PRINT April 2003

’80s THEN

Jonathan Borofsky

MARK ROSENTHAL: It has always seemed to me that one of your great innovations was the imagistic wall drawing. How did that come about?

JONATHAN BOROFSKY: It was born in the early to mid-’70s. By then, I had locked in to an idea about counting, and the continuous activity of the mind. From there, I started developing all sorts of images, mostly inspired by dreams. In 1974, Sol LeWitt, who was a kind of father figure, suggested I paint these directly on the wall. Drawing on the wall has such immediacy, like the impact of the cave paintings. Every time I take a piece of charcoal—which originally came from fire in a cave—and put a mark on a nice white museum wall, I feel great—direct, and primal.

MR: After the wall drawings, the installations came quickly. What were your inspirations?

JB: I had a picture of Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau room in my head from long ago. I also recalled a reproduction of an Allan Kaprow installation. I had seen an Oldenburg gallery show in the ’60s, which seemed like an installation to me too.

MR: Did installation work represent a kind of repudiation of object making?

JB: Lucy Lippard’s book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object was important to me. Also, people like Sol LeWitt, as well as Hanne Darboven in Europe, were working with their minds. I had come from making imagery my whole life, so to say it was all right to just sit and record your thoughts with diagrams and numbers was very exciting.

MR: You left New York for Los Angeles in the late ’70s.

JB: Yes, in 1977. I had been teaching at the School of Visual Arts in New York since about 1969 and had my first show at Paula Cooper Gallery in 1975. So I felt plugged in to New York enough that I could leave the city and try teaching somewhere else, at CalArts, for a year.

I didn’t make a deliberate decision to stay, but one year seemed to lead to another. I was enjoying the atmosphere, the palm trees and ocean, and the space and light; also, I was getting paid twice as much to teach. Los Angeles was a little like a giant hardware store. There’s a lot more access to unusual materials, and more opportunities to get things fabricated.

MR: Had you ever felt as if you were a “New York artist”?

JB: I didn’t feel I was a “New York artist,” but I didn’t come to feel I was an “LA artist” either. I just feel like I’m who I am. I left in 1991 for Maine when I began to realize that the palm trees and the ocean were great but the pollution, traffic, and sun in my eyes all the time were too much.

MR: Back to the ’70s: Was the art world becoming more international then?

JB: Yes. Kasper König, the German curator, came to me in 1976, while I was still in New York, to invite me to exhibit at the 1977 Venice Biennale. Later, I participated in a number of exhibitions in Europe, including “Westkunst,” in Cologne in 1981, Documenta, in Kassel in 1982, and “Zeitgeist,” in Berlin in 1982.

MR: What was it like to work in Berlin at that time?

JB: It allowed me to get in touch with an intense political situation. Also, there was the context of the Nazi torture chambers next to the Gropius-Bau, where the exhibition was held. I can remember jogging around the Berlin Wall and having the idea to blow a hole in it. But I learned it was too thick. So I thought that just the symbolic act of somebody trying would be important because the more who try, the more it gets into people’s minds that this would be possible. However, nobody could assure me that we could do this without blowing out windows in buildings and somebody being hurt. So the idea evolved into painting the figure of a running man on the Wall and placing a ruby on the hill where the torture chambers had been.

MR: What’s been important to you about doing your installations?

JB: Those were great moments for me: to be given a giant space to work with—four walls, ceiling, and floor. In effect, this was a six-sided canvas. Once the installation was completed, people could walk into the space and stand inside my brain—with all my hopes and fears shown in multiple media, including sound. People would come to me ten years later and say, “I remember that show you did.” They found the experience to be very intense, and they took their experience away with them, knowing it had happened only there. Images were on the wall that you knew weren’t going to be there in a month; they were gone.

I was really in the thick of those installations in the ’80s. On the periphery, though, I would hear that some painting sold at auction for, say, five hundred thousand dollars. I would occasionally wonder if I was going about this the wrong way. But I realized that I couldn’t do it any other way.

MR: Did you ever imagine that one of your installations could be made permanent?

JB: That wasn’t on my mind when I made them, but every installation artist must harbor those fantasies. You step back for a moment after you’ve spent two weeks discovering all these visual connections you didn’t expect and think, “Boy, if only somebody had the foresight to buy this as it is.” Of course, it never happened.

