Three years ago Jonathan Borofsky was one of the most visible artists in America. The subject of a huge retrospective that roamed from one museum to the next from 1984 to 1986, Borofsky staked out a spot in the history books with an enormously popular show that summed up his life’s work as an artist.
A brash, colorful carnival that the artist customized for each museum it visited, the show involved autobiographical revelations, Jungian archetypes, giant mechanized clowns and monsters, drawings, paintings, sound effects, and an actual basketball court in its incarnation at the Temporary Contemporary in Los Angeles. Everyone from children to the highbrow critical Establishment loved the show, and had Borofsky been of a mind to, he could have parlayed himself into a major mass media figure. But instead, he chose to simply disappear.
“The whole success thing is a trap--you become trapped into maintaining it,” says the artist during an interview at his Venice studio. “I still haven’t gotten over the effects of having that huge retrospective and that’s pretty much why I bowed out two years ago. I needed to be alone with myself and find out what was left of my art.”
An athletic, boyishly handsome man of 46, Borofsky looks far younger than his years--partly because he dresses like a teen-age boy about to go outside and wash the car. Shorts, sandals and a T-shirt are the uniform that he’s worn for years, and the ponytail he has sported for nearly two decades seems more a matter of comfort than hipness on him. A loner who maintains an amiable distance from the art world, Borofsky is defiantly oblivious to trends. “Is it Debbie Gibson this month or are we post-Debbie Gibson?” he asks at one point. He comes off like a man who is at once deeply concerned and connected with the world around him, yet detached and serene--somehow removed from the fray.
“Of course I wanted to get my work out there and communicate things that were important to me,” he continues in reflecting on his retrospective, “and I knew that was my big chance to do it, but taking that huge show around, giving lectures, meeting new people all the time--it was sort of nightmarish.
“I felt like I was the leader of a rock band on tour and I never had any time to tinker in the studio, to make blunders and stupid little paintings that you don’t show to anybody because they’re just embarrassing experiments. When you’re in the public eye, you can’t be doing that stuff, so I finally realized it was time to wind down the machine. I hadn’t had a show at my New York gallery in four years because I was busy with the retrospective, so last year I had a show there and that really felt like some kind of ending to me. Now I just say no to any offers that come up and people pretty much know not to bother asking by now.”
Borofsky realized that his exhibition last year at New York’s Paula Cooper Gallery marked the conclusion of a major phase of his career, but what he didn’t know was what to do next. Having had his moment as a superstar artist, he had no interest in repeating the experience. And, with roots in Conceptualism and Minimalism, he’s never concerned himself with establishing a trademark look and churning out salable objects. Having cleared the decks of obligations, filed a ream of press clippings and unplugged the phone, his mandate was clear: It was time to hunker down and wait to see what emerged from the ether--perhaps the hardest part of any creative pursuit.
“It’s been difficult to spend the past two years without any clear direction--there’s a tendency to worry that you’re being lazy, when in fact, you’re just doing a different kind of interior work on yourself,” Borofsky said. “Some days the idea of deadlines and frenzied activity is very appealing, but I’m forcing myself to resist that because I want to find out what else might be in my head. There’s something else I’m looking for now.”
Usually described as Expressionism with Surrealist underpinnings, Borofsky’s work of the last 20 years has focused for the most part on the artist himself. Proceeding on the assumption that all human beings are fundamentally the same, he’s explored his own personality in an attempt to discover larger truths about the human condition. Along the way he’s blueprinted several stylistic signatures; painting directly on gallery and museum walls, a numbering system that assigns each piece he does an identifying number and drawings and paintings that explore his dreamlife. He’s also developed a cast of characters that turn up repeatedly in his work: a hammering man, ballerina clown, chattering man, running man, molecule man and a man with a briefcase.
While Borofsky continues to find many of these motifs potent and viable, he’s in the process of retooling his visual vocabulary, and many longtime fans found his uncharacteristically subdued show last year at the Paula Cooper Gallery distressingly lacking in his trademark look. (For that show Borofsky lined the gallery walls with flags from around the world; at the center of the room was a lifesize figure of a man with a red, pulsating heart.)
“The flag show was a step away from everything I’d done up to that point,” says the artist, who has no L.A. gallery affiliation despite the fact that he’s lived here since 1977. “It was time for a change and this felt real good to do, real clean and pure. The flag show was subtle, though, and it was received much more quietly than my noisy shows, which tend to elicit a noisy response. It’s hard to sell a new idea once you’re established and I was told that some people who were used to the Borofsky look didn’t know what to make of the show. But really, I’m not sure what the Borofsky look is--there are at least five different styles I use repeatedly.”
Borofsky’s numbering system continues to provide a sense of order in a life that is otherwise lived by intuition. As he explains, “the counting system is what allows me to let go on every other level.” His dreams, however, aren’t quite as compelling for him as they once were.
