John Baldessari: Master of Appropriation

John Baldessari: Prima Facie (Fourth State): Strained and Et Cetera. John Baldessari: Prima Facie (Fourth State): Strained and Et Cetera. Sold for $193,750 via Sotheby's (May 2015).

John Baldessari was an American artist who was often referred to as the “Godfather of Conceptual Art,” the “Master of Appropriation” and a “Surrealist for the Digital Age.” His conceptual artworks and 50-year long body of work redefined modern art, fundamentally altering the way the world views art. He did this by practicing, creating, and teaching conceptual art for nearly 30 years in Southern California, where he was born and raised. Seventeen of those years were spent serving on the prestigious Faculty of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), and among his students were numerous notable artists themselves, including David Salle, Meg Cranston, Jim Shaw, Mike Kelley, and Jack Goldstein.

John Anthony Baldessari was born in the small town of National City, California, on June 17, 1931 to European immigrant parents Antonio and Hedvig (Jensen) Baldessari who were from Austria and Denmark, respectively. His father worked as a salvage dealer, a vocation that seems to have made a lasting impression on the young artist, instilling in him a sense that one can make something new out of something broken. His formative years stood him in good stead as his art never lost its sense of playfulness, or his ability to reuse old things.

“It’s hard for me to throw anything away without thinking about how it can become part of some work I’m doing… I just stare at something and say: Why isn’t that art? Why couldn’t that be art?”

John Baldessari in a 2008 interview

Baldessari attended school in Southern California before he received a B.A. from San Diego State University. He went on to practice and teach art for almost three decades in his home state. In fact, his love for education was such a cornerstone in his life that it became a central theme of his work. He had the ability to create authentic conceptual artworks, elevated by the use of light and wry humor across a variety of media, including film, performance, photography, installations, books, sculptures and printmaking. He left behind a legacy and body of work that will see him remembered as one of the most important artists of the modern and contemporary eras.

The 1960s: Text, Photography and Sign Setting

Baldessari spent his life challenging society’s approach to interpreting art. His text paintings are the prime example of this. By replacing imagery with text, viewers at the time would feel challenged; the artist showed everyone that language out of context could fundamentally change its meaning in a variety of ways.

Text paintings were also his “solution” to the “problem” of his own hand being included in his work. As such, he removed all traces of himself, forgoing imagery with stark, simple lettering (which was lettered by a professional sign setter). Its main aim was to help the viewer to interpret the message without distractions, like artistic technique or application.

The first series included the ironically iconic A Two-Dimensional Surface Without Any Articulation Is a Dead Experience and What is Painting? His multi-layered messages, clever quips and ability to leave viewers wandering away with a wry smile is part of what made his work timeless and influential. Most of his earlier works – those made in the 1960s – were all collated and created from statements and text he found in the teachings of contemporary art theory, photography, etc.

John Baldessari: Wrong (1967).

John Baldessari: Wrong (1967). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Wrong can feel like a tribute to the countless young artists and freethinkers who have had their tender egos crushed by someone who shouted “wrong” when they were right.”

Deborah Solomon, New York Times

Wrong, is another piece of subtle commentary on a photography “rule” of the time that subjects should not be put in front of trees, or it would look like the tree is growing from their head. Naturally Baldessari took a photo of himself (he was 6″7), in front of a palm tree, whilst ensuring the grainy exposure, forcing viewers to question what is right or wrong when it comes to art.

1970: The Cremation Project

John Baldessari, The Cremation Project, 1970

John Baldessari: The Cremation Project, 1970, (image via Wikimedia Commons).

In 1970, Baldessari gathered a few friends and they burnt all of the paintings he’d created between 1953 and 1966. Dubbed “The Cremation Project,” he took the ashes of the paintings he’d burnt, baked them into cookies and placed them into a jar. The installation around the jar is a bronze plaque with all the birth and death dates of the destroyed artworks. With this, Baldessari draws a connection between his artistic practice, the fleeting nature of art, existence, and the human life cycle.

The Cremation Project coincided with a technological advance that would change everything for Baldessari, the introduction of the portable commercial video camera. His experimentation with the video format took many turns, but perhaps most famously in I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art (1971) during which he repeatedly writes the words “I will not make any more boring art” while filming himself for 13 minutes. Another was the short film I am making art where Baldessari stands in the middle of the frame whilst moving his arms and hands every few seconds whilst repeating “I am making art” into the camera.

1980s and beyond: The disappearance of text

For the following decade, up and into the 1980s, Baldessari continued to make films. He became more interested in the gathering and manipulating archival material and photography – and ultimately this is what he will be remembered for.

Following the Cremation Project at the start of the 1970s, text began disappearing from Baldessari’s work. This was replaced with experimental photography, and one of the most notable is Throwing Three Balls in the Air to get a Straight Line (1973). The title is descriptive of what he is trying to achieve with the photograph, however this was ultimately replaced by what would become his handwriting, piecing together images from other pre-existing images.

In a nod to the influence of Pop Art on him, Baldessari started using bright primary colored price stickers to cover the faces of subjects in the images. These red, yellow and blue dots would lead the viewer to find beauty, meaning or significance in the “rest of” the photograph as a result of the faces being covered.

John Baldessari: Divers. Lot comprising 3 photographs from 1988.

John Baldessari: Divers (from The Dots Project). Lot comprising 3 photographs from 1988. Sold for $314,500 via Christie’s (November 2010).

There are two specific examples, Frames and Ribbons (1988) and Stonehenge (With Two Persons) (2005), where Baldessari manages to highlight the meaninglessness of select social events, like award ceremonies and tourist traps. He would source images, before painting big, bold, colorful dots on the faces of the photograph’s subjects: an approach fraught with mischief.

The Dots Project is not only playful, it’s rebellious, and quietly genius. By removing the most “obvious” part of a photo to admire, Baldessari forces viewers to find interest in the perceived mundane parts of a photograph. “I think you really sort of dig beneath the surface and you can see what that photograph is really about, what’s going on,” said Baldessari.

John Baldessari’s Legacy

“My goal has always been to attack conventions of seeing. The work is about seeing the world askew.”

John Baldessari in More Than You Wanted to Know About John Baldessari Vol. 2 (2013)

For more than 50 years John Baldessari created art that questions, provokes, confuses and inspires. Whether it was his early text paintings, his Dotsseries, or perhaps one of his more than 200 solo exhibitions across the world, Baldessari made the world look at art differently. He forced viewers to question what art is and how they experienced it, it was about shifting perceptions and how art is viewed for Baldessari. As he eloquently stated in More Than You Wanted to Know About John Baldessari Vol. 2 (2013) “My goal has always been to attack conventions of seeing. The work is about seeing the world askew.”

Throughout his life he won numerous honors, including the Americans for the Arts Lifetime Achievement Award, a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 2009 Venice Biennale, and memberships in the American Academy of Arts and Letters as well as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2013 CalArts also opened a new building full of studios and named it John Baldessari Art Studios. In 2014, President Barack Obama presented Baldessari with a National Medal of Arts, the highest government issued award given to artists and art patrons in the USA.

John Baldessari died on January 2, 2020. He was 88 years old.