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||There's nothing like being isolated in the Maine outback for nine weeks to give you a sense of a person. And that's exactly how I first met Donald Baechler. As I remember, although it was a really hot summer, Donald always wore long sleeved button-down shirts and was quick with keen observations and a wry humor.
His paintings rich white fields dotted with beach balls, flowers, crowds of people and feet have been a fixture in galleries and museums since the early '80s. He's shown and traveled all over the world, but calls New York home. Catching up with him in his studio on a rainy Wednesday night, we wandered from topic to topic somehow ending up with giraffes and a broken glass.
JULIE: In the last few days, I asked people I ran into who know you, or know of you, "If you could ask Donald Baechler one question, what would you ask?" I have those questions and some of my own.
DONALD: Let's start with one of yours.
JULIE: So where are you going on your next trip?
DONALD: I'm going to Stockholm, to install this fountain, and I have a show of paintings there. Then I'm going to Salzburg in May for another show.
JULIE: What about trips for pleasure?
DONALD: It's a problem. I hardly ever have time for that. I took a trip to India, it was my second visit, almost two years ago. It's the last great trip I took for pleasure.
JULIE: I had the sense that you do a lot of world travel.
DONALD: Well, I show all over the world, so I travel for these exhibitions all the time. But that's very different.
JULIE: You've been in Tangiers ...
DONALD: That was a great trip. I went with Philip Taaffe for a month to Morocco. And I want to do more of that. There's travelling for exhibitions or teaching, which is really a job. And then there's any other kind of travelling, which is like research as far as I'm concerned.
You know, collecting things and taking photographs are really essential to the work, so it bugs me that I haven't done it recently.
JULIE: Did you meet Paul Bowles in Tangiers?
DONALD: Yes. He's like a trick pony. You go there and knock on the door and somebody opens the door and says, "Come back tomorrow." And you keep coming back and finally he lets you in and Bowles sits up in the bed and he smokes his kif and reads letters and tells you some funny stories.
JULIE: So you hadn't met him before?
DONALD: No. You know, I think he's a great figure. But his whole little act there in Tangiers, with no telephone, it's a bit funny he lives for public consumption. 365 days a year there are people coming, having exactly the same experience with him. He's a bit of a monument, like going to Paris and seeing the Eiffel Tower. You go to Tangiers and you visit Paul Bowles.
JULIE: What about his wife?
DONALD: She died. Jane. She had a famous affair with a goat herder, a strange woman, Moroccan woman who ran a spice stall in the market. Do you know this story?
DONALD: It's a wonderful story. She was always a lesbian and Bowles was always homosexual, as far as I know. And she fell madly, desperately in love with this woman whose name was Sharifa, and ended up giving her money and giving her a house, apparently a beautiful house that they gave away to this woman. Moroccans are great at getting things out of you. They know how to play these western relationships.
JULIE: Did they get anything out of you?
DONALD: I wasn't there long enough, no. But there's a long tradition of westerners going there and falling in love with Moroccans and they end up getting incredibly manipulated. The Moroccans almost always end up coming out on top somehow.
JULIE: You want to get that?
DONALD: No. Why is it ringing? It's not supposed to ring. [Donald goes to the phone for a moment]
DONALD: Don't ever have an assistant.
JULIE: Don't ever be an assistant.
DONALD: This assistant he's had my car for like two weeks. He borrowed it to run an errand on a Tuesday and just ...
JULIE: From two weeks ago?
DONALD: So who else should I say mean things about? My assistant. Paul Bowles. Who else? We could start talking about art dealers. Do you like that painting?
JULIE: Oh, it's a robot monster. Who did it?
DONALD: His name is Jacob Williams.
JULIE: Do you collect a lot of art?
DONALD: I kind of accumulate things. I don't really collect anything. But I just got these photographs from Luigi Ontani. They're from 1978. They're really hard to find these days. And behind them is a Twombly drawing that I just got. This is almost as old as I am. It's from 1958.
