the end of the day the car’s shape dictates what needs to be done. There’s a dot on the roof, for example, so that the car can be recognized from the air.”

John Baldessari

Baldessari is considered the godfather of conceptual art and the architect of the Los Angeles art scene (Photo: Portrait of John, 2015, Courtesy of Molly Berman).

In the 45 years that have passed since vowing not to make any more boring art, he has stayed true to his word – “most of the time,” he says. He may not be the most famous or richest artist in the world, but the overwhelming view among art curators, collectors and fellow artists alike is that Baldessari is the most influential figure in recent art history. With 200 solo exhibitions and over a thousand group shows – including multiple appearances at the Kassel documenta and Venice Biennale exhibitions – he holds the unofficial world record. Beyond this, he has also influenced at least two generations of artists in the U.S. through his work as a teacher.

In his Venice Beach studio, the octogenarian is working on a new series of paintings that he will soon be exhibiting in New York. On a table are two models of the BMW Art Car for 2017. At nearly 6' 7'' tall, sporting a white beard that matches the color of his shoulder-length shaggy hair, and wearing baggy sweat pants and a stained T-shirt, Baldessari has the look of a pirate who was once a real menace but is now eager to appear harmless. In Los Angeles art circles he is known as “big giant head.” Baldessari claims he never carries anything with him – his pockets are always empty. On the wall a German newspaper clipping screams, “Subversive! Grotesque! Humorous! Provocative! Why does this genius come up with such crazy ideas?”

Mr. Baldessari, what’s a normal day like in the life of the godfather of conceptual art?
John Baldessari: You know how it is in Los Angeles. If you ask someone what they’re working on at the moment, they reply, my tan. Well, I’m not working on my tan, I make art. Every day. I’m constantly thinking about art, even when I’m taking a shower. Do you want to see the new stuff?
Yes, please!

In an adjoining room are eight large-format paintings, each combining a section of a Jackson Pollock drip painting with one of a representational motif by Pollock’s mentor, Thomas Hart Benton. On the painting’s lower edge, there’s a word such as “Routine,” “Familiar” or “Normal,” which at first glance seems to bear no relation to the picture, while white squares in the middle of the paintings look as if they have been cut out. It’s classic Baldessari: enticing and entertaining, intellectual and impenetrable, all at the same time.

Baldessari: Do you notice anything?
Teacher and student couldn’t be any more different.
Baldessari: I use a lot of yellow and purple, two colors which I absolutely hate. When you mix them, you get brown. I find that funny.

Your art has always been the art of omission. Is the most important decision actually what not to show?
Baldessari: I think it was Arnold Schwarzenegger or Abraham Lincoln who said something along the lines of, “It’s what you leave out that matters.” The same holds true for all artists, including filmmakers and musicians.

I think it was Martin Scorsese who said that.
Baldessari: Smart guy. The artist has to decide what information is absolutely essential for their piece of work. If you don’t minimize, you’re not an artist.

You stuck dots on the faces in your pictures or painted over the noses or cut individual figures out. Simple tricks with a big impact.
Baldessari: A hundred years from now, people will still be saying, "Baldessari – that was the guy with the colored dots," but actually I only did that for two or three years.

The dots are back again on your BMW Art Car.
Baldessari: That’s true. I took it that they were iconic, so I gave the dots another chance.

Was it difficult to decide where, exactly, to position the dots on a BMW M6?
Baldessari: I experimented a little, but at the end of the day the car’s shape dictates what needs to be done. There’s a dot on the roof, for example, so that the car can be recognized from the air.

You were in your late thirties when you made your breakthrough as an artist. Was it a blessing being able to experiment in National City, near California’s border with Mexico, for decades without the pressures of the art market?
Baldessari: No one there was interested in art but me. Parents, friends, teachers and neighbors – they all turned their noses up at the mere mention of the word “art.” I later found out that another artist also grew up there: Tom Waits did yard work for my sister when he was a teenager.

But your mother supported you in pursuing your passion, while your father was rather indifferent.
Baldessari: My mother was well educated; she came from Scandinavia and was a nurse. My father was basically an Italian scrap dealer. Working as a mailman meant he got an apartment and a pair of shoes every year, but he thought there must be more to life. He worked as a mountain farmer in Colorado, and made it to California by collecting cigarette butts and working them into cigarettes. He sold stuff he found lying around. He made a considerable amount of money that way. His problem with art was that he didn’t understand how you could make money from it.

What was the first work of art you took conscious notice of?
Baldessari: Still life with quince, cabbage, melon and cucumber by Juan Sánchez Cotán from the early 17th century, in the San Diego Museum of Art. Possibly the best still life ever painted. It just blew me away. I had a similar experience later in life with Andy Warhol. I thought, that’s unbelievable, I need to completely change my way of thinking.

Were you a child when you saw the Cotán?
Baldessari: No, I was already at college. When I was 18, I still had no idea who Picasso and Cézanne were. I lived in social housing – no one there went to museums.

Who got you out of there?
Baldessari: I didn’t want out, because it was never my intention to become an artist by profession. I worked as an art teacher in public schools around San Diego. A wife, kids, a house and a car – that was the measure of my life back then. I was totally isolated from the world of art. There wasn’t much of an art scene in California at that time, anyway. If you told someone in San Diego you were an artist, they looked at you as if you’d said you were homeless. I always said I was a teacher.

So, on weekends you were dabbling with brushes in your den.
Baldessari: I subscribed to all the art magazines I could, particularly the European ones. That’s how I stayed in touch with the art world. I saw loads of interesting things – pop art, Fluxus, the German painters.

Where did you work?
Baldessari: My father was by now a slumlord and owned run-down buildings in National City that no one wanted to rent. There was a laundry, later an abandoned theater, then a cinema.

