California Artist Knocks Art off Its Pedestal
John Baldessari transforms pop imagery and makes viewers look beyond the banal
California Conceptual artist John Baldessari looks like a cross between Walt Whitman and a redwood tree. Standing 6-feet, 7-inches tall, with his white hair and beard, the artist looms over a crowd just as his work towers over the field of contemporary art.Skip to next paragraph
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"Baldessari has made an indelible mark on the character of contemporary art and thought," said Richard Koshalek, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, in 1990. He is "one of the most influential artists to have emerged since the mid-1960s."
Baldessari's influence derives from two sources: his teaching and his work. For virtually his entire career, he has taught art to a range of students, from elementary pupils and juvenile delinquents to high school and college students. Now at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), Baldessari probably had his greatest impact as an educator in the 1970s and '80s with his "no grades/no requirements" Post-Studio Art course at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.
Among his students who graduated to big-time careers are Eric Fischl, David Salle, and Mike Kelley. Generations of text- and media-based Post-Modern artists are also in his debt. In the class as in his work, Baldessari focuses on ideas rather than skills.
The influence of his work stems from his status as West Coast founder of Conceptual art. In the late '60s, working in isolation in his hometown of National City, Calif., Baldessari explored art whose value lay in the process of creating it rather than in a physical product.
To signal a break with the past, Baldessari literally and symbolically burned his bridges. Dissatisfied with the abstract art then in vogue, in 1970 he formally cremated all his canvases from 1953 to '66. Then he started painting again. He based his new work on accessible images from everyday life - leavened with a spritz of irreverence.
Works from this period are on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego. These photo-text works combine utterly banal snapshots of street scenes in National City with captions giving the locations. "This is what it is. It's not great, it's not bad, it's just what it is, sort of ordinary, like Van Gogh painting a pair of old shoes," Baldessari has described these works.
Art, Baldessari believes, must break rules if it is to rise above textbook predictability. Art must also treat the most art-less subjects. "Truth is beautiful, no matter how ugly it is," Baldessari has said.
Knocking art off a pedestal and down to earth has been his mission. He typically constructs montages out of cropped black-and-white stills from grade-B movies to jolt the viewer into seeing how lowly parts can form a compelling whole. His work is about recycling and transforming pop imagery. In a recent interview, Baldessari spoke about his philosophy of art.
Why did you start your photo-text series?
I was trying to make art more accessible. I knew you saw photographs and text in magazines, so there might be more commonality of language using them. I knew what art was considered to be, but I was more curious about what it wasn't considered to be.
Are we so saturated with media images today that their effect is dulled?