Artists in Conversation

Artists in Conversation

By David Knapp for BOMB Magazine, December 2000

Donald Baechler has amassed a great inventory of worldly images. Recorded on slides and collected in the archives of his enormous Lower Manhattan studio, they are the sources for many of the compelling images in his paintings. The cast of characters, which also includes himself, come from every source imaginable, and are stamped, silk-screened, projected, drawn, painted, printed or collaged onto surfaces. Then the process begins: underpainting, overpainting, canceling, adding, subtracting, editing until the final work emerges.

Baechler was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1956 and came of age as a painter in the early 1980s when he began exhibiting internationally. His work is in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Centre George Pompidou in Paris.

Not only is Baechler one of the important painters of his generation, he is also thoughtful and articulate in regard to painting history and the contemporary art world. I enthusiastically accepted the opportunity to interview him with the hope of finding out more about his process, and the genesis of these restless images. We spoke on a warm March evening in the comfortable living area of his studio, surrounded by an extensive library of art books, and crowded with paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures by other contemporary artists.

David Knapp If you had to choose a number one, who’s the artist overall who’s constantly in your thoughts?

Donald Baechler It would be Cy Twombly.

DK I can go with that. Give me number two.

DB Number two, Giotto.

DK Seriously?

DB Seriously, Twombly, Giotto—and Rauschenberg, as well. What, you don’t believe me?

DK No, I do believe you. I can see Twombly and Giotto; and I’ve always associated a bit of the New York School in your work.

Donald, it was very different in the ’80s when you first started showing your work. There was something different in the air. What’s it like for you now?

DB What do you mean, “something different in the air?”

DK Let me put it this way, you were considered an art world prodigy, a wunderkind of sorts.

DB I was?

DK You were, and that creates a situation with a certain amount of pressure. The Tony Shafrazi Gallery, where you showed during the mid-’80s, was the center of attention with the graffiti shows. And the Fun Gallery. That group isn’t around anymore. So, what’s it like working by yourself?

DB You’re talking specifically about the Shafrazi phenomenon with Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf?

DK Yes.

DB I was never really part of that particular group. I first met Tony in the ’80s; he had a tiny gallery in his Lexington Avenue apartment, and was showing Sarah Charlesworth’s photographs and Keith Sonnier’s light installations. He had work by Joseph Kosuth and Olivier Mosset up there; cerebral, beautifully produced art that flirted with conceptualism and minimalism but seemed like something new. That’s why I started talking to Tony. And when he did this 180-degree about-face and opened the gallery in SoHo, showing Keith Haring—whom I first met when he was a doorman at the Mudd Club—it really surprised me. Tony obviously had some grander vision about what was going on and decided that it wasn’t the end of conceptualism, but the beginning of something else. I never felt entirely comfortable showing my work there because it had nothing to do with what Keith and Kenny Scharf were doing. I wasn’t part of this downtown club scene, and I had nothing to do with so-called graffiti art.

DK So you didn’t think it was the end of one thing and the beginning of something else—you always thought of your work as more of a continuum?

DB I first approached Tony because I was interested in talking to him about Joseph Kosuth, who was one of my heroes in art school, and who I met through Tony, finally. Joseph was a teacher of Keith Haring’s, so I’m sure there was some type of connection between what Keith and Joseph were doing. I was showing with Tony partly because it was a place to show and partly because I respected him; there was an energy there that was great to be part of. But I wasn’t central to it. We’re talking about what seems like ancient history to me. . . .

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Donald Baechler, Realists Playing Together, 1985, acrylic, cotton, lace and Rhoplex on canvas, 88 × 88 inches. Courtesy of the artist.