Blog — 14 Jun 2011 — Melissa Dawson

What better way to spend a gloomy Sunday afternoon than with John Baldessari, “the most relevant artist of our time” (New York Times) and two pivotal figures from the Stedelijk Museum’s past and present? The Stedelijk Museum played host to the artist in conversation with director Ann Goldstein and previous director Rudi Fuchs.

In the art world, where events like these are rare, this was a real treat for students, artists, gallery staff the public who stopped by at the Stedelijk. It was a unique event where people could come and listen to an influential artist discuss his work, the art industry and to get the opportunity to ask John Baldessari a question.

Baldessari discussed how integral the idea of “participation” was in relation to his current installation, Your Name in Lights, which was launched by the Stedelijk Museum and Holland Festival earlier this month.

Born in California in 1931, John Baldessari’s work is mostly associated with the Conceptualist art movement prominent in the 1970s. Questions such as “What do things mean?” are a constant source of inspiration for him. For example he said the word “run” has no fewer than 23 definitions owing to the evolution of technology and programming. “Words can mean whatever you want them to mean,” he stated.

Baldessari discussed the effect that Dutch painter Piet Mondrian had on him, admitting that his Broadway Boogie Woogie reduced him to tears. “Even artists cry, you know,” he added. Ex-Stedelijk director Rudi Fuchs commented that he once expressed a theory that Jackson Pollock’s dripping paintings were influenced by Pollock’s visit to Mondrian’s studio, where he was exposed to some of Mondrian’s unfinished works.

Fuchs also spoke of the humour he found within works by Baldessari and his peers, Bruce Nauman and Sol LeWitt. The ex-director described the latter as a “comic master” referring to his technique of repetition and dissection of geometric shapes.

Baldessari’s first European exhibition was held in Dutch gallery, Art + Project. In the early ‘70s, he also exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum. It was interesting to hear that during this period Baldessari felt uncomfortable with his status as an artist in LA stating people found it “weird”. When he arrived in Holland and “everybody got it”, it raised questions for him about his work and nationality.

Fuchs also commented on LA and that its contribution to art is comparable to that of Hollywood films; “fast paced” and often like watching television or a movie. “You seen things happen and don’t know why.” Ann Goldstein, Stedelijk director and former curator at MoCA, agreed stating “Entertainment in LA can be the air that you breathe” but added that you can also ignore it all together. I found these issues extremely interesting and having two well informed directors from both the US and Holland provided a nice juxtaposition.

Goldstein raised some interesting questions, asking Baldessari what kind of advice he could offer artists today and also what, in his opinion, was the role of the artist?

“There is no niche in society for an artist as there is for a dentist or doctor―nobody says you are needed as an artist.” His advice for artists today? Being merely talented is not enough, one must be “obsessed but patient.”
Baldessari ended the talk with an anecdote. He explained that he had recently purchased a book on surfing, a gift intended for his assistant and that whilst leafing through it he read a quote from an aged Hawaiian surfer. The quote he felt was just as relevant to aspiring artists as beginner surfers; “Paddle. Paddle. Paddle. Someday, big wave will come.”