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John Baldessari, the godfather of conceptual art, has died
Via Wikimedia Commons

John Baldessari, the godfather of conceptual art, has died

Tributes have poured in for the legendary Los Angeles artist who passed away on Thursday aged 88

Legendary conceptual artist John Baldessari has died, aged 88. 

The ‘godfather of conceptual art’ passed away at his Los Angeles home on Thursday (January 2), with news confirmed yesterday (January 5) by his studio manager. Baldessari is credited with transforming LA into a global art capital through his humorous artworks and decades of teaching.

Born in California in 1931 to a nurse and salvage dealer, Baldessari started painting in the 1950s, completing a master’s degree in art at San Diego State College. Aged 28, he began teaching, taking jobs in schools, junior colleges, and community colleges, before eventually joining the faculty at the University of California in 1968. 

Tributes have poured in for the artist, who was still exhibiting work as recently as 2017. American photographer Catherine Opie shared a photo of Baldessari on Instagram, with the caption: “RIP my beautiful friend and colleague. You were a gift to all of us here in LA and the world.” The Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, which represented Baldessari, tweeted: “It is with immense sadness that I write to let you know of the death of the intelligent, loving, and incomparable John Baldessari. The loss to his family, his fellow artists, his studio staff, friends, and devoted former students is beyond measure.”

London’s Serpentine Gallery shared a video of the artist from its 2007 24-hour Experiment Marathon, in which Baldessari turns water into wine. In the clip, he jokes, “anyone out there who believes in telekinesis, please raise my hand”, before introducing his “old Jesus trick” of using hydrochloric acid, phenolphthalein solution, and sodium hydroxide to turn water into wine, then back into water again.

Also paying tribute was Andrew Russeth, art critic and executive editor of ARTnews, who wrote on Twitter: “RIP the wry, gallant, indefatigable John Baldessari, who burned his early art, imbued conceptualism with joyful absurdity, and never, ever, ever stopped experimenting.” While art history professor Michael Lobel remembered Baldessari’s appearance on The Simpsons, which saw a flashback of Marge attempting to score an interview with the artist.

Speaking to Dazed in 2014, Baldessari discussed his stint teaching at a camp for juvenile delinquents. “At the beginning of my career, I thought art was just some form of mutual masturbation,” he explained. “I was going to be a social worker because I didn’t think art helped anyone. Then I was asked to teach at a camp for juvenile delinquents who had the attention span of five minutes. One of the inmates asked me if I would open up the arts and crafts room in the evenings. I realised they needed art more than I did, so that was a big turning point in my life.” Baldessari went on to teach in California for decades, boasting students including Jim ShawMike Kelley, and James Welling, among many others.

Initially trained as a painter, Baldessari began experimenting with text and photography in the mid-60s. These early works – traditionally simple and direct – centred statements and questions that aimed to create a ‘third narrative’, where any meaning behind his work was left to the interpretation of the viewer.

“One of the inmates asked me if I would open up the arts and crafts room in the evenings. I realised they needed art more than I did, so that was a big turning point in my life” – John Baldessari on teaching juvenile delinquents

Though by the 70s, the artist had become so disenchanted with his work that he decided to burn all of the paintings he created between 1953 and 1966, as part of his now-renowned piece, “The Cremation Project” (1970). The action represented his transformation from painter to conceptual artist, and concluded with Baldessari baking the ashes into cookies. The ashes and freshly-made bakes were then placed into urns, with each lost work immortalised by a bronze plaque that featured its birth and death dates, as well as the recipe for the cookies. Discussing the project the year before, Baldessari said it was an act to “rid my life of accumulated art”, describing it as a “reductive, recycling piece”. He added: “I consider all these paintings a body of work in the real sense of the word. Will I save my life by losing it? Will a Phoenix arise from the ashes? Will the paintings having become dust become materials again? I don’t know but I feel better.”

The following year, he created his most well-known work, “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art” (1971), a lithograph that repeated those words in black and white, reminiscent of an old-fashioned school punishment. In the subsequent years, Baldessari continued to make prints, while experimenting with performance, film, and the arbitrary system of rules associated with both language and games. By the 80s, the artist began making collages, using news photos and Hollywood stills, before turning to white price tags which he’d use to cover up public figures he disliked in images – this eventually evolved into his signature technique of painting white, black, or coloured dots over faces in photos. Baldessari once remarked that despite his array of multimedia approaches, he thinks he’ll always be remembered as “the guy who puts dots over people’s faces”.

More recently, Baldessari created three-dimensional prints, as well as sculptures, his first of which was created in 2007. Titled “Beethoven’s Trumpet (with Ear)”, the piece depicted a gigantic bronze trumpet extending from an oversized ear sculpture on the wall – when the viewer spoke into it, the sound caused a short recital of a phrase from a Beethoven string quartet. Baldessari wanted his art to empower the viewer, encouraging them to see “something out of nothing”. He reportedly told his students: “Don’t look at things – look in between things.”

Over his lifetime, Baldessari held over 200 solo shows and partook in over 1,000 group shows. Between 2009 and 2011, a five-decade retrospective of his work – titled Pure Beauty – travelled from London to LA to New York. In 2004, he became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, received an Americans for the Arts lifetime achievement award the following year, was honoured with a Golden Lion award from the Venice Biennale in 2009, and received the National Humanities Medal for his contribution as a visual artist, awarded to him by Barack Obama in 2015. In 2013, the California Institute of the Arts – where Baldessari taught from 1970 to 1988 – opened the John Baldessari Art Studio Building, and in the same year the artist sat for a portrait by David Hockney.

Over his decade-spanning career, Baldessari played with found images and texts, turning them into chaotic and acclaimed works of art. Using mixed media, the experimental artist explored the influence of language and asked the viewer to take control of each work’s narrative, emboldening them to revel in their own confusion. 

“I have no fantasies,” he once told Dazed. “I just try and be the best artist I can be.”