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John Baldessari Photo

John Baldessari

American Collagist, Painter and Photographer

Movements and Styles: Conceptual Art, The Pictures Generation

Born: June 17, 1931 - National City, California

John Baldessari Timeline

Important Art by John Baldessari

The below artworks are the most important by John Baldessari - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Tips For Artists Who Want To Sell (1966 - 1968)

Tips For Artists Who Want To Sell (1966 - 1968)

Artwork description & Analysis: While teaching at a night school in the University of California, Baldessari came upon a sheet left in a classroom that dispensed advice to artists. It led to a number of works, of which Tips For Artists Who Want To Sell is an important example. Tips is one of his breakthrough works: it abandons familiar imagery, adopts language as its vehicle, and slyly suggests that behind some supposedly great art may be merely a series of cynical ploys. In 1970, Baldessari burned many of his early paintings as part of a work titled Cremation Project, but he saved works such as these, done after 1966, in which he offered satirical checklists of what to include in a painting if it is to sell. A clear stab at the art market, he uses humor to poke fun at the absurdity of traditional art and "how-to" art instruction manuals. Its comedy also derives from the contrast of his simple advice with the grandeur of the Abstract Expressionist painting that had recently dominated the American art market.

Acrylic on canvas. © John Baldessari - The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica

Commissioned Painting: A Painting by George Walker (1969)

Commissioned Painting: A Painting by George Walker (1969)

Artwork description & Analysis: The hard-edge painter Al Held is reported to have said that "Conceptual art is just pointing at things." Taking this accusation literally, Baldessari decided to create a series of Commissioned Painting, hiring sign painters to paint photorealistic images of a hand pointing to an object. The act of pointing demands the viewer's attention to be directed to a specific area, but the genius of the piece lies in the questions it leaves us with: why should we look here, and not elsewhere? Do images always direct us to one, and only one message? Although this painting includes the caption "A Painting By George Walker," we also understand that the idea was Baldessari's, hence we are led to questioning the nature of artistic authorship. He has said of this series, "The point was to organize these [sign painters] in a different context and provide them with an unhackneyed subject that would attract the attention of a viewer interested in modern art." He has said that working on the project felt like being a choreographer.

Oil and acrylic on canvas. © John Baldessari - Marian Goodman Gallery

I Am Making Art (1971)

I Am Making Art (1971)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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

Frames and Ribbon (1988)

Frames and Ribbon (1988)

Artwork description & Analysis: In the piece Frames and Ribbons, Baldessari incorporates flat, geometric shapes of color to change the meaning of appropriated images. The imagery focuses on a work place achievement, such as an opening ceremony or the successful completion of a project. Baldessari believed that such celebrations were arbitrary, so he blocked out the facial expressions of the figures, as well as much of the other detail that would particularize the events, and mocked its absurdity, its character as banal ritual. The circles over the characters faces may throw our attention on to the event, but what we come to realize as a result is that this event is like so many others. The photograph that commemorates the event is also a social ritual, and a ritual that is designed to deliver up only certain sorts of messages. Although the picture has these insights at its heart, it also has a strange, sad absurdity that is reminiscent of Rene Magritte's pictures of faceless, bowler-hatted figures. Ultimately, both artist's pictures emerge from reflections on public interaction in the modern world, a world in which individuality is submerged in the interests of the group.

Black-and-white photographs and vinyl paint. © John Baldessari

Prima Facie (Second State): Exhilarated (2005)

Prima Facie (Second State): Exhilarated (2005)

Artwork description & Analysis: The series Prima Facie, from the Latin 'at first sight', places a photographic portrait alongside a phrase. At first glance, the phrase appears to explain the emotional content of the image, but the appearance of emotion may conflict with reality. While the photograph may suggest several different emotions, the association of 'EXHILARATED' changes the way the viewer perceives the image. The relationship between image and language examines the complexities between the two forms of expression.

Oil on canvas. © John Baldessari

Noses and Ears, Etc.: The Gemini Series: Profile with Ear and Nose (Colour) (2006)

Noses and Ears, Etc.: The Gemini Series: Profile with Ear and Nose (Colour) (2006)

Artwork description & Analysis: In this piece Baldessari exposes an isolated nose and ear on a facial profile in silhouette. He views anatomical elements as singular organs, rather than organs that relate to the whole of a face or body. Context has been omitted, leaving only two sensory organs in black and blue space, and leaving the viewer to invent their own narrative to explain them. Perhaps we are prompted to associate an emotion with a color, or to think that the organs suggest facets of the figure's character. Either way, we are led to realize how many of our own assumptions we bring to the reading of images. It is an important insight that has implications for the way we look at all kinds of images. It reminds us of how we respond to cues in advertising, and of how all manner of connotations hover uncertainly around certain motifs. It also leads us to ask what great art consists of: is it a matter of vision and inspiration, or simply the skillful manipulation of codes.

