Originally published in Donald Baechler: Flowers, Tony Shafrazi Gallery Edition, New York, 1997. Interview © Martin Prinzhorn
Martin Prinzhorn: There is a lot of interesting progress in the paintings which doesn't concern the figures, but rather the whole surface of the painting. This is interesting because it's a kind of good contradiction between the simple drawing forms and some surface of the painting that gives a completely different tint.
Donald Baechler: There are two reasons that the surface is the way it is. It began as a part of an editing process while I was painting- my painting is a series of erasures, a line goes down, usually it's not good, so I paint it over and over again until I get it right. Or an image is wrong, so it gets erased. And there started being this buildup of paint that I didn't like, so I thought an interesting way to erase a line, rather than painting over it, would be to glue something on top of it. And so it was an editing process. I wanted this kind of fresh surface every time I painted. And gradually it would become this kind of fractured surface. Then I started liking what that fracture did to the line, the quality of the line. It's much more interesting to paint over bumps than it is to paint over a smooth canvas. So it's these two things now. There's this kind of history of the process of the painting that you see because of the editing process, and then also it's something that, even when I don't need to change something, I want that surface, that interrupted surface.
MP: How do you see a painter nowadays with respect to the methods and, let's call it tricks, he or she uses?
DB: Well, unfortunately the word trick is a funny word, because somehow it has a pejorative connotation. There’s something wrong with a trick. My bag of tricks. But I think the surface that I use is certainly a trick to some extent, and I have a way of blotting the paintings that's a trick. I mean, it's not a trick, it's a device that I use over and over again. One would like to reinvent painting every time one approaches the canvas, but that's not really practical or possible. We see artists who seem to be doing this for long periods of time and then suddenly stop, and they kind of lose that capacity for reinvention. Well, a good artist has that impulse, I think. There are the other millions of artists who just are producing something they know about, are manufacturing objects.
MP: So I want to know in which sense you mean “to reinvent” painting, because there is one interpretation which to me has a negative side-namely that a problem of painters sometimes is that they think that the medium of painting just is enough, and you just have to work within this, and you don't even have to look at the history of what happened until now in painting, or what happened up to now outside painting. And I guess that's not what you mean by this phrase “to reinvent” painting. So, I wonder what you mean exactly be reinventing painting. Do you want to cross some borders nobody has ever crossed before?
DB: No, no, no. It's an individual thing. And I don't limit it just to painting, I think that's too narrow. I think a good artist in general is someone who doubts what he's doing and looks for ways of doing it better and looks for ways of making it more interesting. For me, if I know what the painting's going to look like, there's not really any reason to paint it. If I'm not learning something there's no reason to do it. Or discovering something. And, looking back, often paintings that seem to me radically different start looking very similar. But what was the question again?
MP: The question was what this "reinvention" thing exactly means, because, again, it could mean something quite naive, in a sense. I always have the image that many people just seem so happy that they are painters and so fixed on the medium that they don't care much. And then it becomes really stupid. And I guess that's not what you mean by "reinventing".
DB: No, you know, I really wonder sometimes what keeps someone interested in painting the same damn paintings for thirty years. And then I look at an artist like Brice Marden, who radically reinvented his pictures about ten years ago, or an artist like Francesco Clemente, who moves around the world, doing different bodies of work in different places, influenced by the cultures he's in. For me, these people are the models for what I'm talking about. There's a kind of complacency that creeps into artists of a certain level of success and a certain age that I think is deadly. It's a particularly American problem, I think. And it's an old problem. Something works, so you keep doing it. But the problem is remaining interested and remaining fresh, whatever arena you're operating in.
MP: I want to follow the thing you told me last time-the importance of children's drawings as a kind of starting point in your work. And what comes to my mind there is a story-you know, my grand-uncle collected this art of the insane which he would always refuse to call art. And at the same time, he had friends like Nolde and Klee, and he would show them those things, and they would really use it for their paintings, and that would be art for him. So I wonder what is the relation of children's drawings to your work-how do you see this?
