At Large  January 7, 2020  Chandra Noyes

Life Lessons from the Father of Conceptual Art


John Baldessari in Venice, 2009. Image by Frédéric de Goldschmidt.

The art world enters 2020 with a little less humor. John Baldessari, often called the father of conceptual art, died on January 2 at the age of 88. Over a seven-decade career, Baldessari set a seemingly impossible example in the art world by creating serious, important artworks while managing not to take himself too seriously.

wikimedia commons, Maurizio Pesce

John Baldessari, What is Painting, 1966-68.

Born in southern California in 1931, Baldessari began his career at the peak of Abstract Expressionism. Rejecting the earnestness and obscurity of the dominant movement, by the 1960’s he had begun adding text to his paintings, making the works more direct while bringing a conceptual element to them. Instead of creating works that left the viewer with a mystery to unravel, he asked questions of artists, art, and viewers directly: what is the purpose of art and why do artists create it?

Baldessari’s practice later broadened to include printmaking, film, video, installation, sculpture, and photography. Throughout all his work, he used deadpan humor and wit to interrogate the relationships between narrative, imagery, language, and the art world.

flickr, designmilk

John Baldessari, Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell, 1966-68.

And he did not spare himself from this critique—some of his most famous pieces are send-ups of his own work. For 1970’s Cremation Project, Baldessari and five friends took all of the works he had created between 1953 and 1966 to a crematorium and incinerated them. He kept the ashes in an urn in his studio. In a 1971 print and installation, Baldessari vowed I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art by writing the phrase over and over, covering gallery walls with the mandate reminiscent of a schoolhouse punishment. At once a serious directive and an amusingly boring work of art, the piece encapsulates Baldessari’s powerful and unique voice. In a 1972 video, Baldessari sings the text of Sol LeWitt’s thirty-five statements on conceptual art. Simultaneously honoring and teasing an idol, Baldessari reminds us that we can take even the most sincere advice with a grain of salt.

Forever bending genres, Baldessari used photography and film stills extensively in his work, refusing the notion that the two were separate from fine art. For one series, he placed colorful dots over the faces of figures in a variety of familiar settings, evoking Pop Art. His work was influential doubly because of the example he set for other artists through his ability to mix and match and grow throughout his career. While shaping the LA art scene through his work, Baldessari also helped form a generation of artists through his decades of teaching at several southern California universities.

By the end of his life, Baldessari had reached every major milestone that an artist can hope to achieve in a lifetime: a Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement award from the Venice Biennale in 2009 and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, amongst other innumerable awards, and his works collected by the most prominent museums around the world. Throughout it all he remained approachable and light-hearted, even playing himself on The Simpsons in 2018.

While to many “conceptual art” connotes art that is more baffling than it is beautiful, Baldessari’s works stand out as being a bit of both, insisting that the joke is on the artist, and not on the viewer. His wit and unceasing creativity will be missed.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is the former Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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