A Situation Where Art Might Happen: John Baldessari on CalArts

by Christopher Knight
Date Published: November 19, 2011

From an oral history interview with John Baldessari,
conducted by Christopher Knight at the artist’s studio in Santa Monica, California, April 4–5, 1992. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Portrait of John Baldessari. Courtesy of the California Institute of the Arts Archive.

Portrait of John Baldessari. Courtesy of the California Institute of the Arts Archive.

CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT: Can you describe the program at CalArts? Because it was relatively raw then.

JOHN BALDESSARI: Yeah. Well, it’s easy to go back now and try to sort out the chaos, but at the time it seemed totally chaotic.

CK: Where was it in 1970?

JB: In Burbank. It was the Catholic girl’s school. Villa Cabrini.

CK: Villa Cabrini?

JB: Yeah. Because the new building wasn’t finished. And then it was a near disaster because of the earthquake, and the earthquake stopped right at the golf course right next to CalArts. The building wasn’t harmed, and we were able to open then the next year. But— I don’t even know where to begin. Well, let me start with the first day, let’s say. [laughs]

CK: That’s a good place.

JB: We drove up with Max Kozloff, who was on the first faculty, and we drove into the parking lot, and we looked around, and I would say 90 percent of the plates were New York and New Jersey. And then you realize that this was going to be a sort of total import of New York culture in California.

CK: Faculty or students or both?

JB: Well, I guess both, you know. And then we both laughed about it and said, “Well, here we go.” What had happened, in fact, was that the various deans were mostly out of New York, and they got teachers that they knew, mostly from New York, and the teachers brought their graduate students, mostly, and so.— This was also a time when new schools were popping up, I don’t know how many a year. And there was this band of nomadlike students and teachers that would go from one hip school to the next hip school. And I think that CalArts was the next hip school to migrate to. And so they all descended. [laughs] And there was just all this hype around, you know, who’s going to be the next Black Mountain College in alternative education, and, you know, blah, blah, blah. There was a lot of underground word about it. And I think every crazy in the world descended the first year. There was just utter chaos. But out of chaos, quite often there’s a lot of order going on. It’s order that one should distrust usually.

CK: Um-hum.

JB: But you could— In thinking again about the first year, you begin to see the handwriting on the wall about what was going to happen, because there was a great deal of excitement for a moment, when it looked like Herbert Marcuse was going to come up and join the faculty from UCSD. And he was willing. And the trustees said no. They didn’t want all the bad, bad rep. And so you could see the beginning of the end sort of right there.

I mean, looking back. You couldn’t have seen it then, of course. Another thing, rather, that was very hard for me to come to grips with is that coming from teaching situations that evaluated students with grades, all of a sudden you’re in a situation where there are no grades. And it was always sort of a given, and you realize how much classes depend on grades as sort of like a punishment, you know. And here—

CK: To keep people in line.

JB: Yeah, exactly. And so…there was no curriculum. One didn’t assign, let’s say, class problems or what have you, and there was no reason for a student to stay in your class if he or she didn’t want to. Well, I mean, we know now. All of a sudden, a few contracts weren’t renewed because nobody would go to the teachers’ classes. “Well, I think the person’s boring,” or “Too much of an autocrat,” or for whatever reasons, right, you know. And so that was unusual. And then there was a lot of money around that first year. Every class got pin money of fifteen hundred dollars. It doesn’t sound like a lot but—

CK: Again, that would go a long way.

JB: Yeah, yeah. This is per class, you see, for incidentals.

CK: Incidentals.

JB:  Plus there was a fifty-thousand-dollar-a-year fund, student administrated, to give grants to students for projects that might take unusual expense—

CK: Wow.

JB: —that they could make, put in application for. The equipment we had was unbelievable. I remember portapaks—you know, portable video cameras—that’s what they called them at the time. Which are pretty unusual, period. You know, we had 25 of them. And students could check them out. The equipment policy was so lax, there was incredible rip-off. There was just no monitoring. Allan Kaprow actually noticed this guy was just building this giant box in the shop, and you didn’t pay much attention to it. And each day he walked by, and then one day he sort of looked in, and this guy was filling it full of equipment he was just going to mail back to where he came from. [laughs] And so there was a lot of loss that way, but in a way the best reading of that you can be, it’s like if a book is stolen from a library, it’s great, you know, it’s being put to use.

