Ida Applebroog by Patricia Spears Jones

BOMB 68 Summer 1999
Bombcover 68 1024X1024
Applebroog Ida 01 Bomb 068

Ida Applebroog, Thank You Very Much, 1982, acrylic and roplex on canvas, 83 x 89 inches. All images courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, Inc.

Ida Applebroog has been one of the art world’s most enigmatic and provocative artists since the mid ’70s, when she created a number of books and mailed them to a variety of critics, gallery owners and artists. While many found these unforeseen books intriguing, others did not. In fact, she has kept the hate mail from that period.

In more recent years, her deliciously recognizable painting style, with her Everyman and Everywoman figures and occasional mythic beast or bird has gained Applebroog enormous critical attention and success. She was recently celebrated with a survey at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, and her upcoming shows at Ronald Feldman Gallery are much anticipated.

Applebroog’s works are precisely conceived, well-sited, beautifully made. She has extended the structure of her paintings by surrounding a central image with “marginalia,” several smaller panels that amplify or mystify the central image. Often the figures in the smaller panels portray a moment of extreme vulnerability—at times, but not always, sexual. Perhaps secrets are revealed. It is the silence of these figures as they loom over each other, or squat, or suddenly notice their sex exposed at the window, behind the curtain, sometimes in midspace, that makes these images so electric. Whether the theme is illness, aging, sexual assault, infantilism, or mere uncertainty, Applebroog does not recoil from it. She wants us not only to see the victim, but the manipulator, the master, the power embodied in threat and tease. When the artist uses text in her work, it often explains nothing. Like runes, these words are there to puzzle, mock, possibly terrify. Most likely what they will reveal is intense anxiety.

Before my visit, I wrote to her what I felt when thinking about her work: anxiety, terror, pleasure, jokes, women’s movies from the ’30s and ’40s—tough dames, or smart or sassy women; fearlessness, family, danger, disappointment, trying to make things work, violence. She found much of this quite amusing, thank goodness. We crossed generations as women who came to New York City in 1974. The daughter of a religious conservative family living in the Bronx, Applebroog has struggled to discover, nurture and grow her unique vision. Whether contemplating new ways to look at Manet’s Olympia or finding modes through which to highlight the daily dangers, dramas and unpleasantries that fuel individual rage, Applebroog creates imagery in which violence, embarrassment or tenderness can erupt at any moment for all the world to see, or from which to shrink. In an era where the president discusses what he did or did not do with his and Monica Lewinsky’s private parts, it seems almost as if the past 20-something years of her work is prescient.

Applebroog says, “I understand power.” Through the lens of humor, irony and stage—setting her work reveals the strange and strong bonds between our public selves and our private follies and fears.

Patricia Spears Jones You’re working on a large-scale painting of Olympia—in this case seven Olympias, all seven women with that enigmatic smile.

Ida Applebroog I based it on Manet’s Olympia; you can see that from the image.

PSJ The women artists I know of seem to be fixated on this one particular painting as opposed to Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, which I think is hilarious; it’s also bizarre. What do you want to do with it, how do you envision it?

IA You’ve caught me at a new beginning; I’ve been working on this, with a lot of interruptions, for the last two years. And I’ve just come back to it.

PSJ You’re back in business.

IA I’m back in business, exactly. I had just started all these new works, like this one here.

PSJ (Looking at a painting of a naked young boy in hat and heels) Oh, wow.

IA Based on Giotto.

PSJ Oh, oh my God, he’s JonBenét Ramsey?

IA You recognized her.

PSJ Of course! With the tabloid …

IA I have been saving images from the tabloids, but when I started working on that painting, I realized I didn’t really want JonBenét in there. So, at a certain point, I switched the gender.

PSJ Any murder in the family is always very frightening, but in a lot of your work there’s always this hint, the possibility that at any moment some sort of violence could happen. When I wrote to you, I said anxiety is the first word that comes to my mind. I first saw your work almost 20 years ago and I just kept thinking, This is scary. It made me anxious because I didn’t quite know what was going on, but I knew some of it was bad, some of it wasn’t. What’s so interesting is how you play with that.

