In the late 1950s and early ’60s, before John Baldessari became pioneering conceptual artist John Baldessari, he was a college art teacher in his Southern California hometown of National City; in his spare time, he painted landscapes and abstract compositions. But in 1970, with dozens of unsalable works stacking up in his studio, Baldessari decided to destroy his paintings. He staged a funeral, cremating almost a decade of work to dusty ashes, save for a couple pieces he gave his sister. (He still has the urn full of ashes.) In 1971, he declared, “I will not make any more boring art . . .” and the outcome was prolific. Baldessari’s irreverent new brand of conceptual art poked fun at conceptual art, taking photography (his own and appropriated) and language as its foundation. The work took varied physical forms—painting, print, artist’s book, film, performance, and installation—where text was equal to image: “I’ve often thought of myself as a frustrated writer,” he told the New Yorker in 2010. “I consider a word and an image of equal weight, and a lot of my work comes out of that kind of thinking.” His deadpan mantras and instructional text starkly printed on canvas would be led by wryly provocative phrases such as “Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell” and “What Is Painting.”
What Baldessari obscures is the most interesting aspect of his work. In the 1980s, he started blurring out faces. Shortly thereafter, he discovered, to his delight, a pack of price stickers in his studio. He used these circles, in bright primary colors, to block out the faces of actors in Hollywood paraphernalia that he collected and in grainy newspaper clippings and photographs he would tear out. Yellow, red, and blue dots (eventually evolving into various rounded shapes) covering faces and body parts would become Baldessari’s signature. And Baldessari’s price sticker would become as iconic as Lichtenstein’s Benday dot.
Marina Cashdan is the editorial director at Artsy, based in New York.
The work of John Baldessari is included in the upcoming Maharam Serpentine Galleries Wallpaper collection, launching May 2015.
Image: Courtesy of Mixografia Workshop, Los Angeles. ©John Baldessari and Mixografia.