Paul Pfeiffer and John Baldessari in Conversation First published in the catalog Paul
in conjunction with the exhibition Paul Pfeiffer, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, 2003
PP One theme I wanted to discuss with you is the device of erasure, particularly the erasure of the human figure.
JB Yes, that's something we certainly share, and it interests me a lot.
PP So much of what art making is about is what you choose to withhold.
JB Yeah… in the early days of CalArts, when Namn June Paik was on the faculty, he gave me this left-handed comment that I've always treasured. He said, "John, what I like about your work is what you leave out." That's pretty much what you're doing, I think, too.
PP To me it's a matter of strategy, because images are tricky. People
are used to being told what to think about what they see. Think of the news.
I met a guy in L.A. who works for one of the news channels, and he pointed
out to me that he and I work with the same material but to opposite ends. His
job as a broadcaster is to edit out all the gaps and incongruities in the image
to keep viewers from having to make any interpretive leaps. I suppose what
I'm doing is going back over his work and reinstalling all the gaps and contradictions
he edits out.
JB I think I learned everything, mostly, about editing when I got involved with photography in high school. And cropping. That's what I do, I crop. One of the things I learned is how you can make everything erotic. Just by the way you crop things, you know. It's just amazing. And how you can play with things just by removing something a quarter of an inch. You have all these energies out there. And by the way you frame something, you can make anything mean anything. That's what artists do. Whereas I think people generally think that meanings are embedded and given. They're not.
PP For me erasure has very specific connotations. There's a suggestiveness to the act that compels me to do it again and again. Specifically with figures. I think it's that I associate the figure with identity: the identity of the viewer and the identity of the artist. I feel compelled to push them out of the frame or into the background. In your work, covering the human face with colored dots does a similar thing. It distracts the viewer's attention away from the face and allows other elements in the picture to emerge that might not otherwise register.
JB The first time I did that was with some photographs of politicians.
They were images of a world I don't inhabit, but of people who do control my
life. So I had this attraction/repulsion, hating them but being interested
in that phenomenon. I had these price stickers I was using for some other work.
I started putting them over their faces and felt somehow I'd leveled the playing
field a bit. I had reduced them to types rather than specific people, and I
began to play with them like a director in a repertory theater. This could
be an evil person, this could be a good person. I could make my own scenarios.
When I would teach life drawing, I found that students would spend two hours
on the head and then maybe thirty minutes on the rest of the figure. To get
them not to do that I would have the model turn his or her head away or put
a cloth over their head, and then at around the last half hour I would remove
the cloth and they could draw the head. Again it's trying to rearrange visual
priorities for people. Knowing that they're going to look at the face right away, I'm saying, "No, you can't do that. You've got to look some place else."
PP It makes me think of Leonardo da Vinci's drawing of the Vitruvian
Man inscribed a square within a circle. What's striking to me about that figure
is that it presents the image of Man as synonymous with geometric order. It
suggests that at its core the Western aesthetic tradition is anthropocentric.
I feel the same attraction/ repulsion for this image that you described in
relation to the pictures of the politicians. It's a representation of something
far removed from me, but it still exerts an influence over the way I see. I
guess I'm also looking for ways to visually level the playing field, to keep
the viewer's eye from automatically wandering toward the center, which is also
the thing you're talking out in your latest body of work.
JB Yes. I'm using a different format where I'm trying to make a square O shape. What I like about the shape is that the middle is vacant. You just have the wall. It's not really a void; it becomes very positive. We normally look in the center of things, and here when you look in the center you don't have anything. Again, I'm just trying to confound people's visual priorities. So if you can't look at the face you've got to see how the person is dressed or how the person is standing, how he's relating to other figures. Our normal attitude—at least in the West—is that we tend to look at the person's face. It would be interesting to study sociologically whether that's always the case. I guess there are some people that do look down.
