John Baldessari, the Godfather of Conceptual Art (The Guy who Put Dots over People’s Faces) dies aged 88

Words by Lara Morrell
January 7, 2020

John Baldessari, one of the most notorious and influential names in contemporary art, whose career spanned seven decades, passed away last Thursday, aged 88.

An American artist and teacher, he embraced photography, montage, painting and text to create complex compositions that explore the multifaceted interpretations of cultural iconography, infused with a healthy dose of colour and humour. Throughout his career he sought to rescue conceptual art from what he perceived as being righteous and self-congratulatory.

Baldessari was born in 1931 in National City, California. He received a BA in 1953 from San Diego State College, and went on to study art, literature, and art history at the University of California at Berkeley and at Los Angeles, he also received an MA from San Diego State College in 1957. He was influenced by Dada and Surrealism and began to create works using found images from pop culture structuring his canvases around chance relationships.

Over the years he grew evermore disillusioned with his painted works. By the 1970s he decided to publicly renounce painting by cremating all the paintings he had created between 1953 and 1966 at a funeral home in San Diego, as part of a new piece titled “The Cremation Project.”

The remaining ashes were transformed into cookies and displayed in an urn alongside a bronze plaque recording the dates of birth and death of  the destroyed paintings, as well as the recipe for the cookies. They were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of the 1970 survey of conceptual art: “Information.” He later confessed : “It was a very public and symbolic act,” he said, “like announcing you’re going on a diet in order to stick to it.” Notwithstanding, he continued to paint.

From then onwards he felt liberated to adopt and extend his creative orbit to working with text, video, photo collage and sculpture, among other forms.

Baldessari also held teaching posts at the California Institute of the Arts (1970 to 1988) and the University of California, Los Angeles (1996 to 2005) and by virtue of his mentoring he built the Los Angeles art scene, transforming it into a global art capital. Former students of his include David Salle, Tony Oursler, Matt Mullican, Jack Goldstein, Jim Shaw, Mike Kelley, James Welling, Meg Cranston, Liz Larner, Mungo Thomson, Kerry Tribe, Elliott Hundley and Analia Saban. Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger have both stated that he has been an important influence on their work, too.

He liked to tell his students, “Don’t look at things — look in between things.” He also believed that every young artist should know three things: “1.Talent is Cheap, 2.You have to be possessed, which you can’t will, 3. Being at the right place at the right time.”

In response to an invitation to make work with students at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and unable to travel there himself, he set them homework remotely, instructing them to repeatedly write  “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art” as many times as possible across the walls of the college gallery within 13 minutes. Baldessari’s work throughout his long career held steadfast to that promise.

John Baldessari was a mightily important figure in conceptual art, his work was shown in over 200 solo exhibitions, 1,000 group shows, and was appointed a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters as well as being awarded the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice Biennale in 2009.

In 2012 the video “A Brief History of John Baldessari”, narrated by Tom Waits described the artist as “the godfather of contemporary art” and “a surrealist for the digital age”.

Thanks for bringing art back to the real world, John, and we promise not to make any more boring art (but apologies if we may have to write about it!).

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