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In Focus

Commemorating John Baldessari: 7 Seminal Pieces by the Conceptual Master

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Commemorating John Baldessari: 7 Seminal Pieces by the Conceptual Master
John Baldessari gives an interview at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2010. Image via Artnet.

Legendary conceptual artist John Baldessari passed away on January 2nd at the age of 88. What exactly made him legendary, you ask? Not only was the California native integral to the development of Conceptual Art and appropriation art, but his many years of teaching at California Institute of the Arts and the University of California, Los Angeles helped propel L.A. into a global art mecca. Baldessari influenced artists like Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger, and some of his former pupils include David Salle, Tony Oursler, Mike Kelly, Meg Cranston, Liz Larner, and Kerry Tribe—making his impact on the art world enormous, like his height (the man stood at a towering 6 feet, 7 inches tall). 

The thousands of artworks that Baldessari produced over five decades often made us question, in a Duchamp-like fashion, what is art as opposed to non-art. Embracing a variety of mediums like video, photography, prints, sculpture, text-based art, and installation, and juxtaposing images and text in a non-traditional, witty manner allowed Baldessari to continually create cutting-edge pieces. He received one of the art world’s highest honors in 2009 when he was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. 

In a 2012 short documentary titled “A Brief History of John Baldessari”—that’s recently gone viral in the wake of the artist’s death—Baldessari says that he thinks he’ll be remembered as the “guy who put dots over people’s faces.” Here, we show that his legacy includes much more than dots by highlighting some of Baldessari’s most significant works in chronological order. These 7 iconic pieces exemplify why the Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight hailed Baldessari as “arguably America’s most influential Conceptual artist.” 

 

Wrong (1967)
Image via lacma.org

Created as part of a series, Wrong is an early and important example of Conceptualism—where the idea entangled in the artwork dominates over its aesthetic qualities. For this piece, Baldessari photographed himself standing in front of a palm tree, creating the illusion that the tree is sprouting from his head. The photograph was intentionally made grainy, and the word “wrong” was written beneath the image, referencing a chapter on composition in a photography techniques book that declares photographers shouldn’t shoot their subjects against trees. Here, Baldessari satirically questions how an artwork can be judged as “good” or “bad” based on arbitrary guidelines. The title is also meant ironically since a fundamental principle of Modern art is that there are no sacred rules or universal standards for making and critiquing art. 

 

 The Cremation Project (1970) 
Image via tate.org

In 1970 Baldessari burned all of his abstract paintings made from May 1953 to March 1966. Well, technically, he cremated them since the incineration took place at a local crematorium. Some of the paintings’ ashes were then baked into cookies and placed into an urn, creating the installation known as The Cremation Project, which also consists of a bronze plaque stating the paintings’ birth and death dates, along with the cookie recipe. The ritual burning was a nod to the Dada-ist destruction of art and drew parallels between art-making and the circle of life. 

 

 I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art (1971)
Image via moma.org

I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art is the first print Baldessari created after cremating his earlier paintings. However, he didn’t physically make the work using his own hand. When there wasn’t enough money for Baldessari to travel to an exhibition he was invited to participate in at Novia Scotia College of Art and Design, he instructed that the students voluntarily write “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art” on the walls of the gallery. This print was created by those same students. Although Baldessari wasn’t present at the exhibition or workshop where the print was made, he sent a handwritten page to be reproduced and a videotape of himself writing out the sentence repeatedly. The absence of Baldessari’s supervision and his involvement in the piece from thousands of miles away challenged the notion of authorship and the role of the artist. 

 

 I Am Making Art (1971)
Image via baldessari.org

In this video art piece, Baldessari stands in front of the camera and moves his arms and body in small, minor motions while repeating the words “I am making art” in a monotone for 18 minutes. The wryly funny yet slightly eerie piece is an irreverent reference to performance art and the use of bodies and gestures as an art medium, and also calls the idea of art and art-making into question. Simply, Baldessari is making art because he says that he is making art. Baldessari refrained from labeling himself as a performer, making the deadpan piece a work of “anti-performance.” 

 

 Kissing Series: Simone, Palm Trees (Near) (1975)
Image via metmuseum.org

Allegedly shot impromptu near Baldessari’s Santa Monica studio, this sunny photograph of a blonde woman kissing a palm tree is another example of Baldessari’s fixation with perceptual illusions. The image only works due to the photographer’s exact position, and any change in perspective would shatter the notion of this kiss. The photograph served as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 2010 exhibition poster image for “Pure Beauty,” Baldessari’s major lifetime retrospective organized by the LACMA in association with Tate Modern. 

 

 Frames and Ribbon (1988)
Image via theartstory.org

Baldessari is perhaps best recognized for the colorful dots he placed upon photographic images throughout the ‘80s—which became his signature technique. The practice began when the artist put a price sticker over the face of someone in a newspaper clipping. Baldessari realized that by obscuring the faces of subjects, seemingly unique and individual moments become banal. For example, in Frames and Ribbon, the imagery of a workplace achievement or awards ceremony is presented as absurd and commonplace through vivid blocks and white circles censoring anything individual about the social ritual. Also, by covering peoples’ facial expressions, viewers are forced to focus more on the photograph’s setting and background, details that often go unnoticed. 

 

 Double Bill:…And Manet (2012)
Image via mariangoodman.com

 In 2012 the Marian Goodman Gallery presented an exhibition of Baldessari’s new works titled “Double Bill.” The show consisted of nine canvas paintings in which Baldessari, once again, gave an old image new meaning through appropriation and juxtaposition. This time, he was questioning the art historical canon by combining fragments of two iconic works of art, yet only naming one of the sources, like Manet or Duchamp. In the exhibition’s press release, Baldessari stated, “[o]n one hand I think the older an image is the more it is exhausted of meaning—where it is a cliché. It’s dead. Because clichés are dead. I like the idea of playing Dr. Frankenstein and reinvesting the dead, a metaphor, with life again. Because clichés are true—they just have lost their meaning. And I can pump another kind of meaning back into it, but you are still aware of the source and where I’m directing the traffic.”

 [JohnBaldessariWork-module]

 

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