John Baldessari is often irritated. He works in Los Angeles because it tends to piss him off. “It’s ugly here,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s not a city – just an area with no real culture.” Add traffic congestion, noise and smog to its confusing identity and it’s easy to understand Baldessari’s angst. But being uncomfortable in life seems to make John more comfortable in his own skin. “I could never work in cities that are too beautiful. Too much beauty diffuses me. It’s when I dislike my environment so much that I go inside myself and create my best work.” Baldessari battles boredom frequently. He has 4 1/2 studios throughout L.A., so he doesn’t have to stare at the same ugly scenery all the time. It’s obvious that John is a workaholic to the core. He’s a constant observer of art history, pop culture, and everyday life. Anything that makes him pause for just a second becomes fodder for his photography. His brain works so fast that he’s five steps ahead of most everyone. Material oozes out of him like sauna sweat. Problems are simple hurdles on the track to solutions, and Baldessari’s way of clearing them is always fun to watch.
The dots that made him famous are a perfect example. Twenty-five years ago, he was shuffling through some old photos he’d filed away from the L.A. Times. They were of local dignitaries, the mayor, the fire chief, guys shaking hands and smiling at the camera. He initially bought them out of anger. “I figured they had this hold on me, though, and I felt I could find a way to use that energy somehow,” Baldessari recounts. “Here I am isolated in my studio, and they’re out making decisions about my life, and I’m not participating in it. I was using some price stickers for another project, and I pulled out the photographs and covered their faces. I felt a great flood of relief. It leveled the playing field between them and me.” His obliteration of the fakeness was like legal campaign sign defacing. Without the pose, the attention shifted to things less slimy like movement, dress and posture. John was finally able to look at the bastards in those pictures and smile.
The lesson taught him that by depriving people of what they really want to see, it frees them to change their priorities about what it truly means to understand something. It’s both a trick and a valuable service that has lived on in his work. “It’s a cat and mouse game where I give them clues,” Baldessari says. “It’s like a great detective story where the writer leads you to think you’ve got it all figured out, then, ‘Ah hah! No you haven’t!’ Or kind of like when a woman enjoys being flirtatious instead of saying yes on the first date.”
Cracking the Baldessari code of conceptual art is next to impossible; appreciating it couldn’t be easier. He has built a creative and compelling narrative that blends Pop Art with Surrealism, Dadaism and Minimalism and is uniquely his own. His body of ironic, paradoxical and witty work is one of the most recognizable in postmodern art. It is impossible to underscore his importance as a revolutionary thinker and storyteller. Baldessari helped photography hang beside paintings in galleries. His early phototext work helped language and the written word gain acceptance in the art world’s often narrow-minded lexicon. For decades, he’s played with and made statements about pop culture by twisting perspective and asking viewers to reinterpret the recognizable.
Much of Baldessari’s work involves altering movie stills from obscure Hollywood pictures of the 1950s and ’60s. He often crops the original using as little as a tenth of the shot and either digitally gets rid of unwanted clutter or paints right over it. Sometimes he adds circles or bars that look like censor marks or Band-Aids. Baldessari covers up obvious emotion and disrupts the image’s environment. After taking the photo apart, he reconstructs it creating a brand new storyline. For instance, a gun gets colored green, an anxious face disappears behind a blue dot, a background is turned an ominous orange. The viewer is left to figure out the original meaning as well as the logic behind the alterations.
He often pairs disparate images together, organizing them in grids and rows and bisects vertical and horizontal pieces. Baldessari routinely breaks the rules proving art’s limitations can truly be limitless. While Man Ray made lips float and Redon detached an eyeball, Baldessari’s take on the face is quite different. “Eyes, lips and hands have been overdone in art history,” Baldessari says, “so I thought ears and noses, why not?” Simple logic with strange results. Think about it: How often do you stare at someone’s nose or ears? It’s kind of uncomfortable – again a place where Baldessari finds solace. Van Gogh cut his ear off. The act of lying made Pinocchio’s nose grow. So unless there’s something wrong with an ear or nose, they’re rarely discussed. John is trying to change that. Using old black and white photographs, Baldessari not only manipulates their color, he occasionally flips them upside down or tips them awkwardly. For instance, a man goes in for a kiss with a backwards purple ear. In another piece, two subjects gaze at each other longingly – his nose is red/hers green and both tilted 180 degrees. The art reeks of judgment, but asks for acceptance.
