Hitler's Baby Picture, My Baby Picture, 1993

Jonathan Borofsky, The Per Contra Interview by Miriam N. Kotzin Ė Part 2 

PC:  How do you use a computer in the public art?

JB: I work with a professional 3-D CAD designer.  I sit next to him and sort of direct him as to what he should draw, how the sculpture should look. We can study forms both esthetically and engineering-wise, from many angles.  It does seem to beat the pencil and paper for this kind of work. Itís not that I donít make a few rough sketches or rough models first, but this 3-D CAD design really helps me, and the client even, to see the potential of the work.

PC: Thatís exciting! These are pretty big works, how do you get these made?

JB: Even though I live here in Maine, I still work with the same factory in Los Angeles that Iíve began a relationship with some twenty years ago.  I lived in Los Angeles from 1977 to 1990 and worked with Ron McPherson and his La Paloma factory to build almost all of my public sculptures in Europe and Asia.  So, especially with the ability to transfer information with computers, it makes it easy for me to continue my work out there even though I live here on the East Coast.  Itís a symbiotic relationship with Mr. McPherson, heís a genius with what he does and over these past twenty years weíve developed a very clear understanding of each otherís needs.  You know, when you start making these large-scale outdoor projects, itís no more a one-person operation.  You need a group of talented people to work together.

PC:   I have a question thatís slightly in another direction.  In the new figures youíre doing, theyíre stylized, is that right?  The thousands together?

JB:  The most recent ones are.  I started out with male, female.  So itís male, female. Male, female. Male, female. Just connecting together to create structures.  Theyíre called human structures.



             Human Structures (with Light of Consciousness), PYO Gallery Beijing, summer 2008


But in the most recent ones Iíve taken away the male and female, and just made it one figure thatís kind of digital, a pixil looking figure, a little more abstract, but you can definitely see itís a figure.  It has a head, and arms, and legs, but itís no more the curves of the male or female.  Itís more of a pixil-type stylized figure that you might think would come out of a computer, a basic computer design of a figure, and the genderís been removed so that itís an evolution there of blending, once again, the two into one:  a symbolic energy for myself.


PC: So these are really different from the figures in the Humanity in Motion or Walking to the Sky?


JB: Oh, yeah.  Humanity in Motion, which I just completed in Philadelphia for the Comcast Center, relates to the Walking to the Sky, sculpture that we just [talked about].  It was originally shown at Rockefeller Center and the Nasher Sculpture Center. I created a second version at Carnegie-Mellon University. Theyíre strong.  Theyíre pieces that come out of my past that are still strong, archetypal enough, maybe even better for people than what Iím doing now.  But I always think people are catching up a bit, and I have to be a little further out there in a territory where only I understand whatís going on.


PC:  Connected to that, a question, about the clothing on the figures. How do you make decisions about the clothing on figures such as those in Humanity in Motion?  If itís exact now, what will it look like in thirty years.


JB:   Thatís a tough one.  You canít put futuristic clothes on everybody.  I think you have to end up making your work for the time period youíre in.  If we see a bronze statue of Ben Franklin, weíre not disappointed that heís not wearing the latest Barneyís creation.  The art that Iím making is reflecting the time that Iím in, and itís also reflecting my consciousness as far as I can develop it in this moment of time.  And the clothing that I gave the people was for this moment of time.  If the work is viewed twenty years from now when people are all wearing pink tights with sequins on their clothes or something, itíll just fit the work back into its time-frame, but I donít think it will disturb the basic message, which will hold up, no matter what people are wearing.  It just wonít be the people of that moment going through the building.


PC:  You say that people have to catch up to art, or to your work?


JB:  Well, I donít know, that sounds a bit pompous, but nobody really knows what Iím doing, except me.  And thatís true of every artist. Nobody knows.  Youíre making a nice effort today to ask me questions about my work, and itíll come out, but... and itíll be very helpful for your readers, and, Iím sure for me, but nobody is at the forefront, at the pinnacle of where I am at this moment.  Iím pushing on a daily basis, pushing myself forward on a multi-level path.  And I canít even explain half of it, but in that sense, forefront is a great word because it implies a linear path straight ahead and itís a little more complicated for me. 