IA The anxiety is collective; it’s something we all have in common. We live in an age where we’re continuously overloaded with information, and we get all of it so swiftly. Put on the 6:00 news and there you have it.

PSJ You seem to be going back to this very pale palette. Do you go back and forth?

IA I wanted the texture of skin here, and I wanted the Olympias to be as translucent as possible. I treat this special Japanese paper with acrylic medium until it feels right. If I make it more opaque, then it’s no longer “skin.”

PSJ That means that they get constantly transformed by light.

IA Yes. (points to a different painting-in-process) This one is based on Cézanne. Manet calls her Olympia, Cézanne calls her Modern Olympia. She’s on a huge draped bed and there’s a man. I left out the servant in the other one. I’ve just started these, and I’m not quite sure how I’m going to deal with them yet. I’m still playing.

PSJ I once read an article that said soap operas were the truly modern literary form, because you’re always in the middle of the story.

IA Yes—and that’s also true of my work. Sometimes people ask me what the work’s about. If I were to tell them that I made up “the story,” they wouldn’t believe me. If I were to say it’s about me, they’d be embarrassed. So, for the most part, I try never to say exactly what it is.

PSJ I completely understood the essay by Dorothy Allison in your Corcoran exhibition catalog Ida Applebroog: Nothing Personal, Paintings, 1987–1997. She grew up not very far from me in the South. There’s a dearth of any fine art, as it were, in the South, especially in rural communities. When she talks about that painting of Jesus at the Jordan River behind the baptismal font in the Southern Baptist church, she said it was like going to a drive-in movie. What fascinates me as a poet about your work is that there’s always stuff going on around the central image—panels and scenes. It reminds me of the way films and poems get built. There’s this correspondence, not directly to literature or narrative, but in the way in which there is a central metaphor. Or the way in which bits and pieces of images wind up becomingsomething. It always struck me that you were onto a way of dislocating narrative in your work: there’s a story and yet at the same time, there’s not a story. Your work seems more like poetry than fiction, in the sense of montage.

IA I usually think of it in terms of actual objects. What I do to freestanding images is like entering a film montage; there’s no middle, there’s no end. You just come into a piece mid-situation. And I can’t really tell the viewer how to interpret it. Because the meaning shifts with everyone who comes to the work—whether they’re male, female, old, young, middle aged, from different backgrounds—everything is very personal. You come to my work with your baggage, with your life experience.

Applebroog01 Body

Ida Applebroog, from the Modern Olympia series, 1998-99. Photo by Dennis Cowley.

PSJ Ida, what does feminism mean for you now, or does it mean anything at this point? I am curious.

IA Me too. (laughter) But seriously, feminism is still very meaningful for me. It’s many things to different people. And there are lots of feminisms, a multiplicity of meanings, and yet, I’m having a very hard time with what it actually means today. Especially with the latest Clinton escapades. I’m not quite sure where young women stand today. I know we opened up many doors early on with the women’s movement, and then by the ’80s the movement was gone. Many younger women didn’t realize there had ever been a problem, and then they were suddenly hit with the “glass ceiling.” Then comes the ’90s and I really don’t know what feminism is at this point. But I have to talk about Clinton here. I can’t help but ask, “Where do we stand?” Are we on the same side as the Republicans and the antifeminists? Should we attack Clinton for his actions? Do we now have the same values as the conservatives? But really, they have no values beyond getting rid of Clinton. Can we ignore or excuse the faults of a man who has been on our side? Do we applaud Hillary for her victimhood? It all has come to feel so problematic. I guess the real and the ideal are always a distance apart.

PSJ Both Clinton’s supporters and his detractors come from the same club. But I don’t think he believes in the myth, the cult of the Southern gentleman, because he grew up poor. So on some level he finds these other people ridiculous.