PP People tend to focus on the personality of the individual. The individual means everything in consumer culture. There's a connection to be made here with the identity politics of the early 1990s. Today that time seems so far away. When I was starting out there was so much incentive for artists to act as ambassadors of their identities.
JB When a person emerges as an artist, you tend to be grouped with other artists and given a label. It's such a well-worn scenario: impressionists, expressionists, pop artists, minimalists, conceptual artists. I got grouped as a conceptual artist. And then as that scenario plays out, artists get to have their own identity. I remember once a way back in the sixties, a conversation with Doug Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Robert Berry, Larry Weiner…. And Joseph was complaining about people trying to be conceptual artists but they weren't truly conceptual artists, they were something else. He was probably directing his comments to me. But then Huebler said, "Well, Joseph, what would you call that? That would be like a radical conceptual artist? Would you call that a ‘Radicon'?" (Laughing) You're not really seen for yourself because you're seen for those qualities that a critic or writer sees as qualities of that group. Anything that doesn't fit in, you just don't talk about that. And what doesn't fit in might be what interests you most in your work. Usually it's the more difficult stuff in one's work. It's just easy to gloss over it when someone is writing about it.
PP It's one thing to be grouped together with other artists on the basis of shared ideas, and another thing to be grouped by race and gender. But the real point is this: even though the politics and the categories change, people are still prisoners of the power of images and stereotypes. In today's branded landscape, image and identities are pretty much synonymous. For me, the strategy of erasure is a response to that situation. It's the same thing with erasure in relation to time as well. Time is something that's in place as a condition before you arrive, before the dialogue between the artist and the viewer takes place through a work of art. You don't think about it because it's invisible, but it conditions everything you do. So the way I think about temporal structure in video is as an attempt to disrupt...
JB ... people's normal perception of time.
PP Yes. This is why I'm drawn to video loops. The repeated image is inherently mesmerizing, like watching a fire in a fireplace, or like moth to the flame. I'm interested in what might account for this tendency in the wiring of the mind's eye. It's like a visual addiction, something pleasurable that's hard to resist. The eye gravitates toward incessant repetition, as if it wants to lose itself in it. For me the temporality of the loop implies a kind of escape, as well as a kind of imprisonment. It's seductive, so you follow. And then you find you're locked in.
JB Was it Eisenstein who said art is about the frozen moment? That's the moment that seems to epitomize and crystallize everything of a certain action. But then you always want to know, what about all of the discarded moments before and after that? And why aren't they of interest or importance as well? The throwaway moments of time, that's what interests me. Or the scenes that end up on the cutting-room floor, so to speak, because somehow someone decides that this doesn't contribute to the film, or in the larger sense, this doesn't contribute to life. In somebody's view, this is not what life's about. But it is what life's about.
PP That's an interesting idea, that the forms and materials deemed unworthy yield the maximum creative potential.
JB I'm really interested in discards. Art is fundamentally about choosing. I've done a whole series of work about that. Think of everybody that has a camera. And out of a roll of thirty-six they might pick one or two. I'm interested in those thirty-four rejects. Why didn't it make the grade?
PP There's a possibility for the inverse of intention. Chance.
JB A chance against the odds. Because it's about life not as we would want it but life as it is. We'd rather not deal with that. But then we're lying.
PP We're intentionally not seeing things as they are. I've read some comments of yours that refer to a sense of something behind the surface appearance of things or behind a surface reality. People get very uncomfortable with mystery, or with not knowing. The tendency is to immediately cover it up. Take the video Goethe's Message to the New Negroes. People constantly ask what the title means. They insist on an explanation. But it was never intended as a caption or explanation of the image. It doesn't make sense if you look at it like that. It's simply meant to add another suggestive layer to the work. That's not to say that the title is arbitrary. It's quite precise in my mind. It's offering context, but in such a way that the viewer has to do the work, too.
