When I mention Jonathan Borofsky to students pursuing their MFAs in painting or sculpture almost none of them recognize his name. That young artists are ignorant of an older artist whose star has dimmed is hardly surprising: fashions change, careers tank, wall-space and memory-space are usurped by legions of new names. But what seems so wrong here is that much work getting made in art schools seems incredibly close in spirit and form to what Borofsky was dong in the 1970s and early 1980s.
These students aren’t influenced directly by Borofsky but by artists of the 1990s who, consciously or not, derived much of what seemed fresh and exciting in their work from Borofsky. I’m thinking, for instance, of Raymond Pettibon, whose vigorous comic-influenced drawing style and taste for large chunks of text, gangs of drawings push-pinned to the wall and sprawling installations closely echoes Borofsky’s late 1970s work. Ditto Karen Kilimnik’s messy theatrical installations. Yet another contemporary mode that can be traced back to Borofsky is the manic painting-sculpture confrontations that most people associate with Martin Kippenberger. On that note – not to take anything away from the late great MK – Borofsky was also a pioneer of Bad Painting, from his pseudo-naíve self-portraits of the early 1970s to his unforgettably clunky picture of bra-clad model striding past a row of soldiers, The Maidenform Woman, You Never Know Where She’ll Turn Up (1983).
An energetic trickster, Borofsky was always looking for new ways to throw his viewers off-balance, inserting ping-pong tables and loud noises into his multi-media installations. He also kept seeking out unusual venues for his work. In 1977, he drew a large green-tinted image of a Shinto priest onto the wall of a New York City men’s shelter. In 1982 his contribution to the large “Zeitgeist” exhibition was to paint onto the graffiti-scarred Western side of the Berlin Wall a double-life-size running man.
I don’t know why Borofsky’s fantastic early work has been dropped from the cannon. It may have something to do with his focus, in recent years, on public art (for too many people, an artist is invisible if he or she doesn’t show in galleries and museums). Another factor may be his being overly identified with two iconic images, the “Running Man” and the “Hammering Man” (a giant kinetic black golem figure) that have pushed aside the carnivalesque variety of the early work. Then there’s an even bigger problem: much of Borofsky’s best work (wall drawings, site specific installations) survives only via photo documentation. Thankfully, there’s a lot of it in the catalogue of his 1984-86 traveling survey (originated by the Philadelphia Museum of Art).
Here’s Borofsky on his first show at Paula Cooper Gallery in 1975: “I was making so much work that it felt natural to jam it all into one space. This arrangement represented my attitude that everything is good – there was no real selection process, or if there was, it was minimal. I didn’t pare my output down to the ten best objects and put them under glass or frame them in preparation for a sale. My show wasn’t about that, but about bringing in all that I had been thinking about, all that I had been working through in the last year.”