interview with jonathan borofsky

Jonathan Borofsky: Oh I see 163 questions, typewritten on 17 pages--are you comfortable there? Yes? Okay. "So, Mr. Borofsky . . ." [laughter]

Terri Friedman: "So, Mr. Borofsky . . ." [laughter]

JB: You can call me Jon.

TF: Jon. I saw your show in 1985 at the Whitney Museum, as did many of my peers. What we witnessed was a body of work that was more visually complex, personal, and alive than most of the art we were seeing in museums and galleries at the time. It didn't feel familiar. You see, we were in our early-to-mid-twenties and we walked into your exhibit and it was a different experience than we had ever encountered. Dualities existed not only within each individual piece but within the installation itself. "Oh you can do this--your counting or numbers, and that sculpture / painting / basketball courts, and be the same artist." That's the permission or freedom that we all got from you and a handful of other artists. What you created was a more open system of approaching the art making process. I'm generalizing a bit, I'm using "we" liberally, but you get my point.

JB: Good. So . . . [laughter] we're through with the interview, that's all there is, there is nothing more to talk about. That's about as profound as we can get. Now we'll just have to work around that.

TF: I've been thinking lately about the difference between humor or the unexpected versus cynicism. The 1980s and '90s bad girl / boy work is an example of the latter. Your work, which encompasses a sense of spirituality, autobiography, and psychology (that is present in a lot of the work I see around me today), entertains the unexpected with a humor that for the most part is not cynical but sincere and personal. To be simplistic for a moment, cynicism seems to repel or distance the viewer, and the kind of humor I'm referring to seems to engage and invite. It's a more generous humor. You have influenced numerous artists directly and indirectly today. I see it in the work.

JB: First of all, I'm very impressed. One of my growth periods in the last years is that I've seemed to have lost my ego or at least some of my ego. I haven't done these kind of shows for ten years. That was the '80s. I don't get written about now because the kind of work I'm doing is large scale like an 80-foot-high hammering man in Berlin and it's just not my time. People want to focus on the young, and if artists are my age they have to be really social and political career animals in the art world in order to succeed. I tend to be hidden in Maine, so it does interest me and even make me feel good when we sit around talking about my past shows. I had a dream about six months ago that I'd done everything I had set out to do. It felt good. There was really nothing left to do. This wasn't a fearful dream, but a comforting dream. I had this image of a big yellow sun on my chest. It was sort of like a spiritual awakening--feeling good about myself. I'm not so sure you have to achieve greatness or do great things before you should feel good about yourself. Ideally you should feel great about yourself just because you are alive --that would be more to the point.

TF: That is a profound dream. That's now. I'm sure you've traveled a long and arduous path to arrive at that insight. So, what was the art climate like when you were in your twenties?

JB: When I got out of graduate school I decided to go the NYC route. Emerging simultaneously, there was Pop Art and Minimal Art at their most powerful in 1966. They were two opposites together creating the state of art: one a very formal, clean perception, and the other a more organic perception. Like every artist, especially when you are younger, I was looking for something unique within me. The first thing I did was I closed off everything. In other words, I stopped painting, I stopped making sculpture, and I just started thinking a lot. I spent a year writing thoughts down. I actually found a place within conceptual art, even though I hadn't had a plan to make conceptual art. After a year, I realized that I wanted to keep the mind more focused. That's when I started, writing numbers and looking for some inner peace. What I discovered was that the stuff that was coming out was very personal. As a search and illustration of my search for peace, my dreams and thoughts found their way onto the first canvas boards. For instance, one of the images I made was of myself in a boat going from a big negative sign to a positive sign. I wrote down the dream I had the night before, like "I dreamt I was taller than Picasso," or "I dreamt my mother and I were running down the street from people shooting at us." I kept the counting going as well which was still my focus. What I realized very quickly was that I was putting out very personal stuff. That was something that you weren't getting from Warhol, Oldenberg, Liechtenstein, Andre, Judd, or Lewitt.

TF: That's an understatement. They are all about as removed from the personal as you get.

JB: Most artists want to be part of a discussion and say something that hasn't been said yet. When you are younger, you have your ego or something driving you to survive, sell a few things, or hold onto your teaching job. I certainly was aware that if I was going to become part of the discussion, I didn't want to say what had already been said. It was boring for me, and boring for the other people looking and listening. I don't feel that strongly now. I feel every young artist does have that driving force. We just don't want to repeat. I guess that's the highest point of creativity.

TF: Can you say more about the counting in relationship to your inner life?

JB: I had a need to keep this personal meditation going, of counting and focusing inward. It was not much different than Carl Andre laying his plates on the floor. The counting was very obsessive and in terms of art, very minimal. It was very rigid: 5673221, 5673222, 5673223 . . . . That kind of extreme seemed to bring out the other extreme which was very image-laden but very personal work. So I began to echo within my own work what the state of art had been in this century, whether it be the Minimalist and the Pop Art at the same time or the Constructivists and Surrealists at the same time. I found that I was getting both located within me. The need for the perfect pureness of the Minimalists was for me the counting. The need to express an imagery--like Warhol's Mao painting which really excited me--surfaced in a different way. Warhol made political reference to the world but it was not personal enough for me. Warhol had a plastic veneer. He didn't really give us a sense of what was going on inside of him. There was also in the '60s a money focus that began to develop with Warhol, the Pop Artists, and Castelli. I truly found that difficult. I'll use that word as opposed to "offensive." I felt very uncomfortable and didn't know how to trade my art for money. That was a healthy naiveté on my part. I really didn't get involved with a gallery for the next ten years whereas friends of my generation did. I found it uncomfortable, and the whole Warhol scene a bit depraved and ugly.

TF: So how did you place or picture your own work in such worlds? Can you say more about your relationship to the art you were seeing around you at the time?

JB: When I had my first show in New York at Paula Cooper's, someone said, "It looks like a high school art show." I thought it was a great compliment, but I know they were criticizing it. It was very personal and like my studio, paintings and sculptures were all thrown in together. I had this profound feeling that I was doing something that hadn't been done before. In the center of the room I had my counting, very clean and clear. All around the room I had my objects, paintings, sculptures, and drawings. Every piece had a number on it and it all related to the counting in the center of the room. For many years I did these shows where I had the counting in the center of the room. Spiritually and psychologically the numbers pulled it all together. It said, "All is one, no matter how much stuff seems unrelated here." I do feel we are all connected to other human beings, animals, trees, other life, and even ideas and things. And here's my number system to tell us that. So the spirituality in my work that you are talking about I think started to really come out as soon as I came to New York City and faced the kind of coolness of Minimalism as well as the crassness of Pop Art, both of which I love. I figured if I was honest in my work, it might stimulate honesty in other people's work. So, it was my intention to be as open as I could. I certainly was embarrassed once in a while as a result. "Yeah, the dream I had last night was really embarrassing and here it is on the wall."