Saturday, April 10, 2010
John Baldessari's art upends convention with words and imagery
Junction Series: Landscape, Seascape, Prisoner, and Acrobats, 2002 (digital photographic prints with acrylic on sintra board)
There once was a young artist who set fire to his paintings. He was looking for a new direction—beyond abstract art—and besides, he was tired of people telling him, “My kid could do that.”
After the cremation, the artist experimented with photos and text and unexpected arrangements of found film imagery. Dozens of other artists imitated his bold techniques, and in time, he became a huge international success.
The story may read like a Hollywood script, but in fact, it’s an abbreviated version of the life of John Baldessari, champion of the conceptual art world and a 2009 winner (along with Yoko Ono) of the Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Venice Biennale.
Baldessari is the most influential artist ever schooled at San Diego State University. His work has been called humorous, ironic, complex, yet accessible. At 78 years of age, he continues to produce art and to teach it.
This month, the most extensive retrospective of Baldessari’s work to date will open at the Tate Modern in London. “John Baldessari: Pure Beauty” will travel to Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (June 20–Sept. 12, 2010) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it will close in early 2011.
Though honored in this country with membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters and honorary degrees from SDSU and the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design, Baldessari has a more established following in Europe.
“Years ago, when I was taking my paintings around to galleries with no success, one of the gallerists called my work ‘European,’ Baldessari recalled. “Maybe it’s because I’m a first-generation American. There’s a phrase I’ve always loved—the shark is the last one to criticize salt water. You don’t recognize something when you’re immersed in it.”
Baldessari was born in National City during the Depression to a Danish-born mother and an Austrian-born father. His father found work tearing down houses and selling the materials—everything from faucets to floorboards. When he had accumulated an adequate sum, he would buy a lot and build a house with recycled material.
“I’m proud of what my father did,” Baldessari said. “He had nothing and saw the value of everything.”
At San Diego State College in the 1950s, Baldessari enjoyed the social scene as an active member of student government and Sigma Chi. The fraternity recognized him as a Significant Sig in 1999.
The young Baldessari also gravitated to the library, poring through books and nurturing an appreciation for language that suffuses his work.
For example, “Bloody Sundae” consists of two distinct scenes within the shape of an ice cream confection. On top, two men attack a third beside a stack of paintings; underneath them, a couple lounges in bed. All five faces are painted over with Baldessari’s signature color circles.
Baldessari’s 1986 work, “Heel,” is an irregularly shaped puzzle of black-and-white photographs. Most show human legs with scarred or bandaged heels, but two depict young men that appear vaguely untrustworthy—perhaps examples of the archetypal “heel.”
In both pieces, Baldessari’s clever wordplay reinforces a serious point: the visual language of art is every bit as complex and diverse as the verbal language we use to describe it.
“Artists want to communicate, to say hello to the world,” Baldessari explained when asked about the importance of language to his art. “I tried to give people a language they could understand by combining the photos and the words.”
Jessica Morgan, curator of contemporary art at the Tate Modern, said Baldessari’s visual language obliges the audience to reexamine traditional expectations of art.
“John’s significance, both as an artist and a teacher, cannot be overestimated,” Morgan said. “His relentless interrogation of how we make art and how we view it is an extraordinary legacy.”