Written by Jori Finkel
John Baldessari, the influential conceptual artist who helped transform Los Angeles into a global art capital through his witty image-making and decades of teaching there, died on Thursday at his home in the Venice neighbourhood of Los Angeles. He was 88.
His death was confirmed on Sunday by Virginia Gatelein, his studio manager and the chairwoman of his foundation. No cause was given.
Baldessari started as a semiabstract painter in the 1950s but grew so disenchanted with his own handiwork — as well as the very notion of handiwork — that in 1970 he decided to take his paintings to a San Diego funeral home and cremate them. He was ready to embrace a wide range of mediums: videos, photography, prints, sculpture, text-based art, installations and, yes, paintings, but most of all hybrid forms of these, like text painting.
While so much early conceptual art tended toward the cold and cerebral, Baldessari’s was infused with a droll sense of humour. He employed a sort of dada irony and sometimes colourful pop art splashes — blue was his favourite colour — to rescue conceptual art from what he saw as its high-minded self-seriousness.
At the same time, 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.
A small sampling of his former students reads like a who’s who of contemporary artists: 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.
With the possible exception of Ed Ruscha, who also works at the intersection of photography, painting and text, no artist in Los Angeles had done as much to foster the city’s contemporary art scene as Baldessari.
John Anthony Baldessari was born on June 17, 1931, in National City, California, a town between San Diego and the border city of Tijuana, Mexico, to immigrant parents, Antonio and Hedvig (Jensen) Baldessari. (They 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 practised composting waste. Baldessari often cited his childhood 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,” he said in an interview in 2008. “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 before joining the faculty of University of California, San Diego. 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 — an imposing 6 foot 7 inches.
His artwork at the time, which he was just beginning to show in Los Angeles galleries, was moving in a more philosophical direction. 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 their faith in visual representations, the printed word or both. Taken from Goya, the caption also served as a witty comeback to Stella’s minimalist credo: “What you see is what you see.”
Baldessari’s cremation of his traditional paintings, in 1970, was an unmistakably Duchampian, anti-art gesture that he later sounded slightly embarrassed by.
“It was a very public and symbolic act,” he said, “like announcing you’re going on a diet in order to stick to it.”
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 groundbreaking 1970 survey of conceptual art, “Information.”
That summer, he moved from San Diego to Santa Monica, California, and began teaching a course at CalArts, called “post-studio,” that was not tied to any traditional genre, like painting or drawing. At CalArts Baldessari started making videos, using one of a couple dozen Sony Portapak analog recording systems owned by the institute. Most were short comic sketches, and several used the tools or trappings of the classroom.
One, perhaps his most well-known, shows 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.
A popular 1972 vignette, “Teaching a Plant the Alphabet,” has him patiently intoning letters and holding up large flashcards in front of a potted plant. The plant does not stir. (“When I think I’m teaching, I’m probably not,” Baldessari once observed dryly. “When I don’t think I’m teaching, I probably am.”)
Baldessari turned to photo-collages in the 1980s, working mainly with news photographs and Hollywood movie stills that he bought for 10 cents apiece from a movie bookstore in Burbank. A particularly fruitful line of inquiry opened up one day in 1985 when he started playing around with the kind of round white stickers used for price tags. He stuck them on photographs on top of the faces of public figures he disliked.
This soon evolved into a signature technique — painting white, black or coloured dots over faces in photographs as a way to get us to look beyond the obvious. Baldessari often said that one of his favourite compliments came from Nam June Paik, who also taught at CalArts: “What I like most about your work is what you leave out.”
Distilling his view of art, Baldessari’s 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.”
He also tried to empower the viewer.
“The assumption in a lot of my work is that people want to make something out of nothing,” he said. “Remember the old days when you had snow on TV, and people would try to see something in it? I miss that.”
He liked to tell his students, “Don’t look at things — look in between things.”
That approach can be seen in his long-running “body parts” series, which featured simple, often silhouetted images on paintings or prints of disembodied hands, ears, eyebrows and the like. With a nod to Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 short story “The Nose” — in which a Russian bureaucrat wakes up to find that his nose has seditiously left his face — Baldessari made much of independent-minded noses. He called one sculpture, featuring a nose set against a cloudy sky, “God Nose.” He hung it in the entrance to his studio.
More recently, he turned to old masters paintings 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. Baldessari called the show “1+1=1,” underscoring the fact that his image-plus-text equations never quite compute. Hans Ulrich-Obrist, who co-organized the Moscow show at the gallery Garage, called him “a serial inventor.”
By then, Baldessari’s reputation had grown to the point where every year or so brought another museum exhibition or honour. He received a lifetime achievement award from the Americans for the Arts in 2005, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2008, 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.
Reviewing the show for The Los Angeles Times, Christopher Knight wrote that Baldessari had “helped pry open an unexpectedly vast territory now comfortably occupied by countless artists internationally,” calling him “arguably America’s most influential Conceptual artist.”
Writing in The New York Times, Roberta Smith described his legacy as particularly broad. The show, she wrote, “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’s early work was revisited by Pacific Standard Time, an $11 million Getty Museum-funded initiative consisting of dozens of museum exhibitions from 2011 to 2012 that explored the rise of contemporary art in California. He was included in 11 of the museum shows, more than any other artist.
He is survived by his daughter, Anna Marie; his son, Tony, and his sister, Betty Sokol.
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.”
In 2006, for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, Baldessari curated a show of works drawn from its permanent collection. Later that year he designed a René Magritte-inspired survey at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, putting images of clouds on the carpeting and images of Los Angeles freeways on the ceilings to disorient visitors in classic surrealist fashion.
By that point, more people than ever before got the joke.
“All those things that initially seemed so light compared to, say, the deadly serious milieu of abstract expressionism — like John’s irony, humour and topicality — those things emerged as major themes in art,” said Michael Govan, the museum’s director. “So it’s not just that John taught so many students who went on to become major players. It’s that art turned and walked through this door he opened.”