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Gary Baseman’s Mournful Love Letter to Old Jewish Los Angeles

The versatile artist’s summer exhibit at the Skirball Center welcomes visitors into the lost world of his Holocaust survivor parents

Azadeh Ensha
July 08, 2013

Last year, the Los Angeles-based artist Gary Baseman traveled to Eastern Europe for the first time, in search of his roots. The 52-year-old visited Warsaw, Auschwitz, and Kraków before heading to his parents’ hometowns of Kostopil and Berezne. “My parents told me never to go there, that those towns were dead,” Baseman recalled from inside his home studio, surrounded by his cat companion, Blackie, and stacks of boxes containing his art. “When I was younger, you couldn’t go, because it was under Soviet rule. And after that, it wasn’t part of my life for a long time.”

But in 2010, Baseman’s father Ben died, followed by his mother Naomi’s passing in October 2012. To honor his father’s memory, Baseman didn’t shave or cut his hair for nine months. “I loved my parents, but I lived a pretty independent life. I was in New York for 10 years. But when my father’s health was declining, and he passed away, that’s when something really clicked and hit me hard that I was the keeper of his story, and memory, and past,” Baseman said. “I just had that responsibility of wanting to know the full details. I had to go to their towns.”

Baseman’s recent art, like his current exhibit, The Door Is Always Open, is increasingly shaped by his parents’ stories. On view through Aug. 18 at Los Angeles’ Skirball Cultural Center, the show takes its name from a phrase his father used to reference the many guests who frequented the family’s four-plex home in the Fairfax district. Like Baseman’s parents, many of the visitors were Holocaust survivors. Spurred by the open-door policy of his childhood, Baseman wanted his show to be similarly inviting, tactile and interactive. In lieu of the standard, sterile, white-wall backdrop, Baseman opted for a life-size model of his family home to showcase his art. After passing through the open front door, museum visitors can view the family’s dining room—complete with a table that’s been set for Seder dinner. On the wall behind the table are photos of a young Baseman posing with his parents, along with a video showing the artist at his bar mitzvah. In the den guests can sit on the sofa and turn on his parents’ television set to watch the Emmy Award-winning Disney animated series Teacher’s Pet. Baseman was the show’s co-creator. Also there is a table with the board game Cranium, which Baseman helped design. Off the hallway is the bedroom, featuring Ben and Naomi’s furnishings, as well as a black-and-white portrait of the couple. To coincide with the exhibit’s opening, Baseman asked his friend, the designer Shepard Fairey, to create a partisan poster of his father. The elder Baseman spent nearly four years fighting the Nazis in Ukraine’s birch forests. “I feel like the forest is what saved my father,” Baseman said. To further share this part of his father’s life, Baseman created the animated video The Buckingham Warriorfor the Museum of Contemporary Art’s video channel MOCAtv. Lining the hallway are more treasured photos, including several of Baseman’s alter ego Toby, a cat figurine who has traveled with him to the Western Wall, London’s Abbey Road, the Sistine Chapel, and elsewhere around the globe.

Unlike his peripatetic adult years, Baseman lived a largely stationary childhood. The youngest of four children, Baseman was born and raised in Los Angeles. He and his family lived in the Boyle Heights section of the city—back when the area was still home to a large Jewish community—before dropping anchor in Fairfax. His parents, who met at a relocation camp during World War II, remained in the building the rest of their lives. Baseman, too, was a fixture of the community. He attended Laurel Elementary and Third Street Elementary School, Fairfax High School, and UCLA, where he received his bachelor’s degree with honors in Communications studies. As a child, he grew up surrounded by the Pan Pacific Auditorium, the Gilmore Drive-In, and other notable neighborhood buildings that helped shape his aesthetic. Another significant artistic influence was the Fairfax community.

“I remember Fairfax as being a really Jewish neighborhood, with fish shops, and butcher shops, and, of course, Canter’s Deli, where my mom worked in the bakery for 35 years,” Baseman said. “I remember the Helms Bakery truck. There’s something great about having fresh donuts driven down your neighborhood and asking your parents for a dime to get a chocolate one. My brother worked at the Gilmore Drive-In, and I remember being in my pajamas at the back of the concession stand to score candy and popcorn. So, besides my parents, this exhibition is a love letter to the Fairfax community. A lot of my early friends and inspirations were from the neighborhood,” Baseman recalled. “Even Toby is named after a neighborhood girl I was in love with when I was 2. Her parents were also survivors and were also from my mom’s town. They lived across the street. We used to play under our coffee table, and my dad would come over, see my work and say, ‘Gary, that’s beautiful. Draw me another.’ ”

And draw he did. Though Baseman can’t remember his first doodles, he distinctly recalls being artistically driven from a young age. “I wanted to be an artist since I was a child, but I didn’t want to go to art school,” Baseman said. “I took some classes in advertising concepts, because for a while I was thinking about being a nice Jewish boy and getting some sort of security by becoming an art director. But across the street from my elementary school was the Art Center College of Design, before it moved to Pasadena. I walked passed there every day, and the kind of art they were doing was very slick and wasn’t very interesting at all. It was things like drawing cars, and I couldn’t relate.”

So, instead of art school, Baseman settled on academia, enrolling in UCLA. He flirted with the idea of becoming a lawyer and interned for the Federal Communications Commission. He also took on an advertising internship with the TBWA\Chiat\Day agency. But both were short-lived. Art always beckoned. And, to this day, Baseman never leaves the house without a sketchbook in hand. So far, he’s filled 135 books with his creations. A day after his mother’s passing, Baseman drew a sketch of her surrounded by flowers, being carried by ChouChous. In another sketch, his mother is surrounded by his characters, all of whom are mourning her passing.

“My sketchbooks have become pieces of art in their own right, so they only exist in the books,” said Baseman. “The drawings are created to help me understand themes, but they’re not drawings or sketches that are used as paintings. When I paint, I prefer to work with my themes and play off my spontaneity. I don’t take a sketch and project it, or use that as a basis for a painting.”

In addition to exhibits, characters, TV shows, board games, drawings, and paintings, Baseman has created cover illustrations for The New Yorker, Time, and the Atlantic magazines. The vast scope of his art proved especially appealing to the Skirball, whose curators rightfully praised his interdisciplinary work and boundless creativity.

On opening night, Baseman gifted visitors with a key. It was copied from the key to his parents’ home and featured Toby on its head. A small reminder, Baseman said, so they’ll never forget that the door is always open.


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Azadeh Ensha is a regular contributor to the New York Times. Her Twitter feed is @azadehensha.

Azadeh Ensha is a regular contributor to the New York Times. Her Twitter feed is @azadehensha.