I was on a panel a few months ago for PEN where Francine Prose, Maureen Howard and Jessica Hagedorn were talking about what’s happened to women’s literature, why is it so poorly dealt with; why people are still surprised whenever a woman wins an award. A lot of people were very upset with the term postfeminism. Then one young woman got up and said, “Postfeminism isn’t negative to me—because of what you all did, I don’t have to deal with the same kind of world.” And I thought, we have to start thinking in a different way because yes, problems still exist, there’s still inequality, the gender roles are not going to change overnight or over decades, but there are actual changes that have really come about because of feminism. So the question is, If a new definition is being created, who’s making it? Like when you said that I caught you in the middle—I think we’re in the middle of something that’s literally being born. But I was trying to listen to that young woman because I don’t want to dismiss women in their twenties who have very different experiences from mine. They express their sexuality differently, they look at the economics of the situation differently, what’s available to them is very different, especially for younger black women, and younger women artists, because of what we did. There’s a tumult and it could go either way.

IA What you’re saying sounds quite optimistic. I’m much more pessimistic. When I meet students or talk to younger artists, what I hear is, “What’s your problem? There is no problem—I can go out and do anything I want.” I have a really hard time with that. Of course, there had been the younger women in the ’80s, the “technology girls,” as the magazines dubbed them, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman who were allowed in. But think of who was painting in the ’80s. It was this big push for heroic painting. I remember thinking to myself, Something is over and something new is beginning. I sensed it and then, of course, you didn’t really have to sense it, it was staring you in the face. But women got lulled into success, in the corporate world as well. Suddenly these jobs were open to them and younger women artists could show in galleries. And then there was the picture of the Pace Gallery “art world all-stars” on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Magazine in the early ’90s—and not a woman to be seen. In the earlier years, I would go into a student critique and talk to students who were so upset because their parents hated what they were doing; they didn’t want them to become artists. It was all about, how will I make a living? I understood that very well, and in the best way I knew how, I cued them in, gave them ways of working around it. In the ’80s, I was shocked. I’d go into critiques and many of the kids really didn’t want to be there. It was their parents pushing them on: “Yes, you should be an artist. I just saw this New York Timescover. I’ll buy you a loft!” They could buy New York real estate. (laughter) I mean, it sounds very funny.

PSJ But it was true.

IA At that point I had to say, “Well, if you’re not really interested in being an artist, then you don’t have to.” It was a total reversal.

PSJ The one good thing about the ’80s is that they’re over. (laughter)

IA I had this wonderful eureka moment at the end of the ’80s. I was waiting to see someone in the Artforum office. And I’m looking around the waiting room, which is wallpapered with their covers. I had been waiting quite a while, and I kept looking from cover to cover. I didn’t know who 90 percent of these people were. It was a wonderful lesson. Because I was going to be on the next cover. (laughter)

Applebroog Ida 02 Bomb 068

Ida Applebroog, Marginalia (golf man), 1991, oil on canvas, wood strut, 72 × 38 × 3⅛ inches. Photo by Jennifer Kotter.

PSJ I went to the opening for Faith Ringgold’s show and to see the Bob Thompson show up at the Whitney. While everyone complains, every once in a while the art world shakes the tree and figures out that somebody is worthy of being dealt with and they get dealt with. But for the most part, we’re in a culture where people are not interested in the getting of wisdom. They’re all about healing. But what about having lived experiences, learning from them, and passing on the knowledge? When I look at your work, I think of you as trying to pass on some kinds of experience.

IA When I first started putting out these images, especially the ones including text, some people were uncomfortable: I was hitting too close to some of their experiences, feelings. The drawings were about situations that people don’t talk about. They were very private, personal thoughts, and in art, one just didn’t do that. Think of the work that was out there in the ’70s: minimalism, performance, very cool conceptualism. When I started sending out the drawings as books to a lot of different people, I got a varied response. Some loved the books; from some, I got hate mail. I have an inspiring file of hate mail. At first I was a little shocked, but I kept on doing it. I mailed three sets of books, about ten each, to people who had never asked to receive them. I picked my own audience. Coming back to New York, after years in Chicago and California, I didn’t know anyone. I’ve done drawings all my life, so to me it was like instant coffee; like the writing, it was very easy for me. The books were almost like cartoons, and that’s what I was doing very quietly. It was great for me. But some people didn’t find it that great. I got some of the worst responses back. Instead of throwing the books away, if they didn’t like them, people sat down and wrote vicious letters. As I said, at first I was offended, and hurt. Then again, I thought, if somebody sent me junk mail, I’d sure as hell want to tell them off.