JB Or [it suggests] another way of reading things. I had this Italian girlfriend for about seven years and I loved her because she was super bright. I love to tell stories and I'd tell her what I thought would be hilarious stories and it was just like –— [no expression]. So I'd say, "Denise, what do you think that was about?" And then she'd explain it to me and it's like a whole other take. [Laughing] I just thought it was wonderful because it would just never go through my mind. And that was as good a reading as mine. Why not? I just love that.
PP Are you arguing that it's that simple—an endless proliferation of possible meanings?
JB Well, the only thing I'm kind of sure about is that when two things are brought into some sort of magnetic proximity, that meaning occurs. Two words, two images, two objects, whatever it is. Whether there's universality, or agreement on the meaning, I rather doubt it.
JB That's probably pretty cultural. But it fascinates me that people want things to mean. But then when we erase, I think we play into the fear of a vacuum. And that makes people uneasy and they have to fill it in.
PP It's like the uneasiness people have around death. But then there's the compulsion to see the face of a deceased relative during a wake or to rubberneck at the scene of a car crash. The image of erasure is fascinating and repulsive at the same time because you're seeing a preview of your own disappearance.
JB A critic friend of mine, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, knows I'm a Goya fan, and he showed me a painting I had never seen before where this woman has a mask in front of her that's almost a perfect circle. Just like I could have done it. I just never knew it. And that's fairly recent in the history of art. I think it goes much further back to Greek and Roman times: when you vandalize, you don't vandalize an elbow, you vandalize the face. That's a kind of erasure. And so it's a cultural agreement about what's important. Or if you want to disfigure somebody, you throw acid in the face. You don't throw it at the elbow or the knee or whatever.
PP Another connection to be made is between erasure and the strategy of appropriation. What pushes me to use certain found images is that they have left a deep impression on me, either a long time ago, or very recently. The way that images become burned into the memory shows how porous an individual identity really is. It makes me wonder how the boundary line around an individual is drawn. In a way, all my work is a study of that process. My approach is to take an image that has penetrated my consciousness, and then to manipulate it just enough to emphasize the qualities that have impressed themselves on me, regardless of whether I wanted them to or not.
JB What got me interested in found imagery was that it was not considered art, but just imagery, and I began dumpster diving in photo shops. I heard about this place that sells old movie stills for ten cents a page and I said, "Yeah, that's not bad." And then as I began to use them more and more I realized I was tapping into this collective unconscious, what people think about as a surrogate life. Or maybe not even surrogate life. They probably think about their lives as being surrogate. There are certain things that happen over and over and over again in these stills. I found that interesting because things happening over and over again is what interests me.
PP I'm curious about what percentage of the material you use is found as opposed as material you generate yourself.
JB It's fifty/fifty by plan, because I'm intersecting images. One is something I've shot in the real world and the other is this kind of media world or this world I know secondhand. Both are worlds that inform me. In the twentieth century in general every movie we see on TV, everything we see in newspapers or magazines is just as real as walking down the street and going to the grocery store. I like to commingle those two worlds.
PP So it's a bit of a trick question to ration out percentages.
JB No, not really…. It's quite legitimate. It's not random. It's quite methodical and strategic and a priori. I can never start out something in a complicated way and go to the simple. I always start out from the simple and go to the complicated…. I have an idea and I work at it and work at it; it expands and grows and flowers and I want to stop before it decays.
PP In the case of this last period of work, can you describe more what that method is, when you say that it is very methodical?
JB This last series started with the concern I've had over the years
with trying to get away from a standard photographic height/width ratio. In
you're more forced into it because that's the kind of paper you buy, that's
the film you buy, the camera—it all has that height/width ratio. So when
you I started on this new work, two things motivated me: one was beginning
with two different panoramic cameras, and two, I decided to overlap images,
get a double exposure, sliding one over the other and in doing that I would
create this third world of imagery…. There was all this seepage of one image
into another image. That would be an area into which I would paint. Then, using
the panoramic cameras, I began being perverse…. They were made for panoramic
use, which means landscape, and I couldn't handle that, so I turned it on end.
