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John Baldessari, the artist who created a revolution by burning his own paintings

STIR pays tribute to the American artist, one of the revolutionaries of the conceptual art movement, who was known for blending images and text in his pioneering works.

by Georgina MaddoxPublished on : Jan 20, 2020

One of the most revered American conceptual artists, John Baldessari passed away at the age of 88 on January 2, 2020. A painter in the 1960s, Baldessari began to incorporate text and photography into his canvases. This led him to printmaking; in the ‘70s he took to making short films, shooting on video and creating installations, sculpture and photography. Soon he began to be known as the artist who pushed the boundaries of a work of art. It is well-known that his work influenced that of Cindy Sherman, David Salle, Annette Lemieux, and Barbara Kruger, among others.

In New York, he was being represented by gallerist Marian Goodman. Grieving the loss, Goodman expressed on social media that the artist was “intelligent, loving, and incomparable. The loss to his family, fellow artists, his studio staff, friends and devoted former students is beyond measure”.

John Baldessari’s Beethoven’s Trumpet (with Ear) Opus # 133 | Obituary | STIRworld
John Baldessari’s Beethoven’s Trumpet (with Ear) Opus # 133 Image Credit: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

Baldessari was found to be unique right from his days as a young artist. One of the popular stories about him is that he began his career like most artists in the 1950s by painting semi abstracts. However, unlike most of his colleagues, Baldessari took his entire stack of paintings to a crematorium in San Diego and destroyed the entire lot. He then collected the ashes and kept them in 10 containers. He also featured some of it in his cookie dough works, which were exhibited much later at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The artist came up with a famed quote to explain his deeds, which has been published several times over the years: “To be creative you have to have destruction quite often too. It's like the idea of a phoenix rising from the ashes.”

One can also observe that Baldessari’s place of birth had influenced his interesting and revolutionary approach to life: he was born in 1931 on the border between Mexico and the US, in National City, California, just a few miles from Tijuana. He went to study art at San Diego, and was quickly drawn into academics, taking up teaching at a junior high school, a community college, and then the University of California, San Diego. It has been documented that he spent a summer teaching art to teenagers at a camp for juvenile offenders, run by the local authority.

John Baldessari, Pure Beauty, at the Metropolitan Museum Part II | Obituary | STIRworld
John Baldessari, Pure Beauty, at the Metropolitan Museum Part II Image Credit:, courtesy Youtube still

Baldessari clearly believed that art could be revolutionary and put his teaching skills into his art, though with a fair amount of sarcasm. He is known for his deadpan ‘advice’ and tips on selling art, printed on yellow sun-board. Tips, like ‘paintings with light colours sell more quickly than paintings with dark colours’, definitely had its sucker punch on the art world that he took seriously, but he had his tongue firmly in his cheek when it came to commenting on certain practices in the art realm. 

During his six-decade career as an artist, Baldessari was spotlighted in over 200 solo exhibitions and 1,000 group shows. He is widely recognised as one of the leading figures of the conceptualism movement, having inspired a generation of radical-thinking artists such as Sherman and Kruger.

John Baldessari receiving the National Medal of Arts by former U.S. President Barack Obama | Obituary | STIRworld
John Baldessari receiving the National Medal of Arts by former U.S. President Barack Obama Image Credit: Courtesy of Getty Images

In 2014, the artist was honoured with the National Medal of Arts by former U.S. President Barack Obama for his widespread influence in the field of arts. He was also awarded the Golden Lions for Lifetime Achievement at the prestigious Venice Biennale back in 2009, as reported by CNN.

After these accolades, especially the award from President Obama, it has been reported that collectors who would probably sneer at the idea of ‘collecting’ conceptual art, started lining up at galleries, trying to acquire an artwork by Baldessari. One can only imagine the artist laughing with mirth at the irony of the situation, having burnt his own paintings.

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