John Baldessari and Alejandro Cesarco

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 6)

In the challenging world of conceptual art, where execution of the work is regarded as secondary to the idea or concept behind it, traditions are meaningless and the very nature of art – including the term “conceptual art” itself – is constantly called into question. John Baldessari, the nearest thing to a revered master in a cultural sphere that disdains hierarchy, and inventive young artist Alejandro Cesarco successfully negotiated the cerebral landmines of their artistic domain, forging a rich, playful and productive relationship.

Visually, mentor and protégé make a striking pair: Baldessari is tall, bearded, white of hair and loose of limb. His laugh is relaxed yet hearty. Like some shaggy Viking sea captain, he looms genially over the slight, fine-boned Cesarco of close-cropped hair, neat clothes, scholar’s glasses, and keen wit. Clearly both speak the same language. In conversation, they tumble into merriment, swatting about theories of art – simultaneously embracing bold theories and suspicious of them.

John Baldessari and Alejandro Cesarco

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 6)

An interview with Alejandro Cesarco early in the mentorship

What happened during your first meeting with John Baldessari for the start of the mentoring year?
The mentoring year started with me spending almost three weeks in Los Angeles last summer. We discussed our likes, dislikes, and got to know each other’s working methodologies, and I got to experience first-hand his rigorous practice. John proved to be extremely generous and giving with both his time and knowledge.

What are your goals for the mentoring year?
The goal of the programme for me is to learn and benefit from John’s experience and positions. The ultimate goal would be to establish a friendly, professional relationship with John that would extend well beyond the mentoring year.

At this stage, what form does your interaction with John Baldessari take?
We interact informally and sporadically. We talk on the phone about once every two weeks. John has visited New York several times since August, and we have met on each one of these occasions. He’s visited a show of mine while here, and we’ve begun to think about possible modalities of collaboration, and so forth. The communication has been fluid and productive. John is exceptionally witty, frank, and harbours no preconceptions on pretty much anything.

What is it about John Baldessari's work that speaks to you most?
I particularly value John’s continuous need to blur the boundaries of the categories by which we understand art. A quick, perhaps simple, example is his latest show. Were the works sculptures, photographs or paintings? What do each one of these categories represent and mean? I think that is one of the issues John is working with.

What art works will you create in the next few months?
I am currently working on several projects at once. As of late, this seems to be the methodology, many things at once, all criss-crossing each other. John will be asked to give his opinion and suggestions as these ideas develop but, I think, obviously, his more “hands-on” involvement will come with our possible collaboration.

John Baldessari and Alejandro Cesarco

A year of mentoring

The ideal situation (Chapter 3 of 6)

Baldessari has been a longtime faculty member at the California Institute of the Arts. The prospect of having just a single student was what attracted him to the Rolex programme.

“That is the ideal situation. As a writer once said about teaching, and I’ll always remember it, the ideal teaching is the teacher on one end of the log and the student at the other end of the log, and that’s it.” Cesarco appealed to him as still in a formative stage. “Sometimes graduate students are really the toughest ones,” Baldessari continues, “because they will come out as very blasé. They make like they know it all. They’re impenetrable. They’re fully formed. So you want to know: Why come to art school? With Alejandro I sense somebody that had a lot of interests I feel sympathetic with.” In the beginning, the heart of their relationship was, quite simply, talk.

In Baldessari’s home of Santa Monica, California, they trolled the galleries. And there are many. “We look at the Saturday listings, and choose from the menu,” said Baldessari. “Sometimes there’s nothing. Sometimes, there’s something we want to see. And we’ll just try things. I have a garbage-can mentality. I don’t dismiss any kind of art out of hand. You have to sift through a lot of garbage to find something. But if there’s one square inch that gets you, that’s enough of a pay-off. Good art can appear anywhere — art that makes me completely change my idea about art. It hasn’t happened too often. The highest praise I can give is: ‘I wish I had done that.’ As opposed to a critic who said: ‘It’s interesting. I’m glad he did it and I didn’t.’ Years ago I saw a terrible show by an artist whose name you’d know. Later I was talking to a critic/painter friend, and he said, ‘We always hate him but always wind up talking about him.’ He gets under your skin.”

On Baldessari’s agenda at the time was the showMagritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Image, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. As curator, he created a fun-house environment by setting off the Belgian master’s surrealist icons against creations in many media by 31 contemporary artists. At the same time, Cesarco was organising biennales in Bucharest, Romania, and Porto Alegre, Brazil. He had selected the artists, invited them to follow their own agendas, and was mostly keeping his hands off. “A lot of my work involves using other people’s work,” he explains. “Other people are your material. You’re a choreographer in a way, or like the casting director for a movie. Neither of us is about manual labour. It’s all about being an art director, conceiving strategies. Only the work only I can do, will I do. Otherwise, I job it out. Most of my art is about thinking.”

Might the same thing have been true throughout the history of art?

“I don’t think so,” Baldessari replies, Socratic in his distaste for flat contradiction. “There’s more and more of a division of labour. Instead of ‘School of…’ in the days of the Old Masters, we now have ‘Factory of…’ How much work did Andy Warhol do?”