PSJ Perhaps it was not only because of the images, but because text was involved.

IA It’s what the text said. There were all kinds of ways of reading that text. For example, there’s a middle-aged man sitting in a chair. He’s the only character in the scene. “Now then. Take off your panties,” reads the text. A doctor’s office? A child molester? Love for sale?

PSJ Did you continue to correspond with the people who responded negatively?

IA The letters were to tell me how much they hated the work and to never darken their mailbox again. Fair enough.

PSJ (laughter) In my letter to you I asked about the women’s movies: Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck … My mother worked at night in a hospital. I would help her get ready for work and then watch all the late night movies. Those women were so incredibly powerful, fabulously dressed, and always in weird trouble. Or they were agents of incredible change—especially Katherine Hepburn. Your paintings are like those movies.

IA Those were the women who were important to me—Barbara Stanwyck, Ida Lupino. Those were women to me. (laughter) That there existed in this world a Joan Crawford! A woman who talked her mind, who was not the clichéd female. I wasn’t allowed to go to the movies on Saturdays when the other kids went, I came from a very rigid, religious household. I’d go all by myself on Sunday and sit there and watch two features, and then watch them again. That was my life. I had those women, they were my role models.

Applebroog04 Body

PSJ I was thinking about them as I was looking at your images from Marginalia. There’s this sense in some of your situations where the female figures are a moment away from having been dealt or dealing an emotional blow. I always think of the close-ups from those films when I look at your work.

IA It’s because my childhood was like that. I still am a film and TV junkie; I’m even a talk-show junkie.

PSJ Oh, no!

IA I listen to Rush Limbaugh and yell back at him. Oh, yes! How else am I going to keep up to date with the opposition? It’s very important. There is nothing I won’t watch, there is nothing I won’t listen to. I have sound going all the time while I work.

PSJ Were those women a contrast to whatever was going on in your home?

IA Yes—in my home, in my neighborhood, in my world—I didn’t have a clue about a larger world for a long, long time. But those were role models without my understanding of what they were, because they were so alien. In my wildest dreams I couldn’t figure out how anyone could be that way. How anyone permitted it. They were bigger than life on the screen.

PSJ Looking at your work and thinking about the creation of the Everyman and Everywoman that you develop, it’s curious to me, that in an era when so many people are so invested in dealing with their differences, that you’re trying to find those moments where we’re all keyed in.

IA But a lot of the imagery was just dedicated to everyday themes; to clichés of everyday living, trying to see how mother and father, boyfriend and girlfriend, or mother and child interact.

PSJ Except that they’re all very real. What’s interesting about your work is the banality of those images and how scary they can be, depending on how you use them.

IA They’re also filled with humor. Life is hard enough, and the only way to cut through this is with humor. It’s easier for me to go into a low comedy routine when I’m most angry. To show how stupid and foolish the situation is.

PSJ You went to Madrid to see Goya’s Black Paintings and they weren’t on display. It’s like going to London to find that John Keats’s house is closed that day. So what did you do after you got there?

IA The Prado is such a marvelous museum, it didn’t matter, in some ways. But I was really desperate to see Goya’s Black Paintings. So I’ll have to go back one day, won’t I?

PSJ You will. I went to see Frida Kahlo’s house a couple of years ago in Mexico City. Getting there on the subway was a hoot.

IA It took me forever. I did that in 1971. Can you believe that? I had seen her paintings in the Museum in Mexico City and I was looking in the guidebook for other things when I saw that her and Diego Rivera’s home was a museum. It blew me away. The house, the bed …

PSJ It was all so tiny; that’s what got me.

IA I don’t know why, everything about it was exactly what I expected, except the actual “Diego, I love you” painted on the wall.

