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John Baldessari

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John Baldessari

John Baldessari
Born (1931-06-17) June 17, 1931
National City, California
Nationality American
Known for Painting, Conceptual art

John Anthony Baldessari (born June 17, 1931) is an American conceptual artist known for his work featuring found photography and appropriated images. He lives and works in Santa Monica and Venice, California.

Initially a painter, Baldessari began to incorporate texts and photography into his canvases in the mid-1960s. In 1970 he began working in printmaking, film, video, installation, sculpture and photography.[1] He has created thousands of works that demonstrate—and, in many cases, combine—the narrative potential of images and the associative power of language within the boundaries of the work of art. His art has been featured in more than 200 solo exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe.[2] His work influenced Cindy Sherman, David Salle, and Barbara Kruger among others.[3][4]


Early life and career

Baldessari was born in National City, California[6] to Hedvig Jensen, a Danish nurse,[7] and Antonio Baldessari, an Italian salvage dealer. Baldessari and his elder sister were raised in Southern California.[8] He attended Sweetwater High School and San Diego State College.[7] Between 1960 and 1984, he was married to Montessorian teacher Carol Ann Wixom;[8] they have two children.

In 1959, Baldessari began teaching art in the San Diego school system. He kept teaching for nearly three decades, in schools and junior colleges and community colleges, and eventually at the university level. When the University of California decided to open up a campus in San Diego, the new head of the Visual Art Department, Paul Brach, asked Baldessari to be part of the originating faculty in 1968. At UCSD he shared an office with David Antin.[9] In 1970, Baldessari moved to Santa Monica, where he met many artists and writers, and began teaching at CalArts. His first classes included David Salle, Jack Goldstein, Mike Kelley, Tony Oursler, James Welling, Barbara Bloom, Matt Mullican, and Troy Brauntuch.[10][11] While at CalArts, Baldessari taught "the infamous Post Studio class", which he intended to "indicate people not daubing away at canvases or chipping away at stone, that there might be some other kind of class situation."[12] The class, which operated outside of medium-specificity, was influential in informing the context for addressing a student's art practice at CalArts. He quit teaching at CalArts in 1986, moving on to teach at UCLA, which he continued until 2008.[10] At UCLA, his students included Elliott Hundley.

Work and themes

Early text paintings

By 1966, Baldessari was using photographs and text, or simply text, on canvas.[1] His early major works were canvas paintings that were empty but for painted statements derived from contemporary art theory. An early attempt of Baldessari's included the hand-painted phrase "Suppose it is true after all? WHAT THEN?" (1967) on a heavily worked painted surface. However, this proved personally disappointing because the form and method conflicted with the objective use of language that he preferred to employ. Baldessari decided the solution was to remove his own hand from the construction of the image and to employ a commercial, lifeless style so that the text would impact the viewer without distractions. The words were then physically lettered by sign painters, in an unornamented black font. The first of this series presented the ironic statement "A TWO-DIMENSIONAL SURFACE WITHOUT ANY ARTICULATION IS A DEAD EXPERIENCE" (1967).

Another work, Painting for Kubler (1967–68) presented the viewer theoretical instructions on how to view it and on the importance of context and continuity with previous works. This work referenced art historian The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things. The seemingly legitimate art concerns were intended by Baldessari to become hollow and ridiculous when presented in such a purely self-referential manner.

Disowning of early work

In 1970 Baldessari and five friends[8] burnt all of the paintings he had created between 1953 and 1966 as part of a new piece, titled The Cremation Project. The ashes from these paintings were baked into cookies[13] and placed into an urn, and the resulting art installation consists of a bronze commemorative plaque with the destroyed paintings' birth and death dates, as well as the recipe for making the cookies.[14] Through the ritual of cremation Baldessari draws a connection between artistic practice and the human life cycle. Thus the act of disavowal becomes generative as with the work of auto-destructive artist Jean Tinguely.

Juxtaposing text with images

Baldessari is best known for works that blend photographic materials (such as film stills), take them out of their original context and rearrange their form, often including the addition of words or sentences. Related to his early text paintings were his Wrong series (1966-1968), which paired photographic images with lines of text from an amateur photography book, aiming at the violation of a set of basic "rules" on snapshot composition.[15] In one of the works, Baldessari had himself photographed in front of a palm precisely so that it would appear that the tree were growing out of his head.[16] His photographic California Map Project (1969) created physical forms that resembled the letters in "California" geographically near to the very spots on the map that they were printed. In the Binary Code Series, Baldessari used images as information holders by alternating photographs to stand in for the on-off state of binary code; one example alternated photos of a woman holding a cigarette parallel to her mouth and then dropping it away.