The school was supposed to be cross-disciplinary, but the architecture just really inhibits that, because it’s all corridors and doors and so on. Inasmuch as it was encouraged, I don’t think it was ever that successful. I think it’s a little scary for students to try to collapse into another school. Although there seemed to be trade-offs going on. If a student wanted to learn something in the film school, he would hang out over there—or she—and begin to trade things. The student might do some sets, whatever, and the trade-off would be that you would get to use a camera and crew or something like that. Another good thing was that the place was open around the clock, so you didn’t have to turn on creativity at eight o’clock in the morning and stop at five. We were very relaxed about living in the studio and sort of winked at it, so students that had very little money could just live and work in the same space. We had studio space for everyone, and every graduate student had a scholarship pretty much.

CK: About how many art students were in it?

JB: I think roughly about, oh, maybe a hundred to a hundred and thirty were tops. Of those maybe 30, 35 would be graduate students. There was no curriculum, as I had mentioned, and I even suggested—and we tried it for one year—that students could propose any course that they thought would be necessary, and we would find an instructor for it. That met with moderate success, and I guess students were still authoritatively bound. [laughs] Feeling that adults knew best. And we had some unusual courses. I think one of the most bizarre ones that comes to mind was a course on joint rolling.

CK: Joint rolling?

JB: Yeah, we actually had it listed. And we had another one taught by a sociologist who was on the critical studies faculty, and that class was in session anytime that he encountered a student on campus. So in other words, no fixed time. Rather Socratic. [laughs]

John Baldessari, <em>The Pencil Story</em>, 1972-3. Color photographs, and colored pencil on board, 22 x 27 ¼ in. Courtesy of John Baldessari.

John Baldessari, The Pencil Story, 1972-3. Color photographs, and colored pencil on board, 22 x 27 ¼ in. Courtesy of John Baldessari.

CK: How did the infamous Post Studio class—

JB: I was hired as a painter and was a bit frustrated. You know, I really didn’t want to do that, and there were other painters that had been hired, Allan Hacklin, John Mandel.

CK: You hadn’t been painting for five years at that point.

JB: But I guess they didn’t know what else to call me. [laughs] So I went to Paul Brach and I said, “Listen, this is really kind of silly and makes me uncomfortable. Can I devise a class that’s more in keeping with what I’m thinking about?” And he said, “Sure, make me a proposal.” And I thought about it and thought about it, and tried to bring some structure into it, and I thought about calling it conceptual art, but that seemed too narrow and too prescribed. I think I owe the phrase, the title Post Studio, to Carl Andre. I know I didn’t coin it. But it seemed to be more broadly inclusive, that it would just sort of indicate people not daubing away at canvases or chipping away at stone, that there might be some other kind of class situation. And so I elected to use that. And it seemed to work.

CK: So how was the class organized?

JB: Structured?

CK: Yeah.

JB: Basically, I tried to give them sort of a brief history of contemporary art, so they could see that the things I was interested in didn’t come out of the blue sky—that there was some continuity to it all. So a liberal use of slides and overhead projectors instead of books. And since I was on the road a lot in Europe and New York doing shows, I would bring back catalogs, magazines, and talk about the stuff I’d seen. These students had probably the quickest access to information of any art school in the US, I would wager. They didn’t have to wait for it to come into the magazines. And plus the visiting artists. I would have at least one or two a week talking there. And field trips. But not necessarily art related, you know: going into the things that introduced them to culture in the broadest sense, like going to Forest Lawn, or the Hollywood Wax Museum, or what have you. And a lot of times just anything to get out of the studio. One of my tricks was that we’d have a map up on the wall, and somebody would just throw a dart at the map, and we would go there that day. [laughs] They could take their video cameras and still cameras, and do whatever they wanted in just staying out there. Try to do art around where we were.

CK: Was the availability of equipment at CalArts influential in your own work?

JB: Yes, of course. Because this is one of the reasons students and teachers align themselves with an institution where they have access, right? Yeah, sure, I had access to video equipment, film equipment, and so on, sure.

CK: And you hadn’t done any of that before CalArts? Video especially.

JB: No video. I started video there, yeah. And film.

CK: What colleagues on the faculty—either permanent faculty or guest/visiting faculty—were of particular import to you?

JB: Well, I literally, by that time, I sort of was the sort of Cupid between the art world and CalArts. Or the pimp. Or whatever you call it. [laughs]

CK: Cupid or pimp.