Scattered around his house are works in progress from Baldessari’s series Prima Facie, which exemplifies the practices he speaks of. Each piece begins with a found photograph of a face. Through the wizardry of computers, printers, and other artisans, the photograph is blown up to giant proportions, subdivided into large sections, and coloured in flat colour patches on surfaces of varying thickness, emphasizing noses and ears. Though any personal likeness vanishes, the almost abstract final image often possesses a startling personality of its own. Baldessari’s fingerprint is nowhere to be found, yet the work is thoroughly his. The schools and the workshops of the Old Masters made nothing like this.

John Baldessari and Alejandro Cesarco

A year of mentoring

Their collaboration (Chapter 4 of 6)

It crosses Baldessari’s mind that a good project for him and Cesarco would be a collaboration. “I just thought of it this morning. I wanted Alejandro to think about it. So much of his work is subtly or directly about collaboration.” Cesarco lights right up. “You can blame the other guy!” he quips. He’s joking, of course. In their conceptual world, communication counts for more than ownership. As Cesarco has remarked: “It’s almost more important who you’re speaking to than what you’re saying.”

“A good collaboration isn’t just something that two artists did,” says Baldessari, affably but with an added touch of the mentor. “It’s something that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Where does the work begin? We decide we’re going to do a great work. And at some point, it will be out there! It might not be anything at all, just word of mouth.”

Cesarco: “That would be fine with me!”

Baldessari: “A rumour project! When the rumour comes back to me, it’s complete!”

Months later, in a Manhattan restaurant near his office, Cesarco was still struggling with tangible specifics. “The project will be ‘shopped out’ to a printer, the same way as Prima Facie, but at a different scale,” he says. “John understood that a collaboration would benefit me more than him. So he said: ‘You propose.’ I gave him three options. There’s one I hope he chooses. I provide the initial spark, and his involvement will be to find a formal solution — almost like a record producer.”

And a few weeks after that, Murray Guy, the Manhattan gallery that exhibits Cesarco’s work, released the title of the collaboration: Retrospective. The piece is expected to consist of 12 silkscreen images measuring 91 by 121 centimetres, printed on aluminium sheets. It will be accompanied by a booklet exploring the idea of looking back.

And what will it look like? Only time will tell.

Extracted from an article written by Matthew Gurewitsch for Mentor & Protégé, a magazine documenting the 2006/2007 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

John Baldessari and Alejandro Cesarco

A year of mentoring

After a year with a master (Chapter 5 of 6)

Alejandro Cesarco talks about his year as a Rolex protégé

How would you describe the overall time you spent with John Baldessari?
The time spent with John has been friendly and productive. It progressed from a very general getting-to-know-each-other stage to collaborating on a very specific book project and exhibition. John has been extremely generous and giving with his time and knowledge. I’d like to think that we’ve developed a lasting friendship.

Is your approach to art similar to/different from his?
Though the content and formal resolution of our work are clearly dissimilar, I do believe there is a shared inquiry into the foundations of the concept of “art” as it has come to mean: its categories, history, functions, etc. The strategies and methodologies employed represent our personal interests, but at the bottom of it, I think there is this general interest in constantly re-negotiating the limits and functions of art.

Your relationship with him seems to have been friendly, playful and serious. How would you describe it?
Exactly in that way, friendly, playful and serious. John is exceptionally witty, frank and, at least as far as art goes, seems to bear no preconceptions. He is sincerely open and interested, and all this quickly facilitated a sincere relationship.

Could you describe the print series you have created with John Baldessari?
This collaborative project addresses the idea of looking back as a framing device and a narrative mode. Implicit in the project is a concern for the difference created by re-telling and re-presenting the past in the present. The segmentation of history is quite an arbitrary and conventional matter, a story for making the present intelligible. What consequence does this have? Who narrates, and for whom? What is included and what is left out of this narrative? The project in some ways considers the dangers of taking pleasure in the past and the benefits of remembering in order to reinvent.

John Baldessari and Alejandro Cesarco

A year of mentoring

Interview with the mentor (Chapter 6 of 6)

Interview with John Baldessari

Do you believe that senior artists have a responsibility to provide guidance to their younger peers?
Yes.

How does the very notion of mentoring fit in with the way you create art?
It's similar in that it is about getting across an idea. Dialogue should be neither too abstruse nor too simple.

Why did you agree to participate in the Rolex Arts Initiative?
It was an ideal teaching situation – one on one.

Why did you choose Alejandro as your protégé?
Because his work was more inclusive and undefinable and because of his interest in writing.

Did you set objectives for your year with Alejandro?
No.

Was there one key thought or lesson you wanted him to learn or understand?
Be open-minded in that art can come from anywhere – never be dogmatic.

How would you describe the overall experience of working with Alejandro?
Like two strategists in a dialogue.

What direction do you think he should take now in his work?
I never prescribe. Although if he moves more to the visual I know the results would not be predictable.