PSJ She did—in her own bizarre way. I’m thinking of those images you have with an image inside a person, or the paintings with drawings within them, in relation to Frida’s portraits of Diego Rivera. They seem like an amazing couple. But what was most amazing to me was that she grew up in the house, and she was able to transform her own family relations into this larger world. I was thinking about that in terms of your family. How does family inform your work? Or was the work a way to get away?

IA That’s a difficult question. I think we’re all rooted in our childhoods and the memories of those origins.

PSJ In Alice Walker’s book In Search of Our Mother’s Garden, there’s a great essay in which she talks about the creative process for black women. If we don’t find some way to express ourselves, then what’s the point of being alive in the world? You know, either you leave behind bombs or you leave behind something meaningful.

IA I paint who I am, you write who you are, and that’s pretty much it. I imagine people learn how to deal with their anger, but for me it’s part of the baggage. When I get into the studio, I carry all that baggage with me—whether it’s my personal life, my outside life, my postman who didn’t look at me the right way. You walk in there with all that stuff on you and that’s a tough one. How do you start working? And layer by layer, as you’re working, that load disappears. And at a certain point you’re working without the baggage, without even knowing how it happened. That’s when you lose all the outside static and suddenly come in touch with what’s inside. And whatever it is that’s happening inside manifests itself outside. When I know things are going right, it feels as if the work is making itself. I don’t know what I have, I’m not sure who I am, and it’s wonderful to put out that kind of imagery, because I’m not even sure what I’ve done. And then, about a week later, a month later, a year later, I’ll look at it and say, Oh, is that where that came from? It’s like a do-it-yourself Rorschach test. It’s freeing for me. Without the work I don’t know whether I could survive.

Applebroog Ida 03 Bomb 068

Ida Applebroog, Marginalia (party hat/laughing), 1994-95, oil on canvas; diptych: party hat: 50 x 22 x 30 inches.

PSJ We were talking about the fact that you draw every day. Do the images come from drawings?

IA No. I’m continuously clipping images, images that strike me in some way. And I watch TV a lot. There are marvelous images on TV. Spanish TV’s the best because I don’t understand the language so I’m getting all these animated images and feelings and emotions. They’re perfect. For the most part, it’s just being an image gatherer. I’ll never forget watching the Challenger takeoff. I thought, how could anyone in their right mind want to go on one of those things? And I’m sitting there and the rocket explodes, and what does the camera do? This was live—the camera zoomed in on that young teacher’s mother, on the faces of all the relatives sitting in the stands and watching.

PSJ Oh, my God.

IA For the rest of the day, I sat watching the explosion, and then they zoom in on the faces: I watched the horror. Do you know by the end of the night, it had no meaning, there was no more horror. I had been desensitized! That changed my perception of the world. I thought of Jackie Onassis in the car with JFK in Dallas. How many times did I see that? And that was a shock and a horror, too. But the press was still somewhat respectful in those days.

PSJ Everything is filmed today as if it were a sporting event.

IA It’s worse than that, it’s the speed at which we get things, from the computer, to cellular phones, to the beeper in the pockets, the faxes. I don’t really use the computer. I sent my first e-mail the other day, and I thought, My God, it’s magic.

PSJ In a way, yeah. Because things are so fast and because they are repeated ad infinitum, two things happen: either people seek a one-on-one experience with whatever—art, religion—or they become more and more inarticulate about their own experiences. That’s what scares me. I teach one course and I have some students who are very bright, young adults, and they listen to rap. So when they write poems, they tend to write in declarations. They understand slogans better than they understand how to question. One of them was trying to write an antiracist poem, which is a good thing, but it was ten lines of clichés. I finally had to turn to him and say, “The sentiment is wonderful, the writing is not. You have to think about what you’re saying and how you’re saying it because otherwise, what’s fresh here will be lost.” And that’s what I mean by this level of articulation—not everything is ambiguous or multi-layered but if you live a life of declarative sentences, then you have a problem.

IA MTV and split screens.

