If Baldessari’s ideas and imagery now have a similar ring, it is partly because of their far-reaching impact on today’s culture. He has been a teacher for virtually his entire artistic career, most significantly since the 1970 inception of the California Institute of Arts in Valencia. Cal Arts, as it is known, has had an influence on contemporary art in Los Angeles and New York disproportionate to its small size and relatively recent founding. Baldessari has played a key role in this process. Many of his students, such as David Salle, Troy Brauntuch, Matt Mullican, Jack Goldstein, James Welling and Ericka Beckman, have achieved success. All of them either use photographic imagery in their work or employ the cool, ironic wit that is Baldessari’s trademark. The idea of appropriation is as common today as the loaded brushstroke was in the 1950s, and Baldessari was one of the first appropriators.
Unlike many artists, Baldessari cares passionately about his teaching. “I’ve often felt there’s a fuzzy boundary line between my work as a teacher and my work as an artist,” he says. “I often think that the art I do is saying, ‘Looking, this is what I’ve been talking about.’ And when I’m teaching, I’m really doing art. I can be out there to say, ‘You might not be as wacko as you think you are. You don’t have to do work that looks like everything else. Your own ideas might be okay.’”
Paul Brach, the first dean of the art school at Cal Arts, gave Baldessari his first break. “John was this low-key, bemused man in a two-bit junior college in San Diego, acting as though he was the absolute center of the international art world. He was projecting these clumsy snapshots onto photo emulsion on canvas and having a sign painter letter the description underneath. I wanted someone who could open the students up to what critic Harold Rosenberg called the de-definition of art. John started a course called ‘Post-studio Art.’”
Baldessari gave the Cal Arts program a good dose of East Coast intellectual style, even though he didn’t make his first professional visit to New York until 1970. “One of the things I worked for at Cal Arts was to break the stranglehold of the L.A. esthetic. I constantly pushed to hire not from L.A. but from New York and Europe—to bring in an alternative esthetic.” Baldessari pauses for emphasis. “Now that’s a battle that’s been won, but you can’t believe what it was like. There was only one way to think, and that was dictated by the Ferus Gallery.” (Ferus, widely considered the first legitimate gallery for contemporary art in Los Angeles, was founded in 1957 by Walter Hopps and artist Ed Kienholz. Among the painters and sculptors showing there were Kienholz, Robert Irwin, Wallace Berman, Billy Al Bengston, Ken Price, Ed Moses, Craig Kauffman, John Altoon, Jay De Feo, Larry Bell and Ed Ruscha.)
“In the 1970s we were bringing out artists who are known now but were formative then: Doug Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Robert Smithson, Robert Barry, Lawrence Weiner, Daniel Buren, Vito Acconci, Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, Sol LeWitt. All at my invitation. Another thing I did was tell my students to move to New York.”
Baldessari’s conviction as teacher/role model stems from his own long search as a young artist for such guidance. He was born and raised in the modest community of National City, just south of San Diego. His parents were immigrants—his mother was Danish, his father Austrian—and there was little encouragement for his interest in art. “I always felt like a pariah doing art, and I felt I should be doing something more socially useful,” he confesses.
Moreover, in the 1950s San Diego was provincial in its attitudes toward producing art. Many teachers seemed to be painting int he style of Picasso’s Guernica period, filtered through the Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo. “A peer of mine called it ‘shower-curtain spiky art,’” laughs Baldessari. The master of this style was Rico LeBrun, who had disciples all over the state.
“The first time I got any sort of suspicion that I could do anything was around 1954, when my instructor talked me into entering a large juried exhibition that was part of the National Orange Show at the state fair in San Bernardino. That was the thing you did in those days. I entered a still life painted à la Cézanne.” Baldessari rummages around a box of old slides and puts one into the viewer: a still life of a spiky little potted plant, carefully painted in tones of brown and gray. “I got my first review in an art magazine, in ARTnews, by Jules Langsner. I was floored. I thought, well, maybe I’m something other than ordinary.”
That is exactly what Baldessari turned out to be, though not for another ten years. After graduating from college, he joined the legions of high-school art teachers who painted in their spare time. “My life consisted of sending in slides, then sending in paintings, then getting the paintings back. I did reasonably well. ‘Artists from Southern California,’ ‘Artists from California,’ ‘Artists from the Southwest,’ ‘Artists from the Northwest,’ ‘Artists from the United States.’ I was in all of those shows. But I didn’t know how paintings got into galleries or museums, because none of my models—my teachers—were showing in galleries or museums. I knew there was information I didn’t have, but I didn’t know how to get access to that information.”
With characteristic determination, Baldessari began a quest. He systematically, if naively, began searching out the meaning of art and the role of the artist. In 1957 he enrolled in a summer course being taught by Rico LeBrun at U.C.L.A. “I knew he must be n artist because everybody was talking about him.” LeBrun spotted the younger artist’s talent and advised him to quit teaching and go to the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles for graduate work.
At that time, Otis was one of the last art academies where students drew and sculpted from the model. Again there was an exhibition, and again Baldessari was singled out by a critic, who wrote, “It’s nice to know someone in L.A. knows how to draw.”
