It is hard to think of another artist who was more beloved than John Baldessari, who died Thursday at 88. Although he was not a household name, he was hugely influential as a professor, and helped establish Los Angeles as the country’s reigning art-school capital. A tall, soft-spoken man with shaggy white hair and a biblical beard, Baldessari was easy to recognize. His champions like to say that he was “much more” than a teacher, but the statement offends, with its implicit suggestion that teaching is a mundane pursuit compared with the majesty of making art.
The truth is that Baldessari not only loved teaching but made it the central theme of his art. As a founder of conceptual art and professor at the California Institute of the Arts (or CalArts), among other places, he seemed at once enamored of art history but alert to the comic absurdity of having his students strive to match the grandeur of the past. His visual style derives from a corner of life that we never even knew had a style — i.e., the classroom. Many of his compositions feature photographs or text borrowed from disparate sources, and have the lucid, unadorned look of educational materials, especially flash cards and posters inscribed with useful information in sans-serif, jumbo-size type.
Baldessari’s best-known work — a lithograph, from 1971, titled “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art” — takes its inspiration from the improbable source of grade-school punishments. The title sentence, jotted in neatly slanting cursive, is repeated 17 times, filling the page from top to bottom. It is certainly amusing: a sly assault on conceptual art, disparaging the movement’s didactic, text-heavy creations even as it doubles as a definitive example of one.
Note to graduate students: Can someone please figure out whether this piece influenced the scene in “The Shining,” in which a writer’s much-awaited manuscript is revealed to consist of nothing but one sentence (“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”) repeated ad infinitum?
Evocations of academic failure recur in Baldessari’s work, perhaps nowhere more humorously than in the five-foot-tall painting titled “Wrong” (1966-68). It juxtaposes a fuzzy black-and-white photograph of Baldessari standing in front of a scrawny palm with a caption that says, in its pithy entirety, “WRONG.” The artist conceived the piece, he explained, after reading in a how-to photography book that you should never pose a subject in front of a tree, because the tree will look like it is growing directly from your subject’s head. “Wrong” can feel like a tribute to the countless young artists and freethinkers who have had their tender egos crushed by someone who shouted “wrong” when they were right.
Baldessari’s work descends directly from that of Marcel Duchamp, the French-born Dadaist who made art feel like a branch of philosophy. Duchamp, of course, favored art that offered evidence of ideas rather than craft, of brainy thinking rather than technical facility. In 1963, when Baldessari was still living in suburban National City, Calif., teaching art at a local school and spending his Sundays splashing out paintings in the big-brush style of the Abstract Expressionists, he had a chance to see an important Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum. It was a revelation. By the end of the decade, he had put down his brushes. He was turning out text-laden paintings whose execution he outsourced to professional sign painters.
Unlike Duchamp, whose work can be difficult and arcane, Baldessari is a conceptualist with a common touch. Or rather a common non-touch. His work is accessible, unpretentious and occasionally glib, and it has proved irritating to some of his more theoretically inclined contemporaries. In 1969, in the essay “Art After Philosophy,” Joseph Kosuth, a fellow devotee of text-based art, derided Baldessari’s artworks as so many conceptual “cartoons” that are “not really relevant to this discussion.”
But then Baldessari was never an artist’s artist so much as a graduate student’s artist. His openness and tolerant irreverence made him inordinately popular as a teacher, and his reputation soared when he arrived at CalArts, a no-grades-no-requirements school, where he declined to teach painting and instead named his course, rather provocatively, “Post-Studio Art.” The implication was that the atelier was a thing of the past and students, instead of aspiring to Promethean creative heights, could be more contemporary as recyclers of found photographs and other appropriated material.
Among his many memorable students who left California and carried his influence to New York are David Salle, James Welling, Barbara Bloom and Edward Henderson. Asked about his teacher’s style, Mr. Henderson recalled, in a reverent tone, “Whatever he said meant 20 things.” Many of his students kept up with him after they left school, and he amiably answered their phone calls and mail. Mr. Henderson pulled out an old postcard from Baldessari, circa 1983. On the front side, it shows an unironically cute scene at the Cincinnati Zoo: four white tiger cubs at play.
On the flip side, in the space reserved for messages, Baldessari wrote a single sentence: “O.K., O.K., What were my last words to you?”
The message bore no discernible relation to the photograph of the tiger cubs. In this way, it resembled his work. Text plus image and many possible paths between them.
But it was not, of course, only Baldessari’s former students who were thinking back to their vanished school days this week. Baldessari flourished in an age when American artists were in a back-to-school mood. In early generations, many of the best American painters could not afford college and had no educational degrees beyond high school, but the pursuit of an M.F.A. had become common among artists by the 1970s. The art-school boom and general professionalization of the dreaming creative class helped pushed art in a conceptual direction, where it remains today, a Babel of borrowed images and languages.
Baldessari, in his own work, questioned the limitations of teaching, and I suspect he will be remembered over time, somewhat like the great Josef Albers, as both an artist and educator. Baldessari was a brilliant Californian who saw the absurdity in almost everything, including the conceptual strategies he championed. He once said, “Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.”