John Baldessari, Influential Conceptual Artist, Dies at 88


John Baldessari, who was an influential conceptual artist, died on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020, at his home in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles. He was 88 years old.

Baldessari helped to transform Los Angeles into a “global art capital.” He used witty images and taught for decades in Los Angeles.

His death was not confirmed until Sunday, Jan. 5, by Virginia Gatelein, who is Baldessari’s studio manager and the chairperson of his foundation. She did not say the cause of his death.

In the 1950s, Baldessari began as a semiabstract painter. By the 1970s he became so disenchanted by his artwork that he took them to a funeral home in San Diego and had them cremated. From there, he embraced a wide range of mediums: photography, videos, sculpture, prints, installations, text-based art, and paintings. His favorite medium became hybrid forms of paintings such as text painting.

At the time, most conceptual art was cold and cerebral, however, Baldessari had a droll sense of humor, according to The New York Times, he used a sort of “Dada irony and sometimes colorful Pop Art splashes – blue was his favorite color – to rescue conceptual art from what he saw as its high-minded self-seriousness.”

While he was transforming conceptual art through his work, he was also teaching. He helped to build the Los Angeles art scene through teaching. He is well known for his teaching at the California Institute of the Arts. He taught there from 1970 to 1988 and at the University of California, Los Angeles, from 1996 to 2005.

A sampling of his former students reads like a who’s who of contemporary artists: Tony Oursler, David Salle, Matt Mullican, Jim Shaw, Jack Goldstein, James Welling, Liz Larner, Meg Cranston, Kerry Tribe, Mungo Thomson, Analia Saban, and Elliott Hundley are just a few of the contemporary artists Baldessari taught as they blossomed.

No artist, except Ed Ruscha, who also works with a variety of mediums, had done as much to foster the city’s contemporary art scene.

John Anthony Baldessari was born on June 17, 1931, in National City, California. He was born to immigrant parents, Antonio and Hedvig (Jensen) Baldessari. The two met after coming to the United States. Antonio was from Australia and Hedvig was from Denmark. Antonio was a salvage dealer. The family grew their own fruits and vegetables, raised chickens and rabbits, and practiced composting waste. Baldessari said that it was because of his childhood he was unable to throw anything away.

“It’s hard for me to throw anything away without thinking about how it can become a 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 made this statement in a 2008 interview.

Baldessari studied art education at San Diego State College. He earned a master’s degree in art. He took jobs in short order teaching art in junior high schools, community colleges, and in an extension program before he joined the faculty at the University of California, San Diego. One summer, he taught teenagers at a camp for juvenile delinquents run by the California Youth Authority. He joked that he was hired because of his size – he stood at 6 feet, 7 inches.

At the time, his artwork was only beginning to be shown in Los Angeles art galleries, as his artwork was moving in a more philosophical direction. In 1968, he was starting to distance himself from painting and reproduced a cover for Artforum magazine. The artwork featured a Frank Stella canvas, hiring a sign painter to add the caption: “This is not to be looked at.”

According to The New York Times, it was an “early Magritte-like experiment in pitting words against images, challenging viewers to question their faith in visual representations, the printed word or both.” The caption, taken from Goya, additionally served as a witty comeback to Stella’s minimalist credo: “What you see is what you see.”

In 1970, when Baldessari cremated his paintings, it was “unmistakably a Duchampian, anti-art gesture.” However, it seemed that later he was embarrassed by his actions.

“It was a very public and symbolic act, like announcing you’re going on a diet in order to stick to it.”

The paintings’ ashes filled 10 boxes, nine of them were capable of holding an adult, the other was infant-size. Baldessari 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 his groundbreaking 1970 survey of conceptual art, “Information.”

During that same summer, Baldessari moved to Santa Monica, California and taught a course at CalArts, called “post-studio.” The class was not tied to any traditional genre like painting or drawing. While he was at CalArts, the artist began to create videos using a Sony Portapak analog recording system owned by the school. Most of the videos were short comic sketches, and several used the tools or trappings of the classroom.

Perhaps his most well-known video shows “Baldessari’s handwriting on a ruled notebook the same sentence – ‘I will not make any more boring art’ – again and again.” It was as if he were being punished.

“Teaching a Plant the Alphabet” was a popular 1972 vignette. In the video, Baldessari is “patiently intoning letters and holding up large flashcards in front of a potted plant.” The plant does not move.

In the ‘80s, the Baldessari started creating photo-collages. He worked with news photographs and Hollywood movie stills he bought for 10 cents each from a bookstore in Burbank. One day, in 1985, he began to play with round white stickers used as price tags. He put them on photographs, over the faces of the public figures he did not like.

Soon, this became a signature technique – painting white, black or colored dots over faces in photos to help viewers look beyond the obvious, Baldessari has stated that one of his favorite compliments came from Nam June Paik, who also taught at CalArts, “What I like most about your work is what you leave out.”

Baldessari said, “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.”

Additionally, Baldessari attempted to empower the viewer.

“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 would tell his students, “Don’t look at things – look in between things.”

That approach is seen in his “body parts” series. The artwork featured simple, mostly silhouetted images on paintings or prints of disembodied hands, ears, eyebrow, and so on. The series was a nod to Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 short story, “The Nose.” In the story, a Russian bureaucrat wakes up and discovers that his nose has left his face – Baldessari made much of independent-minded noses. He sculpted, “God Nose,” which featured a nose set against a cloudy sky. It was hung in the entrance of his studio.

In recent years, Baldessari turned to old masters paintings for source material. He borrowed details from art at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt for a series and Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescoes for another piece. In 2013, a related group of art, shown in Moscow, paired images from Manet, Courbet, Andy Warhol, and David Hockney. It included an artist’s name, song title or film noir title. He called the show, “1+1=1,” this underscored the fact that his image-plus-text equations never really compute. Hans Ulrich-Obrist, who put together the Moscow show at the gallery Garage, called Baldessari “a serial inventor.”

By this time, Baldessari’s reputation had grown to the point he was doing a museum exhibition annually or receiving some sort of honor. He 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 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in 2014.

Christopher Knight reviewed the show for The Los Angeles Times and wrote: “Baldessari helped pry open an unexpectedly vast territory now comfortably occupied by countless artists internationally.” Knight called him “arguably America’s most influential Conceptual artist.”

Roberta Smith, for The New York Times, described Baldessari’s legacy as broad. She wrote about the show, it “reveals his career as a vital, unbroken through-line from Pop to 1970s Conceptual Art to 1980s appropriation art, a movement that is unthinkable without his unusually direct influence.”

Baldessari is survived by his daughter Annamarie, his son Tony, and his sister Betty Sokol.

By Jeanette Vietti


The New York Times: John Baldessari, Who Gave Conceptual Art a Dose of Humor, Is Dead at 88
CNN International: John Baldessari, one of America’s most influential conceptual artists, has died
ARTnews: John Baldessari, Fearless Conceptual Artist Who Put Bid Ideas Before Pretty Pictures, Is Dead at 88

Featured Image Courtesy of KCET Departures’ Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Top Image Courtesy of libby rosof’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

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