What can you get that way? Well, a lot of sky and not very much landscape.
Of course tall buildings are perfect because they don't recede in the distance.
You just line up the flat plane of the film with the flat plane of the building and it's
a perfect match. So I started photographing all of these high-rise condo buildings
in the Wilshire corridor in West L.A. Then against that, I also wanted to do
the reverse. I was doing the seascapes, and I would use the camera in a panoramic
fashion. The apartment buildings vertically intersected the horizontal axis,
and I would intersect the seascapes with vertical imagery. And then this last
body of work I decided to use a different format where I'm trying to make a
square O shape. So I'm using landscape and a seascape in each piece, which
makes me use then two media images horizontally and vertically.
PP I also have been playing with panoramic horizons in the video I've been working on called Morning
after the Deluge. In a sense, Morning after the Deluge is a study of the human figure: its place in the history of Western art, and its disintegration at the dawn of the digital age. In classical one-point perspective, all sight lines come together at the horizon, at the theoretical vanishing point where all things recede to infinity. The horizon is the primary visual reference for centering oneself within a landscape. In Morning after the Deluge this relationship is flipped: the horizon line is uprooted and allowed to wander across the pictures plane, while the sun becomes the still point, the visual anchor in an upside-down world. In this spatial scheme, there is the reality of the sun rising and setting behind the earth's horizon, and the opposing reality of the earth's horizon moving across the surface of the sun.
JB I just saw your piece at MoMA Queens. I think it's really effective the way it was installed. It's like an offensive strike against the inherent passivity of video. You can get so laid back by its very nature, it all gets kind of soft. By contrast, your monitors projecting out from the wall go boom! But then instead of the monitors being large, you go small. It's nice sort triple play.
PP I don't believe in technical novelty as an end in itself. Too often in the art world, new media gimmickry takes the place of a purposeful handling of materials and concept. This is one of the reasons why up until now I've tended to work with low-end found footage and small portable monitors rather than big production budgets and bigger projection screens. By working small, I'm trying to counteract a tendency I've noticed in video art for the work to be overwhelmed by its own dazzling effects. My emphasis instead has been on making the hardware an integral part of the work. That's why I‘ve tended to use small screens. It's to draw the viewer into a more intimate relationship with the image. And more generally, I've been trying to play with the spectacle in ways that are calculatedly unspectacular. My interest is to balance the quick payoff of visual pleasure against the less immediate but ultimately more satisfying rewards of a focused contemplation of the medium.
JB Also, with a normal monitor, there's a built-in, tacit agreement that you're not supposed to notice that it's hardware, you know? Like you're not supposed to notice a painting is on canvas. But it is. So then you can go two ways: you can go flush to the wall and mimic painting, or you really think about the hardware, as you do. There was a time when people were thinking of TV as sculptural. The first would have been Nam June Paik, actually thinking about it as hardware. Or you pile up a lot of TV sets. That sort of thing.
PP Yes, there's Nam June Paik. And then there's Bruce Nauman's work to consider with regard to hardware. Like those corridors things. He would just have the monitor on the floor like something you might trip over. It's really playing with the physical relationship between the viewer and the image. This is something that also comes up for me in processes of mechanical reproduction and printmaking. There's something fascinating to me about the repeated image and seeing the image as it come out in layers. I'm curious if you could speak about your interest not only in printmaking but in the works you've done in the past that involved sign-making as well.
JB I have worked backwards here. On the recent pieces I'm trying to work contrapuntally with a guy that's a sign painter. So the areas in which I paint, certain of the marks I let him paint because I want them to have an anonymous quality and certain of the marks I'll paint because I want them to have my personality. So I try to interweave these two ways of making marks. Now that I'm here I'm getting a great art idea: I could go up to a duet to a trio to a whole chorale. … I'm very much interested in chance and randomness as a way of escaping ones own ego…. I'm more interested in discovering things, other places than myself. So I just become one part of the ensemble. And of course, the ultimate end is you just become art director. You don't do anything. You just conceptualize it, which I've done of course. It's a way of escaping your own narrowness.
