John Baldessari currently has three exhibitions opening—a massive career retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a smaller show at the Fondazione Prada, and a presentation of new works at Marianne Goodman Gallery.  We sat with him underneath his massive Brain Cloud image in the Metropolitan Museum's lobby, and the Los Angeles-based artist discussed what being an art teacher has taught him about art. A tall, even imposing figure, Baldessari has mentored a generation of California artists, but his influence extends globally. By choosing to exhibit canvases that he had painted by professional sign painters (after very famously destroying his own early works) and by engaging in a series of visually witty puns and playful theoretical exercises,  Baldessari has become known as the foremost Conceptual Artist. He hates the term.


KEN MILLER: What is the significance for you of showing at The Metropolitan Museum?

JOHN BALDESSARI: Oh, the whole world knows the Met. When tourists come to New York, it's the museum they go to. It's such an honor to show here—I would show in the coatroom or the bathroom. It's one of the major encyclopedic venues in the world, so your competition is not just your peers. It's art from throughout the centuries from all cultures.

MILLER: Is there an ironic component for you, since you've done pieces that parody the orthodoxy taught in art textbooks?

BALDESSARI: There is. I have great reverence for art history, but I thumb my nose at people who seem to know it all. There are so many ways that you can interpret art, as you can with people.

MILLER: You've said that your work as a teacher has influenced you to be more open-minded...

BALDESSARI: My approach to doing art and to having taught art is that it doesn't do any good to lecture, because it goes in one ear and comes out the same ear.

MILLER: When you look at the landscape of contemporary art, do you see your influence on artists?

BALDESSARI: I think I'm too close to it to really tell. If I see anyone's work that looks too much like mine, I can say that I had no influence. My friend Sol Lewitt said, "People always think I'm interested in art that looks like mine, but I'm interested in art that doesn't look like mine." When I see something that looks similar to mine, I get kind of embarrassed.

MILLER: You're typically referred to as a "conceptual artist"—

BALDESSARI: Which I think is meaningless, by the way. Categorical terms for art are useful at the beginning of things. It comes from writing about it; you're trying to find a through-line. It pertains for a while, but then it doesn't really fit anymore.

MILLER: The description "conceptual art" almost seems to distract from the aesthetic qualities of your work.

BALDESSARI: Exactly. And what art doesn't come out of an idea? It's crazy. I think the irony is that there was this sort of war by some of the hardcore New York Conceptualists [saying] that I wasn't really Conceptualist. And I was like, "That's what I've been trying to tell you!"

MILLER: You use such a bright, almost Pop color palette. What attracts you to these colors?

BALDESSARI: I adore Matisse absolutely. But once I stopped painting, I stopped using color in what you'd call a relational way - "This kind of green goes really nicely by this kind of red," and so on... I just said, "That's over with," and began to use color as a kind of signal, like how you have different colors of wires. I use the same colors over and over again. Not in a way where it's supposed to look good, but where it signals something.


BALDESSARI: It just happens to look good. I'm glad you said that! Why work at making something look good? It's going to look beautiful anyway....  It's almost a contradiction of terms that if you're spending most of your waking hours thinking about beauty and taste, you can probably make something beautiful with your eyes closed. So why work at it? It's going to look beautiful anyway. Well, attractive maybe, not beautiful...

MILLER: A lot of your art is almost about opening up to mistakes...

BALDESSARI: The idea of mistakes is interesting because it means there's a right and wrong about things. I think art is what you can get away with.

I have a very old piece where [a person] is standing in front of a palm tree, and underneath it says "Wrong." Years back, when you bought film, it had little tips on how to take a good photograph. And it said not to pose your subject in front of a tree because it will look like the tree is growing out of their head.  I said, "Well what would happen if I did that? Would it be so wrong?" So a lot of times I like to do things people say you shouldn't do. Where it really started is that I used to collect books on how to teach art because I thought they were hilarious. I'm intrigued by the idea of people who "know" how to teach art—what is "right" and what is "wrong." I came across a book where this guy had done little thumbnail sketches showing the right way and the wrong way to paint a landscape. When I looked at all of the "wrong" ones, I liked those better! It's just a matter of taste.

MILLER: Since so many of your pieces pair text and image, do you tend to begin with one or the other of those two components?

BALDESSARI: That's like chicken and egg. Sometimes it's chicken and sometimes it's egg. And I consider word and image to have equal value. What's the difference if I show a picture of a house or write "HOUSE?" It's the same message.

MILLER: You get asked all the time about destroying your older work. I'm curious why you chose 1966 as the cut-off?

BALDESSARI: That's the point when I stopped making the work by myself. At that point I started having other people make my canvases and assigning painters so that I wouldn't touch it.

MILLER: There is a famous list of assignments you gave your CalArts students. Do you have one assignment that you'd like to give now?

BALDESSARI: I can't say this is mine, because I got it from [former Art Forum editor] Tim Griffin the other day. But he asked, "What are all of the things you're not thinking of right now?" So I'm going to start keeping a list of all of the things I'm not thinking of.