PSJ Going back to your work, you make up these statements and have split screens in your paintings, yet they’re so bizarre that even if they were all declarative sentences, one would go, What the hell is she declaring? The syntax is strange. The image/word choice and juxtaposition is calculated to dislocate the reader. There are things going on in these paintings that keep you from blithely connecting the dots and leaving.

IA Well, it is a dislocation. It’s all like real life: at times, you can’t tell what’s going on; there are random, disconnected events.

PSJ It’s going to be very interesting to see how you connect the dots to Manet’s Olympia. I was counting how many women you had in the painting and I thought, It must be the seven sisters because it’s seven women. But then again, any kind of symbolism can come out of your work. Except that all those women have that same wonderful expression on their faces. I can’t wait to see how you convey your own feelings about this work when it’s done.

IA When Eunice Lipton wrote her book Alias Olympia, she went to Paris to research who the model for Manet’s Olympia was.

PSJ And what did she find?

IA Not too much—but she supplemented the factual information with fictional, biographical, and autobiographical material.

PSJ So, she was a real person.

IA Victorine Meurant was a real person. She was actually a model and an artist. It is an amazing painting—the first time you had a woman looking brazenly straight at you. And that was strange—women weren’t supposed to look straight at the viewer. It was indecent, taboo. I took the black servant out of my painting because I hated seeing her there. Manet’s Olympiahas a presence that always bothered me. I have always enjoyed the fact that Victorine disobeyed the rules and that Manet disobeyed the rules in the way he painted her. Simultaneously, the painting has always felt cartoony and quirky, which, I guess, is also why I’ve been drawn to it.

Applebroog05 Body

Ida Applebroog, from the Modern Olympia series, 1998-99. Photo by Dennis Cowley.

PSJ I was going to ask you: the bodies in your work, they’re just terrific, they’re all kinds of bodies. It makes me think of another painter, Alice Neel. At one of her last openings, she was sitting on this big chair and all these people came to her, and I realized that I was watching a diva at work. It was hard work, too; she had to greet all of these people and be nice to them. But in her show were these incredible nude paintings of pregnant women. It was the first time I’d seen pregnant women nude in paintings.

IA Like Demi Moore?

PSJ No, this is way before. These incredibly voluptuous women and it wasn’t shocking, it was comforting. I’m not an artist or an art historian, but this was cool. Artists in New York do things differently. (laughter) Looking around your studio, I see paintings of these women doing all kinds of Playboy porno poses, various women on panels squatting around a central image, spreading, tussling—not Playboy, more the other guy …

IA Penthouse? Hustler?

PSJ Yeah, more Hustler images. There is another huge canvas of older, nude women. I like the thought of older women, thinking about my mother who is still in her own way a great beauty. In your painting they look almost startled at their own mortality and vitality.

IA Their breasts are sagging, their nipples are down, the pubic hairs are hardly there anymore. I needed to do these aging women, it was very important. And every one of them had to be looking straight out; not so with these other, more erotic works. I based some of those erotic images on Playboy and Hustler. But I’m doing it in such a way that there are so many women that one becomes desensitized to them. I mean they’re no longer erotic—

PSJ No, they are not erotic. They’re sort of cartoons. Well, they are cartoons.

IA I actually picked up a couple of those magazines. I looked at the poses and realized that most of the women are shaven, and their vaginal lips are usually open. Even from the back, the lips are always showing. Right now, I’m working on those two elongated women; I might be cutting them up and collaging them, I’m not sure yet. I’m just living with them. I’m still waiting for the Rubenesque women to come back.

PSJ I actually think that’s starting to happen—partly because women are Rubensque. I have a book called Colette at the Movies; she wrote movie reviews in the teens and early ’20s. And she wrote a fascinating essay defending Mae West. Apparently people were put off by her because she was so big. Mae West has flesh. And I was thinking, What was the last eroticized female character in film who was big? It was Mae West. Marilyn Monroe was very voluptuous but—

IA Monroe was voluptuous. But she was not fat.

PSJ No, she was tiny; they’re all tiny. So in a way, we’re a society at odds with our real selves. Our image of ourselves is in such deep conflict on all kinds of levels: physical, emotional, psychological … We celebrate people like Oprah, daytime talk people who play out those conflicts.

