In His Own Words

In this section, Gary Baseman discloses in his own words some of the fundamental moments of his art career that spans illustration and commercial art, fine art, and performance. This section includes the way that his work has been described and analyzed by scholars writers, as well as the most recent mediums he uses to explore ideas and share stories.


Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, Gary Baseman has become a fixture of the city. Whether you find him drawing the everyday scenes at Canter’s or the Hollywood starlets and other celebrities at the Chateau Marmont or the Formosa Café, Los Angeles and Baseman maintain a long-term relationship. From his family history to the influences that the artist draws into his work from growing up in Los Angeles, this city and its multicultural and metropolitan communities have deeply informed Baseman’s art.

“I grew up in the center of the city, the son of immigrants, attending public school with kids with different backgrounds. Our house was blocks away from CBS Television City. My mom worked at Canter’s in the Fairfax District, where people from the industry and rock-n-rollers would often land. I was a latchkey kid whose parents were often working, and whose older siblings were out on their own.  Television was like my babysitter. Early on, my brother brought animation cels from Hanna-Barbera Studios home for me to play with. While sitting and drawing at the coffee table in the living room, I’d watch hours of cartoons and comedies and dramas.”

“Growing up in LA, one believes that anything you create can resonate around the world. Being surrounded by all the major studios (Paramount, Warner Bros, MGM, Universal, etc.) and TV networks, whose influential work is seen around the globe, and as a child with encouraging parents, I felt I could create art that could have an effect everywhere.” 

Excerpts from the interview “Bittersweet Beauty. LA-based artist Gary Baseman comes to Tauranga.” New Zealand Herald, March 20, 2019. 


As Tom Teicholz pointed out on his 2013 interview with Baseman, “After graduating from UCLA, Baseman pursued a commercial art career while continuing to make art, “on the side.” He did a short stint at an ad agency, but that did not really agree with him, so he began to pursue work as a commercial illustrator. To make his American Dream come true and despite his parents’ initial objections, Baseman moved to New York in 1986.”

“The advertising and publishing and art world were all in New York. Every major artist was in New York, and at the time if you lived in L.A. you were a substandard regional artist. You had to go there.”

“An image he made for the cover of The New York Times Sunday Book Review put him on the map. The New York Times assignment was followed by Time, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly,. He also created commercial campaigns for Gatorade, Nike and Mercedes-Benz. Baseman won several illustration awards, including the prestigious Art Directors Club award. At the same time, commercial work was increasingly being seen as art, while underground comics and graphic novels were going mainstream. After a decade there, editorial work felt too creatively restraining, and that, mixed with his desire to work in television and the relatively cold New York climate, brought Baseman back to Los Angeles.”

Excerpts from the interview “Going Home with Gary Baseman” by Tom Teicholz, Jewish Journal, April, 28, 2013


By the end of the 1990s, Baseman realized his creativity could extend beyond the world of illustration. His desire to learn and explore other areas of art would result in an explosive creative period for him that blurred lines and expanded audiences.

“I had a hunger for many things. I started looking at my legacy and thinking ‘what am I leaving behind me’? I loved the editorial work, but it didn’t seem rich enough. I had a fear of creating my own body of work and bringing it out into the world. It always stems from a fear of failure or that people won’t be interested. But I didn’t let that stop me. While doing my editorial work, even if I had an assignment, I couldn’t stop experimenting with my own things and painting like crazy, but still always made sure to hit my professional deadlines. At the same time, I also wanted to do TV; I created two pilots for Nickelodeon that never got created in the end. I was expanding in different ways, getting bigger within the toy world and participating in exhibitions. At the time, I was gradually giving up the editorial work, so it was an easier transition.” 

Excerpt from the interview “Pink, Fluffy and Hauntingly Creepy: A Chat with Artist Gary Baseman” by High on Design, October 28, 2018

So, when his friends Mark Ryden and R. Kenton Nelson introduced him to the Mendenhall Gallery, the opportunity to have an exhibition at an established art gallery was just Dumb Luck. On July 31, 1999 Dumb Luck and Other Paintings about Lack of Control opened at the Mendenhall Gallery in Pasadena.

“When opportunities open up, you have to take them or you try your best,” Gary Baseman has said when asked about the transition from commercial to fine art.


Baseman rejects the labels often imposed by art critics or art historians. As an artist, he hopes to be defined simply on his own terms.

