John Baldessari

Tetrad Series: LIKE THIS | London, South Kensington | inkjet print collage on paper | 56 x 41.9 cm.

“I am interested in what gets us to stop and look, as opposed to simply consuming images passively.”

John Baldessari

One of the leading figures and determining forces of late 1960s conceptualism, multimedia artist John Baldessari has described himself as a “frustrated writer, less interested in the form art takes than the meaning an image evokes.” In the spirit of Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Yves Klein, or Piero Manzoni, his art has relied heavily on linguistic play and upon appropriating and recontextualizing images, both sacred and profane, disrupting the relationship between sign and signified, between convention and unconscious meaning. 

Baldessari earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from San Diego State University in the 1950s, doing stints at the University of California, Los Angeles, and UC Berkeley in the meantime. In 1957, he moved to Los Angeles, where he pursued post-graduate work at Otis Art Institute (now the Otis College of Art and Design). He returned south in the mid-1960s, where he hunkered down in a small town south of San Diego, in relative isolation from the larger art world. The style and innovations he had begun to develop in school — a mélange of more classic painterly techniques with text and photography — took fuller form, became more radical. “I was able to really dig into what I thought art might be, not what somebody else would think art would be,” he has written. Bit by bit, he abandoned painting altogether. In 1969, he hired other people to paint his Commissioned Paintings series. The following year, he gathered as much as of his work produced between May 1953 and March 1966 and incinerated it all, announcing the destruction with a notarized affidavit published in the San Diego Union (a few paintings from this period survived). Some of the ashes produced in Cremation Project were put in boxes; others were baked into cookies.    

His emergent “anti-style” idiom of photographic and filmic mash-ups, deadpan humor, and canny juxtapositions became the visual lingua franca of 1970s conceptualism, and would have an enormous influence on artists for generations, from the “Pictures Generation” of Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman and Jack Goldstein to Neo-Geo artists like David Salle. His influence was particularly direct: As a teacher from 1970 to 1986 at the newly-created California Institute of the Arts, he taught Goldstein and Salle, as well as artists like Mike Kelley, Barbara Bloom and Tony Oursler.    

To date, Baldessari’s work has appeared in more than 200 solo exhibitions and in more than 900 group exhibitions around the world. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has been awarded the Americans for the Arts Lifetime Achievement Award, the California Governor's Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts, and the Oscar Kokoschka Prize, among others. In 1986 he received a Guggenheim fellowship, and in 2013, the California Institute of the Arts announced it was naming a new campus studio building after the artist. He lives and works in Santa Monica, California.

Additional Sources:

J. Morgan, L. Jones,
John Baldessari: Pure Beauty, Los Angeles, 2009, front inside jacket

Museum of Modern Art (New York):

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Works by John Baldessari