Screen print on paper mounted on Sintra with hand painting. © John Baldessari - National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

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Related Art and Artists

Marcel Duchamp: Fountain (1917)
Artwork Images

Fountain (1917)

Artist: Marcel Duchamp

Artwork description & Analysis: The most notorious of the readymades, Fountain was submitted to the 1917 Society of Independent Artists under the pseudonym R. Mutt. The initial R stood for Richard, French slang for "moneybags" whereas Mutt referred to JL Mott Ironworks, the New York-based company, which manufactured the porcelain urinal. After the work had been rejected by the Society on the grounds that it was immoral, critics who championed it disputed this claim, arguing that an object was invested with new significance when selected by an artist for display. Testing the limits of what constitutes a work of art, Fountain staked new grounds. What started off as an elaborate prank designed to poke fun at American avant-garde art, proved to be one of most influential artworks of the 20th century.

Urinal - Philadelphia Museum of Art

John Cage: 4'33" (1952)
Artwork Images

4'33" (1952)

Artist: John Cage

Artwork description & Analysis: Like Theater Piece No. 1, Cage created 4'33" while at Black Mountain. However, instead of relying on a number of performers to bring it to fruition, this work depends on the environment in which it is performed and chance. The three-movement composition does not contain a single note of music. Instead, Cage wrote detailed instructions for a single musician to enter the stage, prepare the instrument - initially a piano, but other instruments have been used - and then sit in absolute silence for the full duration of the piece, 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The performer's silence allowed the sounds of the surroundings and audience members to become the music itself. This piece clearly defines Cage's interest in aleatory music, in which chance determines the outcome and any sound can be musical. This shift towards the music of silence was sparked by a 1951 visit to an anechoic chamber at Harvard. Cage expected to hear nothing within the sound-proofed room, but instead heard two sounds, one high and one low - his nervous system and his circulatory system respectively. Within that anechoic chamber, he discovered the impossibility of silence. This realization led Cage to compose 4'33" and to focus on the music created by our bodies and environments.

This piece was first performed in an outdoor amphitheatre in Woodstock, NY as part of a recital of contemporary piano compositions. Cage's revolutionary re-definition of music was received quite poorly at this first performance, with the sounds of nature overshadowed by the audience's outrage at the performer's silence. Despite the initial negative response, 4'33" was embraced by progressive artists as an important foray into the incorporation of ambient sound and durational elements within musical performance. The sheer spontaneity of 4'33" is an important precursor to Allan Kaprow's happenings, which fully matured in the late 1950s and early 1960s and also relied wholly on audience members to dictate the outcome of the art.

Performance art, with musician, instrument and audience

Roy Lichtenstein: Drowning Girl (1963)

Drowning Girl (1963)

Artist: Roy Lichtenstein

Artwork description & Analysis: In the early 1960s, Lichtenstein gained renown as a leading Pop artist for paintings sourced from comic books, specifically DC Comics. Although artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns had previously integrated popular imagery into their works, no one hitherto had focused on cartoon imagery as exclusively as Lichtenstein. His work, along with that of Andy Warhol, heralded the beginning of the Pop art movement, and, essentially, the end of Abstract Expressionism as the dominant style. Lichtenstein did not simply copy comic pages directly, he employed a complex technique that involved cropping images to create entirely new, dramatic compositions, as in Drowning Girl, whose source image included the woman's boyfriend standing on a boat above her. Lichtenstein also condensed the text of the comic book panels, locating language as another, crucial visual element; re-appropriating this emblematic aspect of commercial art for his paintings further challenged existing views about definitions of "high" art.

Oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas, © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Barbara Kruger: Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am) (1987)
Artwork Images

Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am) (1987)

Movement: The Pictures Generation

Artist: Barbara Kruger

Artwork description & Analysis: Kruger began her career in advertising - specifically, working in graphic design and layout at Conde Nast - and the juxtaposition of image and text in her work often speaks to her former training. In Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am) two fingers hold a palm-sized card outward. The card itself is wiped of its original face, as Kruger has clearly set "I shop therefore I am" across the flat red surface. The viewer can probably deduce that the original image displayed a credit card, tying the new text to its appropriation. The statement "I shop therefore I am" links the excitement of sponsored consumerism and constructed female identity. As popular formats like films, ladies' magazines, and department store advertisements dictate what is appropriately feminine and desirable, Kruger ironically turns the upbeat slogan against itself by displacing image from attractive arrangement. The interruption of bold text and bright crimson stop the viewer, forcing them to ask what representation and identity mean for women in a consumer society, and how advertising tries to shape this identity.

Photographic silkscreen & vinyl - Mary Boone Gallery, New York

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