Another of Baldessari's series juxtaposed an image of an object such as a glass, or a block of wood, and the phrase "A glass is a glass" or "Wood is wood" combined with "but a cigar is a good smoke" and the image of the artist smoking a cigar. These directly refer to René Magritte's The Treachery of Images; the images similarly were used to stand in for the objects described. However, the series also apparently refers to Sigmund Freud's famous attributed observation that "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar",[17] as well as to Rudyard Kipling's "… a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke."[18]

In "Double Bill", a 2012 series of large inkjet prints,[19] Baldessari paired the work of two selected artists (such as Giovanni di Paolo with David Hockney, or Fernand Léger with Max Ernst) on a single canvas, further altering the appropriated picture plane by overlaying his own hand-painted color additions. Baldessari then names only one of his two artistic “collaborators” on each canvas’s lower edge, such as …AND MANET or …AND DUCHAMP.[20][21]

Arbitrary games

Baldessari has expressed that his interest in language comes from its similarities in structure to games, as both operate by an arbitrary and mandatory system of rules. In this spirit, many of his works are sequences showing attempts at accomplishing an arbitrary goal, such as Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (1973), in which the artist attempted to do just that, photographing the results, and eventually selecting the "best out of 36 tries", with 36 being the determining number just because that is the standard number of shots on a roll of 35mm film. The writer eldritch Priest ties John Baldessari's piece Throwing four balls in the air to get a square (best of 36 tries) as an early example of post-conceptual art.[22] This work was published in 1973 by a young Italian publisher: Giampaolo Prearo that was one of the first to believe and invest in the work of Baldessari. He printed two series one in 2000 copies and a second more precious reserved to the publisher in 500 copies.


Much of Baldessari's work involves pointing, in which he tells the viewer not only what to look at but how to make selections and comparisons, often simply for the sake of doing so. Baldessari's Commissioned Paintings (1969) series took the idea of pointing literally, after he read a criticism of conceptual art that claimed it was nothing more than pointing. Beginning with photos of a hand pointing at various objects, Baldessari then hired amateur yet technically adept artists to paint the pictures. He then added a caption "A painting by [painter's name]" to each finished painting. In this instance, he has been likened to a choreographer, directing the action while having no direct hand in it, and these paintings are typically read as questioning the idea of artistic authorship. The amateur artists have been analogized to sign painters in this series, chosen for their pedestrian methods that were indifferent to what was being painted.[23] Baldessari critiques formalist assessments of art in a segment from his video How We Do Art Now (1973), entitled "Examining Three 8d Nails", in which he gives obsessive attention to minute details of the nails, such as how much rust they have, or descriptive qualities such as which appears "cooler, more distant, less important" than the others.