But also a part of it is that Iíve just chosen a lifestyle here in Maine that keeps me out of the center of activity. So Iíve been doing this new work for eight years, and Iíve just shown it maybe once or twice because Iím just not in the hubs of activity at this point.  Iíve chosen not to be for my own personal mental survival.  Or joy.  Or whatever.  So maybe itís not a question of other people catching up sometime, itís more a question of whether Iím capable of communicating in the circles that I need to communicate in to have the work ďreceived.Ē It can be both ways.


PC:  Could you say a little more about that?  Maybe we could use this interview to put that out a little more.


JB:  Well we are, by just by doing this interview, I guess.  I donít like selling myself, personally.  I donít like selling my art, to be honest. I donít...  It doesnít feel comfortable selling my art.  At one point I do it.  I have to do it to keep making more, and so...


I had a very important moment for myself in the seventies and eighties. I know I had a nice influence on people when I did live in New York.  And thatís fine, I feel good about that, I like to feel Iím being helpful and contributing to the big art push thatís going on but thereís no... I feel uncomfortable pushing.  Iím not a seller of my own work.


As I say, it literally comes down to me not liking to sell my work.  And itís not that I hoard it for myself.  Itís just uncomfortable equating artwork with money.  I just donít...Itís an embarrassment.  Itís just an embarrassment. I donít... Itís a quandary that Iím in. I have no choice.  All I can do is, I avoid any auction. If Iím in an auction, it wasnít of my choice, itís just somebodyís, you know, tired of the work and selling it.  OK...


Even when Iím approached for auctions, no matter how good the cause, AIDS. World hunger in Africa.  It doesnít matter what.  And how do you say no to those?  Well, I just have to. I have said repeatedly in the past that auctions are for slaves. Thatís all I can think of.  Itís demeaning. The art was made from a heart-felt spiritual point within me and it really isnít tradable for cash and shouldnít be. It should just [get out there] by osmosis and someone should pay me a yearly fee to keep doing it.



People Tower, Olympic Park, Beijing, view from interior


PC:  The old patronage system?


JB: Or something. It kind of is, because every once in a while I get a giant project that pays very good fees, and it serves a purpose.  Because theyíre so big, and, maybe, because theyíre so big first of all my hand isnít in them so much, or I have to work with the factories. Itís been translated from something thatís been within me, in my own heart out into a huge hunk of steel a hundred feet tall, or aluminum. It still has my personal essence and spirit in it, but maybe now itís...I donít mind getting whatever price I get for it because A:  a lot of that went in to making it; and B:  I do have to keep producing this new work in my studio. 


But, also, you know, nobody can just pick up these forty-ton sculptures and just send it off to auction. I just find that the most demeaning part of the art world, and yet thatís the part thatís driving it even more than ever and will probably continue to, and some of that trickles down into my world as well, in a sense, and so Iím just trapped in a way. Just like Iím trapped in a country thatís fighting a war I wish it wasnít fighting.  You just gotta live with, go with what youíve got, you know, and try to make the best of it..  And so the art world might not be ideal for me, but itís the only world I got.


PC: What you just brought up, working with other people, in order to get something thatís in your heart out into the world to make it physical, is that even more so now, with what youíre working on? At the beginning you were able to do it all yourself, the installations, painting on the wall?


JB:  The same thread is probably still there that was there. I see thereís a point of consciousness somewhere in between college and graduate school where I realized I had to find something very personal within myself.  I think in college I was still painting like a painter, people of this generation maybe donít know, named Arshile Gorky, and I was still making paintings like him. Why?  because he had this personal set of symbols that I kind of liked, was attracted to.  And then I realized, somewhere right in there by the time I went to graduate school, that I was going to have to find my own personal set of symbols. I wasnít going to end up copying somebody elseís.  This personal set of symbols would be just that, very personal. Period. Underline the word ďpersonal.Ē


It would be me.  Who I am.  What I think.  How I feel.  So ever since that time everything Iíve done has been an effort to develop that.  And how it develops is always a bit of a mystery.  I donít say, all right, now Iím going to go in this direction.  It just kind of unfolds, and has unfolded.  But I think the same thread has been there.  To do something very personal, so personal, so heartfelt, that it canít help but connect with other people who are of equal ďheartfeltness,Ē in quotes, ďheartfeltness.Ē  Looking for archetypal feelings that are in all of us: hopes and wishes that are in all of us; ideals that are in all of us.


