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Art studios on fire


n+1 has an excerpt from the introduction to On Fire, a new oral history of fires in art studios, which, the book demonstrates, are far more common than you might think. The book is published by Paper Monument, the art-focused sister magazine of n+1. The following passage from the introduction, penned by Jonathan Griffin, recounts the burning in 1967 of the studio of painter James Hayward, a friend of John Baldessari. Griffin lost not only his paintings, but his considerable drug stash in the accident:

Three years earlier, on a visit to Los Angeles, Baldessari had witnessed another artist’s oeuvre go up in smoke. He was driving a van around Venice with his friend, the painter James Hayward, collecting artworks for a show Baldessari was organizing in San Diego. Hayward was depressed because he had just found out that his wife was cheating on him, and that morning he had lit candles around his home, shaved his long hair and begun to write a suicide note. He was interrupted by the unannounced Baldessari, who persuaded him to join him on his errands. Later that day, the pair saw a plume of smoke in the distance, rising from the streets near Hayward’s home studio, and they drove closer to investigate. Horrified, they discovered that it was indeed his home that was burning, and that Hayward’s paintings (and his sizeable stash of marijuana) had fed the blaze. The painter got out of Baldessari’s van and was immediately handcuffed by two plainclothes policemen. At that moment, his wife drove past in a silver Chevy convertible with his old friend Barry. Hayward described it as “the worst day of my life.”

It is not known whether Baldessari had that day in mind when he fed his own paintings into the crematorium incinerator in 1970, nor whether he was thinking of his colleague Ed Ruscha’s 1964 book Various Small Fires, published a year before the 1965 Watts Rebellion left much of South Central Los Angeles in flames. In the 1960s, combustion figured prominently in Ruscha’s conceptual vocabulary: as a metaphorical threat, in his pictures of gasoline stations and his smoky drawings of words on paper done in gunpowder, but also manifested as pictorial reality in paintings such as Norm’s, La Cienega, on Fire (1964), Burning Gas Station (1965–66), and the iconic Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965–8). Ruscha told me that fire holds no special biographical significance for him; it is simply a device that, when added, “can make a picture different, or better.” He described it as a “coda.”

It is fitting, perhaps, that so many of the protagonists in this book happen to reside in Los Angeles, a city built mainly of wood, resting on oil fields, and edged by tinder-dry brush. For reasons political and environmental, fire is as much a part of the Southern Californian collective subconscious as earthquakes and sunsets.

Image: Christian Cummings’s studio after a fire, Pasadena, 2013. Via n+1.