Life is full of juxtapositions and Baldessari has always been fascinated by how people handle them… including himself. Only John Baldessari would mark his transition from abstract painting to text art and photography in 1968 by a cremation ceremony – not for a human body but for a 13-year body of work. He even placed a notarized affidavit of their deaths in the San Diego Union newspaper. “I wasn’t selling. They were just piling up in my studio” he says. “I thought one day you wouldn’t be able to find me. I’d be buried in the paintings. I realized that I didn’t physically need them anymore, and I didn’t need a slide of them either. All the stuff that mattered was stored in my mind.” The act symbolized the definitive starting point of his career. Aesthetically and philosophically he had moved on, and he has pictures of himself jumping feet first through stretched canvases and an urn to prove it. “It may sound corny, but I viewed it as kind of the Phoenix rising up from the ashes,” he says. Those ashes, by the way, filled nine adult size cremation boxes and one child size box.
In May 2007, one of the most prolific pieces from that transitional period sold at a Christie’s auction for $4.4 million. It went for more than twice the high-end estimate. “It surprised me,” John admits. “It tells you something about the changing fashion of art.” Done in the late 1960s, Quality Material—… was a piece that the artist himself barely touched. Baldessari found the phrase in the pocket of a new shirt, the canvas was ready-made and a sign painter did all the lettering. It reads, “Quality material – Careful inspection – Good workmanship. All combined in an effort to give you a perfect painting.” The font is plain, spacing neat, background left alone… but what a poignant statement about the manufacturing of art. “Art is a product just like a shirt,” Baldessari explains. “Whether you’re an artist or a shirtmaker, quality products come from care, love and pride.” Void of aesthetic tricks, the conception of this painting was revolutionary at the time and elevated the status of language to an art form. “Nobody was watching me back then. I thought I’d be a teacher my whole life, so I did whatever I wanted to do. If I was involved in the art world I might not have had the guts to do those text pieces,” Baldessari says. “I used to sell them for a hundred bucks each. Luckily I have a sense of absurdity.”
During a ten day stint in October, Baldessari flew to New York where he became the 19th recipient of the Archives of American Art Award from the Smithsonian Museum. Then it was off to London where the Tate Modern is preparing a massive retrospective of his work in 2009. Finally, a stopover in Paris to check on his exhibition running at the Marian Goodman Gallery. By the way, one of his dealers phoned him the other day and the asking price for Baldessari’s work is going up. She had an offer for another of his text pieces, this time for $6 million. But John isn’t so sure he’ll accept. “I don’t need the money,” he says. “I’m concerned about where it will end up. I’d like to see someone buy it with the intention of hanging it in a museum of their choice.”
Standing 6’7″, John is as much a giant in life as he is in the art world. But he’s admittedly more clumsy than athletic, and never really had an interest in dunking a basketball. He’s 76 now and works out with a personal trainer most mornings – weights and a little cardio to stay healthy. With a full, coiffed beard and long white hair, Baldessari has the wisdom and look of Father Time. Soft blue eyes lead to a giving soul, and a comforting chuckle often churns in his belly. Baldessari is a born teacher who tries to make time for everyone and donates much of his money to charity. “It’s one of my job’s true perks,” he says.
