PRINT April 2020


Catherine Opie, John (detail), 2013, ink-jet print, 33 × 25". © Estate of John Baldessari.

AS I SIT DOWN TO WRITE a remembrance of John Baldessari, I realize that it is the details I will miss most. The kind cadence of his voice as he persisted in giving you advice, a cigar burning at the edge of his ashtray and a glass of scotch at his side. John’s studio desk felt like a key to the universe: Its diverse contents seemed a great recipe for life. John was never formally my teacher, but it doesn’t matter—we were all his students. He gave us lessons in life and in art, generously encouraging the pursuit of one’s own individual practice. He believed that rules were meant to broken—poked and prodded or carved with a humor and intelligence as sharp and precise as a surgical knife. He whittled at the flaws that make us human and in so doing revealed our humanity to us all. Perhaps his famous statement “I will not make any more boring art” was his recognition that the world contained enough material to explore for a lifetime. In noses alone, he saw great sculptural potential. He was like a father leaning over with his hand, tucking his thumb underneath his index finger, and proclaiming to a child: “I’ve got your nose.” John got our noses, our hearts, and our minds. John Baldessari was a major figure in my life; his dedication to art and to our world stretched far beyond even his impressive physical height. I knew John for more than thirty years and was fortunate to teach alongside him at the University of California, Los Angeles, and to serve with him on the board of our city’s Museum of Contemporary Art, along with Barbara Kruger and Ed Ruscha. Although he was a global artist, he always remained connected to LA, and he set an example of how to give back to one’s community, of what it means to build a home and be a truly humble and generous teacher and artist. Now he’s gone, but his legacy remains—a light to inspire another generation of artists, who will not be so lucky as to have John mentor them in life. 

Catherine Opie is an artist and professor living and working in Los Angeles.