Art & Design

January 10, 2017

8 Things to Know About John Baldessari

He's so much more than "the guy who put dots over people’s faces"

  • Written by Sharon Thiruchelvam

John Baldessari, the towering, gentle, jovially deadpan and restlessly experimental godfather of American conceptual art casts a shadow as long and cool as Warhol’s over contemporary culture. But he traces his core influences way past Pop Art to the original provocateur, Marcel Duchamp.

Born in 1931, the Southern Californian’s output has evolved with the mediums of the 20th and 21st centuries, jumping from painting to billboards, film, digital art, credit cards and an iPhone app, all pushing the frontiers of art with them. He’s been called the master of “appropriation” (or “found art”, as it was called) and “surrealism for the digital age”, but Baldessari says he “makes art that makes you aware of how you think.”

In his latest show at Marian Goodman in London, he’s taking details of Miró paintings and linking with them from things from “Life in General.” Here’s what you need to know about the artist who vowed never to make boring art.

Miró and Life in General: Reliable, 2016 Varnished inkjet print on canvas with acrylic paint 95 11/16 x 49 in. (243.1 x 124.5 cm) No. 19348

He rose from the ashes

In 1970, having painted for 23 years, Baldessari realised he could replace painting with photography in his work. He burned everything he’d ever made between 1953-1966 in a crematorium, and had the ashes baked into cookies which are stored in a bronze urn shaped like a book. The piece is called The Cremation Project.

He defies categorisation

Baldessari is commonly associated with Conceptual or Minimalist Art, though he finds the terms “a little bit boring.” And while his oeuvre has undertaken countless transformations, he thinks he will be best remembered as “the guy who put dots over people’s faces”

Miró and Life in General: Apropos, 2016 Varnished inkjet print on canvas with acrylic paint 95 11/16 x 48 3/8 x 1 1/2 in. (243.1 x 122.9 x 3.8 cm) No. 19360

Images have no owners

So he says. He keeps a dictionary of images, formed from thousands of found photographs trawled from dumpsters, stills stolen from television and film, and cuttings from local newspapers, which he uses as raw material.

He’s bored of artists as brands

Irritated by the art market’s tendency to treat artists as commodities and reduce them to recognisable tropes, he created a series in which he “collaborated” with dead artists and featured their most famous motifs. He called it Double Bill.

Miró and Life in General: Incumbent, 2016 Varnished inkjet print on canvas with acrylic paint 95 7/8 x 50 1/2 x 1 1/2 in. (243.5 x 128.3 x 3.8 cm) No. 19361

He believes art is a kind of poetry

In its economy of visual expression. His works are often existential riddles about art, representation and perception. “Doing art is the only thing I’ve come across that gives me any idea that I’m anywhere close to understanding what the universe is about.”

He was first celebrated as a teacher

First he taught for the income, then he taught for the rapport with his students. “They’re the first to tell you you’re full of shit – I like that kind of feedback.” His philosophy was to “make my teaching as much like art as I can”, and influenced artists such as David Salle, Cindy Sherman and Mike Kelley.

Miró and Life in General: Necessary, 2016 Varnished inkjet print on canvas with acrylic paint 95 5/8 x 50 5/8 x 1 1/2 in. (242.9 x 128.6 x 3.8 cm) No. 19356

In 1971, he proclaimed: “I will not make any boring art”

It was a pledge (or a punishment) which was written by a hand over and over, and filmed until the tape ran out.

His advice to young artists

“Every young artist should know three things: 1. Talent is cheap, 2. You have to possess (which is something you can’t will), 3. Be at the right place at the right time.”

John Baldessari, Miró and Life in General is on at Marian Goodman Gallery, London until 25th February.


Main image: Miró and Life in General: Right, 2016 Varnished inkjet print on canvas with acrylic paint 95 5/8 x 50 7/8 x 1 1/2 in. (242.9 x 129.2 x 3.8 cm) No. 19355


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