One of your most famous works from the 1960s is called “Wrong,” the first ever photo-text painting. Can you tell us how the work came about?
Baldessari: I’d read lots of literature on art history and theory that made art out to be a world of rules: you have to do this, you can never do that. I’d always been interested in language and photography and found myself asking, why can’t they be part of art, too? I’d read you should never have people standing in front of trees, because it looks as if the tree is growing out of their head. Excellent, I thought, that sounds good. I’ll give it a try. I’m standing in front of a palm tree with the word “Wrong” underneath. I was able to pull that type of stunt in National City because there was no one around to tell me not to.

In 1970 you burned pictures you had painted before “Wrong.” Did you really destroy everything?
Baldessari: I guess so.

John Baldessari makes art every day. The walls in his workrooms are a patchwork of both finished pictures and new ideas.

He considers the car to be an icon of contemporary life. Baldessari’s signature style elements – unembellished typography and colored dots – can also be found on the BMW M6 GTML race car, with achieves speeds of over 186 mph. In spite of the unusual subject matter, the end product is unmistakably a typical Baldessari.

He considers the car to be an icon of contemporary life. Baldessari’s signature style elements – unembellished typography and colored dots – can also be found on the BMW M6 GTML race car, with achieves speeds of over 186 mph. In spite of the unusual subject matter, the end product is unmistakably a typical Baldessari.

Have you ever regretted doing it?
Baldessari: Never. There’s one of my early works hanging in my bathroom. Small format with stripes and metal. Not bad at all. I see it every morning.

You’ve probably had to answer this question more often than anyone else: what’s the point of art?
Baldessari: If you see a concrete block with an iron rod on the street, to you it’s just a concrete block with an iron rod. If you see the same object in a museum, though, it’s a sculpture. It’s the context that defines the meaning of anything. These days, no one would get excited about text pictures produced by a sign painter, but back then it was a revolution.

The language in your pictures comes from art books and has a bureaucratic ring to it.
Baldessari: I wanted to be as neutral as possible. If you’re stranded on a desert island after a plane crash, you don’t write the word “HELP!” in the sand in your best handwriting.

You taught the legendary “Post-Studio” class at the CalArts School of Art, which spawned established artists such as Mike Kelley, Tony Oursler and David Salle. What was that like for you?
Baldessari: CalArts was set up by Walt Disney to train illustrators for movie production. For two years, they left the school to its own devices and suddenly the staffroom was full of freethinkers. There were a lot of nudes. One class involved a teacher speaking with people he happened to meet in the hall. Another dealt with how to roll a joint. But we had Disney money to spend. The video artist Nam June Paik bought 26 of the very latest Sony cameras, which were really expensive. But there weren’t any drawing classes. Paik was a friend of mine. He had one of the best answers to the question of what makes something art. He just said, Dust!

When did your breakthrough as an artist come?
Baldessari: I instill three rules in my students. First: Talent is cheap. Second: You have to be possessed. Third: Be in the right place at the right time. My breakthrough came when I was doing a group show in a small gallery in SoHo. I walked into the room and saw Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg standing in front of my pictures, obviously enthralled by them. They introduced me to Konrad Fischer, the fantastic German gallery owner who later represented me in Europe. The rest, as they say, is history.

How can art help us to survive?
Baldessari: Art won’t stop a murderer from killing someone. But maybe art can have a subconscious effect on people.

What art do you surround yourself with?
Baldessari: I’ve only bought two pictures in my life. The Tree by Mondrian, which you can see behind me, and that’s from the time before he went abstract. And the Morandi over there. All the other pictures you see here are from artists I bartered with. There’s something by Thomas Demand hanging over there.

You had the good fortune of coming up with revolutionary art, yet still being loved by critics and the public alike. Can you explain how you managed that?
Baldessari: That’s an interesting question. I’ve noticed that most people want to be on the winner’s side. If a respected critic deems something to be good, suddenly everyone wants to buy or exhibit that artist’s work. My brilliant former gallerist Ileana Sonnabend helped me, of course. If you have a show at that type of gallery, your price goes up and you get loads of attention.

What did your late financial success feel like?
Baldessari: It was nice. I didn’t have to teach any more. I could cherry-pick the assignments at CalArts or UCLA and support my children.

What do your children do, by the way?
Baldessari: Good question. That’s something I’d like to know, too. I’m very curious and am always asking. My son is presumably very interested in technology and probably plays Pokémon all day long. My daughter is disabled. She reads a lot.

And you can afford the BMW that’s parked in front of the studio.
Baldessari: Here’s a true story, which I’m not telling you just because you’re from BMW. I used to drive Volvos and Chevrolets and Pontiacs. One day my mechanic said to me, “Buy yourself a BMW, then you won’t have any more car trouble.” And he was right.

John Baldessari

Born in 1931 in National City, California, close to the Mexican border, Baldessari devoted himself to painting in his youth and initially wanted to be an art teacher. In 1970, he destroyed all the works he had produced prior to 1966 and caused a sensation with text paintings (e.g., just the words “Pure Beauty” on a white canvas), as well as combinations of text and photography. The big commercial breakthrough came relatively late for Baldessari. Today, he is more prolific than ever. Recent projects have included designing stage sets and costumes for the Paris Opera. His Art Car for BMW was recently unveiled at Art Basel Miami Beach, and on January 28-29, 2017, Baldessari’s vehicle appeared on the racetrack at the Rolex 24 At DAYTONA.

Painting smocks California-style: the wardrobe in Baldessari’s Venice Beach studio (Photo: David Hockney *John Baldessari, 13th, 16th December 2013*, Acrylic on canvas, 48'' x 36'', © David Hockney).