John Baldessari’s healthy dose of why-not

Courtesy of John Baldessari Courtesy of John Baldessari
Courtesy of John Baldessari Courtesy of John Baldessari

For being a household name in the ostentatious field of conceptual art, the artist John Baldessari seems like a pretty sweet and down to earth kind of guy. Frequently associated with a farrago of artistic fields, Baldessari moves through the outline of conceptualism, minimalism and pop art, though that sort of pigeonholing seemingly sets limits only on our experience of his art, not the art itself. John Baldessari is John Baldessari. He himself believes that he will be remembered as “a guy that put dots on other people’s faces”. Well, that just might be true. If not, maybe he will be remembered as a guy that cremated his paintings in 1970, baked the ashes into cookies and put the rest in an urn. If the abovementioned makes you raise an eyebrow or two, we recommend that you check out his short biography narrated by none other than Tom Waits.

Born in 1931 he  studied in his native California, at the San Diego college, University of California, Otis Art institute and Chouinard Art Institute. Baldessari started teaching in 1970′ at CalArts through 1986, then at UCLA until 2008 and was a very influential figure for emerging artists such as David Salle, Barbara Bloom, Ken Feingold and Jack Goldstein among others.


He himself believes that he will be remembered as “a guy that put dots on other people’s faces”
Courtesy of John Baldessari Courtesy of John Baldessari

Amidst the increasing momentum of conceptual movement, Baldessari was intrigued by the possibilities of artistic practice and assumptions surrounding the genetics of art. His practice centres around social dynamics, thereby dissecting the idea of the customary and established. What makes him continuously relevant is his ability to keep up with the times. He doesn’t shy away from modern media and has developed an iPhone app, designed creditcards and worked with purely digital production. But most importantly, Baldessari’s witty comments and sardonic sense of humour are never overly cautious thus communicating his art very intuitively and honestly. Take for example Everything is Purged from this Painting (1966-68). While the awareness of art has, since Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), evolved into manifestation of ideas and meanings behind the represented objects. The object of art is not the artwork itself, rather the process which births the idea. Baldessari recognizes the implicit and absolute polarity of the notion and exposes it as usual; through wry humour and visual punchlines. The text “Everything is purged from this painting but art, no ideas have entered this work.”  insists only on the formal experience of the painting as an object. Evidently that cannot be the case – the painting itself is laden with ideas, art history and other cultural appropriations and can in no way be purged.

Baldessari’s interest in the construct of language and it’s seemingly arbitrary nature has been played a vital part in his production. Some may even be offended at first sight, yet the painting Pure beauty (1966-68) only begs the question of what beauty is, where it can be found? The obvious indication to the subjective experience of the abstract term beauty, or pure for that matter, implies that beauty is a construct in our own minds and not residing in the object itself. Furthermore he has worked with juxtaposition of images with, which has virtually become his trademark. We encounter it in magazines on a daily basis, why not in art? A photograph series with poor composition and bad exposure has been attached a simple descriptive word – Wrong (1967). The irony of the word is what makes the image so appealing, just blatant judgement of the photograph. Other times Baldessari examines the complexity and accuracy of the language in relation to images, such as in his Prima Facie (2005-06). Can one word be descriptive enough of a situation, colour, or a facial expression? The piece operates as counter-intuitive manifestation of the phrase “a picture says more than a thousand words”.  In isolation both word and image seem incomprehensible, but combined allow the possibility of a number of (mis-) readings.


Courtesy of John Baldessari Courtesy of John Baldessari
Courtesy of John Baldessari Courtesy of John Baldessari

“If you can’t see their face, you’re going to look at how they’re dressed, maybe their stance, their surroundings,”

Besides painting and photography Baldessari’s practice includes image appropriation, collages and films. Experiencing a mild artistic crisis in 1970 Baldessari cremated all of his paintings created from 1953 to 1966, due to feeling painting was not representative of his artistic voice. He then made two films I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art and I Am Making Art, which seem conceived as relatively idealistic mantras. Baldessari probes the notion of art as a non physical object and sheds light on how his identity creates art through performance as well as demonstrating a consciousness of the power of choice in artistic practice. Another video Baldessari sings LeWitt is of himself singing Sol LeWitt’s statements on conceptual art to popular tunes. Sardonic takes on simple enjoyment and facile expressions seems to be in Baldessari’s DNA. In infamous Frames & Ribbon (1988) Baldessari consequently obscures from view the natural focal point, namely faces, which he covers by applying dots in very vibrant colours and forces the attention to the formal arrangements of the photograph. “If you can’t see their face, you’re going to look at how they’re dressed, maybe their stance, their surroundings,” he explains in an interview with NPR. “You really do see that handshake. You know, it’s not about those guys, it’s about that handshake. It’s about cutting that ribbon.”
In order to understand the complexity of an entirety, components must be isolated and examined. The idea of isolation is clearly visible in Noses & Ears (2006) where noses and ears are exposed isolated on a silhouette of a facial profile. The context is omitted and the possibility of interpretation limited to colours and facial shapes, thereby leaving it to the viewer to construct a narrative. We are then only led to realise how many of our own assumptions we bring to into the interpretation.

Courtesy of John Baldessari Courtesy of John Baldessari

And herein lies the essence of Baldessari’s practice; experimenting how our cultural textiles work through deconstruction (not to be confused with destruction). Through open ended narratives our presumptions are turned upside down, disrupted, in an almost irreverent manner. The viewer’s interpretation based on cultural experiences is demanded in order to create meaning and this is how recontextualisation works. He constantly stimulates the hard-working Oompa Loompas in our brains, and makes us reconsider. John Baldessari’s world is slightly askew, very punny with a healthy dose of why not-attitude.