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John Baldessari

The godfather of conceptual art

What the artist does is jump-start your mind and make you see something fresh, as if you were a visitor to the moon. An artist breathes life back into stereotypes.

John Baldessari was a towering figure in conceptual art (literally, he was 6ft 7in to be precise). He was an American Conceptual artist known for his pioneering use of appropriated imagery. He is commonly associated with Conceptual or Minimalist art, though he has called this characterization “a little bit boring.”  By blending photography, painting, and text, Baldessari’s work examines the nature of artistic media while offering commentary on contemporary culture.

I’ve often thought of myself as a frustrated writer,” he explained. “I consider a word and an image of equal weight, and a lot of my work comes out of that kind of thinking.

In a 2012 video which purports to be a “brief history” of the artist, narrated by Tom Waits, Baldessari is lauded as the “godfather of conceptual art”, the “master of appropriation” and “a surrealist for the digital age”.

John Anthony Baldessari was born on June 17, 1931, in National City, Calif., a town between San Diego and the border city of Tijuana, Mexico, to immigrant parents, Antonio and Hedvig (Jensen) Baldessari. His parents had met after arriving in the United States, he from Austria and she from Denmark. His father was a salvage dealer, and the family grew its own fruits and vegetables, raised chickens and rabbits, and practiced composting waste. Baldessari often cited his childhood experiences as a reason he had a hard time throwing anything away.

It’s hard for me to throw anything away without thinking about how it can become part of some work I’m doing. I just stare at something and say: Why isn’t that art? Why couldn’t that be art?

Baldessari majored in art education at San Diego State College and earned a master’s degree in art there. In short order he took jobs teaching art in junior high school, community college and in an extension program. He spent one summer teaching teenagers at a camp for juvenile delinquents run by the California Youth Authority; he would joke that he had been hired only because of his size.

In 1966, Baldessari started on a set of text paintings, which in a neatly painted script lifted short phrases from tomes of art theory. “A Two-Dimensional Surface Without Any Articulation Is a Dead Experience” reads one. “Pure Beauty” another. The works rebuke the modernist trends and rejected abstract expressionism and the idea of the artist-as-lone-genius.

In 1968, already distancing himself from painting, he reproduced a cover for Artforum magazine featuring a Frank Stella canvas, hiring a sign painter to add a caption below it: “This is not to be looked at.” It was an early Magritte-like experiment in pitting words against images, challenging viewers to question visual representations, the printed word or both. Taken from Goya, the caption also served as a witty comeback to Mr. Stella’s minimalist credo: “What you see is what you see.”

Eventually, John Baldessari grew so disenchanted with some of his earlier work that in 1970 he roped in a group of friends to help him gather all his canvases from May 1953, the month of his college graduation, to March 1966, and cut them up. Then, the remnants packed together and loaded into the back of Baldessari’s Ford Econoline van, he drove to a local crematorium and had them incinerated.

The ashes filled 10 boxes, nine capable of holding an adult, the other infant-size. He folded some of the ashes into cookie dough and displayed the baked goods at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of its ground-breaking 1970 survey of conceptual art, “Information.”

This move proved to be something of a rebirth and he decided to embrace a wide range of media: videos, photography, prints, sculpture, text-based art, installations and paintings, but most of all hybrid forms. While his work showed a theoretical interest in modes of communication, modern media studies and the relationship between text and image, it was never that serious in tone. All of his pieces were infused with a droll sense of humor. He employed a sort of Dada irony to ‘rescue’ conceptual art from what he saw as its self-seriousness.

What if you just give people what they want? People read magazines, and look at photographs, not at Jackson Pollocks..

he said in a 2010 interview, commenting on his series ‘Commissioned Paintings’, for which Baldessari employed 12 amateur artists to make his work for him.

Baldessari helped build the Los Angeles art scene through his teaching, most notably at the California Institute of the Arts from 1970 to 1988 and at the University of California, Los Angeles, from 1996 to 2005. At CalArts he taught a course called “post-studio,” that was not tied to any traditional genre, like painting or drawing. There, he started making videos.

One video, perhaps his most well-known, shows Mr. Baldessari’s handwriting on a ruled notebook the same sentence — “I will not make any more boring art” — again and again, as if by way of punishment.

In the 1980s Baldessari turned to photo-collages, working mainly with news photographs and Hollywood movie stills that he bought for 10 cents apiece from a movie bookstore in Burbank. One day in 1985, he started playing around with the kind of round white stickers used for price tags. He stuck them onto photographs on top of the faces of public figures he disliked. This soon evolved into a signature technique — painting white, black or colored dots over faces in photographs as a way to get us to look beyond the obvious.

He said:

The assumption in a lot of my work is that people want to make something out of nothing. Remember the old days when you had snow on TV, and people would try to see something in it? I miss that.

He also turned to the old masters for his source material, borrowing details from works at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt for one series and Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescoes for another. A related group of works, shown in Moscow in 2013, paired images from Manet, Courbet, Andy Warhol and David Hockney with an artist’s name, song title or film noir title. Mr. Baldessari called the show “1+1=1,” underscoring the fact that his image-plus-text equations never quite compute.

At this point Baldessari had achieved worldwide recognition for his work. It had been shown in more than 200 solo exhibitions and over a 1000 group shows, he had received a lifetime achievement award from the Americans for the Arts in 2005, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2008, he received a Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement from the Venice Biennale in 2009, and was awarded the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in 2014.

From 2009 to 2011, a five-decade retrospective of his work, “Pure Beauty,” travelled from the Tate Modern in London to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and then to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 

His late-life celebrity brought with it a range of invitations. He participated in book readings, collaborated in fashion shoots and sat for photographs by Catherine Opie and a portrait by David Hockney. In 2018 he even made a guest appearance on “The Simpsons.”

This year, Baldedsari passed away at the age of 88. He leaves a vast artistic legacy, most notably in the form of his teaching. Many of his students would go on to be some of the most recognized names in contemporary art: David Salle, Tony Oursler, Matt Mullican, Jack Goldstein, Jim Shaw, Mike Kelley, James Welling, Meg Cranston, Liz Larner, Mungo Thomson, Kerry Tribe, Elliott Hundley and Analia Saban. Both Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger have both cited him an important influence on their work.

Baldessari was one of a handful of visionaries who dragged art out of the self-congratulatory mid-20th century academy, challenging his peers to make work that held its own in a real world – already saturated with images.

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