A conversation with Rick Baker on reconstructing Jason Rhoades' installations
One of the most ambitious artists of his generation, Los Angeles-based Jason Rhoades burst onto the scene almost fully formed just after receiving a graduate degree in 1993. He died only 13 years later, leaving behind a number of massive installations. Four of these works are included in the Center-funded exhibition Jason Rhoades, Four Roads, on view at the Institute for Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania (ICA) through December 29, 2013. In October, Peter Nesbett, The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage’s Associate Director for Programs, sat down with the manager of Rhoades’ studio, Rick Baker, to talk about the complications of reconstructing the artist’s work after his death.
Peter Nesbett: Rhoades died unexpectedly in mid-career. You worked in his studio; were you at all preparing for the day when these things would have to be put together in his absence? I imagine Rhoades was too young to have developed the archival impulse that comes later in most artists’ lives.
Rick Baker: The nature of our work when he was alive was always fast and forward moving. I likened it to racing dragsters—incredibly intense preparation and planning, moving one direction, pushing every possible limit and “burning dirty.” That is not to say that Jason didn’t make manuals for his complex installations; he did, but our priority and energy was always on what was coming next.
But even then, he was reinstalling older installations in exhibitions…
No major work was reinstalled exactly the same in his lifetime.
When reconstructing the installations today, what “guides” do you have to work from? Obviously you have photos. Do you have videotape walk-throughs? Diagrams or maps? Measurements? Templates? Notes? Instructions from the artist?
Most commonly, we have still photos, floor plans of each exhibition venue, and the memories of those who originally worked on it with Jason.
Do these “guides” differ from installation to installation?
The earlier works (say, those before [the year] 2000) tend to have less clear inventories, less exact measurements, and often no “map” of any kind. But what they have that the later pieces lack is a lot of video. When dealing with the complex nature of these larger works, we have found that video is often the best tool for re-installation. Even better, when Jason did a video walk-through (again, common for the early work), [he gave us] the added resource of his own explanation of the work, both technically and conceptually.
Which of the pieces in the current show was the hardest to reconstruct?
Cherry Makita. It was in Jason’s first solo exhibition in New York in 1993, at the David Zwirner Gallery on Greene Street. The space was dominated by a makeshift “garage” made from thin lumber, drywall, foam core, tin foil, and one enormous car engine. Around it were arranged several discreet objects: a tool box, a drywall chair with Polaroids of Jason working on the garage in his L.A. studio, a cardboard “rabbit hutch,” and a small model of the garage itself.
I remember that show. It was very exciting to see at the time. What made it so hard to re-install? It wasn’t nearly as big as the later pieces.
We had very little original documentation of any kind. There were a handful of official installation shots taken by the gallery. We had the floor plan of the Zwirner space, but no “map.” No video. Only several pages of handwritten notes by Jason, mostly concerning the concept and “backstory” that help one understand the work. Secondly, the space in which it is installed at the ICA is quite a bit larger than the original Zwirner gallery.