Major retrospective of artist John Baldessari opens at LACMA

"Cigar Smoke to Match Clouds That Are the Same," by John Baldessari.
Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, NY

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The Los Angeles-based visual artist John Baldessari is among the most influential living artists today. The most comprehensive U.S. exhibit of his work in 20 years opens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Sunday.

One hundred fifty works by John Baldessari are on display in the galleries of LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum. They span nearly five decades of Baldessari’s work as an artist.

One of the oldest is an acrylic on canvas from 1966. On a yellow canvas the artists has painted these words: "Tips for artists who want to sell. Generally speaking paintings with light colors sell more quickly than paintings with dark colors. Subjects that sell well: maddona and child, landscapes, flower paintings, still lifes (free of morbid props, dead birds, etc.) Nudes, marine pictures, abstracts and surrealism. Subject matter is important: it has been said paintings with cows and hens in them collect dust while the same paintings with bulls and roosters sell."

Baldessari is taking a shot at the commercial aspect of art making.

"He was very contrary to his time," LACMA Director Michael Govan said, "because when he was an artist or starting to be an artist that was a time when the abstract expressionists, Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning ruled and it was all about the artist’s touch and the hand work and the emotion."

By hiring sign painters for this series of works known as “text and image paintings,” Baldessari boldly affirmed that the artist’s ideas and their arrangement were on par with his brushwork. Exhibit curator Leslie Jones called him a pioneer in a provocative art form.

"He is known as a conceptual artist and I know the word conceptual can kind of turn people off, but something that has always characterized Baldessari’s work is his sense of humor and irony which I think makes his work very approachable," she said. "So while at first appearance the use of all words can be off putting, once they read the words it’s much more accessible."

Another acrylic on canvas reads, “Everything is purged from this painting but art; no ideas have entered this work.” It’s conceptual art denying that it’s conceptual art, like Rene Magritte’s “This is not a pipe” painting.

1970 was a pivotal year for John Baldessari. He staged and documented the “cremation” of all the artwork he’d completed between 1953 and 1966. That act nailed shut the coffin of Baldessari the painter. That year he moved from National City, a San Diego suburb, to Los Angeles. Within its blossoming art scene, he began what became a nearly four decade career as college art professor.

Baldessari told an audience gathered for a preview of his LACMA retrospective that the Southland was a treasure trove for “appropriation art,” the term used to describe this new work.

"I would go every place just trying to find imagery, books, magazines, newspapers, anything. I would go Dumpster diving at photo processing houses. And then somebody told me about this place in Burbank that sold old 8x10 production stills from movies, I went out there," Baldessari said.

He superimposed and created mirror images of cowboys, business executives and B-movie actors. Movies and magazines had made these black and white images banal. In a series of 1980s works Baldessari covered the faces with large blue, yellow, and green dots. The work questioned clichés and stereotypes.

Through manipulation of images and humor, LACMA curator Leslie Jones said, Baldessari pushed the viewer to probe the multiple meanings of written and visual language long before JPEGs, scanners, and PhotoShop.

"I think Baldessari has been prophetic in many ways because today people on the internet have become used to taking imagery, cutting it, pasting it, doing whatever they want with it. But John was doing this, of course, as early as the early 80s without access to the internet and the easy manipulation of imagery."

Baldessari’s appropriation of images opened the door for many contemporary artists such as Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman, both of whom studied with him. His life’s work has been about creating art that communicates to people in a language they understand.

Baldessari said he found that that didn’t play well with some artists at a New York salon in the 1960s. He recalled that you could hear a pin drop after he described a conceptual art work.

"And somebody said, 'well how would that fit into art history?' And I said, 'I really don’t care.' There’s still that idea of tradition, certain things you can do and certain things you can’t do. What I love about Los Angeles is that you just do it because we don’t know about art history anyway," he said to laughs from the audience of about 50 people.

“John Baldessari: Pure Beauty” a retrospective of the artist’s work, opens at the L.A. County Museum of Art on Sunday. It’s on view through September; then it’ll travel to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.