Inside his Venice studio his dog follows him around closely. The well-behaved lab retriever mix is named Giotto after the 14th century Italian painter credited with beginning the Renaissance movement. It is clear dog and Dad get along great.Stacks of never-before-seen photos for W Magazine are piled on a desk. John is doing a 28-page commissioned spread for its Fall art issue in which he took vintage Studio 54 pictures and added splashes of Baldessari color and flair, breathing new life into the otherwise stale shots. Several work tables are lined up in the middle of his studio with papers, books and photographs strewn about.
In the middle of it all is a cardboard model for a multimedia exhibition that debuted at the Kunst Museum in Bonn, Germany, in May 2007. It included fifty musically-themed works that span his career, as well as his first-ever sculptures. Titled Beethoven’s Trumpet: In One Ear and Out the Same Ear, the six interactive sculptures feature a trumpet coming out of an ear and a remixed version of Beethoven’s “Late Quartets” playing from the pieces 24 hours a day. Factoring in the deafness of the composer, Baldessari asks the viewer to reevaluate the process of and capacity for hearing.
Baldessari’s studio walls are white and modern with plenty of light bouncing off of them. Below a long horizontal window hangs a panoramic piece of a raw steak with globs of paint on it to look like a palette. Next to that – three photographs of just ears that Baldessari took with an enormous Polaroid camera. Other large prints are propped up against the walls, including a triptych of Marilyn Monroe – well sort of. It’s another commissioned piece where he used a famous portrait of the actress and doctored it up like only he can. After getting rid of her hair, he blended her face into a white blob. The only recognizable features are her nose and beauty mark – a red arrow points it out. Baldessari’s unique objectification of Monroe takes the candle out of the wind and eliminates all clichés about beauty along the way.
Baldessari is fascinated with Hollywood because most everyone else is too. He watches a lot of movies, especially old-time westerns, because he has no time for TV commercials. That’s why many of the themes in Baldessari’s work deal with guns. “Movies are many people’s reality. And what do they deal with? Primarily violence or love,” he says with a smirk. Whether it’s reciting lines from Clint Eastwood classics, the falling feather in Forrest Gump or John Cusak blasting “In Your Eyes,” the silver screen has a sound and effect that helps sculpt culture and is clearly visible in Baldessari’s art. He bought his signature stills for five or ten cents apiece from studios simply getting rid of their junk. While most of those movies never made it, John knew he could make a huge return on his investment if he could play off the emotion on those actors’ faces. “More people see movies than galleries,” Baldessari says. “I was into the idea of recycling imagery. You can use words in the dictionary, or you invent new ones. There are plenty of images out there; why make my own when finding what I want to say is already out there? I wanted to take that common language in my work and create new meaning.”
John Baldessari grew up in National City, a ghetto town outside San Diego, that’s also home to legendary musician Tom Waits. The son of a Danish mother and Austrian father, John was born during the Great Depression in 1931. His dad would re-roll used cigarettes, had a compost pile and recycled everything – which may help explain John’s use of discarded photography. Dad was also a bit of a hustler who salvaged buildings and built homes from the scraps. He used that money to get into real estate and ironically owned the pizza parlor building where Waits worked as a kid. John’s job was to dismantle faucets, recondition them and paint them. It’s where he learned the value of taking things apart to build them back up again – his artistic trademark. He also spent a lot of time pulling nails as a child, and apparently paid close attention, because in 1973, in the video he directed called “How We Do Art Now,” he spent several minutes obsessing about the minute details of nails and rust, as well as showing a series of people spitting beans and the 15 steps to smoking a cigar.
John was always good at art; elementary teachers used to give him “A+’s.” He picked up a camera in high school, but put it down during college. “Art was painting; painting was art when I went to school,” Baldessari says. “There wasn’t anything beyond it.” At San Diego State, John went from mimicking Matisse’s brushstrokes to studying the structure of Cezanne, dabbling with the drips of Pollack, dissecting Duchamp’s humor and borrowing Braque’s ideas of collage. Baldessari attached tar, pieces of metal, pins, anything really, to create a thick surface to his abstract canvases. But after graduating with a very practical B.A. in art education and an M.A. in painting, Baldessari began searching for a different way to get his message across.
