Ways to support us
About The Art Story a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Org
John Baldessari Photo

John Baldessari

American Collagist, Painter and Photographer

Born: June 17, 1931 - National City, California
Died: January 2, 2020 - Venice, California
"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?'"
1 of 8
John Baldessari Signature
"If I saw the art around me that I liked, then I wouldn't do art."
2 of 8
John Baldessari Signature
"I've always done what I want. Luckily I'm blessed with a well-developed sense of absurdity -- it's what saved me."
3 of 8
John Baldessari Signature
"I was getting tired of hearing the complaint, 'My kid could do this' and 'We don't get it. What's modern art? Blah, blah, blah.' And I wondered what would really happen if you gave people what they wanted, something they always looks at."
4 of 8
John Baldessari Signature
"I will not make anymore boring art"
5 of 8
John Baldessari Signature
"I go back and forth between wanting to be abundantly simple and maddeningly complex"
6 of 8
John Baldessari Signature
"I think art, if it's meaningful at all, is a conversation with other artists. You say something, they say something, you move back and forth."
7 of 8
John Baldessari Signature
"Talent is cheap, you have to be possessed or obsessesed, rather. You really have to feel like you cannot not do art, and that is something you can't will."
8 of 8
John Baldessari Signature

Summary of John Baldessari

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.

Accomplishments

  • Baldessari first began to move away from gestural painting when he started to work with materials from billboard posters. It prompted him to analyze how these very popular, public means of communication functioned, and it could be argued that his work ever since has done the same. He invariably works with pre-existing images, often arranging them in such a way as to suggest a narrative, yet the various means he employs to distort them - from cropping the images, to collaging them with unrelated images, to blocking out faces and objects with colored dots - all force us to ask how and what the image is communicating.
  • A crucial development in Baldessari's work was the introduction of text to his paintings. It marked, for him, the realization that images and texts behave in similar ways - both using codes to convey their messages. Text began to disappear from his work in the early 1970s, and since then he has generally relied on collage, but his work has continued to operate with the same understanding of the coded character of images. Typically, he collages together apparently unrelated categories of image or motif, yet the result is to force us to recognize that those images often communicate similar messages.
  • On a visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1965, Baldessari was struck by the use of unpainted plaster to fill in missing shards of Greek vases. This prompted his interest in how images are effected by having portions removed or blotted out, and he has continued to explore this ever since. Often, the result of his alterations to photographs is to render them generic, suggesting to us that rather than capturing a special moment, or unusual event, photographs often communicate very standardized messages.

Biography of John Baldessari

John Baldessari Photo

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.

Important Art by John Baldessari

Progression of Art
Tips For Artists Who Want To Sell (1966 - 68)
1966 - 68

Tips For Artists Who Want To Sell

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)
1969

Commissioned Painting: A Painting by George Walker

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)
1971

I Am Making Art

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)
1988

Frames and Ribbon

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 René 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)
2005

Prima Facie (Second State): Exhilarated

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 (Color) (2006)
2006

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

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

Similar Art

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
John Baldessari
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
Artists
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on John Baldessari

video clips
articles
More

Related Artists

Related Movements & Topics

Share
Do more

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"John Baldessari Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from:
First published on 22 Nov 2011. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]