January 6, 2020

John Baldessari (1931–2020)

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA—John Baldessari, the Pop Conceptualist and educator who inspired a legion of American artists for his contrarian merging of high and low, word and image, died on January 2 at age eighty-eight. He is survived by his sister, Betty; daughter, Annamarie; and son, Tony. The California-based artist—who worked in sculpture, photomontage, film, video, painting, and printmaking—was central in shaping the Los Angeles culture scene through his art and decades of pedagogy. Known for a pioneering, arch use of appropriated imagery and text in his art-about-art—which often addressed heady themes such as systems, the flow of information, and the construction and circulation of meaning through media with a sensibility he once described as a “serious unseriousness”—Baldessari’s work has served as the subject of over two hundred solo exhibitions worldwide and resides in the collections of numerous museums including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Born in 1931 in National City, California, to immigrant parents, Baldessari majored in art education at San Diego State College, where he earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees. He began his art career in the 1950s, painting in an Abstract Expressionist style he would eventually renounce following his turn, throughout the late ’60s, toward idea-driven art. In 1968, he launched a salvo against the dominance of visuality in modernist aesthetics by reproducing in black-and-white Artforum’s November 1966 cover featuring a canvas by Frank Stella; Baldessari hired a sign painter to append a caption reading, “This is not to be looked at”— a mordant riposte to Stella’s adage “What you see is what you see.” Two years later, Baldessari gathered as many of his paintings as he could and incinerated them for a work titled The Cremation Project. Some of the remains were baked into cookies and displayed as part of “Information” (1970), a watershed survey of Conceptual Art at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

The next decade saw Baldessari embrace a more multimedia approach to his art, which continued to be marked by a wit uncharacteristic of the more academic, New York–bred Conceptualism—an insouciance for which Baldessari was at first dismissed. In partial response, the artist instructed his pupils to write “I will not make any more boring art” on the gallery walls of a now-legendary 1971 exhibition at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design. A 1973 artists’ book, titled Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts), tried simply, or not, to capture the eponymous goal. “The breakdown of systems is as interesting as their creation,” the critic James Collins wrote of the work in this magazine’s October 1973 issue. “Baldessari’s pluralism,” he added, is “part of a general reaction against the elitist and increasingly overweight support structure of much Conceptual and contemporary art, the dialogue itself bloated and divorced from the art and increasingly forced into a narrowing formal and ideological straitjacket. If works of art are a hypothesis about what art can be, Baldessari has shown that objects don’t have to be without reference, tedious, or difficult to be important—and interesting.”

A prolific teacher, Baldessari moved from Santa Monica to Los Angeles in 1970 to found his famous “post-studio” program at CalArts, where he cultivated a collaborative model of artmaking that rejected the studio as a site of production in favor for a broader social framework. First classes were attended by David Salle, Barbara Bloom, Mike Kelley, and Matt Mullican, and the course would later influence artists of the Pictures Generation in New York. He would continue to teach at CalArts until 1988, and then at the University of California, Los Angeles, from 1996 to 2005. “I decided to make teaching as much like art as I could,” he told Christopher Knight in a 1992 interview. “My art would be an example or a metaphor for the things I was dealing with in class.”

Baldessari began working more with film in the 1980s, and began a signature technique of placing colorful dots over the faces of characters from Hollywood movies. These effacing marks, the artist and critic John Miller has noted in this magazine, serve as distancing devices; each one “obliterates the salient focal point, ironically leaving the chore of expressivity to the ‘framing’ material that formerly buttressed it.” In his later work, Baldessari expanded his career-long conversation with art history, appropriating canonical works by old and modern masters, from Giotto and Lucas Cranach the Elder to Francis Picabia and Piet Mondrian. His recent production encompassed paintings, apps, sculptures, and videos, as well as his design of a blockbuster LACMA survey in 2006 that grappled with the legacy of Surrealist René Magritte, whose skeptical juxtaposition of image and text profoundly inspired his irreverent approach to representation. “One of the things that compels me is I can’t prioritize a word over an image,” Baldessari told Jeremy Blake in a conversation for Artforum’s March 2004 issue, “. . . I think it’s that struggle that animates a lot of what I do.”

Between 2009 and 2011, a retrospective devoted to Baldessari titled “Pure Beauty” traveled from the Tate Modern in London to LACMA, then MoMA. His work has also appeared in significant international exhibitions including the Whitney Biennial in New York and documenta in Kassel, Germany. In 2011 and 2012, Baldessari was featured prominently in Pacific Standard Time, a multi-venue curatorial initiative led by the Getty Museum that explored the history of contemporary art in Southern California. He received a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Fifty-Third Venice Biennale in 2009, and, five years later, was awarded a National Medal of Arts by former President Barack Obama.

“I always think about the movie title When Worlds Collide; I’m trying to make a new world,” Baldessari told Blake. “It’s a lifelong venture of trying to put a square peg in a round hole, of trying somehow to make a hybrid out of painting and photography. I rub two sticks together to make fire.”

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