PRINT April 2020


John Baldessari, Artist Optimistic About Art, 1973, six gelatin silver prints and ink on board, 27 1⁄4 × 20". © Estate of John Baldessari.

JOHN BALDESSARI was renowned as a teacher. His example restored to that title the honor it merits in the annals of art. Even after his era-defining tenure at the California Institute of the Arts, he never ceased to offer lessons both to his viewers and to himself. 

He stood out from his celebrated contemporaries for having achieved his deserved stature after many years in provincial obscurity, supporting a young family on the teaching jobs that came to hand near his San Diego home: high school, community college, and adult extension classes, and one summer stint at a rural camp working with delinquent teenagers. Through all this, he dutifully performed the rituals required of countless artists from the pedagogical and semiprofessional ranks, carefully sending off slides of his paintings to local and regional juried shows mounted at community centers and county fairgrounds, waiting and hoping for a little exposure, a chance to make a mark.

John Baldessari, God Nose, 1965, oil on canvas, 68 × 57". © Estate of John Baldessari.

It has been too easy, however, to categorize Baldessari’s home turf in the San Diego–adjacent suburb of National City as a cultural desert defined by everything that was absent from it. Not that San Diego in the 1960s was unexpectedly cultivated, but it was full of a singular character distinct from its seemingly natural cognates as close as Orange County, less than fifty miles away. To bridge that distance—not unlike the Deadly Desert surrounding Oz—required a significant passage across the vast, nearly empty expanse of the Marine Corps’ Camp Pendleton, no freeway exit permitted. By 1967, Baldessari was already demonstrating his knack for enticing well-known artists to his classroom, albeit one in an obscure junior college a few miles from the Mexican border. Before the assembled students, he asked the painter Sam Francis what he found interesting about the area. “Well, it’s the end of the line,” came the answer. “You can’t get any further from the US than this.”

John Baldessari, Pure Beauty, 1966–68, acrylic on canvas, 45 3⁄8 × 45 3⁄8". © Estate of John Baldessari.

There was nonetheless much more there at the end of the line. Just to approach National City entailed passing on the bay side of the 101 freeway, a gray wall of towering mothballed navy hulks, obsolete surplus left over from World War II. (The white domes over the gun turrets appeared, for the child I was at the time, to make literal the term mothball.) A short distance separated this reliquary reminder of the military-industrial complex from the consolations of nature at its most splendid. When Baldessari found his inspiration flagging, he would drive from his southeastern corner of the city to the La Jolla cliffs in the northwest, arguably one of the world’s most sublime stretches of urban coastline. His 1965 painting God Nose might not appear the last word in piety, but he had once felt a calling toward the metaphysical sufficient enough that he applied to the Princeton Theological Seminary. (How different our art world might be had he followed that path.) 

John Baldessari, Cremation Project (detail), 1970, ashes, bronze urn in the shape of a book, bronze plaque, affidavit on board, six color photographs, this photo 20 × 24 3⁄4". © Estate of John Baldessari.

To the extent that he channeled that calling into his art, he took the profound lesson that there is no immediate access to the beyond, however golden the Pacific sunsets. Instead, the path lay in embracing the unremarkable, everyday appearance of his down-at-the-heels hometown. In 1970, all the paintings he’d retained from his former yearning-and-searching mode went into the fire, immolating them in a ritual cremation duly certified by the county of San Diego. He continued working instead on the cycle of enduring canvases, begun in 1966, on which he printed intentionally artless photographs accompanied by drolly deadpan captions rendered by a hired sign painter. Some did without the hazy images altogether, relying solely on self-descriptive text, Pure Beauty, 1966–68, being his starkest acknowledgment of the unattainable.

His ironically retrospective self-portrait as a maker of useless objects gave way to a life defined more by service and weightless moments of apperception than by material output.

