Text by Jay Batlle
Artist James Welling has been making photographs for twenty-five years. Trained in LA, he moved early on to New York City to show with Pictures artists. In the mid-90s he returned to Los Angeles to head UCLA’s photography department.
JB: When did you first start making photographs?
James Welling: I started to take myself seriously as a photographer in 1972. It was my junior year in college.
JB: You once made a comparison between cooking and photography.
JW: Well, both require wearing aprons. Also both involve a lot of stainless steel. The sequence in cooking from the steam tables to the grill, to the broiler, to putting the order out for the waitress or waiter is like the sequence in photography: you start with the developer, move onto the print washer and finish with the dry mount press.
Jay Batlle: Were you thinking about the relationship between cooking and photography while you were living in New York, or L.A., or both—and where were you cooking?
JW: I had my career as a cook in L.A. I didn’t do much cooking in New York. There’s much more of a discriminating palate in New York, and I wasn’t a very good cook.
JB: What drove you to move to New York?
JW: A lot of my friends had moved, and there wasn’t that much of an art scene in L.A. as far as I was concerned. My friends were telling me about a lot of interesting artists in New York, such as Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, and Cindy Sherman.
“I was invited to be part of the original Metro Pictures group…recently I’ve been thinking about how little my work looks like a lot of those artists’.”
JB: Were you friends with any of those people before you moved to New York?
1980 Opening Group Show 15 November–3 December: Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Michael Harvey, Thomas Lawson, William Leavitt, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, James Welling, Michael Zwack
JW: I used to go to New York in the summer. That’s how I met Cindy and Robert in 1977, just after they moved down from Buffalo. I was also beginning to meet this sort of scene that eventually showed at Metro Pictures with Helene Wiener. That gave me the heave-ho to leave Los Angles and move to New York.
JB: Were you part of the Pictures thing that was happening in New York? You showed with Metro Pictures, correct?
JW: I was invited to be part of the original Metro Pictures group. I mean there were the Pictures artists, that were a much larger group, and then there were the artists that showed at Metro Pictures. I was more or less part of both, even though recently I’ve been thinking about how little my work looks like a lot of those artists’. I was interested in recycling images in media or using some of the tropes of commercial photography. It exuded a lot of pressure in my thinking—a positive pressure that pushed me to do certain things.
JB: I would say that some of your work was about an intentional appropriation of certain iconic images or styles from early 20th century photography. I’m thinking of the Railroad Photographs or the Diaries. Did you see it that way?
JW: When I started taking photographs I became interested in the way that the technology of the camera had a built-in history, so that when you take certain cameras you get certain types of
photographs. At least, that is what I was sensitive to, it’s not true for all photographers. I just had a heightened sensitivity to that idea, and so in a way I appropriated certain photographic styles. I think that is what you are getting at with your question.
JB: Yes, and I feel this trend in your work has persisted, along with your interest in the process of making photographs. Did you think of your foil photos (Untitled 1980–1981), in relation to the work you are doing now? I’m thinking of the color Degradés or the photos shot through screens shown at David Zwirner in April 2005?
JW: Yes, it is thinking about different ways of depicting optical reality through a lens and straightforward camera system. It’s like thermal photography or other sorts of forces working on light sensitive surfaces. With the aluminum foil photo I was interested in making something extremely clear, but also extremely vague. You could see them as clear, sharp abstract photographs, but it was very difficult to understand what they were of. I think I continued that sort of fascination with making things that are difficult. They are not difficult to see, but difficult to understand.
JW: Why someone would want to do that, I do not know.
JB: Personally, I thought that your work was always very minimal. In a way you are like a “minimalist” making photographs. Who do see yourself relating to as a peer or contemporary?
JW: You mean the photographic zeitgeist representation of clarity and perfection? I like that and occasionally I’ll make pictures that have some of those values, but at this point I’m much more interested in the actual enjoyment of looking.
JB: I have this idea that starting out as an artist from Los Angeles, you created a different way of working, than say the branding that goes on in New York, You and other west coast artists, like Chris Burden, Charley Ray, Paul McCarthy are linked into contemporary art history, but the work comes from the work itself. From each process within their bodies of work, a new body of work is created. I saw this very clearly at the show you had with David Zwirner.
JW: That’s really good observation, although I wouldn’t think of myself as an L.A. artist, but more as an artist who is unafraid to have their work veer off in other directions. It is about a commitment to thinking outside of the medium through different processes, and then making work that is in line with the next project, instead of subject matter, project based work.
JB: I know you don’t see yourself in this Los Angeles – New York duality, but there is this kind of branding that goes on in New York. I don’t know if it is from the pressure of the market, but every artist gets grouped in a very Modernist way, from East Village to Gothic artist, where as in Los Angeles I never thought or heard about these groupings.
JW: There is no pressure in Los Angeles to do anything, there is no market and there are very few galleries, so no one really gives a shit. So that is a kind of freedom. In New York there are so many artists you have to tally everyone up, because it is such a packed scene. It is about density.
JB: One final question, do you think the commercial art world has changed much since twenty-five years ago when you were starting out as a young artist?
JW: I remember two years out of art school wondering if I would get in the Whitney Biennial, so in that sense things have changed that much. I also have a friend who stopped making art for 20 years, and wanted to start making art again. He said “Jim so what has happened in the last twenty years?” I said that there are no new positions, but there are just more people trying to occupy them.
ITRB5, 2001, courtesy: David Zwirner, NY & Regen Projects, LA.
Paris, 1996, courtesy: David Zwirner, NY & Regen Projects, LA.