interview with jonathan borofsky

TF: The paintings on the walls really energized the installations. How did you feel about the temporality of the work, obviously they were later painted over?

JB: To help counter the money thing of the '60s and '70s, I just naturally gravitated to drawing and painting on the wall. So between 1977 and 1987, I made over 400 paintings on the wall. If they had been put on canvas during the heyday of all of that hot selling painting stuff I would have made a lot of money. There was something much more exciting about painting and writing my dreams on the wall. I would just overload the room so when people walked in they were taken by the whole space first and not by "Oh that's a nice painting, how much do you think that one costs?" or "What's the title of that one?" I was painting on the walls and ceilings. It wasn't about the singular object but more about the totality of the whole made up of these parts. I am still dealing with this issue and this seems to be the driving force of my work--this spiritual idea of the one and the many.

TF: I can see the pain or struggle in some of your work, but it often seems to get masked by the humor or play. This interaction of humor and pain creates both complexity and contradiction.

JB: There is day and night. So if pain wants to be a metaphor for night, that's fine. There is also darkness and light. Most interestingly though is dawn and dusk, it's the old standard of the yin and yang, of accepting the duality. It seems like most of us in our lives, including myself sometimes, are stuck in this dualistic struggle of good and bad. This search of looking for what's right and wrong seems to engulf everybody. Learning to accept both is a giant step towards something greater. As far as the humor, I never thought of my work as humorous. Maybe a basketball court in the middle of the Temporary Contemporary is unexpected. More than humorous, it is very truthful. I tried to give a picture of what was going on in the world around me more than the purity of the clean white gallery. I was trying to make within my art the cosmos or world. The Temporary Contemporary is a huge space. I knew it was kind of funny and Duchampian to have a basketball court. Though I didn't set out to be funny, or even ironic. I had some things that were dark as well. What you are getting is the full breadth of an honest presentation. I didn't necessarily want to be dark, but life is a challenge at best. It can be damn difficult at times. I'm still driven by reaching for some kind of wholeness and peace.

TF: Do you think it's really possible to reach "wholeness," or is it something you can just strive for?

JB: Strive for it until one day you realize that you have it--or you die first.

TF: And have you had moments or total feelings of "wholeness?"

JB: Yeah, right now. [laughter] No, I'm really getting it a lot lately. I'm 53 now and I think I deserve to raise myself up a level in consciousness. My life is very different from when I was making all of those shows in the '80s. I think it would be very difficult to make those shows now.

TF: What about the politics of the art world? You live far removed from all of that, in Maine. How has that been for you? How did that decision come about?

JB: Living in Maine is very peaceful and the air is good. It's by the ocean like it is here in Venice, and I like that. I may be there for personal reasons, my parents are older, and I'm an only child, and it's good to be closer to them for their needs. It was time to leave Los Angeles. It doesn't mean I'll stay in Maine. It's great here in Los Angeles and I love New York as well. I'm lucky to have been able to experience these different lifestyles. The way I arrived in Maine is a very personal situation. It didn't have anything to do with art. I lived in New York for 12 years, then got a better teaching job out here at Cal Arts ("better" meant that instead of $5,000 a year I got $13,000 a year). I had enough of New York. Look at this place [Southern California]--there is a lot of light and space out here. I gave it a try and ended up in Los Angeles for 12 years. At the end of 12 years I said, "Jesus, now there is too much light here, too much sun on my face everyday, and the air is really bad. It's time to go somewhere else." At the time I was married, and my wife also wanted to go to the east coast again--and I ended up in a town where I used to go in the summers with my mother and father. They still go in the summers, and at the time I thought I would stay bi-coastal. I kept my Venice studio and I thought we would go back and forth. Well a divorce settled in right after that and at the same time I found no reason to come back. I had spent twelve years in both Los Angeles and New York. I really like where I am. At this time at my life I've got my gallery in New York. And, I've had my "completion dream"--with the yellow sun on my shirt. [laughter]

TF: So what's going on inside of you today? You've just returned from Berlin and are here in Los Angeles to work on a project.

JB: Well, I'm always studying how I'm feeling as we all are on this search for spiritual wholeness. I feel good today, out here in Los Angeles. My life basically has come down to about three or four big projects a year. I have a few more in the works for next year--like some big stone numbers carved out of granite that are going to lie flat on the ground on a big property on Nantucket. I'm also very happy with an 80 foot hammering man in Frankfurt which happens to be placed at one of the entrances to the city, probably the tallest building in Europe. As the cars drive under it, its three-ton arm raises and lowers. It's more pleasing for me to have my hammering man in Frankfurt with twenty thousand cars driving under it every day for the next hundred years than some painting I could sell to a collector that will someday end up in some museum that will be shown once in a while and otherwise stored in the basement. That's really the best you can hope for in the sort of interior art world of galleries and museums. I was getting tired of doing these interior shows. That's why I started making larger outdoor pieces.

TF: Are you still counting?