JULIE: So if you're gathering all this stuff, do you keep it all or do you sometimes get rid of things?
DONALD: Sell things? I never sold anything in my life, no.
JULIE: You keep everything?
DONALD: I don't know. I don't want to be an art dealer buying and selling.
JULIE: Do you ever worry about selling your own paintings?
DONALD: My own? No, not really. What do you mean worry about it?
JULIE: I mean, worry about the business end of your art?
DONALD: No, it always seemed to take care of itself. Except at the very beginning, I've hardly ever had to, what's the right word? "Hustle" springs to mind, but that's not a word that I like. I've never had to sell myself. I never felt like I really had to go out there and talk people into anything.
JULIE: You have a dream timeline going on.
DONALD: What does that mean?
JULIE: From leaving school to being able to make paintings full-time and having them be seen. Don't you think?
DONALD: Well, I had those years when I was working as a bartender and selling encyclopedias door-to-door.
JULIE: Were you good at that?
DONALD: No, god, no. Horrible. I had nightmares for years afterwards. This horrible knocking on endless doors and nobody would buy an encyclopedia. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. Although I guess I'm lucky if that's the worst experience of my life.
I mean, there's always this possibility that it will all just dry up. Because we've seen it happen to lots of artists. But I wonder, it would be interesting if that happened. It would force one into a different sort of strategy about life.
JULIE: And work.
DONALD: I don't live in fear of that happening. I don't think it would be bad for me if my life was a little less comfortable. And I have nothing to fall back on. I don't have a family with money or anything like that. Do you know people who do?
JULIE: Have families with money? Sure.
DONALD: There are actually a lot of young artists around town who are trust fund kids. When I came to New York around 20 years ago, very few kids had money. I think people really were kind of doing it.
You know, one thing that was really positive that happened in the last economic collapse, when people stopped buying paintings whenever that was, eight years ago or something the younger artists stopped painting. And I think it's really refreshing. And they haven't kind of started up again. And the best young artists in America probably aren't painting right now.
But maybe you have another question ...
JULIE: You don't travel with an entourage, do you?
DONALD: I have been recently, and it's been causing a lot of problems.
JULIE: What kind of entourage?
DONALD: Some motley crew of hangers-on. In the country last summer, Robert Wilson had a big fundraising gala benefit that he does every August. And this year, he asked artists to donate paintings for an auction after the dinner. If you were giving money you could buy a table for twelve for $10,000. And as an artist, I was giving a painting that was worth like, $15,000. So I thought that entitled me to bring a group of ten people with me. But they didn't see it that way at all.
So I showed up with six people and they wouldn't let us in. I told the guy at the door, "Look, I'll write you a check later, I don't have my checkbook with me, but you're going to have to let us in because we're here, otherwise I'll take my painting back."
So they let us in. And the painting sold for $12,000. And then they had the nerve to actually ask me for the money.
JULIE: The evening cost you $22,000?
DONALD: Well, the painting was a gift. At the time I thought it was just bizarre, but Bob Wilson eventually straightened everything out. No one knew any of those people I'd brought that night who were all like young artists. Strange young people. I don't know, it's not really an entourage, I find people stick to me.
So what else is on your list?
JULIE: Well, it's quite random. Do you want to hear some just for the hell of it?
JULIE: So, "What would you ask Donald Baechler?" "Are you a bachelor?" That was number one.
DONALD: Yes, I am.
JULIE: Another person said, "Ask him whether he feels like he won the fucking lottery."
DONALD: What is that supposed to mean? Do I feel like I won the lottery? No, I feel like I worked my ass off. It has nothing to do with luck. And somehow, I think that what happens to one is just what's going to happen. I don't think it's a lottery. Do you?
JULIE: Well, I think there is luck. And for a group of artists during the '80s, wow, what a time to happen to be making work and be young and be in New York. The odds of success were just so much higher.