  • Choosing: Green Beans. Milan: Edizioni Toselli[24]
  • Ingres and Other Parables. Texts in English, French, German, and Italian. London: Studio International Publications
  • Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts). Milan: Giampaolo Prearo Editore S.r.L.; and Galleria Toselli
  • Four Events and Reactions. Florence: Centro Di; and Paris: Galerie Sonnabend.
  • Throwing a Ball Once to Get Three Melodies and Fifteen Chords, John Baldessari: 1973. Berkeley, California: Regents of the University of California; and Irvine, California: Art Gallery, University of California at Irvine
  • Brutus Killed Caesar. Akron, Ohio: Emily H. Davis Art Gallery, University of Akron; in cooperation with Sonnabend Gallery, New York, and Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.
  • Fable - A Sentence of Thirteen Parts (With Twelve Alternate Verbs) Ending in FABLE. Hamburg, West Germany: Anatol AV und Filmproduktion
  • Close-Cropped Tales. CEPA Gallery and Albright—Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, 1981.
  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Images by John Baldessari, text by Laurence Sterne, Arion Press, San Francisco, CA.
  • The Telephone Book (With Pearls). Gent, Belgium: Imschoot, Uitgevers for IC.
  • Lamb. Images by John Baldessari, story by Meg Cranston. Valencia, Spain: IVAM Centre Julio Gonzlez
  • Zorro (Two Gestures and one Mark). Oktagon Verlag, Cologne, Germany.
  • The Metaphor Problem Again. Collaboration with Lawrence Weiner. Ink-Tree Kunsnacht and Mai 35 Galerie Zurich, Switzerland.
  • Brown and Green and Other Parables. Reykjavik, Iceland: i8 and Reykjavik Art Museum, Iceland, 2001.
  • Yours in Food, John Baldessari: With Meditations on Eating by Paul Auster, John Baldessari, David Byrne, Dave Eggers, David Gilbert, Tim Griffin, Andy Grundberg, John Haskell, Michael More, Glenn O’Brien, Francine Prose, Peter Schjeldahl, Lynne Tillman. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004.
  • The Metaphor Problem Again: A Conversation Moderated by Beatrix Ruf. Heidelberg, Germany: Springer-Verlag, 2006. Transcription of a conversation with John Baldessari, Liam Gillick, Lawrence Weiner, Beatrix Ruf, and Cristina Bechtler.
  • Prima Facie: Marilyn’s Dress, A Poem (In Four Parts). Cologne: Verlag Der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2006.
  • Again the Metaphor Problem and Other Engaged Critical Discourses about Art: A Conversation Between John Baldessari, Liam Gillick and Lawrence Weiner, Moderated by Beatrix Ruf. Vienna and New York: SpringerWienNewYork, 2007.
  • John Baldessari: Alejandro Cesarco: Retrospective. Cologne:Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2007. Collaborative work with Alejandro Cesarco.
  • John Baldessari: Koen van den Broek: This an Example of That. Gemeenteplein (Belgium): bkSM (beeldende kunst Strombeek/Mechelen), 2008. Collaborative work with Koen van den Broek.
  • Parse. Zurich: JRP|Ringier, 2010. Artist’s book version of the Ringier Annual Report 2009 project.


Baldessari began making prints in the early 1970s and continues to produce editions today. He created his first print – I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art (1971) - as an edition to raise funds for the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax. The lithograph was created in conjunction with the now renowned exhibition for which – at Baldessari’s request – students endlessly wrote the phrase “I will not make any more boring art” on the gallery walls. The artist has since worked internationally with premier publishers including Arion Press of San Francisco, Brook Alexander Editions of New York, Cirrus Editions of Los Angeles, Crown Point Press of San Francisco, Edition Jacob Samuel of Santa Monica, Gemini G.E.L. of Los Angeles, Mixografia of Los Angeles, Multiples, Inc. of New York, and Peter Blum Editions of New York. His 1988 prints, The Fallen Easel and Object (with Flaw), represented a major shift in Baldessari’s approach to presentation, allowing a more complex relationship between his found imagery. In both prints, Baldessari expertly contrasts unrelated photographs to suggest a mysterious and/or ominous undercurrent. In the 1990s Baldessari began working with Mixografia Workshop to create three-dimensional prints utilizing their unique process of printing from metal molds. Baldessari’s interest in dimensionality has carried over to recent editions from Gemini, including the Person with Guitar series (2005) and the print series Noses & Ears, Etc. (2006-2007) in which screen-printed images are constructed in three layers on sintra with hand painting. A 2007 publication from Gemini is God Nose, a cast aluminum piece that is designed to hang from the ceiling.[25] Baldessari also contributed to the 2008 Artists for Obama portfolio, a set of prints in a limited edition of 150 published by Gemini.

Performance and film

Originally conceived in 1970, Unrealised Proposal for Cadavre Piece would have visitors look through a peep-hole and see a dead male body laid out with its feet towards them inside a climate-controlled vitrine,[26] made to resemble Andrea Mantegna’s painting, The Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1480). Hans Ulrich Obrist, the co-director of London’s Serpentine Gallery and Klaus Biesenbach, the director of MoMA PS1, first attempted to realize Baldessari’s idea in 2011 and the resulting paperwork of failed attempts to procure a willing male cadaver was displayed in the exhibition "11 Rooms" at the Manchester International Festival.[27]

Baldessari's film Police Drawing documents a 1971 performance, Police Drawing Project. In this piece, the artist walked into a class of art students who had never seen him, set up a video camera to document the proceedings, and left the room. Subsequently, a police artist entered and, based on the students' testimony, sketched a likeness of the artist.[28] In the black-and-white video I Am Making Art (1971), Baldessari stands facing the camera; for nearly 20 minutes, he strikes and then holds various poses — crossing his arms over his chest or swinging one arm out to one side or pointing directly at the lens, for example — and with each new gesture, he states "I am making art."[4] In a 1972 tribute to fellow artist Sol LeWitt, Baldessari sang lines from LeWitt's thirty-five statements on conceptual art to the tune of popular songs.[29] Other films include Teaching a Plant the Alphabet and the Inventory videos, also from 1972.