IA Oprah’s the best. And Sally Jessie Raphael, Ricki Lake, Mantel, Jerry Springer.

PSJ Jerry Springer is there for comic relief. I’m sorry, this is probably a racist term, but it’s white-trash entertainment. When I was growing up I watched wrestling on TV, these big beefy white guys with greasy hair and very strange wigs, and these little old ladies in the front row going, “Beat him, beat him!” (laughter) Now, in the ’90s everything is pumped up to such a degree that when you look at these very thin, almost fleshless models’ bodies, like what you have in those two elongated figures—it’s almost like celibacy.

IA The makeup on some of these women is dark and unhealthy looking. I had to hold myself back from using some of the ways in which they portray them. I felt the anorexic thinness and the smile—the face was sufficient.

Applebroog Ida 09 Bomb 068

Ida Applebroog, Happy Birthday To Me, 1982, acrylic and roplex on canvas, 83 x 66½ inches.

PSJ What are your future plans as an artist?

IA (laughter) As an artist? I’ll work until I drop. That’s the only plan I have. It’s this weird idea, you feel that you’ll go on making art for the rest of your life, and then life comes in and interrupts. No, I never talk about future plans, that’s part of the—

PSJ Because it’s a continuous process?

IA It’s a continuous process and I think I live more in the present than the future. I don’t like looking at the past. It’s counterproductive, just being able to continue the act of working is what I want.

PSJ Do you think with the upcoming shows and recent retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery—

IA Survey, survey!

PSJ Survey? I never understood the difference.

IA Retrospective means that you’re dead and gone.

PSJ Excuse me, ignore the retrospective.

IA The 50-year survey of my work. (laughter) And what am I going to do for an encore?

PSJ Now I understand what Ed Ruscha meant when he said, “I don’t want no retrospective.” I’ve seen some of your Gloria paintings, they’re at this level of deep social satire—as are Goya’s. I was fascinated by the connections that everybody who wrote for your catalogue was making to Goya in your work. That did make sense to me.

IA Well, for him it was mostly being a witness in his own time. For me it’s something else: it’s still the 6:00 news.

PSJ A strange and horrible thing.

IA There’s regular rape, there’s gang rape, there’s regular murder, serial murder, mass murder … I mean, there’s such a long list: war, child abuse, AIDS, racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia … the list goes on.

PSJ And the other side of that is the official language with which they talk about all of these things, or deny them. Like watching Giuliani not deal with the fact that somebody’s been shot 41 times. At that moment you look at power in its worst aspects, because it’s a refusal to act. What are the levels of resistance to power? In that sense your work has a lot to do with having deep discomfort with that level of power.

IA I learned very early on how power works. Very early on. I just learned.

PSJ A little more, please …

IA A little bit more than I needed to know.

PSJ Sounds like you found someplace where your own sense of power could go.

IA Well, first you have to find where your own power is, and how to get it out there. It takes a long, long time.

PSJ You create these things and then you put them up in interesting ways. What’s the mechanism for all that?

IA Let me tell you. You’re writing poetry, you throw out this word, you throw out that word, this word, that word, and suddenly, of all the words there are, they make a sentence. That’s pretty much what it is. I’m not quite sure what’s in my head, but I’ll keep throwing out this image, that image. And suddenly, somewhere in there I can make a visual sentence. Now that sentence has meaning to me. Someone else has to figure it out for themselves, or not.

Jo Baer by Linda Boersma
Baer 02 Body
Illustration and Language: Caitlin Keogh Interviewed by Caroline Elbaor

Painting the fragmented body.

Portfolio by Dan Herschlein
Dan Herschlein Bomb 01

The body as a sentence to be scrambled

BOMB Specific by Julie Ault

Originally published in

BOMB 68, Summer 1999

Featuring interviews with Robert Altman, Ida Applebroog, Chuck D, Alvaro Siza, Joseph Chaikin, Peter Campus, Robert Pinksky, and Maryse Conde. 

Read the issue
Bombcover 68 1024X1024