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Why Jonathan Borofsky Bowed Out : 'I needed to be alone with myself and find out what was left of my art.'

July 30, 1989|KRISTINE McKENNA

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.

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