He took courses at Otis and Chouinard, went to gallery shows and museums and bought European journals and New York magazines. He felt art’s consciousness was changing and developed his own way of communicating with the masses by combining photography with the written word. “People want to be able to recognize things,” Baldessari says. “Most people read and most have cameras and can take pictures. So I decided to give people something they could understand. I felt I had to challenge conventional wisdom about art. I had to reevaluate the givens. I was very interested in art books and what they were telling me I could and could not do. And if I ignored that, I thought, ‘Would God strike me dead?’ It’s kind of like kids testing out their parents. I tried to break down bedrock assumptions such as, ‘What do we consider art? What’s order and chaos? Is it genetic, cultural, where do we get these values?’ To me the outcome is less important than the thinking.”
His photographs of the late 1960s were as non-artistic as you could get, but by transferring them to canvas using a photo-emulsion process, the objective was to force them to be considered as art. In one of his most famous pieces, Baldessari had himself photographed outside his family’s house in National City. He deliberately stood in front of a palm tree where it appeared to be sprouting from his head. It committed most of the cardinal sins of composition; hence its simple, flaunting, one-word title Wrong. As part of the series, Baldessari drove around his hometown randomly snapping shots out the window of his moving car. He had sign painters add the names of streets, locations and businesses onto the canvas. It was a “what you see is what you get” type of documentary that broke all kinds of artistic barriers.
Professor Baldessari brought that same type of unconventional wisdom to the classroom, where he spent nearly 50 years challenging young artists at CalArts and UCLA to make a difference. The selfish side of art has always bothered him. “I still struggle with that,” he says. “Being an artist is not clear cut. A mechanic fixes a car. A doctor fixes a body. What does an artist do? In many ways it’s like spitting against the wind, masturbatory or making trinkets for rich people. But the world needs art as cultural or spiritual nourishment. I guess that’s the way I justify doing what I do.” Baldessari’s body of work, like few before it, serves as the most profound example of the relationship between saying and showing. “Words and imagery are both magical conveyors of meaning,” John says. “Sometimes I think a word can deal with an emotion better, and sometimes I believe an image can say it better. I’m ambivalent about prioritizing an image over a word. I build meaning in my art like a writer builds meaning from putting the right two words together. When you get it just right, it ignites meaning.”
Baldessari has the unique ability of documenting the human condition like a Woody Guthrie song. But by adding his reaction to recycled visions, he’s a Kanye West-like master sampler. The new iPod commercials are Baldessari-esque – figurative, but funky, with kinetic energy and colorful design. The spots look an awful lot like his 2003 Duress Series in which contorted subjects are painted a single hue and become abstract shapes that appear to move as they hang from buildings and are placed in precarious situations. To call Baldessari’s vision cutting edge doesn’t even begin to cut it. His art is not about leaving a legacy; it’s about challenging the way information is presented and questioning the very process of perception. Along the way, his work examines changes in morals and taste, energy and emotion and how images and reality are constructed.
History has a way of recycling itself, and it makes Baldessari nervous. He understands that humans are imperfect; that’s why identity is irrelevant in much of his art. Instead, John’s mission is to bridge the gap between what is heard, what it seen and ultimately what is learned from experience. Without asking the right questions about why certain things happen, sad patterns of behavior tend to form. So, Baldessari views the world with an unsteady spin between order and chaos. “Life is not always calm,” he asserts. “Civilization is a thin veneer. The world may look calm but it can also be very disturbing. I got this attitude as a kid living through WWII and learning about the Holocaust. The idea of genocide still gets to me – if that can happen, than stability is very precarious.” Let his art then serve as a lesson in learning – one that challenges passed down wisdom, criticizes judgment and forces us to dig deeper for the answers. And until they’re found, it’s okay for John Baldessari to get pissed every now and then.
Written by: Ben Bamsey