November/December 2010

John Baldessari

[Conceptual Artist]

“Until you get to a certain point, being an artist is no luxury. And unless you are totally obsessed with making art, you’re not going to make it.”
Things John Baldessari avoids at all costs:
Repeating himself
Making art that’s a parody of his previous work
Throwing things in the trash

In the late 1960s, John Baldessari cremated all the paint works he had produced between 1953 and 1966. He announced the event to a journalist so the world would know that he had stepped outside the confines of artistic tradition. Soon after, he began rooting around in Dumpsters for found imagery (newspapers, movie stills, advertising posters) and collaged these visuals with found written texts (broken signs, ripped newspaper headlines) in a way that offered a plurality of narratives—questioning just how relative our ideas of meaning can be.

Based in California for most of his life—save a decade-long hiatus in New York in the ’60s—Baldessari has always delivered a gently caustic sense of humor in his work. Like Warhol’s or Ed Ruscha’s, Baldessari’s understanding of the visual language of communication on a major scale—or, more specifically, advertising—has allowed him to simultaneously subvert and worship the bright colors and smirking politicians that surrounded him every day. On the phone from his studio in Venice, L.A., Baldessari’s voice is so deep and rumbling that it’s sometimes hard to make out what he’s saying. He said he was used to repeating himself.

—Eleanor Morgan

I. The Imaging of People

THE BELIEVER: Is it fair to say that in the beginning of your career you were trying to break certain gallery taboos?

JOHN BALDESSARI: I had a few battles there, yeah. But it certainly is true: I wanted to challenge, and ultimately break, all these taboos that art galleries had at the time. You never saw photographs in art galleries—they were always in photo galleries. So I wanted to make photography a tool that artists can use, as opposed to something they can only, well, look at.

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Eleanor Morgan is a journalist who works at the Observer in London. She writes about art and film for other British newspapers like the Guardian and the Times, and magazines like Dazed & Confused, where she edited the front section for a number of years.

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