We’re all charged with living better lives than those who came before us. Visual artist Gary Baseman is defined by this idea.
Gary Baseman is an esteemed artist known for his distinctive characters and cartoonish style. His work has been exhibited in museums and galleries throughout the world and is featured in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the National Portrait Gallery.
Baseman was born in Los Angeles in 1960 to Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors. After graduating from UCLA, he worked in New York as a commercial illustrator; his projects included the design for the popular board game Cranium.
Returning to L.A., Baseman moved into fine art with the exhibition Dumb Luck and Other Paintings About Lack of Control (1999). His career retrospective Gary Baseman: The Door is Always Open premiered in Los Angeles in 2013 and traveled to Taiwan and China.
Baseman’s illustrations have appeared on the cover of The New Yorker and in the pages of many magazines. He won an Emmy Award for his animated series Teacher’s Pet (2000–2002) and in 2014 created Mythical Creatures, an animated documentary designed introduce the stories of the Holocaust to new generations.
Growing up in Hollywood, Gary Baseman learned early to embrace ambition. He developed a remarkably clear artistic voice at a young age and was determined to put it to work however he could.
Gary Baseman: I didn’t have a fear that I wasn’t good enough, I just had a fear that I wouldn’t accomplish my goals.
AJC: But the goal moves.
Baseman: Well, you accomplish something, hopefully, or you fail at it miserably, which I’ve done many, many, many times. And I’ve accomplished a few things, too. But then you just keep having something you want to attain. Something you want to create. Something you want to prove.
Baseman calls what he does “pervasive art,” meaning that he wants you to risk bumping into it anywhere. Indeed, it seems that Baseman’s world is constantly being filtered through an artistic lens. Most of the time, he can be found with a journal in hand, a direct pipeline to his inner world.
Baseman: I don’t even want people, after I’m dead, to tear out the pages, because it’s on the next page. I want the book in its own right to be a work of art.
There are nearly 150 of these journals filled with a cast of recurring characters, all of which Baseman says are versions of himself.
Baseman: We live with so much desire and longing that we can’t even express. And so with Creamy, he falls in love easily, and just overheats and melts himself down. Just can’t control it, and I think that’s the way I’ve been since I was a little kid. I don’t think there’s a time. I was like a three or four-year-old. I was surrounded by girls all the time, and always falling in love, but never telling anybody and just melting myself down.
AJC: You were a really good kid, but you got angry.
Baseman: I was angry.
AJC: Really, even when you were a good kid?
Baseman: Even when I was a good kid, sure. But I was like a good kid, I would get angry. I would mess up the bed sheets. But then by the time my mom came, I would try to fix the bed. No, I mean, you have your own way. I did it through my art. Draw things in my own world. And that’s the thing, instead of confronting people through conversation or something, you find a way through my art to express some kind of truth that you may be even afraid to express.
Baseman has lately dedicated himself to seeking out some very particular truths. Since his father, Ben Baseman, died in 2010, Gary has obsessed over his parents’ Holocaust survival story. It was common knowledge that his father had been a partisan—a freedom fighter—but in 2012, a visit to their hometown in present-day Ukraine uncovered some long-hidden dimensions of his story.
Baseman: So in my father’s town, there was this book, and it told the story of my father, Ben Baseman—or his name back then was Burrow—who returned to his town at Berezne and discovered three men that were responsible for killing his parents, and what he did.
AJC: What did he do? Did he kill them?
Baseman: Well, in the book, they said him and another partisan, yeah, killed them. And then the town started talking about it, ‘cause it wasn’t, you know, normal kind of conversation for Jews to take retribution or revenge. And then he ended up in prison, and I think sentenced to death. And he was able to get out and escape with help, because he was a freedom fighter, he was a partisan. He spent three and a half years in the woods of Poland with these Russian paratroopers. And then he saved my mom, and then went to her relocation camp in Linz-Bindermichl. And then had a son, and then came to Canada, I think under false names, and then became Canadian citizens, and then came to America and became an American citizen. Once he died, and living with this, my world just kind of turned gray, that now, maybe I’m responsible. I’m responsible for his story, ‘cause this extraordinary story will be lost if I don’t tell it, ‘cause I know my brothers and sisters won’t. It’s just not who they are. So, watching that burden, it just kind of developed inside you, and that need, that “I need to find a way to understand this man, and why he wasn’t a crazy person, and why he was a character, but why he had such an amazing will of survival, and so optimistic, and especially with his children,” I think, “Wait, with what he went through, why didn’t he—how could he live that? How did he want to live to raise a family and give their kids the opportunity to be or do anything?”
(clip from Mythical Creatures):
Narrator: In 1941, it was easy to kill people. Killing people could be easily done.
Baseman is currently making a documentary about his family legacy. In the meantime, a traveling exhibition, The Door is Always Open—which features real artifacts from his childhood home—is already telling a version of the family story around the world.
Baseman: I still get people coming up to me, almost every day, just saying, “You know what? That was the best museum show I’ve ever been to.”
AJC: I’m just curious, do you think about the audience, or are you just making what you do?
Baseman: No, I think about the audience later. For me to find some kind of truth, I’ve got to hone in on myself, and that’s hard enough. But then, as an artist, how I want people to interact with it has changed and has grown. I would create these environments, and then work with dancers, or composers, or actors, and then would watch how people interact, or grow, or challenge themselves, how they think, or their own feelings. To make it something even more personal for themselves. So, like, with every medium in every way becomes more interesting of what to do.
In Gary Baseman’s art, it is easy to see his own continuing evolution, appraisals of his own personal experiences, and the truths he has learned.