DB: Well that's an interesting question. And an interesting subject. I think at a certain point I know what Dr. Prinzhorn was thinking when he thought these drawings are not art. Up to the point when there's no identity attached to them, they're some anonymous sort of thing that exists in the world-a visual information that exists in the world. But at a point where there is an identity-the artists produce one drawing, and then they produce a hundred drawings, and then it's an artist with a body of work-then I think you can no longer ignore that that's art by an artist, whether he's insane or whether it's a child producing a body of work. I tend to be interested, for my own purposes, in things I find on the street or things drawn on toilet walls or things drawn by someone I meet in a bar, who maybe has never made a drawing since he was five years old and which somehow don't exist as part of someone's identity as an artist or as a human being who makes drawings, whether he's an artist or a hospital patient or a child. I'm not really interested in a dialog or a collaboration with someone else who has a clear visual identity. And I'm always looking for clues to my own way of making drawings in these things that I find and then sometimes use. Or which become the basis for my own graphic explorations. Does that answer your question at all?
MP: In a way. But also, it's not only that you take children's drawings as a kind of important starting point, but in the recent paintings, what you do is that you really seem to collect art or pieces from all over the place and also incorporate it into this final artwork. So, one could describe your strategy as really assembling from lots of things which for you cannot be art, or are they?
DB: Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't. There's a lot of collecting going on before I even can start working. There's a lot of collecting drawings-my own drawings, other people's drawings, found drawings, drawings in books from art history. And there's collecting stuff that gets kind of glued on to the canvas or the paper and becomes part of the information in the background that I'm painting on top of. It's not even collecting- it's kind of a process of accumulation, and then of filtering it some way and getting it out of my house by gluing it down somewhere or copying it into a painting. I find, as I move through the world, that things kind of stick to me.
MP: Is this a conscious decision-that you are interested in some kind of art historical, definable things you want to incorporate in your painting? For example, if you use things from books, what would those books typically be?
DB: Recently I've been copying some Picasso paintings which were copied by Picasso from Oceanic masks in 1908. So for me this is interesting-this sort of sifting of things through one intelligence from another culture and then into my paintings. It's something I'm starting to do more. In fact this is another subject, I think, but a lot of the collecting you were talking about earlier is in fact a sort of vague method of autobiography-as I'm traveling, my suitcase fills up with stuff. And when I'm back in my studio, I try to find a way to use it. It may be drawings I've done on the beach, or they may be signs I've stolen from hotel toilets or something like this. And that all finds its way into this kind of soup that becomes the painting or the collage.
MP: Painting, I think, in the western context, very often functions as a kind of identity mechanism. You could identify certain paintings with a certain culture, a certain nation, and soon. And this is still going on in many contemporary paintings, so it's not only that you can talk about Flemish or Italian, but also today people like to talk a lot about typical German painting, typical Italian painting, typical American painting. And your work, in a way, is really trying to avoid such a labeling.
DB: I don't think that's true, necessarily.
MP: Why not?
DB: I mean, the worst thing you can say is there may be a bit of cultural imperialism going on. I'm certainly drawing things in from all sorts of places, but in fact, in some way I'm looking for the same thing everywhere in every culture, rather than trying to bring in something. I'm looking for a way to make everything the same, rather than trying to make my work necessarily different from all these influences. You know what I mean?
MP: But maybe you misunderstood me. I was not accusing you of any cultural imperialism. I thought that it's a very interesting strategy, for example, if you decide now to incorporate Picasso drawings from 1908 in your production you're doing in '96 in New York. It makes the references so direct that they somehow open up any imperialist or nationalist context. That was what I meant. But you're not satisfied with that.
DB: No, the question you seemed to be addressing was an issue of style, and somehow I was presenting an international viewpoint which didn't have a location in America in 1996 or the last fifteen years, whereas I think my paintings somehow are extremely American. I don't think I've managed to obliterate the sort of cultural location in the paintings.
