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.

"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?

We tend to look less and less. An artist has to be aware that with television, movies, and advertising there's more difficulty in getting somebody's attention. The danger is that getting attention could be the only goal. Once you get it, you have to have something to say that's nourishing.

Have the ideas you taught in your Post-Studio Art course opened the floodgates to an 'anything goes' attitude?

The course wasn't about craft. I was not teaching how to draw from the model or eye-hand coordination or how to develop photographs. It was a way of thinking about art. My rule of thumb is that art might be conceived of as anything. That could be construed as loosening of the floodgates.

Why has contemporary art emphasized idea over product?

Human intelligence is about process. Just like music is about process. That's why there are so many different recordings of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. We're never content. I'm not interested in a finished product. Art is about how to get at something. You do it, then you're dissatisfied, then you start again.

Why did you burn your early abstract paintings?

They were no loss to art history. It was a period of life when I was trying to find a voice. Now I'm painting again. But this time it's by choice, not by the dictates of the culture. Before it was the only game in town. Now it's a little more honest.

What's going on in the '90s?

It's hard to say what the '90s is, but there's not a whole lot of painting going on. The whole idea of beauty is a hot issue now. It's no longer a dirty word among young artists who are painting now. I sometimes feel the most radical thing to do would be to paint a beautiful vase of flowers. It would take an incredible artist to make us really see the beauty of a bouquet of flowers.

I do believe in pendulum swings. There's too much of one thing and the pendulum shifts. There is less irony now. There's more heartfelt art, which is appealing. Money is not looming over us now, becoming an issue. People are doing art for motives that don't have to do with money. Other values have appeared.

Do you notice these values among your students?

At UCLA, I notice an intimacy going on, where the artist is looking for contact with the viewer. If an artist can make contact with only one viewer, it might be enough. It's no longer [to shock] the bourgeoisie. A real concern for the viewer is just beginning.

Is there an effect that you're looking for?

I try to get people to look freshly. I put demands on them, but not so much that they get discouraged. It's like teaching. I try to meet them where they are, bring them a little higher but not lose them. I try to unsettle people's perceptions.

What do you hope your artistic legacy will be?

Something along the lines of a quote from Moliere, where a person didn't know the meaning of the word "prose" until he found out he'd been speaking it for more than 40 years. Art is not foreign. People do it every day, when choosing their clothes, putting jam on bread or plates on the table. But if an artist is any good, he will find a way to make a new synthesis.

*'John Baldessari: National City' continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art, downtown San Diego, through June 30.

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