American Collagist, Painter and Photographer
Born: June 17, 1931 - National City, California
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Most Important Art
Influences and Connections
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"I guess a lot of it's just lashing out, because I didn't know how to be an artist, and all this time spent alone in the dark in these studios and importing my culture and constant questions. I'd say, 'Well, why is this art? Why isn't that art?'"
John Baldessari is renowned as a leading Californian Conceptual artist. Painting was important to his early work: when he emerged, in the early 1960s, he was working in a gestural style. But by the end of the decade he had begun to introduce text and pre-existing images, often doing so to create riddles that highlighted some of the unspoken assumptions of contemporary painting - as he once said, "I think when I'm doing art, I'm questioning how to do it." And in the 1970s he abandoned painting altogether and made in a diverse range of media, though his interests generally centered on the photographic image. Conceptual art has shaped his interest in exploring how photographic images communicate, yet his work has little of the austerity usually associated with that style; instead he works with light humor, and with materials and motifs that also reflect the influence of Pop art. Baldessari has also been a famously influential teacher. His ideas, and his relaxed and innovative approach to teaching, have made an important impact on many, most notably the so-called Pictures Generation, whose blend of Pop and Conceptual art was prominent in the 1980s.
Most Important Art
More Art Works
I Am Making Art (1971)
In this video piece, Baldessari makes several arm movements, reciting the phrase, "I am making art," after each gesture. Baldessari has always been conscious of the power of choice in artistic practice - like choosing to paint something red rather than blue, for example. Here, he carefully associates the choice of arm movements with the artistic choices that a painter or sculptor may make, concluding that choice is a form of art in itself. But he also confronts one of the fascinating problems that unpinned the work of many early Conceptual artists: how much can art be reduced and simplified before it stops being art at all? Baldessari offers no definitive answer, but he suggests that the gap between art and the ordinary, between art and life, may be imperceptible.
Performance video. © John Baldessari
Born in 1931 in National City, California, John Baldessari grew up in relative isolation during the Great Depression. His mother, a Lutheran of Danish descent, was a nurse, and his father was a Catholic from the Dolomites in what is now Italy. His father's entrepreneurial attitude to supporting his family likely had a profound impact on Baldessari's decision to become an artist. His father worked in various trades, from crop-picking to building, and he would recycle and reuse everything from old faucets to cigarettes, cultivating and repurposing as many objects as he could to make money. From a young age, Baldessari would assemble and dismantle his father's materials, questioning why one object was chosen over another.
In 1949, Baldessari entered San Diego State College, where he studied art education at the encouragement of his sister. Following this, he decided to turn his attention to art history, so he went to study at the University of California, Berkley. Baldessari developed an interest for more contemporary art, as opposed to the heavily weighted Renaissance coursework offered at Berkeley. He ultimately chose to return to San Diego State College where he obtained an MA in painting in 1957.
After an instructor at San Diego had taken ill, Baldessari was encouraged to serve as a replacement for one term. He proved to be an excellent mentor and went on to teach high school classes in life drawing and lettering. Here, he worked in relative isolation from the Los Angeles art scene, experimenting with new concepts and approaches without the fear of rejection. As evident in Art Lesson (1964), his early painted works often satirized traditional rules featured in art instruction manuals, such as how to create a proper composition and perfect perspective. In 1970, Baldessari incinerated all of his paintings prior to 1966 for a new piece titled 'The Cremation Project', where he baked the ashes into cookies and placed them in an urn. This conceptual work relates to the continuous cycle of life, everything is created, destroyed, and renewed.
Baldessari's approach was radical, mocking the absurdity of art making, and this encouraged him to abandon the hand-painted quality of his paintings and adopt elements of found text and photography. He exploited appropriated text and photographs from newspapers and magazines in his work, believing that people are able to relate to words and images that are familiar. His first breakthrough works featured only text, as exemplified in Tips For Artists Who Want To Sell (1966-1968), where he sardonically explains the "necessary" formal elements for a painting to sell.
Baldessari often employed local sign painters to complete the lettering, pointing them to remove the handcrafted quality entirely. In 1970 he took the concept of 'pointing' to a new level with his Commissioned Paintings series. In this he commissioned amateur artists to complete the painting, adding the caption "A painting by..." to each work. This body of work questioned the notion of artistic authorship, a highly criticized topic concerning conceptual art. During this time, Baldessari created several video pieces, such as I Am Making Art (1971) and Baldessari Sings LeWitt (1972), where he makes humorous commentary on the decisions of the creative process as seen in contemporary conceptual art.
In the 1970s, Baldessari took a more 'artless' approach to image making by appropriating stills from B-movies to create synthesized photomontages. The photographs were cheap and easy to acquire, allowing him to systematically juxtapose various images to create a new narrative context. Influenced by early Hollywood cinema, the work suggested movement, similar to a storyboard grid, allowing him to document actions rather than monumentalizing his subject matter.
As seen in Frames and Ribbon (1988), he incorporated stickers to conceal individual faces, thus veiling emotional content and drawing attention to minor details and the negative space between frames. The pricing stickers serve as a minimalist painting technique, creating a new depth within a flat field of color, breaking up the realistic black and white photo content.
Baldessari continued to examine parts of the body through the series Noses and Ears (2006-2007) and Arms and Legs (2007-2008). Both series expose isolated features on a minimal field of color, allowing the viewer to interpret the work through sensual precepts. Baldessari viewed his own features as separate entities, rather than belonging to a whole face or body.
Working in nearly every artistic media, including painting, collage, printmaking, performance art, and video, Baldessari exhibits his work around the world, including his first major U.S. retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in October 2010. Today, he continues to live and work in Santa Monica, California.
John Baldessari has been an important influence on a generation of younger artists whose interests combine Conceptual art and Pop. He has also demonstrated how humor can be combined with more serious investigations into language and photography. He has inspired artists such as Richard Prince, Mike Kelley and David Salle to push artistic boundaries while teaching at CalArts (1970-1988) and the University of California at Los Angeles (1996-2007).
Influences and Connections
Artists, Friends, Movements
Artists, Friends, Movements
Original content written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Useful Resources on John Baldessari
| John Baldessari: Pure Beauty |
By Jessica Morgan, Leslie Jones
| John Baldessari: A Catalogue Raisonne of Prints and Multiples 1971-2007 |
By Sharon Coplan Hurowitz, Wendy Weitman
| John Baldessari: A Print Retrospective from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and his Family Foundation |
By Hunter Drohojowska-Philip, John Baldessari
| John Baldessari: National City |
By Hugh Davies, Anne Rorimer, John Baldessari
| Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology |
By Alexander Alberro, Blake Stimson
| Tweaking Tradition, Even in Its Temple - Roberta Smith |
October 21, 2010
| No More Boring Art - Calvin Tomkins |
The New Yorker
| John Baldessari: Point Man - Doug Harvey |
| In Conversation: John Baldessari & Jeremy Blake - Tim Griffin |
| The Uncertainty Principle. Communication and ambiguity in the work of John Baldessari || John Baldessari in his Own Words |
| Oral History Interview with John Baldessari |