John Baldessari: The Conceptual Explorer

“I think when I’m doing art,” Baldessari once reflected, “I’m questioning how to do it.” That wasn’t the case when he started out. At the beginning, he was just plain perplexed. It was the early 1950s, and he was studying in California. He majored in art, minored in literature, but by the end of his college degree he felt he was no nearer understanding how to be an artist. How to do it? He decided he needed more training. He needed to follow the same path that artists had traversed before him – acquiring technique and professionalism. So he mastered more styles; he started to paint like those he admired, Matisse and Cézanne; he mastered yet more styles; he became confused. He decided to drive out daily to the cliffs of La Jolla and paint whatever inspired him. Surely, this would force inspiration. It didn’t.

You could say that success only finally came to Baldessari when he accepted failure. When he decided to stop training, stop straining to be an artist. It was around that time, while teaching night school, that he came across a sheet of advice on how to become an artist. Realizing, from his own experience, how absurd that very general advice was, he thought that he might put these cliché ideas to work in an even more absurd and direct way. With that in mind, he made text-paintings such as Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell (1966-8). He then began to wonder if, maybe, art could be about the everyday, about the radically simple.

Perhaps art could be – had to be – ordinary, if it was to continue to matter. So he began to take photographs from the window of his car – driving with one hand, shooting pictures with the other. He transferred the images to canvas and coupled them with simple texts. One picture, Econ-O-Wash (1967-8) shows a car wash glimpsed through passing traffic; below it reads “Econ–O-Wash. 14th and Highland. National City California.” Perhaps art could be made with the slightest of gestures: the video piece I Am Making Art (1971) shows the artist reciting the titular phrase as he makes nothing more than a series of simple arm movements. Perhaps art could be just, well, pointing at things: the painter Al Held had once remarked that that was all Conceptual Art amounted to, so Baldessari responded with a series of paintings in which fingers point, enigmatically, at objects. Perhaps art could be a matter of gathering up the images in the world and rearranging them – for aren’t there already enough images, without artists adding more? And that, in a sense, has been Baldessari’s belief since the late 1970s and 1980s, when he started to make the photo-works for which he is now best known.

Of course, Baldessari wasn’t unique in coming to these realizations when he did. An extraordinary number of artists were doing so – separately, and internationally – in the early 1960s, as Conceptual art began to emerge. Artists were coming to see that the modern art that had once been controversial and critical had now become mainstream, absorbed into museums and galleries, sapped of its force. There was a need to return to first principles – in fact, there was a need to work out what those principles were in the first place. It was time, as Baldessari puts it, to question “how to do it.”

A common, frustrated response to some Conceptual art like Baldessari’s is to ask a similar question: “Is that it?” Surely, art should offer more than arm gestures and Econ-O-Washes? It’s not a philistine response, it’s a fair one, because such simple artworks are precisely intended to provoke and frustrate. They are intended to do all those things that modern paintings and sculptures once did. The question is fair, also, because that sharp provocation has lost its edge over time, smoothed over as we’ve become accustomed to being needled in this way. Now we look back even on those early and revolutionary Conceptual artworks and feel that they are no better than some of the lazier offerings that lesser artists have brought to us since. So, although worrying over who came first rarely helps us to see what truly matters in the history of art, it does in the case of the powerful provocations made by early Conceptual artists such as Baldessari. He was among the first to carry out that generation’s gleeful house-clearing, the first to trash all those dusty store-room ideas about what art should be and what it should look like.


And to take that other, classic, frustrated response to Conceptual art, “But couldn’t anyone do that?” the answer is “Yes indeed.” That’s the point. When Baldessari came to realize that so many of the skills he had acquired in college were of little use in making art for today, he gave us all the wonderful possibility of believing that we too, untrained and untutored, could make something that deserves to be called art. So why don’t we? Firstly, there is the obvious point that art is harder than great artists make it seem: it takes effort to look effortless. Secondly, there is the sadder fact that, if Conceptual art was a kind of war against the institutional nature of the art world, the art world won the war because generally, one still needs to follow the same old paths to be taken seriously as a professional, exhibiting artist. But, thirdly, and finally, perhaps there is no reason why we don’t – perhaps we ought to try.

More on John Baldessari  and Conceptual Art – The Art Story Artist and Movement Pages