A riff on his 1977 color video Six Colourful Inside Jobs, in Thirteen Colorful Inside Jobs (2013) a room is repainted by a performer in a different colour every day for the duration of the exhibition, carefully following the instructions of the artist.[27][30]


"If I saw the art around me that I liked, then I wouldn’t do art." [31]

"I will not make any more boring art".


Baldessari has been in over 200 solo shows and 1,000 group shows in his six-decade career.[32] He had his first gallery solo exhibition at the Molly Barnes Gallery in Los Angeles in 1968.[7] His first retrospective exhibition in the U.S. in 1981 was mounted by the New Museum of Modern Art in New York,[10] and traveled to the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, the CAM, Houston, the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, and the Museum Folkwang, Essen. Baldessari's work has since been exhibited in the 47th Venice Biennial (1997); the Carnegie International (1985–86), the Whitney Biennial (1983), and Documenta V (1972) and VII (1982). In 1994, the Museum of Modern Art presented "Artist's Choice: John Baldessari", and in 1990-92 another retrospective survey of his work was shown at MOCA, Los Angeles, which traveled to SFMOMA, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Whitney Museum, and the Musée d'Art Contemporain, Montreal. In 1995-96 a retrospective, "This Not That", was shown at Cornerhouse, Manchester, and traveled to London, Stuttgart, Ljubljana, Oslo, and Lisbon. In 2009 a major retrospective exhibition Pure Beauty opened at the Tate Modern, London, which travelled to MACBA, Barcelona; LACMA, Los Angeles; and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through 2011. Solo presentations of his work at museums have included exhibitions at the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, the Kunsthaus Graz, and Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin (2004); Museo d'Arte Moderna Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Trento (2000–2001); Sprengel Museum, Hannover, (1999–2000); and Albertina, Vienna (1999). Baldessari was invited to curate the exhibition "Ways of Seeing: John Baldessari Explores the Collection" at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 2006, and he created the exhibition design for "Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


Baldessari's works are part of major public and private collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Broad Collection.


Baldessari has been the recipient of numerous awards, among others:

  • 1988 Guggenheim Fellowship
  • 1996 Oscar Kokoschka Prize, Austria.
  • 1997 Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts, California.
  • 1999 Spectrum-International Award for Photography of the Foundation of Lower Saxony, Germany
College Art Associations Lifetime Achievement Award.
  • 2000 Artists Space, New York
  • 2002 “Best Web-Based Original Art,” AICA USA Best Show Awards, 2001/2002 Season.
Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities Fellow, sponsored by the University of Southern California.

In 2013, the California Institute of the Arts opened its John Baldessari Art Studio Building, which features approximately 7,000 square feet of space -- much of it used as studio space for art students and faculty.[35]

Position on the art market

Baldessari set a personal auction record when his acrylic-on-canvas piece Quality Material (1966–1968) was sold for $4,408,000 at Christie's New York in 2007.[36]

In 1972, Ileana Sonnabend agreed to represent him worldwide. In 1999, after twenty-six years with the Sonnabend Gallery, Baldessari went to Marian Goodman.[10] He is also represented by Margo Leavin, Los Angeles (since 1984),[7] and Sprüth Magers, Berlin/London.