A good number of these works deal with the calculations of a jobbing artist seeking to market landscapes or animal subjects: His ironically retrospective self-portrait as a maker of useless objects gave way to a life defined more by service and weightless moments of apperception than by material output. His appeal and gift as a teacher resonated in the small world of San Diego to his immense ultimate advantage. A job with the adult extension program of the new University of California campus drew the attention of the acerbic New York painter Paul Brach, who had been enlisted to chair the fledgling art department. Out of a politic desire to enlist a local artist, Brach hired him to the regular faculty. That validation, a position in a major university, also brought with it the friendship of genius poet-critic David Antin, who, like Brach, had been imported to lend East Coast cachet to the new undertaking. David and his wife, artist Eleanor Antin, put their network to use on Baldessari’s behalf, securing him his first Los Angeles show, at Molly Barnes Gallery in 1968. 

John Baldessari, Evidence (Bowl Handed to Helene Winer, Dec. 1, 1970), 1970, lamp black powder and tape on ceramic bowl, approx 5 × 14 × 14". © Estate of John Baldessari.

By an oft-remarked coincidence, Joseph Kosuth was showing a suite of his word-definition panels at another gallery just down the art strip along La Cienega Boulevard. Reviewers compared the two, and Kosuth would have had occasion to note parallels between Baldessari’s National City canvases and the self-descriptive text paintings by his friends in the UK-based Art & Language group. A good deal of wit is present in the latter, but their charm came surrounded by thorny citations of analytic philosophy and a good deal of the self-serious posturing to which Baldessari was temperamentally and morally allergic. In an essay published the next year titled “Art After Philosophy,” Kosuth dismissed the Californian’s efforts as no more than “cartoons” of Conceptual art. Exhibiting for the first time on a main stage at age thirty-seven, Baldessari must have seemed a negligible outsider. But he was immune to being underestimated, as Brach had marveled earlier: “John was this low-key, bemused man, in a two-bit junior college in San Diego, acting as though he was the absolute center of the international art world.” 

John Baldessari, Painting for Kubler, 1966–68, acrylic on canvas, 67 7⁄8 × 56 1⁄2". © Estate of John Baldessari.

That accurate observation, however, did not signal self-aggrandizement on Baldessari’s part, but rather that “the international world” left him intrigued but utterly unfazed, knowing that the only useful portion of it was a fallible, jerry-built contrivance of eccentrics like himself. Moving with Brach to CalArts in 1970, he set about deploying his position to build a coalition of allies and collaborators, Kosuth included, to break the local grip of the Venice Beach look. (There may have been something in this of the San Diegan’s habitual dislike of Los Angeles, the sprawling metropolis to the north, his soulful redoubt in Santa Monica keeping up a beach-town vibe.) As Baldessari recalled, “I constantly pushed to hire not from LA but from New York and Europe—to bring in an alternative aesthetic. Now that’s a battle that’s been won, but you can’t believe what it was like.” The later addition of Michael Asher to the CalArts faculty demonstrated that there was an emerging Los Angeles cohort, among whom Baldessari felt entirely at home. One of its other members, Hiro Kosaka, described that moment: “All of a sudden there was space, a small space, for a different kind of work that dealt with more important issues. There were just a small number of people doing this new kind of work: Bas Jan Ader, John Baldessari, Chris Burden, Jack Goldstein, Bill Leavitt, Bruce Nauman, Al Ruppersberg, Wolfgang Stoerchle, Bill Wegman. . . . There were maybe a dozen people, you could count them on your fingers, and we were outcasts, complete outcasts.”

This now-famous grouping first coalesced around the tiny gallery at Pomona College under successive directors Helene Winer and Hal Glicksman. In 1970, Baldessari joined his younger colleagues and students in mounting a Pomona show that added a new layer of ceremony to his symbolic rebirth: “At the time I was into police photography and when [Winer] came to the door I gave her a bowl, which she grabbed. I dusted it for prints and said, here, show this, which she did. I had burned all my paintings and had the ashes. I gave them to her and said, ‘Scatter them in the corner; after the first person walks in, rope off the area.’” And for every Pomona show and performance to come, he would load his students into his trusty VW microbus and drive the hour and a half out to Claremont, both so that they could learn and to show solidarity. 