DONALD: But I'm way down at the bottom of the scale of those '80s artists. There's a dozen or more artists who made tons more money than I did and had careers that skyrocketed much faster than mine.
I have this young friend, he's 22 years old and he told me that some of his friends wonder why he's hanging around this cheesy '80s painter.
JULIE: Does it hurt to hear that?
DONALD: In a funny way it does. I was so surprised that anyone would have heard of me as a cheesy '80s painter.
JULIE: Do you ever just have dry times in the studio?
DONALD: Like right now. It's been very hard to get back to work.
JULIE: Do you paint while everyone's here during the day?
DONALD: Sometimes, yeah. But the good thing about having the other studio is that I can be here and an assistant can be there, or vice versa. So I can be alone. I prefer to be alone when I'm actually putting the paint on the canvas.
JULIE: Do you think you'll ever stop painting flowers?
DONALD: I have already. For the moment, yeah. Why?
JULIE: Some images become visually synonymous with a person ...
DONALD: Actually, the first time I ever painted a flower was only about 10 years ago. So there's this whole decade of my work before that, that had nothing to do with flowers. I think it's just such a wonderful subject. It's like an endless investigation. I don't know why. Why is that?
JULIE: I'm looking over at your tulips on the table to see if they're going to give me the answer.
DONALD: All those last flower paintings were done from life, by the way. The original drawings were done from something like that on the table. JULIE: I was going to bring you flowers tonight, but I thought, I bet everyone gets him flowers.
DONALD: Hardly anyone.
JULIE: They're really desperately looking for light when they bend over like that.
DONALD: Oh, is that it? I don't know anything about flowers. I don't even know what these are ... These are tulips, I suppose? But I could barely tell the difference between a tulip and a rose. For me, a flower is like a light bulb it's something you buy in a Korean deli. I'm amazed by my ignorance sometimes.
JULIE: Do you want to change it?
DONALD: Do I want to learn about flowers? Not at all. For me, the paintings are never about the types of flowers, they're not portraits of flowers. The earlier ones were done from an attempt to deconstruct this kind of conventional illustration of a flower like the kind you might see in a Yellow Page florist advertisement.
JULIE: Do you have any interest in carnations?
DONALD: I think I have painted carnations, but I'm not sure.
JULIE: They're the ones that last forever. It's like having plastic flowers in the house.
DONALD: I should get some. What color are they?
JULIE: This is the beauty of it, they're all colors. They're sprayed while they're growing, so they come up with these terribly artificial colors.
DONALD: Really? They can do that?
JULIE: It's some sort of dye process.
DONALD: I like dead flowers too.
JULIE: Were you ever going to be anything other than a painter?
DONALD: No, I wanted to be an artist since I was ten years old. When I was asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I used to say, first as a joke, "I want to be a rich and famous artist." But then it went from being a joke to something I really believed.
JULIE: So, when you were ten you wanted to be a rich and famous artist are you satisfied?
DONALD: I don't even know what rich and famous means.
JULIE: Do you still want that? That's the better question. Would it mean more at this point?
DONALD: I'm just very happy having the permission to do what I do. It's like wanting to be a famous movie star rather than wanting to be an actor. It was like a clichˇ, "I want to be a famous astronaut." It's just the kind of thing kids say. I don't think when you're ten years old, you want to be an artist. You wanted to be something fabulous, didn't you?
JULIE: I wanted to be an artist.
DONALD: Just an artist?
JULIE: Do you think of portraiture when you paint?
DONALD: Never, no.
JULIE: Not even with the head paintings?
DONALD: No. For one thing, I'm really terrible at likeness. And for another thing, the drawings are sometimes found or they're my own drawings or they're my drawings copied from someone else's drawings. So by the time I get around to deciding to use a particular image in a painting, it's often lost all connection to the context in which it was made. And particularly if it's a drawing that I've made of someone else, often I've forgotten who it was or why I was drawing them.
