I’ve always done what I want. Luckily I’m blesses with a well-developed sense of absurdity—it’s what saved me. - John Baldessari
John Baldessari was an American artist and educator who blended various mediums to create works that were thoughtful and often satirical.
John Baldessari was born in National City, California in 1931. He had a sister who was four years older. His mother was a nurse from Denmark. His father was an entrepreneurial salvage dealer from Italy who bought old houses, tore them down and salvaged the building materials. Baldessari credits the sorting and playing with the salvaged materials from his father’s business as the basis for his art.
He attended San Diego State college, where he received a degree in Art Education. He then went on to Berkley and completed his Masters degree in painting at San Diego State in 1957. He also studied at the Otis Art Institute and Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles.
He began teaching in a junior high school in San Diego, and credits that time with understanding the power that art can have, watching the students use their imaginations to create their own language. He spent a summer teaching teenagers at a camp for juvenile delinquents run by the California Youth Authority. Baldessari joked that he had been hired only because of his size, 6 foot 7 inches, but the students at the camp became extremely interested in making art and asked if he would open the studio for them at night. He said that experience made him realize how valuable art can be and caused him to focus more on his own work.
During this time, Baldessari painted and met other artists. He taught at the California Institute of the Arts from 1970 to 1988 and at the University of California, Los Angeles, from 1996 to 2005.Through his own work and teaching, Baldessari helped to enrich the contemporary art scene in Los Angeles.
Throughout his career, Baldessari used text and photographs on canvas, plus humor and irony. In 1970, he and five of his friends went to a crematorium and burned all of the works they had done between 1953 and 1966. The called this The Cremation Project. Some of the ashes were placed in large boxes, others baked into cookies and displayed, along with plaques commemorating the birth and death dates of each painting and the cookie recipe, at the Museum of Modern Art’s Information exhibit of Conceptual art.
Baldessari is probably best known for his Dot paintings. He painted colored dots, like those used for pricing at yard sales, over faces in photographs. “What the artist does is jump-start your mind,” he said, “and make you see something fresh, as if you were a visitor to the moon. An artist breathes life back into stereotypes.”
He was married to Carol Ann Wixom from 1960 to 1984. The couple had two children.
Baldessari was on the Board of Trustees of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2004, received a Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement from the Venice Biennale in 2009, and was awarded the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in 2014.
His works are in the permanent collection of the Guggenheim, MoMA, the Hirschhorn Museum, the Broad Collection and many other major galleries and museums
Christopher Knight. Interview with John Baldessari. Smithsonian Institutes. Archives of American Art. April 4-5, 1992.
Jori Finkel. John Baldessari, Who Gave Conceptual Art a Dose of Wit, Is Dead at 88. The New York Times. January 5, 2020.