PC: First, Iíd like to thank you very much for agreeing to this. From what Iíve read, you donít like to sit around and talk about art.
JB: I did say that once or twice.
PC: Yes. Iím taking you at your word, so double, ďthank you.Ē
JB: Actually, I donít mind talking about philosophy and psychology and politics as it relates to art.
PC: OK. So letís focus on philosophy and politics as they relate to your work.
JB: Any question you want to ask about it.
PC: Thanks. Are you still doing the counting?
PC: Why did you stop? And when?
JB: Several reasons. It began to stop itself somewhere in the beginning of the nineties. I started counting from one to infinity-óhandwriting the numbers on paper--in the sixties, beginning Ď67, í68, in earnest in í69. And by the beginning of the nineties, about twenty years later it became less important to me. It had served its purpose of balancing my brain and brain activity by giving me a steady stream of counted numbers, and when I completed a painting or sculpture I took whatever number I was on and signed the work with that number instead of using my name.
The paintings and sculptures usually were much more psychological, philosophical, and political, with dream-oriented imagery, and the counting was much more of a time-coded reference, a stability. Counting was a centralizing element pulling everything together. By the nineties something else was going on in personal psychological search.
And now, in my work today, the counting exercise has interfaced with the figurative image work, into one whole. So to simplify, left brain, right brain: clearly defined in the seventies and eighties, and in the nineties some kind of transition into the work I am doing now.
Right now my figurative sculptures have hundreds or thousands of figures connected together, and thatís very mathematical, and numbers-oriented in itself. So really, after twenty years, the counting, left side of the brain got merged with the right side of the brain, and hence the separate counting meditation was not necessary any more.That triggers a thought in me. I used to get a post card from Sol Le Witt once in a while, and it would just say, ďAre you still counting?Ē Of course that was more in the eighties. But youíve asked the same question.
Self Portrait, 1979
PC: I wondered if it was there in some subterranean fashion: did you still sneak it in for five minutes a day?
JB: It was very important at one point. As I said, it connected everything I made, paintings and sculptures together. It tied it into one whole. And there we start touching on philosophy and psychology. And that is, that I could have a show, an installation of seventy works, and there might be paintings in one style and paintings in another style, sculptures in one style and sculptures in another, and dreams painted on the walls, and things written on the ceiling. Each one of those individual works had a number assigned to it. And the number was the number I had counted to on that particular when I finished that particular work. When I exhibited all the different works together in one space, connected with this number code it created a kind of all-over energy where no one object really became the focus, or saleable object for that matter.
The focus became the entire room as an interaction of many types of work and many kinds of ideas, sort of a walk inside my mind. The numbers were really my effort at creating a oneness, a feeling of God, you might say...
Itís an effort to see and feel all as one. And, of course, thatís a spiritual activity.
Itís very hard to do in this divisive world; even your title of your Per Contra suggests that thereís always a contrary situation that has to be heard or understood, possibly, to get the full picture of something. And thatís probably what I was dealing with: looking at dealing with both sides and finding a way to blend or balance the two. Ultimately the counting served as a unifying element.
And at one point the lesson was learned. Thatís the short answer. At one point the lesson was learnedóand I moved on.
PC: I noticed that also you made some of the numbers physical in some of the works.
JB: That was also a way of trying to merge the left side and right side of the brain: the side that wants to make visual imagery with the side thatís more conceptually based and wants to order or structure things.
And thatís pretty much what Iím doing today. Quite often, at least in the past, we referred to numbers as figures. Today if I have a sculpture made of a thousand figures all connected together, I donít call them a thousand figures, I call the sculpture human structures and the fact is that this repetitive modular system of figures connecting to figures is a natural progression from my earlier work of numbers connecting to imagery.
PC: Would you say something about your number five?
JB: In 1967, I was fairly obsessed with numbers. In fact, it was the beginning of the conceptual art movement in both the U.S. and England, and my own personal focus seemed to fit it nicely. The number ďfiveĒ became my favorite number for a very simple reason, because it was a blending of a curve and right angle together. It was the only number that had this balanced design. Three had two curves, like two breasts, like something organic; four you have a straight and an angle. Each number has its own characteristics, but five, for me, had the right angle at the top, and the curved half-circle at the bottom, a half circle. And so that served as a good symbol for the blend of opposites I was looking for. The right angle and the curve.
