John Baldessari lives and works in Santa Monica, in a small building smothered in ivy. When I visited, he was dressed all in black, and at 6-foot-7-inches, he’s a distinctive figure. Born on June 17, 1931 in National City, Calif., a small, gritty town on the border with Mexico, Baldessari is a first-generation American: his father was from Italy and his mother from Denmark. Uncertain about his future when he left school, he took up art hesitantly, hedging his bets by teaching. “I thought I would live in National City forever,” he says, “teach, maybe have a family, and do my art on the weekends.” Indeed, he taught continuously for 40 years, starting in 1967. The list of his students at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where he spent most of his immensely influential career as an educator, is long and distinguished; it includes Barbara Bloom, Matt Mullican, Tony Oursler, David Salle and James Welling, among many others.
A pivotal gesture for Baldessari—he says it marks when he stopped being a painter and started to follow Duchamp’s lead—was the 1970 Cremation Project, in which he burnt all the abstract paintings he had made between 1955 and 1963 and put the ashes into a book-shaped casket. It was shown in the 1970 “Software” exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York and established him, along with Bruce Nauman and Ed Ruscha, as a West Coast Conceptual artist. The same year, Baldessari moved to Santa Monica, where he met many artists and writers, and began to collect photographic images from films and other commercial sources that he would use in his work; during the same period, he photographed himself in deliberately amateurish compositions, and employed local sign painters to execute text-based works. Many of the concepts he was exploring—conflating painting and photography, questioning authorial prerogatives, co-opting found images—have continued to animate his work. An inveterate rule-breaker and a “closet formalist,” he likes to say that “the esthetic takes care of itself.”
Baldessari’s diffident manner belies his achievements: awarded the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 2009 Venice Biennale, he is being honored with a major retrospective at Tate Modern in London that opens this month [Oct. 13, 2009-Jan. 10, 2010] and travels to the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona [Feb. 21-May 16,2010] and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art [June 20-Sept. 12, 2010] before concluding its tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York [Oct. 17, 2010-Jan 9, 2011]. A catalogue raisonné of Baldessari’s prints and multiples is being released this fall by Hudson Hills Press. The following interview took place in May.
Karen Wright Why don’t we start with the “Jazz at the Art Center” piece you did in 1962.
John Baldessari That was for the La Jolla Art Center. I was living in National City, and I had an artist friend who was working in a record store and very much into music, and he wanted to arrange a series of jazz concerts at the Art Center and asked if I would do some art to be on the stage. So I did these four pieces, wall-hung gridded boxes that things could be put in. It almost sounds a bit Joseph Cornell-like, doesn’t it? A couple of them had mechanized parts that moved, and the top images were abstract. It was the first time that I did anything collaboratively. And at a museum, too. That’s a big deal when you’re just starting out.
KW It was probably a moment when you were pretty frustrated about being an artist.
JB [laughs] Well, every artist is frustrated. If you weren’t you wouldn’t work, would you? But, no, I realized that I was in a place where there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for an artist, but being there was my own decision because that was where I had a job teaching. Had I lived in Los Angeles or New York, there would have been more opportunities. But I had accepted that part about it and I just dealt with it the best way I could.
KW The move to Santa Monica was important for you, wasn’t it?
JB Yes, there I think my whole life changed. I’d been teaching at a community college and I also had other part-time teaching jobs. One of them was at the UCLA extension program. Then the University of California decided to open up a campus in San Diego, UCSD, and they decided to have an art department. That opened in 1968. The person they had hired as chair was a New York painter, Paul Brach, whom I’d met socially, at art openings and so on, from time to time. We had some things in common: we both liked to smoke cigars, and we both had an endless supply of jokes that we traded. And we were both very passionate about art. So I got this call asking if I’d be part of the originating faculty. I would get more money, I would get a studio, and I only had to teach two days a week. What was I going to do, say no? That literally changed my life. Then the next miracle was that he was asked to be the chair of the art department at CalArts, which was opening in 1970. I was asked if I would come teach for him there. That was the occasion for my move to Los Angeles.
KW And while you were at UCSD, I understand David Antin was also there.
JB Yes, he was also hired at the time and we shared an office. He was a pretty well-known critic in New York, and a poet. He was hired to come out and run the art gallery. In fact, I think he only put on one show, which was a Fluxus show. There was a promise there would be a big catalogue, which never came off. Of course, the Fluxus artists were not happy. What he did use his money for was to bring out New York poets. Which was good, I loved it. David was a real supporter of my work and actually he got me my first show in Los Angeles, where I had failed going around with my work. He knew a dealer, Molly Barnes, who’s still around in New York. She had a gallery and said she would show me for one week between shows. I said, well, one week is better than no time at all. Then, by luck, it escalated, because the show that was going to follow mine got delayed, so I think I probably got three or four weeks [“John Baldessari: Pure Beauty,” Oct. 6-28, 1968].