John Baldessari, Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell, 1966–68, acrylic on canvas, 68 1⁄4 × 56 1⁄2". © Estate of John Baldessari.

In the wake of the short-lived Pomona experiment, Baldessari’s burgeoning CalArts training ground absorbed its energies and redistributed them to the wider world. He assembled a national and international network in suburban California: The year I started at CalArts (my first teaching job), New Yorkers Laurie Anderson, Jonathan Borofsky, and Elyn Zimmerman were in residence, and a former visitor, Douglas Huebler, took over as the new dean. And Baldessari could replace the feigned advice of his how-to paintings with real professional counsel, famously directing his students to test themselves in New York. What was more, he suddenly found himself accorded multiple gallery exhibitions on the Continent, in cities from Amsterdam to Düsseldorf to Milan, which helped to establish the conveyor belt from Los Angeles to Europe, to the great benefit of younger “outcasts” in his orbit.

As Baldessari’s reputation grew to modern-master status, his work manifested an increasing complexity, placing greater demands on his viewers’ powers of concentration.

As Baldessari’s reputation grew to modern-master status, his work manifested an increasing complexity, placing greater demands on his viewers’ powers of concentration. One key visual signature, however, arose from the same small-town sensibility that had infused his National City canvases: His files of found photographs included the filler typically featured in the metro sections of newspapers, “like the past president of the Kiwanis passing on the gavel to the new president or a tree being planted by the ladies’ club.” In a rare lapse of his normally bemused equanimity, he acknowledged the hatred that these local worthies aroused in him: “It was all about a life I detested.” Picking up some circular price stickers, he began covering over the faces in the photographs, “and there was such a flood of relief, you couldn’t believe it felt so satisfying to obliterate those people.”

John Baldessari, Untitled, 1986, crayon and stickers on synthetic-polymer sheet over gelatin silver print, 9 4⁄3 × 7 3⁄8". © Estate of John Baldessari.

Lending new credence to Wordsworth’s aesthetic dictum about emotion recollected in tranquility, that angry impulse provided Baldessari with a potent new device. Given that human cognition is hardwired to key on faces, that effacement frustrates and reorders the processing of what remains. It’s a complement to the deceptive clarity of his earlier photographs—tossed balls creating a straight line, a woman kissing the top of a towering palm—which trade on the disjunction between the falsely logical arrangements in two-dimensional images and the unforgiving obduracy of the three-dimensional world. That suspended contradiction had come dramatically to the fore in his 1969 California Map Project, in which he sought to inscribe on the physical landscape the letters that spell the name of that state as they appeared on a map. Recognizing the mind’s propensity for complication and abstraction, he embraced the term allegory, which for centuries has designated enigmatic substitutions of one signifying system for another, making strange what is familiar. And so his trove of discarded photographs, shorn of their forgotten contexts, assume their uncanny power.

John Baldessari, Kissing Series: Simone. Palm Trees (Near), 1975, two color photographs on board, each 10 × 8". © Estate of John Baldessari.

Allegory, however, was never an exclusively recondite affair. Baldessari explicitly instanced Gulliver’s Travels as both an appealing adventure yarn and another story about the absurdities of political life. Like Jonathan Swift’s fantasy, he reflected, “the ideal art for me would be complex for myself and simple enough for the public.” It was fitting that one of his later triumphs was a grand but simple installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in an exhibition devoted to René Magritte and his legacy, in which viewers found sky and earth reversed. Magritte’s deceptively plainspoken rendering of everyday appearances carried lessons for Baldessari, the consummate teacher:

The work gets harder and harder because you get more easily dissatisfied. . . . You have to make up increasingly sophisticated games to keep yourself occupied. And as you get more sophisticated, you have to think what’s going to keep your audience interested. . . . There’s constantly that battle back and forth.

His own battle is sadly over, but it continues for everyone who takes his example to heart. 

Thomas Crow is a contributing editor of Artforum.