PRINT April 2020


I KNOW I SPEAK FOR MANY ARTISTS when I say that I would not be who I am without John. After four decades, his throwaway words still slosh happily around my brain, coloring my decisions with his wry humor and slapping down pretension at every turn. It’s hard to think of another artist who has had this kind of effect on me. While digging into his personal history to write this piece, I was stunned by how much of my artistic makeup is a composite of fragments of his own.

When I was a first-year student at CalArts, straight from the Hawaiian Islands—a place where my highest aspirations had been painting pot leaves and perfect waves—I was deeply confused by John. He wasn’t exactly scary—he didn’t have that way about him—but he was bewildering. While it was quite clear that John had long been the program’s heart and soul, it was also evident that he was becoming disinterested in it all. There was a new force rising fast, sucking up the oxygen in that heady, largely experimental institution. That force was Michael Asher and his now-legendary marathon critiques—with their incessant chin stroking, huddles of drawn faces, and patter of dense, polysyllabic argot—which would sometimes drag on until dawn broke over the Santa Clarita mountains. I made a noble attempt to join in these almost liturgical exercises in devotional stamina, but the whole thing seemed to me more an elaborate ritual for cementing precepts rather than an actual quest for understanding. John, on the other hand, fed some hunger in me, a hunger I did not yet understand.

I recall little from the many seminars I attended in earnest, and yet seemingly casual things John would drop in studio critiques or his classroom scrambled my world order. I remember showing as a freshman two very similar paintings, one yellow and the other black. Everyone, including myself, loved the yellow one, but John preferred the black, saying, “I would rather see an interesting failure than a pat success.” I was gutted. It took me years to truly understand how failure leverages the wormholes through which we pursue the unknown, whereas success merely comforts and reaffirms the known.

The Johnisms were seemingly endless:

Don’t worry about technique. Do anything long enough, technique will come. Worry about what you want to say!
Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.
If I think art should do something, then I shouldn’t be an artist.
Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. 

And ever provocative:

I also think that art should have political concerns, but then when it does, I don’t like it. 

While these comments seem innocuous enough, they had a way of hitting critical stress points, like a masseuse who knows exactly which spot will unravel a bottlenecked nervous system. He would mumble so many of those pithy gems while you strained to hear him, unaware that his words would someday morph into lodestars, forever there to point you toward new territories on the map. The ultimate result was a feeling of wide-open freedom, of permission. John may have shot from the hip, but he rarely missed. As a master of the improvisational and the expedient, he mass-produced artistic license. Everything was OK. Everything counted.

John may have shot from the hip, but he rarely missed. As a master of the improvisational and the expedient, he mass-produced artistic license. Everything was OK. Everything counted.

It’s only a 135-mile journey from National City, California, where John was born, to the Venice boardwalk. I had moved from a tropical island to the place where my career began, but in artistic terms it seemed to me that John was the one who had traversed unimaginable distances. When he was growing up, National City was a scrappy suburb of San Diego populated by approximately seven thousand souls. (Tom Waits also hails from this unlikely place, better known for catering to the inebriated shenanigans of the naval personnel who frequent its infamous “mile of bars” than for producing two truly offbeat California geniuses.)

Some years after graduation, I ended up showing at New York’s Sonnabend Gallery, the same vaunted venue at which John did. I found it odd, particularly as I had only studied with him as an undergraduate and had not stood out among the older students who orbited him more flamboyantly. Still, sharing a gallery with John gave me the chance to see another side of him. I will never forget when David Salle, one of his most famous students, had a show at the same time as John just one flight down from Sonnabend at the Castelli Gallery. David was at the height of his powers, hitting a pitch of both showmanship and control. Antonio Homem, Sonnabend’s then director, laughed and remarked that it all seemed completely backward: David’s work looked like that of the grand, staid, and accomplished master, John’s like the stuff of a breakout upstart intent on toppling the applecart. Years later, in an Interview conversation with David, John doubled down on this industrial-grade irony: “I still have that vestigial idea that all these other people are artists. I’m an artist wannabe.”

When one watches an artist’s career closely over a long period of time, one will invariably see the work inhale and exhale, flex and decompress, and then repeat that cycle over again. Sometime during the more than ten years he and I spent together at Sonnabend, I remember commenting to a friend that one of John’s shows looked like he hadn’t even gotten out of bed to make the work. So it came as a great amusement to learn from the artist Meg Cranston just the other day that John was infatuated with the idea of artists working from bed. In addition to his joking about how Kenneth Noland directed entire exhibitions from his, John was particularly obsessed with Matisse’s mind-boggling productivity during his final years. Meg told me that John felt that being laid up was no excuse for not making art. I could only think that a bedridden John would still be far more productive than I am, even on my best day.

Meg painted a picture of a man who was deeply driven, who felt both his working-class roots and the pressure of other artists nipping at his heels. Apart from his public life—surrounded by students on his lofty perch and admired by so many—John could actually be quite isolated, using his time with focused intensity. He had an insatiable appetite for books and knowledge and a compulsive need to be up-to-date on everything, particularly the goings-on of the art world. I was shocked when I learned all this. It was so antithetical to the happy-go-lucky, mumbling, bumbling, benign jokester I remembered, but that impression was one John let the world foster to the point where it nearly became his brand. I suppose his almost insane hunger for innovation had to be powered by something formidable—possibly even something quite dark.

It saddened me greatly to hear of his death, and to realize that forty years on—just as I am returning to California—the decisive figure who always defined my understanding of this place and its eccentricities is no longer here. But as I whizzed along the LA freeway yesterday, I chuckled as I repeated his mantra: “I am making Art, I am making Art, I am making Art.” And then I thought to myself, He’s still here.

Ashley Bickerton is an artist who lives and works in Bali and Los Angeles.