“Pervasive art knocks down the walls of all the different media; it’s my own definition. As long as you stay true to your aesthetic, and you have a strong message, you can put your art on anything. So you can mix fashion, or put your art on skateboards, or TV, or video, or in an installation, or a gallery. The strength of the work is based on the concept, the idea, and the aesthetic, and not necessarily where it is placed or how it is used. I used that term because I find it as the most appropriate definition of my work. When people tried to call my work lowbrow, or pop surrealism, to me, it was a bastardization of a term, of people trying to create an art movement based on content. To me, the content wasn’t as interesting. I mean, yes, my art looks kind of cartoony but you have to look deeper, beyond the surface. A lot of my references are pop culture references. I come from being a kid growing up on TV – old Warner Bros. cartoons, Fleischer brothers, old Disney was what I thought was the perfect way of drawing, rather than just traditional life drawing.  At first it looks very playful, it looks innocent, and sweet, and the colors are bright pinks and purples, and it tastes good. Then you look deeper, and it’s nutritious.”

Excerpt from the interview “Exclusive: Inside the Studio with Pervasive Artist Gary Baseman” by Tanja M. Laden May 1, 2009. 


Baseman’s parents fled Nazi persecution in Eastern Europe and made Los Angeles their home after spending several years in Canada. His father was an electrician and his mother worked in the bakery at Canter’s Deli.

“My parents came from small shtetls [a small Jewish town or village in eastern Europe] in what is now Ukraine, but was Eastern Poland when they lived there. I always knew they had survived the Holocaust, but it wasn’t until late in their lives that I heard more of their stories of how they grew up and survived the war. They didn’t want to burden their children with their dark past. They wanted to focus on raising their four kids to live the American Dream. When my parents passed in 2010 and 2012, I became the family historian. I had already started recording my dad’s stories before he died, and was grateful that he was able to open up, and he became more of a hero in my mind. He was always just “dad, the electrician,” the nice guy. People would always tell me how he was special, but I didn’t understand why. My father escaped his hometown when the Nazis invaded, and ended up in the birch forest where he met Russian paratroopers. He joined them and fought as a partisan for three years. Both my parents lost much of their family when mass murders took place in their small towns. My parents told me it was impossible and to never go back to their hometowns, but after my father passed away, I felt a need to go back to see where my family has lived for generations, to see these areas where lively Jewish communities once thrived

Excerpts from the interview “Bittersweet Beauty. LA-based artist Gary Baseman comes to Tauranga.” New Zealand Herald, March 20, 2019. 


Baseman’s uncanny ability to tap into different mediums has allowed him to communicate with new and young audiences that follow the almost diaristic records of his artistic practice. A virtual entourage not only feels drawn to Blackie the Cat, Baseman’s long-time companion and collaborator, but also follows the artist on his travels and many adventures.

“A lot has changed since the pre-Internet days. If I think back to the time I was being hired as an illustrator, the people that hired me didn’t know anything about me or what I looked like – they just loved the work I was doing, my voice and the way I solved problems. It’s not like today that you can look at someone’s Instagram and see how many followers they have and decide whether or not you want to hire them. Now, I have people stopping me on the beach and saying “you don’t know me, but I follow you on Instagram.” Also, people can now see me having conversations with my cat on Instagram. Before that, I possibly wouldn’t even share photos from my sketchbooks – my portfolio would just consist of the final, published pieces. I feel that now, if you have a unique voice and share your work on social media, you won’t necessarily benefit from it. People respond to things that are more derivative. You could have spent days working on a beautiful piece of art, but will get more likes posting a selfie, a drawing of a Hello Kitty or anything else that relates to pop culture. When you manage to post something catchy, you seem to have a three hour cycle in the social media world.”

“Instagram is an outlet for me to explore and share stories. Social media can be a time suck in many ways, I feel it takes away from concentration on other  art projects, which is why I need to use it as a tool for experimenting with my ideas and stories. I’m more on the creation end than the consumption end, but follow some thinkers and artists and friends.”

Excerpts from the interviews:

“Pink, Fluffy and Hauntingly Creepy: A Chat with Artist Gary Baseman” by High on Design, October 28, 2018

“Bittersweet Beauty. LA-based artist Gary Baseman comes to Tauranga.” New Zealand Herald, March 20, 2019.