So I began playing with that number, and I then began playing simply with the idea of the space that surrounds the number five, which led me to think about spaces that are between thoughts. This was just an idea to play with. And at one point I did make one or two sculptures illustrating these ideas. The five became the negative space, and I connected wooden blocks together to form the spaces around the five, and they became the physical space.
PC: You talk about the ideas that are behind your work and about your philosophy about your interaction with other people in public space and in public art. Would you say more about that?
JB: Can we narrow down the question?
PC: How does that operate in public art like the Flying Man sculpture, which is from dreams?
JB: The Flying Man is from one of the many flying dreams that Iíve had in my life. Everyone has these dreams. Some remember them, some donít. Early on in my image-making period, in the seventies and eighties, many of my paintings and sculptures came from dreams, and then, of course, they were signed with a number instead of my signature. (But a lot of my imagery didnít come from dreams. The Hammering Man did not. The Hammering Man was not an image from a dream. Actually Walking to the Sky, a more recent outdoor sculpture, was not from a dream either.)Flying Man definitely was. The Red Ruby, which also came from a dream, was used in many different public sculptures and wall paintings. It seemed important at the time to physicalize these dream symbols into the world. In my dream-focused period, I thought it was important for us as human beings to throw out our information, and I was throwing out what I was dreaming about, assuming that youíre dreaming about the same thing. Arenít you? Or, if not, what are you dreaming about? And what do these dreams refer to anyhow, and can they be helpful to me or to others?
I Dreamed I Could Fly, 1983, Kunst Museum, Basel
The flying dream touched a lot of people. I would give a lecture, and Iíd ask the audience, maybe two hundred people, ďHow many remember a flying dream once or twice in your life?Ē and at least sixty or seventy percent would raise their hand. And that was interesting.
For me it was an intense dream. I get off the ground and sometimes itís a bit of a struggle, --thatís a nice metaphor right thereóbut I pull myself up and through the air. Iím just talking about the way I fly. Other people might sail right through like Superman, but I kind of swim, pulling with my arms. But the most enjoyable part is when Iím gliding far above and looking down on this tiny earth spinning in space.
In other words, a dream like this touches on the obvious: that thereís something much bigger going on here in our lives and on our planet than our specific struggles and fights we have between us on a daily basis. And so my flying dreams make for a very spiritual moment. From above I see the earth among the other moving bodies in the universe, everything as a oneness, and this just adds to the feeling of wonderment.
PC: To shift to a mechanical craft question, how do you suspend the Flying Man outside without the cable being obvious?
JB: It was not so easy hiding the cables that suspended the Flying Man high above the courtyard of the Kunstmuseum in Basel, but donít forget Iím just creating a symbol here. It seemed to work all right. But thatís part of what led me to the sculpture Walking to the Sky. All right, I want to do this outdoors, but you have to suspend a cable between two structuresóor what? It really triggered the idea of, well, at least making some kind of a line or a staircase up into the sky or something. Preferably just a clean line, which in a way, metaphorically, pretty much represented my counting. It was minimal art: a piece of Carl Andre or Donald Judd. A clean minimal stainless steel line going up at an angle towards the heavens, and then connecting to it my figures, the human element.
So the Walking to the Sky sculpture became a logical step, and it also tied in to my childhood, the story youíve probably read, since Iíve told it at different times, of when I used to sit on my fatherís knee and he told me stories about the friendly giant who lived in the sky. And in these stories my father and I would go up to visit this giant and talk to him about things we could do for people back down on earth. Well, I like to tell that story because of the love I have for my father or the love I have for the spiritual energy that he passed on to me. But I donít like to tell it too often because people just end up interpreting the Walking to the Sky sculpture as just coming from that story. I would say definitely some of it has, but today I would have say that the sculpture is not an illustration of this childhood story told to me by my father.It has many more levels of meaning for me. Probably the most important is that it expresses my wonderment of who and where we are in the universe. Just the idea of walking out into space, into the unknownóthe key word being the unknown. As scientists, we use our telescopes and send our rockets out into space to probe what seems to be an infinite universe for us to understand. For me, right now, this sculpture has more to do with that than illustrating a childhood story. Itís about heading out into the unknown, both intellectually as well as spiritually.
© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
Counting from 1 to 3,227,146, 1969 / 1976, hand written on 8 1/2" x 11" sheets of paper with pen or pencil
Male Aggression Now Playing Everywhere, 1986, acrylic on canvas
Four Spaces (A, B, C, D) Surrounding a 5, 1967, wood