“That was it. I stopped drawing and dropped out of school,” recalls Baldessari. But the seeds of his future were planted. He went back to National City in 1961, married a schoolteacher, painted and taught. “My fate was almost sealed,” he says. Then he began taking photographs as notes for his paintings and pinning up his writings around the studio. “Paul Brach once saw my library and said, ‘You import your culture.’ He was right. I live in my head. I enjoy raw information.”
In 1965, after years of showing slides around galleries, Baldessari was finally scheduled for a show. The gallery went bankrupt before the opening. Instead of despairing, Baldessari felt liberated. “I gave up all hope of showing,” he says, “and thought, what the hell. Since nobody cares, why do I have to cosmeticize everything by translating it into painting? Why can’t I use straight information? Straight photography?” That was the epiphany that changed his life.
Baldessari walks over to a corner of the studio and pulls out the first of his Conceptual paintings, just a photo with text. He used to drive around National City snapping pictures at random without even looking at the subject. After developing them directly on the canvas, he had the address or description of the scene lettered as a caption: “Looking East on 4th and Chula Vista,” for example.
“It seemed more like the truth. Landscape painting are idealized. Telephone poles, telephone lines—that’s real. I wasn’t traipsing around the woods looking for the perfect spot. I was making art out if where I was, in National City.”
His next series eliminated the photographs and simply appropriated text from art books. In his favorite piece from that period in the mid-1960s, he appropriated a scene from D. W. Griffith’s film Intolerance, labeling it “Semi-Close-Up of Girl by Geranium (Soft View) Finishes watering it—examines plant to see if ti has any signs of growth, finds slight evidence—smiles—one part is sagging—she runs her fingers along it—raises her hand over plant to encourage it to grow.” As in so much of Baldessari’s art, fiction is somehow made true. “That piece resonates within the way I wish all my pieces would,” he says.
Around that time, a number of dealers—Nicholas Wilder and Richard Bellamy among them—allowed that Baldessari’s paintings were interesting but confessed they weren’t sure what he was up to. A show of Baldessari’s word paintings was finally scheduled at the Molly Barnes Gallery one week in 1967. Coincidentally, Kosuth’s first show opened that same night at the Eugenia Butler Gallery right down the block. Both were reviewed in Artforum by Jane Livingston. Baldessari’s career was launched.
During those early years, Baldessari had other people execute his work. “I was finished with painting. I was attempting to make something that didn’t emanate art signals.” Perhaps his most famous gesture was an exhibition at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1971. Unable to travel there, he had students execute the show by writing repeatedly on the wall: “I will not make any more boring art.”
Baldessari winces at discussing his private life. He has two grown children, a daughter studying math at Berkeley and a son who wants to be an artist. He and his wife recently separated. “I’ve never talked much about my private life,” he admits. “I can make sense of my art much better than my life. I never wanted to talk about my feelings, but now I see that as a weakness.”
It is more than a coincidence that Baldessari’s pieces from 1981, the “Vanitas” series, are concerned with loss, separation and mortality. Photographic still lifes, they are based on the 17th-century Dutch vanitas paintings, wherein each subject is symbolic of the transience of human life. But Baldessari hasn’t lost his sense of humor. In one picture, a flashlight stands in for a flickering flame.
“I was getting more concerned with content over form in art,” says Baldessari. “I thought it would be interesting to zero in on the emotional meaning in the work. I decided to explore it through art history in still lifes, where a glass of wine or a clock wasn’t just something to paint but meant something. I started with a series called ‘Seven Deadly Sins, Seven Virtues.’ I liked the idea that one could describe and dissect vices and virtues so exactly then, whereas things get so muddy. Could you imagine Dürer doing a study called Anxiety or Repression? I’m beginning to think about my interior life. I realize that life has something more than a cerebral side. There’s an emotional side that I’d always kept under wraps. I now have to laboratory and subject.”
Baldessari feared his career would end with the advent of the new figurative painting. “I thought that when Minimal and Conceptual art began to wane, I would wane with them—like when the king dies and all the slaves get buried with him. But somehow I got through the gate. I felt like a person who has been revived: there’s almost an obligation to use your life correctly. I’m really trying to listen to myself rather than just think about what I should do. That’s why a lot of my work these days looks introspective, even impenetrable. Yet many think it’s my best.”
One recent piece is Black and White Decision, which was hailed as a masterwork by Los Angeles Herald Examiner critic Christopher Knight when it was shown in Los Angeles. A triangular black-and-white photograph of two rich men playing chess is mounted point down atop a rectangular triptych of cropped movie stills. On the left, Hopalong Cassidy, in black clothes on a white horse, lie in wait behind a boulder. A flopped version of this photo is placed on the far right, so that both cowboy couples look at a center photo of an anxious man and woman peering from behind two oil drums. All of Baldessari’s work has to do with decisions, but, as Knight points out, these situations are of a particular kind. The chess players, the cowboys and the cornered couple are all deciding what move to make to outwit their opponents. “The situations that they’re in evoke decisions based on logic, instinct, and, above all, on the desire for survival,” Knight wrote. Such a description could well be applied to the situations in which Baldessari finds himself.