MP: Yes, but still you find all those traces of different points of reference.
DB: To me they become nearly completely meaningless after they kind of end up. I feel like I've taken such possession of them that sometimes I don't remember where they came from even, in fact. And in fact you 'll find that-in one of my big projects in the 80s, a way to meet people in different situations and different cultures was to engage them in-I'd meet a stranger on a beach or in a bar and have them do drawings for me. And I found that very often, all over the world, you know, graffiti looks the same, pornographic graffiti in toilets looks the same. Drawings made by non-artists end up looking the same. They're similar. People have the same approach to putting lines together when they're unfamiliar with holding a pencil, all over the world. And this is something I'm kind of looking for, how things are the same, rather than how they're different.
MP: So, when you work with assistants, you also have them producing?
DB: Well, the whole subject of assistants is really interesting to me. There was a point at which I'd been collecting things to use in collages, and I kind of ran out of things that I wanted to use. I'd been to Egypt and had collected lots of temple receipts and hand-written restaurant receipts and things like this. And I was working on an extended series of collages that related to my trip to Egypt, and I just ran out of stuff. Coincidentally I met an Egyptian boy and hired him as an assistant. And he was rapidly filling out, making pornographic translations into Egyptian from French pornography and funny things like this, which I then used in the collages. And this went on and on. And I realized I could just stay at home and have things made for me. So I hired, I started corresponding with prisoners and having them do drawings for me, and I hired a guy with a drug problem and paid him a dollar for each drawing he made for me. I found if I paid him by the hour, he would just sort of sit there doing nothing, but if I gave him a dollar for every drawing, he could do a hundred drawings in an hour. And then these became part of the background, as I said before, this sort of soup in the background that I'm painting on top of. And sometimes they find their way into the actual sort of vocabulary of images that become the foreground of figures and the sorts of things which are nominally the subjects of the paintings. I'm very interested always in the foreground-background sort of thing. For me they're two totally different occupations. The world of the background rarely blends into the world of the foreground.
MP: I didn't understand this.
DB: A characteristic painting of mine will have a kind of elaborate background of collaged things and then something painted on top. And there's a whole kind of language going on, vocabulary in the background that is usually totally separate.
MP: But what would the foreground then do to the background?
DB:: It just sort of sits on top of it. A classic figure-ground relationship.
MP: Does it have an effect, because I think that sometimes if I look at your paintings and walk close, then I see this enormous amount of information and richness, and then you have a foreground which somehow controls this.
DB:In fact it's a kind of random juxtaposition of something on top of something else.
MP: Who [do] you like in painting and where [do] you feel connections, and are there other artists where you feel that they have a similar approach and try to do, not necessarily the same, but work in a similar direction, or a direction which is relevant for you?
DB: Well, in a funny way I think we touched on this before. Philip Taaffe and I, I think, while ending up in totally different places, somehow our working methods are similar in an odd way. We both collect information and then somehow reorganize it in a kind of deliberate, in his case very scholarly sort of way. In my case it's more kind of impulsive and idiotic. And other artists who I feel strongly about? Well, Julian Schnabel and Albert Oehlen-you mean from my contemporary artists, my contemporaries? Painters or artists in general?
MP: Artists in general.
DB: Well I've always said, for many, many years I've always said that Joseph Kosuth is one of my big heroes. Partly because his early work was so important to me with the clarity of thought that it seemed to present. But also because he always was, I think still is, one of the very few artists of an older generation who remains really engaged with what younger artists are doing. And I think, like I said before, there's a kind of tendency among American artists and maybe artists in general to become sort of very complacent at a certain point, after a certain point of success, and just withdraw and stay home and get the check in the mail. And I try to stay interested in what younger artists are doing. I make it a point to visit schools a lot, to find out what's happening, because I'm very interested in what's going on in general.