John Baldessari - Biography and Legacy
American Collagist, Painter and Photographer
National City, California
Biography of 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, Berkeley. 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.
The Legacy of John Baldessari
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).