PP That brings something that I'd love to get to about chance elements and how this relates to a letting go of the ego. I'm thinking of your piece Six
Ways to Pronounce Fiddlesticks. There's a curious visual effect in the repetition. It's almost like seeing the image repeated implies or creates a divided viewer. You can't look at the image without seeing the red, green, and blue iterations of the image separately. Another example is Two Voided Books. Again, it's like seeing double. Like you're looking at it cross-eyed.
JB Sure. It's like visually offering the viewer a whole box of chocolates as opposed to one.
PP When I think of the ego I think of a single-mindedness of vision, where everything comes together, so you're the one looking at the one object to make the single image.
JB That may be one of the reasons I got out of painting and began to explore video and film. A lot of my photographic work was sequential then. That seemed to suit my personality better, fill a need that had been constrained by painting. I think what I like to do is make comparisons. It's a fundamental concept that we choose one thing over another thing, but if you don't have several things, how can you choose? What I want to do is ideally present some sort of life form that would not discourage, that would allow a very simple reading but a pleasureful one to somebody, or offer a lot of layers for somebody that wanted more.… So my job is to provide that situation which is full of paradox.
PP I've often thought of making artwork in terms of providing an entry point for the viewer. How to draw the viewer into a dialogue? That's the challenge every creative person has to face: that there are things you want to say and do, and you have to find a way to say them in the idiom of your time and place. The work can't exist outside a given context. So there's a labor involved to make sense of your relationship to the conditions and constraints you live in. It seems to me to be a labor of translation, or mediation. I think that's why I use images off the television and from the movies. This also defines for me the pedagogical function of art. When you experience art it transports you, and in the process it reveals something about your relationship to things that you may not have considered. It teaches you other ways to live in the world.
JB I got a lot out of teaching. When you have a new class of twenty or thirty kids and you don't know what their level of understanding or sophistication is, so you have to pitch what you're saying so that you don't lose the most naïve student and you don't lose the most sophisticated student. It's a balancing act. I try to do the same thing in my work. I don't want to have this bourgeoisie attitude, but on the other hand I don't want to present pap either. I try to somehow provide for either end of a visual diet. You've got to get people hooked first and then once they're hooked you can present nourishment but otherwise they're going to pass it by. Models for me have been Matisse, maybe Mondrian or Giotto. They look incredibly simple but incredibly complex. That's what I reach for.
PP In a sense what distinguishes the endurance of the work is if it continues to deepen. Maybe that's also what distinguishes a work of art from sheer entertainment. We're living in a time when distinctions between art, design, fashion, and Hollywood moviemaking are becoming increasingly blurred. The historical distinctions are all giving way to a kind of thoroughly integrated spectacle. It's not so much that I'm concerned with preserving the idea of artistic purity, or of guarding the gate, so to speak. It's that I wonder if this equates to a kind of dumbing down of language and our ability to communicate.
JB For me, one of the fundamental questions I have when I'm looking
at things is why is this art and that not art? Why do I say that's not art?
What's making me say that is art? It's the world that's made the divisions.…
But we're certainly over that battle and have had the High/Low shows at the Modern and so on. Years back, I don't know where I was, there was
a big Picasso exhibition and hordes of people because it was Picasso and milling
around and trying to get from one painting to another. There are these two
ladies in front of this one Picasso. It was an interior scene where Picasso
had made a swath of white paint on the wall and then with a pencil he drew
in some frolicking figures and one of the women pointed to it and said, "I didn't know you could do that." And the other woman said "What?" "I didn't know you could draw in a painting." So that was a big moment for them. You could draw in a painting. So basically
that's what I try to do in life is to say: you can do this—there's no reason