JB: No, not any more. After writing numbers for a long time, I switched to doing them in my head from about 3,800,000 to 9,000,000--anywhere--just chanting them to myself. Now I don't do that anymore either, it became too noisy. It was a way of focusing. Now counting is too noisy for me. It's just a question of making a number occasionally, out of steel or stone. Right now in the valley, I'm working on these giant 18 foot long flying fish that are going in a convention hall in Atlantic City. I'm not limited to the gallery or museum space anymore.

TF: There is a line from a quatrain by Rumi [thirteenth century poet and mystic], it goes something like this, "Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing there is a field. I'll meet you there . . ." There's more. You also have a print, "Beyond good and bad it's just amazing to be alive."

JB: "Beyond good and bad it's just amazing to be alive," because it just is. So at my best, when I don't have my difficult moments, I'm trying to express my amazing moments. On the other hand, if I do have difficult moments I can't help but make difficult art at that time. This point beyond good and bad--it's also beyond words--here we are trying to get closer to each other and you are trying to get some ideas from someone whose work you like and we are using words because that's about all we've got now to do it. But what I'm finding is that there are those moments when you can just shut off your mind and be quiet. This is when you are as close to God as you can be. That's when I'm in a God-state. It doesn't sound like much, and you can't describe it, but that's what it is. It's not much.

TF: Are you referring to a meditative state?

JB: No, I could do it right now, but it's going to be hard to talk to you though. [hearty laughter] I know it's possible to do it and talk at the same time. That's my next lesson, being in the state of oneness and peace while doing my life. But, it's hard to do both simultaneously. Meditation becomes a lesson to try, at the least, to shut up my mind for that moment. Then you start to do it more often during the day. Usually I am alone, (obviously we are dialoguing here). The next step is to be able to hold on to that quiet place and shut off the chatter. It's the quiet where the truth lies. And, the words are really the noise and nervous energy we enlist to try and understand or pass the time, because we don't know what the hell else to do with our free time.

TF: Do you think that there will be a point when you will just want to be quiet and you won't make art, you'll no longer have a need to "put out?"

JB: It feels that way a lot now. It's a little scary because part of my survival is dependent on making these things. It has come down to two or three large projects a year. They are very big things and they sell for big enough prices that I can live a very comfortable life. But as opposed to 130 things in one year going into my shows of the past--it was a kind of jumble of mind's activity churning it out. I'm not so sure that the answer is to just not do anything anymore. Maybe you stop for a while and find that total peace, then go back to your work with that newly acquired sense of total peace. That's the idea of meditating in the morning then going to work. You find peace for the day and go to work and try to retain a little of it as the day totally wears you down.

TF: You said in the catalogue from the "Subjects Show" that the clutter and chatter of the installations doesn't interest you anymore. Are you simplifying your work, less chaos, stuff?

JB: Yes, as I get in a more peaceful state, I want less clutter. I think the clutter and chatter in my past work appealed to you and a lot of people because it is in our lives. Hence I struck a chord. I pretty well created the inside of your brain: basketball court here, bronze traditional terrible ugly sculpture there, paper, a mix of everything. This exists in most people's heads, and mine too. My work has always been an attempt at first to explore what this mess is then to find a way to kind of clean it up and make it into a whole. But right now I'm definitely in a period where I enjoy looking at these clean welded numbers on the wall over there. This gives me much more peace. Yes there is a cleaning up at the moment and a simplification. It seems to me as the mind gets quieter and more peaceful the work reflects this. Though that's not to say that therefore the minimalists must have the most peaceful minds. The few minimalists I've spoken to or spent time with, whether it's Carl Andre or Judd, spent a lot of time writing and talking about their work. Even though the work is so peaceful, they themselves have an awful lot of control issues going on in their life and noise in their heads.

TF: Have you ever encountered anyone for that matter who has achieved a fairly consistent state of mental peace?

JB: No, I'm not sure I expect to find anybody like that, or even that's what I'm looking for. I just want to continue about my business and feel good about myself. It's harder as you get older because you can see your body falling apart. I didn't really notice it until my forties but once it starts you become aware of it. And so you feel your imminent demise. I didn't realize it in my twenties and thirties because I was much too wild. Here's the challenge: I want to just feel good about myself. When I was younger I also smoked grass quite a bit, and at first it was truly enlightening. It was a wonderful teacher. I didn't smoke it as a social thing, but at home with orange juice and a notebook pad. It was an experimental drug. But in later years it gave me a lot more noise than I care to have now. At first it was great because it gave me thirty different ways I could make art. It's like looking for God when you get high. There is that moment when you do feel whole for a moment. It's so good and you're one with the world, but the rest of the time you have to deal with the fragmentation. It almost gets worse from smoking, and so you keep smoking because you want to get back to that moment when you felt God. It takes a while to learn that what is a good teacher is not necessarily the answer for the rest of your life. I even stopped drinking coffee recently. I'm much more peaceful. I'm not sure what my next challenge will be, but I like where I am at the moment.