“I was intensely focused on my dreams from 1971-77,” he says, “but these days--and I don’t know if this has to do with age or what--my dreams aren’t as frequent or as intense. I still write them down, but I’m not painting them too much anymore,”
Though his dreams are of less importance to him, Borofsky’s cast of sculptural figures looks to be with us for a while. Fabricators in Connecticut are presently at work on a 44-foot “Hammering Man” to be installed in front of a bank in Bassel. “I like things big because there’s an excitement to bigness in anything--it’s fun,” he says of the massive scale he frequently employs. The Bassel installation will be completed with an 8-foot, spinning synthetic red ruby that will be suspended in the atrium of the bank.
On the local front, one of Borofsky’s most popular creations, his “Ballerina Clown” is to be prominently installed above the entrance to the North Beach Cafe, a restaurant under construction at the corner of Main and Rose in Venice. It’s scheduled for unveiling in October.
“We’re both compromising,” says the artist with a laugh. “I have to have my sculpture over a restaurant and they have to have my sculpture over their restaurant. I’ve never had a piece--particularly such a ‘difficult’ piece--installed as publicly as this and I’m quite excited about it. It’s an extreme piece in an extreme location, and I haven’t even suggested yet that the installation include the soundtrack playing ‘My Way,’ which was an important part of the piece as originally conceived.”
Discussion of old business concluded, the conversation resumes a week later at the house in Tuna Canyon that Borofsky shares with his wife of 18 months, six cats, and a three-legged raccoon. “It’s very quiet up here so it’s a good place to hear the chatter of the mind,” he says of the spacious dwelling that seems to consist almost entirely of windows. “I’ve never lived in an environment like this before and spending a lot of time here is helping me learn some things right now.” The house’s simple furnishings include a grand piano, a synthesizer and assorted musical instruments--unbeknownst to many people who admire his art, Borofsky is equally involved with music.
“I’ve been developing music for several years, but it’s recently taken a quantum leap forward because I have more time to devote to it,” he says. “But music won’t necessarily be the focus of where I’m going with my work.”
Indeed, the thing Borofsky is currently most excited about is a 55-minute video he completed in 1986 with artist Gary Glassman (related video works by Glassmam are currently the subject of an exhibition at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, downtown). Titled “Prisoners,” the tape is composed of interviews with 32 inmates in California prisons, and offers a good idea of the direction Borofsky may take next.
“My work seems to be evolving in an increasingly humanistic direction,” he said. “There’s always been an element of that in what I’ve done, but it seems to be getting stronger--the prisoners tape being the most obvious example of actually giving up a year of my life to go out and talk to people about their lives.
“I learned quite a bit from the experience--one of the things that emerged was that 28 of the 32 inmates we interviewed had histories of child abuse. There’s some valuable information on the tape and we’ve tried to get it aired on television several times, but it’s always rejected for one reason or another. Part of the tape deals with corporate crime, for instance, so there go the sponsors.
“The tape is a breakthrough for me because it deals with the human spirit directly and I’m finding it a great vehicle for talking about life and the human condition.”
A child of the ‘60s who studied yoga, mysticism and meditation, Borofsky has adopted the phrases Art is for the spirit and All is One as the unofficial slogans of his career (those words have been incorporated in countless pieces), and the spirit of altruism at the heart of “Prisoners” has always been central to his work. Unfortunately, socially concerned art of this sort is currently in rather short supply, as the art world grows increasingly chummy with the business world. Not surprisingly, Borofsky is less than pleased with the current state of affairs in the art world.
“The commodification of art? Well, there is a problem there,” he says. “I don’t understand this current mania for art. Apparently our culture needs to feel that it has these objects of absolute value, but the whole thing depresses me. It’s a pretty materialistic world, more now than ever. A Hockney painting makes the front page of the L.A. Times but is any part of the article devoted to what that painting meant to Hockney or what the symbols in the painting represent? No, the only thing discussed is the amounts of money exchanged. Artists, of course, rarely object to this sort of development because they don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them.
“I’m not saying that I’m Mr. Purity and the art world sucks,” he continues, “but I think art--and life--should be on a higher plane than dollars and cents. Artists are paid very well for what they do, but money has never been the reason why people made art. Art is a fragile, highly personal thing, and as far as I’m concerned it would be embarrassing to have a painting wind up at auction with people throwing money at it. Auctions are for slaves. It’s an ugly thing to me and I would never willingly participate in a live auction of my work. Artists get excited when their work goes to auction thinking it will drive up their prices, but what it really means is that the people who bought the piece don’t give a hoot about it and are trying to make some money on it.
“I sound like a hippie and at the moment it’s popular to write off this kind of thinking as naive,” he sadly concludes. “I don’t want to come off like some leftover from the ‘60s, but I really am very much struck by how money-conscious the world has become. Many people tend to be skeptical about taking a spiritual approach to life because the only thing that’s paid off for a lot of people is reality--you know, you make some money then purchase something in a box and you take it home and it does something for you.
“There are so many things going on that are unseen and unacknowledged. Sometimes I sit up here in the mountains and just beam out the most positive energy I can. Not to my wife, or my mother and father, or anyone I know, just to the universe. It might be doing nothing, but it might be doing a lot--and it certainly does something for me. If you send it out, it comes back. For me, that’s the wavelength art should be operating on and that’s why I had to slow things down in my career. I needed time to get on that wavelength.”