  1. ^ a b John Baldessari MoMA Collection.
  2. ^
  3. ^ John Baldessari: Pure Beauty, 13 October 2009 – 10 January 2010 Tate Modern.
  4. ^ a b Lance Esplund (August 17, 2010), Much Less Than Meets the Eye Wall Street Journal.
  5. ^ "John Baldessari. (American, born 1931)". Moma. Retrieved September 12, 2012. 
  6. ^ "John Baldessari". Electronic Arts Intermix. Retrieved September 14, 2012. 
  7. ^ a b c d Oral history interview with John Baldessari, 1992 Apr. 4-5 Archives of American Art.
  8. ^ a b c Michael Small (October 12, 1990), John Baldessari Rises from His Artistic Ashes and Finds That He's Hot People.
  9. ^ Karen Wright (October 23, 2009), John Baldessari Art in America.
  10. ^ a b c d Calvin Tomkins (October 18, 2010), No More Boring Art: John Baldessari’s crusade The New Yorker.
  11. ^ Jori Finkel (June 20, 2010), John Baldessari's former students share memories Los Angeles Times.
  12. ^ Knight, Christopher. A Situation Where Art Might Happen: John Baldessari on CalArts East of Borneo. November 19, 2011.
  13. ^ Paul Levy (September 30, 2011), For Baldessari, Art Imitates Art Wall Street Journal.
  14. ^ Grant, Daniel. "Can Artists Really Disown their Early Work?" The Huffington Post. August 11, 2010.
  15. ^ Interview with Moira Roth
  16. ^ (1966-1968)WrongJohn Baldessari, LACMA, Los Angeles.
  17. ^ attributed in Bartlett, Familiar Quotations, 15th Ed.
  18. ^ "The Betrothed," Departmental Ditties and Barrack Room Ballads, Ed. Project Gutenberg
  19. ^ John Baldessari: Double Bill, April 6 - May 12, 2012 Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris.
  20. ^ John Baldessari: Double Bill (Part 2), May 12 - June 30, 2012 Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles.
  21. ^ David Pagel (May 18, 2012), Review: 'John Baldessari' is joyously more than sum of its sources Los Angeles Times.
  22. ^ eldritch Priest, Boring Formless Nonsense: Experimental Music and The Aesthetics of Failure, Bloomsbury Academic, 2013, p. 5
  23. ^ Harvey, Doug. "John Baldessari: Point Man". LA Weekly. August 5, 2010.
  24. ^ John Baldessari: Books by the Artist
  25. ^ John Baldessari: A Print Retrospective from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and his Family Foundation, July 11–November 8, 2009 Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
  26. ^ Marina Cashdan (July 13, 2011), Live From Manchester New York Times Magazine.
  27. ^ a b Elizabeth Fortescue (April 16, 2013), Art project using a human cadaver could still happen The Art Newspaper.
  28. ^ Police Drawing by John Baldessari, 1971 Electronic Arts Intermix, New York.
  29. ^ John Baldessari sings Sol LeWitt San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
  30. ^ (1977)Six Colourful Inside JobsJohn Baldessari, Kaldor Public Art Projects.
  31. ^ Robert Ayers (August 7, 2006). "John Baldessari". ARTINFO. Retrieved 2008-04-22 
  32. ^ Mary M. Lane (September 6, 2013), Photos, Scissors And Wry Humor Wall Street Journal.
  33. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 9 May 2011. 
  34. ^ Goslarer Kaiserring 2012 für John Baldessari, Retrieved October 8, 2012.
  35. ^ David Ng (November 29, 2013), CalArts names new art studio building after John Baldessari Los Angeles Times.
  36. ^


  • Isenberg, Barbara. State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work. 2005
  • Interview with Fabian Stech in ANNUAL MAGAZINE No. 5, 2012 p. 143-146.

External links

  • John Baldessari Artist Biography on Electronic Arts Intermix
  • Your Name in LightsBaldessari's at Stedelijk Museum
  • John Baldessari Catalogue Raisonné
  • John Baldessari at Brooke Alexander Gallery
  • Interview with John Baldessari (1973) by Moira Roth in X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly
  • UCLA Art faculty page
  • John Baldessari - New York Times/Eli Broad Collection
  • John Baldessari in the Video Data Bank.
  • John Baldessari: Cut to the Chase by Leslie Dick, East of Borneo, November 1, 2010.
  • John Baldessari at the Museum of Modern Art
  • John Baldessari on Artabase
  • "THE UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE. Communication and ambiguity in the work of John Baldessari" (2010) Interview with John Baldessari for Ràdio Web MACBA
  • John Baldessari on "Pure Beauty", a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona (MACBA)
  • John Baldessari - Artist on KCET Departures Venice
  • Calvin Tomkins, "No More Boring Art," The New Yorker, October 18, 2010
  • "John Baldessari at the Metropolitan Museum of Art", The New Yorker.
  • John Baldessari: “I Am Making Art”, 1971 (Video)
  • Oral history interview with John Baldessari, 1992 Apr. 4-5 from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art
  • Tate: John Baldessari: Pure Beauty The artist talks about his practice. October 21, 2009
  • John Baldessari exhibit catalog Wright State University's CORE
  • A Brief History of John Baldessari
  • John Baldessari at Kadist Art Foundation
  • John Baldessari Kapsul Image Collection

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