JB: You know, I invited everybody I met that seemed interesting to come out in any way they could, and I would not sort of take no for an answer. If they’d say, “Well, I can only come out for a day,” I’d say, “Come for a day.” But if they didn’t have enough money, I would arrange other gigs around town for them, with other colleagues or what have you. I guess the most reticent one was Sol LeWitt. He said no, he didn’t want to go to any teaching institution. And I said, “Well, how about we could meet in a local bar?” He said, “Oh, that would be fine.” So we just hung out in the local bar all day and I talked to him, drank beer. But I mean, that was the whole mistake I could see schools were making, you know, one, if they even thought about artists, they would have to be there on their terms.

CK: Yeah, right. Five, six hours.

JB: I always, I just figured the important thing was to get the artist at all costs. I mean, any that you could manage or any way you could do it. I would pick them up at the airport; I would find places for them to stay. You know, anything. Yeah, I was a pimp, if you think about it. [laughs]

CK: And who among students that you had were—if there were any—who were important to your work?

JB: To my work? That’s probably hard to— There was a certain group of artists and a lot of them moved down here to Santa Monica, where I was living, which was also good. David Salle, for one, moved right down here. And Jim Welling and Matt Mullican immediately come to mind. And then I encouraged them to get places where they could have studios as well, so that began to happen. And then when that began to happen, I began to schedule classes, each week a different studio, so we could meet and see the work that was going on and what have you. And then, there was this trade-off I told you of people working on various people’s work. So I would help on students work when they needed help and vice versa, and— Oh, and the other important thing, too, is an attitude I tried to develop, was that you were an artist when you walked in the door. We’d break down this relationship of student and teacher. We just had more years on them, that was all, but we fully accepted them as artists, and that helped a lot, too. The teaching didn’t stop when the day was over, class was over, or what have you. Students either would be visiting me or I would be visiting them.

CK: Is there any specific relationship or types of relationships that you see between your work as a teacher and your work as an artist?

JB: The reason I got into teaching was that it was the closest thing to art I could be doing to make a living; it wasn’t art, and it wasn’t actually teaching. And then I just decided, “Well, listen, it looks like I’m going to be doing this most of my life, and I’m going to have fun doing it,” so I decided to make it as much like art as I could, given the parameters of the teaching situation. I finally think it came to a point like that, that one will loop back on through the other, that my art would be sort of an example or illustrative or a metaphor, for what things I was dealing with in class. And I was going at my class much like I would do art, which was basically trying to be as formed as possible but open to chance. [laughs]

John Baldessari, still from <em>Teaching A Plant the Alphabet</em>, 1972. Black and white video, 19 min. Courtesy of John Baldessari.

John Baldessari, still from Teaching A Plant the Alphabet, 1972. Black and white video, 19 min. Courtesy of John Baldessari.

CK: You know, I think specifically of— I don’t know if I have the right name of the tape, but the Teaching a Plant the Alphabet. Is that what it’s called?

JB: Yeah.

CK: The first time I saw that tape it was—

JB: The stupidest idea in the world.

CK: It was a long time ago. No, but the first I thought was, I wonder which of his students was the plant? [laughs]

JB: Well, that’s another tape called Teaching a Vegetable the Alphabet. [laughs] 
No. Well, the whole idea was to raise the question what do you do in an art school? And you say, “Well, what courses are necessary to teach?” and that is question begging in a way, because you can say, “Well, can art be taught at all?”  And, you know, I prefer to say, “No, it can’t. It can’t be taught.” You can set up a situation where art might happen, but I think that’s the closest you get. Then I can jump from there into saying, “Well, if art can’t be taught, maybe it would be a good idea to have people that call themselves artists around. And something, some chemistry, might happen.” And then the third thing would be that to be as non-tradition-bound as possible, and just be very pragmatic, whatever works. You know, and if one thing doesn’t work, try another thing. My idea was always you haven’t taught until you see the light in their eyes. I mean, whatever. Extend your hand, that’s what you do. Otherwise, you’re like a missionary, delivering the gospel and leaving. [laughs]

This is an edited version of a much longer oral history interview in the public domain. To read the entire transcript click here.
Christopher Knight is art critic for the Los Angeles Times. A three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism (1991, 2001 and 2007), Knight received the 1997 Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism from the College Art Association, the first journalist to win the award in more than 25 years. He has appeared on “CBS 60 Minutes,” the “PBS News Hour,” National Public Radio and in the 2009 documentary movie, “The Art of the Steal.” In 1999 Knight was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the Atlanta College of Art.