John Baldessari

John Baldessari

The mentor

Published in 2007

John Baldessari, 76, has redefined the parameters of contemporary art over the past four decades, challenging perceptions with a juxtaposition of painting, photography, film and text. “I have always been fascinated by language and words,” he says. “I often think of myself not as an artist, but as a failed writer.”

As a boy in California, he spent countless hours reconstructing hundreds of taps he found lying around his father’s salvage business. “I sometimes think that this hands-on thing, taking objects apart, painting them and putting them together in a different way, had a lot of bearing on my future art,” he remarks. He received a B.A. in art from San Diego State College in 1953 and a master’s degree four years later. He spent two years at the Otis and the Chouinard Art institutes in Los Angeles. Then, in the late 1950s, he taught art to support himself as a painter, and led a workshop for juvenile delinquents – a pivotal experience. As a teacher at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) from 1970 to 1988, he influenced some of the most important artists of the next generation in his now legendary “Post-Studio Art” course.

In 1970, he burned all his work from 1953 to 1966 to mark his death as a painter. The ashes, reconstituted in a book-shaped urn, became a “single, definable work of art” – the Cremation Project – that symbolised his shift from painting to language-based art, and to experimental work in many media. His projects include artist books, films, web-based projects, billboards and public works. Baldessari’s work has featured in more than 120 solo exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe, and in over 300 group exhibitions. Among his many awards is the 2005 Americans for the Arts, Lifetime Achievement Award.