I think it probably took the next generation of installation artists to simplify the process down to five different objects in a room. These can be bought as a group and reinstalled somewhere. But my installations were a little too complex, with lots of wall drawings that only I could do.

MR: What memories do you have of the European exhibitions?

JB: I was just obsessed with completing the installations; I would leave immediately after finishing. What does come to mind, though, was a kind of signal I felt from always being placed next to Mario Merz, which was appropriate because of our imagery and numbering. After the third European exhibition in which Mario’s work was in the next room, I sensed repetitiveness in these enterprises and wondered whether I wanted to keep doing this work for the rest of my life. I felt that this kind of activity would end very soon. Then, around 1987, I had a breakthrough with outdoor sculpture. There was no outward decision, but probably an inner belief that things would have to change for me to be happy and to grow.

MR: Were the Hammering Man and Ballerina Clown your first efforts in this regard?

JB: Yes, the Hammering Man in 1987 and the Ballerina Clown, about 1990 or ’91, were among the first. With the outdoor work I became involved with the politics of accomplishing such projects, talking with mayors and city councils. I wanted to find a way to infiltrate the world with imagery that people could carry with them every day. In this way, art might become a bit more accessible. I have a need to connect to people, and to make things that people can connect to. I want viewers to feel good about themselves, and about art.

MR: So by the end of the ’80s, your focus had shifted away from art spaces?

JB: Yes, the outdoor work became my avenue to slide out of the New York gallery world gracefully. I did do one or two more shows at Paula Cooper, including the “Prisoners” documentary videotape, in 1986, and the Jonnie Hitler exhibition, in 1993. That show was an effort to connect with the dark side of myself and with what I felt had been a symbol for evil in the last century. That was one of the last solo shows I did at Paula’s.

MR: What are the particular joys of making public work?

JB: About twenty thousand cars drive by the Frankfurt Hammering Man every day. Every day another twenty thousand. I am interfacing with people in a way that I wasn’t able to for the one or two months of an art exhibition. The challenge of communicating with the public, making symbols that people can work with in their daily lives, feels like a wonderful step for me. That’s all the indoor work was about anyhow, trying to find patterns in our minds that we could all live with.

I think of this change in my work as an evolution. Building sculptures outdoors was like graduate school, having done all these installations in college. One activity grew out of the other. I built the first Hammering Man myself, in 1980 for a gallery show; then it became a little bigger; then I made five that traveled together to several art museums in Europe. That was really strong as an exhibition, especially when the five motorized figures were shown alone in a gallery.

MR: The shift in your work coincided with a shift in the art world away from the conceptually based art of the ’60s and ’70s back to object making in the ’80s.

JB: As the ’80s unfolded, I continued making drawings on walls. Each one had to be by me; there were aesthetic decisions to be made that, of course, spoke of something personal. I couldn’t hire assistants to reproduce these as paintings. Still, I managed to sell a lot of work for somebody who wasn’t focused on selling or on making products.

MR: To the degree that the ’80s were a time consumed by money, did you feel yourself wanting to fight that situation either politically or through the temporary, “fugitive” character of the installation?

JB: Definitely there were moments when I got irked. I remember when my one-person exhibition at the Whitney Museum opened, Charles Saatchi, who had already bought several works, walked up to me and asked about the five Hammering Man sculptures in the exhibition: “Are you going to make any more of these?” I said: “Maybe.” What I was thinking, of course, was, “What a goddamn question. None of your business.” Art as a product has never been easy for me to accept. Really, art is for the spirit.

Part of my frustration was that each installation was much stronger than any one painting. Yet there was no way for me to bring it beyond the moment. You can effectively photograph a painting and put it into Artforum. An installation is above you, below you, and behind you. The sounds are coming into the mind, and the viewer is getting a feeling of a gestalt, of many parts coming together as a oneness. You can’t get that in a photograph. It gives you only a clue.

I remember one or two periods of my life where I thought, “I’ve got to just do this work this way, and to hell with the system. I will overrun the system.” Well, it didn’t happen. The system didn’t necessarily overrun me, but it certainly ran its course whether I was around or not.

MR: During the ’80s, did you feel that Art with a capital A was under assault?

JB: If we’re in a courtroom and you want just a one-word response: Yes. I have nothing against the painters or object makers of that moment. It’s just a question of how to speak directly to human hearts without any concept of money being involved.

Mark Rosenthal is adjunct curator of twentieth-century art at the Menil Collection, Houston.