JULIE: Do you feel that it's your responsibility to de-contextualize the drawings?
DONALD: For me, the important context is the painting, not the relation to anything else. There are a few exceptions. In a couple of the recent paintings, I copied some Picasso images that he copied from oceanic masks. But that kind of specificity of linking an image to a particular person doesn't interest me at all. Especially in these paintings, when they're all bunches of different heads, I just really want them to be ...
JULIE: A crowd?
DONALD: Yeah. And the few times I've tried to do portraits, it's been disastrous. I did a portrait for an English friend of mine once. She has it hanging in her house in London and a lot of people have seen it and they say, "Gee, wouldn't it be nice if he did my portrait?" And I did a portrait for one of these people, a Greek woman from a famous jewelry store family. She commissioned a portrait. And I sat her down and did maybe two dozen drawings of her. And we looked through the drawings together and she liked them all.
I chose the one that I thought really captured her the best and she has a prominent nose. And I did a nice little painting, typical of my style at the time, with her prominent nose in it. And she was horrified when she saw the painting. I guess she thought that I would flatter her. But she just completely misunderstood the whole project, my work anyway, and she didn't buy it.
JULIE: Artists are not in the business of flattery.
DONALD: But then I got back at her. I sold ...
JULIE: Just the nose?
DONALD: [laughter] Well, after she wouldn't buy the painting, I did several versions of it and ended up selling them to dealers and collectors. And one of them ended up at Christie's in London, and people saw it. So that was nice but it's generally not something I do well so it's not something that I pursue.
JULIE: Your work contains a certain nostalgia for the original image even if one can't trace it back.
DONALD: Sometimes I think it's irresponsible of me not to keep better track of where things come from. But it's a process of equalization. Everything becomes equally important, and nothing is more important because I drew it or because I found it in a special place with some kind of sentimental meaning. It's just information.
JULIE: Remembering nothing can parallel for remembering everything.
JULIE: I mean, it makes all things equal like if you remembered everyone's name after they were introduced to you ...
DONALD: I usually don't remember anybody's name.
JULIE: But to have a photographic memory and remember everything ... If I remembered the color of everyone's shirt every time, it wouldn't be that special.
DONALD: When I'm travelling around, looking for images in different places, I'm looking for things that already resemble my own work somehow. So in a way, if something is so special I found that in a toilet here, or he drew that for me in a bar there if after a year or two I can still remember that, then there must be something wrong with it.
JULIE: You want them all to be the same?
DONALD: Not the same, but variations on certain pretty clearly-defined aesthetic themes. I think I'm looking for universal things. Like I found that all over the world, non-artists just draw badly in the same way. You see pornographic drawings on the walls they're the same almost everywhere. They're always in black magic marker and they're just always the same. There's also this funny zone of like, bad sign painting that's the same everywhere. It's actually kind of amazing.
JULIE: All our eyes make the same spatial mistakes.
DONALD: To me, that's very interesting. And the same way children's art is the same almost everywhere, to some extent at a certain age, three or four years old. I'm not talking about children's art, that's just an example. I hate children's art.
Do you ever find drawings?
JULIE: The most recent drawing I found was two giraffes having sex.
DONALD: Two giraffes having sex would be awkward.
JULIE: Well, it looks very difficult. And in this drawing, the person who envisioned it obviously didn't think it had anything to do with their necks. And I think that any creature that had those necks would have to be ...
DONALD: Have you ever actually seen them in a photograph, in National Geographic?
JULIE: I don't recall.
DONALD: So this was a drawing of giraffes having sex?
JULIE: It was pinned to a wall outside.
DONALD: Did you take it?
JULIE: Yes, and I kept it.
DONALD: I bet it's like horses, don't you think?
JULIE: They do it like horses.
[a glass gets knocked off the table]
JULIE: Oh ... this is the first glass I broke this year.
DONALD: Are you sure? Only your first?