Artist and influential teacher

Born: June 17, 1931

Died: January 2, 2020

JOHN Baldessari, who has died in his sleep at the age of 88 at his home in Venice, Los Angeles, is widely revered in the art world as being the godfather of conceptual art. At six feet seven inches, he was a gentle giant of a man, with an ever-curious sense of humour and a straight-talking self-deprecating wit.

Originally trained as a painter, he became a master of appropriation and he put his inability to throw away anything away down to having been born at the height of the Great Depression to immigrant parents.

As a teacher, he was revered by generations of artists who passed through his hands at The California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Los Angeles, where he was based from 1970 until 1988. From 1996 to 2005, he taught at the University of California in Los Angeles. His departure from university teaching coincided with a lifetime achievement award from the Americans for the Arts.

Baldessari's artwork has been featured in more than 300 solo exhibitions and in over 1,000 group exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe. His projects include unique works, prints, artist books, videos, films, billboards and public works.

John Baldessari first came to widespread attention in 1970 when he made an announcement in a newspaper that he was planning to burn all the paintings he had made in-between 1953 and 1966. He then took them to a crematorium where he had them all burned. The remains were laid to rest in an urn for what he would eventually call his Cremation Project.

It took an appearance in The Simpsons in 2018 to bring Baldessari to the attention of the wider world. In the episode, 3 Scenes Plus a Tag from a Marriage, his paintings of clouds on ceilings and noses on patches of colour inspired a cameo voiced by himself, talking to a young Marge Simpson, who as a reporter for the Springfield Shopper is trying to bag an interview with this famous artist and teacher passing through town.

One of the first artists to engage with the visual impact on all our lives of mass media, this "surrealist for the digital age" channeled the spirit of Marcel Duchamp's attempts in the early twentieth century to subvert the traditional definition of art. He was also influenced by pop artist Edward Ruscha’s approach to creating artworks fusing words and pictures derived from popular culture.

In Baldessari's mind, a word and an image were of equal value and he explored language and mass media culture in text-and-image paintings and photo compositions derived from film stills, magazines and other sources.

Baldessari once said that having studied art education at what is now known as San Diego State University, he was unsure if he was an artist or an educator. What is certain is that he will be remembered as a playful thinker who challenged traditional ideas of how to make art.

"Doing art," he said in a film made 2009 to accompany an exhibition at Tate Modern called, John Baldessari – Pure Beauty, "is the only thing I have come across that's gives me any idea that I am anywhere close to understanding what the universe is about.”

In another short film commissioned by Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2012, narrated by gravel-voiced singer Tom Waits, Baldessari said he suspected he would best be remembered as "the guy who put dots over people's faces”.

This was a reference to his practice of doctoring and manipulating photographic ephemera. From the mid-1980s, Baldessari would often obscure the often famous faces from movie stills with coloured price stickers.

He had a huge influence on many famous artists, including Scotland's Douglas Gordon, who cut out the eyes of Hollywood actors in film stills for his 100 Blind Stars series, and US artists, Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger. Sherman and Kruger once told Baldessari at a party in New York, "they couldn't have done it [had a successful career in art] without him.”

Baldessari was garlanded with many honours from the art world. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2008; awarded a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 2009 Venice Biennale and received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in 2014.

In the later chapters of his life, he became a world-famous art figure. From 2009 to 2011, the retrospective of his five-decade career travelled from the Tate Modern to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and MoMA in New York.

John Anthony Baldessari was born on June 17, 1931 in National City, California, a small town on both the edge of San Diego and the Mexican city of Tijuana. His parents, Antonio and Hedvig had met after arriving on the west coast from Austria and Denmark respectively.

Antonio was a metal worker who salvaged and sold scrap. He lived to be 90 and according to an interview given by his son, spoke in broken English until the day he died. Baldessari said his later attempts to explain the world around him as an artist were spurred by a desire to communicate simply with his father. Antonio and Hedvig were largely self-sustaining, growing their own fruit and vegetables on land they owned, while tending to rabbits and chickens.

Inspired by his book-loving mother, Baldessari showed an early aptitude and interest in the arts as a young boy. His artistic ability was noticed by his teachers and he was often picked to paint murals and do special projects. This vote of confidence gave him the courage to pursue art as a career, although his father worried it wasn’t a financially viable path.

He received a master’s degree in art in 1957 from what is now San Diego State University and taught art classes in San Diego-area public schools before becoming an assistant professor of art at San Diego State University.

He moved to Los Angeles and set up CalArts’ post-studio art course, which he described as “all the kind of art you didn’t need a studio to deal with.” He continued to teach there as his career became established and later joined the faculty at UCLA, building a legacy of painters, sculptors, photographers and installation artists who were inspired by his work but found their own direction.

Between 1960 and 1984, John Baldessari was married to Carol Ann Wixom, a teacher at a Montessori school. He is survived by a sister, Betty Sokol, a daughter Annamarie, and a son Tony.


John Baldessari: An appreciation by Thomas Lawson.

JOHN Baldessari was a significant member of the first generation of conceptual artists, creating a poetically discursive form that combines images and texts to dig into questions about the methods and purposes of art in the late 20th century, a period saturated with media imagery.

His work tends to combine visual and literary gags and puns – there is a lot of humour in it. He was also a hugely influential teacher, seeing his teaching as a vital extension of his art-making. In that role, he influenced a younger generation of artists who came to be identified as the "Pictures Generation”.

This was highlighted in the major retrospective of his work at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2010. This generation includes David Salle, Barbara Bloom, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, James Welling, Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, and myself.

As a teacher, his big insight was that traditional art school teaching wasn't meaningful when contemporary artists were making conceptual work, minimalist work, installation work, experimenting with video and sound and other new genres.

What he proposed, for advanced students, was what he called "Post-Studio," which concentrated on the why rather than the how of art making.

He didn't teach making skills, he brought information to the students; information about new work being done across the USA and in Europe (showing catalogues and slides, inviting young artists to come to the class at CalArts – this is the 1970s and 1980s, long before the internet made this kind of information sharing much easier).

To him, the interesting questions had to do with understanding the current situation, what are you going to do in response to that, and why. Almost all art school incorporate some version of this class now, but it was pioneered by John at CalArts.

I knew John quite well from the late 1970s on, as a gregarious and supportive elder figure, always eager to hang out and talk about art and gossip about artists.

He was supportive of my efforts, introduced me to people. In return, I wrote an essay for an early museum survey at IVAM, Valencia, Spain. He was also helpful in getting me a teaching job at CalArts, and encouraging me to take on the greater responsibilities of being dean of the School.

A few years ago we opened a new studio building on campus, and named it after him. He enjoyed the irony of having a fairly traditional studio building named after the master of post-studio, recognising the historical turn that has seen a return of interest in the more traditional forms of painting, drawing, and sculpture.

* Glasgow-born Thomas Lawson is an artist and dean of the School of Art at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). He is editor-in-chief of East of Borneo, an online journal focused on historical and contemporary art from Los Angeles and southern California.