I see movement and restlessness in your work, in your interest in Sunset Boulevard, for example.
Maybe I see the city as kind of a platform to map it out, and I like maps. I thought [L.A.] was just one big long Sunset Boulevard, and it became so ingrained and empowered in me that I kept reflecting on Sunset Boulevard. Somebody else would pick a vase of flowers; I have to look at a street. I like to look at it almost as a geologist or an anthropologist would, so I'm not just reflecting on things like the Marlboro Man [billboard] but the concrete curb in front of the Marlboro Man. I like the democratic mapping of the entire thing.
I started making these word paintings as though I was making that word official to myself, almost like a caveman carving something in stone. Makes me part caveman, doesn't it? Sometimes I forget whether I'm painting a picture with words or of words. They also seem to be elemental structures of the world, these abstract, funny-looking shapes of letters that line up like soldiers and have some definition in our dictionary. Then there's the meaning behind the word, which has its own potency, and sometimes it's so simple and so stupid that it deserves being painted.
L.A. art bloomed just as the art world stopped regarding commercial art as beneath it.
It was very snobbish to feel like the higher arts have nothing whatsoever to do with other visual stuff, like advertising. I don't believe that. Any kind of visual stuff has got to influence you, even if it's bad stuff.
After centuries of paint on walls, paint on canvas, there's art on phones, on computers. John Baldessari has an iPhone art app. Do you use those media?
I don't do that. I'm a conflicted person: I don't like to see things change and yet I welcome change at the same time. So I'm living within my own misery! I find it rather exciting that artists are not limiting themselves to paint[ing] genuine oil paint on genuine canvas. That there are other ways to make art.
Who are the new or local people you like?
I don't get around to too many galleries here; I spend a lot of my time in my studio. I saw one [show] just recently, Jonathan Pylypchuk at China Art Objects Galleries. It was just very interesting. There's a lot of artists I don't know anything about and yet they're really signing on with their own voice. They've got a point of view, and I like any artist who does that.
Can there be too much art?
Now if you try to look at the art world, what it's doing, it's almost like too much. It's really hard to grasp.
Do you have any time for old masters?
I like looking at old art. I'm going to curate an exhibit at the historical art museum in Vienna where they don't collect anything past 1800. They've invited me to go look at their entire collection, [even] carved pure rock crystal vases, things that are out of my sphere of understanding, but boy they're sure great. I think it's going to be fun to do.
When almost anyone can do it, are there any standards? Who's to say what's art?
That's the $64,000 question. I like that it is wide open for interpretation, whereas it wasn't that long ago you didn't stray from these principles. I like tradition and I like traditional artists, and yet at the same time the future's got to be open for just about anything. There's more outrage to be seen in the near future.
What's different about L.A.'s art sensibility?
It's a new horizon when you look west. I like being here, but I've got a love-hate place in my heart for this place.
What's the hate part?
Too many damn people here, and I don't like the traffic. I go out to the desert. But the raw nerve endings of the city are also important to me.
How important is art to this culture?
I was thinking that when the world of finance goes into a tailspin, there's panic. But if that same thing happens in the art world, you get apathy. In finance and economics, if there's real trouble everyone is shivering and concerned. But in the world of art, people's eyes begin to shutter closed. I don't know why that is. There was a tailspin in the art world about 1990; people didn't seem to think much about it. I don't know where that puts art.
You did a painting with the words "I don't want no retrospective." Do you get tired of having your work and your observations referred back to you a lot?
I don't like to feel like I [am] writing my own history, so if I did intensive thinking about every step that I was taking toward making a picture or making a work of art, I would be a prisoner. I've managed to escape that by not thinking too much about what I do. I do things more or less spontaneously, and I have these little dialogues with myself, and I feel that that's the honest route to a final answer, which I'll never know what it is anyway.
What's on your walls at home?
I got sort of fanatical about collecting these 12 prints of Kandinsky's called "Small Worlds." I managed to get all 12 of them [over] about 10 years. When I got the last one, it was: Well, what do I do now?
This interview is edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of past interviews is at latimes.com/pattasks.