Idealism drives all my work.  Thereís a wish and a hope for a better humanity, a better way of living with each other. And if weíre not living well with each other, what are the reasons?  Hence I ended up doing the video documentary on prisoners in the eighties, because at one point I said, why do people hurt each other?  why do they rob and kill each other?  Well, youíve gotta go talk to those people whoíve done it. You know, Youíve gotta find out, how does a person become a murderer.  How does a person become a killer.  And that led to another period when I did an exhibition at Paula Cooperís called Jonnie Hitler, where I literally, it just led to, all right, Iíve dealt with prisoners...   Whoís the ultimate bad guy of our generation, of our life.  And it was at that time Hitler.  And so I had to take on his persona and try to understand, read, about his life, how he grew up, and slowly see the connections between ideas in which I saw myself coming from and Fascism, which Hitler represented.  And seeing that there was a close similarity, that both of us wanted good things to happen for people.  Itís just that the Fascist limits his ideals to suit only his particular ďgroupĒ of people at the expense of hurting everybody else around.  And the idealist wants to help everybody knowing and feeling that weíre all connected. 


PC: What do you want to see happen with your work?


JB: The prayer is coming out of my ďtemple,Ē in quotes ďTemple,Ē my studio. And, once work is getting out into the world, Iím not sure I have to do more. It just seems to be happening very nicely. Work is getting out. 


As we speak [March 28, 2008] thereís a new sculpture of mine work being built in China now for the Olympics: one-hundred-thirty-six brightly colored life-size steel figures are being bolted together right now to build a sixty-five foot tall pagoda-like structure.


However my main effort takes place here in my studio where I try to... where I enjoy coming every day and creating an energy. And Iím not sure I have to do more than that. I have to do more if the phone calls or the emails stop coming, with at least ďMr. Borofsky, can you make a suggestion, we have this site.Ē  And a lot of them fall through, either because the price is not right, or my idea is not goodócorrectófor them. As long as there are people occasionally asking for a work, it helps to keep the flow going. And that seems to be happening, and has happened my whole life.


PC:  You said when we spoke earlier that you were in a rush to get things to New York...what was that about?


JB: My assistant just took a second truck yesterday [March 28, 2008] because we were behind on the second part of our shipment to Beijing.  Along with the big outdoor sculpture, which the government is building, Iím doing a gallery show there, and Iíll be showing a lot of these sculptures where colorful transparent figures connecting together to create a structure.  But what Iíve added, what Iíve added to that, is a vertical, a tubular light that hangs from a thin wire, the light is suspended in space and intersects with and floats inside the structure.

For eight years now these sculptures have been titled Human Structuresóhumanity building itself.  But now with the addition of these vertical lights from above, the works are titled Human Structures and the Light of Consciousness.


Well, I guess I canít get more literal than that in terms of Prayer. You know, itís a symbolóbringing consciousness and humanity together. Thatís as direct as I can get at this point.  Then again, in five years weíll see where I am. 


But weíve been rushing to finish those lights, the design and all. I didnít want a big glitzy Las Vegas look to the light.  It had to be a very soft and glowing tube.  So we located special LED systems and mounted them inside a polycarbonate tube, which had been fabricated with a flow coloration in it that created that soft glow I wanted.   And then we brought the whole thing together into a hanging light system.  We did get those off yesterday. So I guess everything gets into a container in a few days and goes off in a boat.  Thatís for the gallery show there in Beijing. 


And, as I mentioned, thereís the  big outdoor sculpture.  The Chinese government has asked several artists to do works, to submit designs, and then the deal is that they make it themselves there following the CAD plans that I send them.  Usually I donít like that, thereís no quality control, but in this situation anything to open the lines of communication between that world and our world is a good thing.





© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

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All Images in this interview: ©Jonathan Borofsky.  Images are provided courtesy of the artist and used with permission.

Human Structures (detail)

People Tower, Olympic Park, Beijing, 136 painted steel figures, 65 feet tall

Borofsky in studio

People Tower, Olympic Park, Beijing, 136 painted steel figures, 65 feet tall

Human Structures (San Francisco), installation in progress, 62 painted steel figures bolted together, 35 feet tall