John Baldessari: An American artist’s Burren adventure
The late conceptual artist had a role in the development of Burren College of Art
John Baldessari at the Burren College of Art, Ballyvaughan, Co Clare in 2006. Photograph: Andrew Downes/Courtesy Burren College of Art
The American artist John Baldessari, who died at the beginning of January aged 88, was a central figure in the rise of conceptual art from the latter half of the 1960s. His achievements are firmly lodged in the art history books and the museums, and his formidable artistic stature was matched by his physical stature: he was 6ft 7in tall. What may not be as well known is that this anarchic, irreverent artistic spirit had a specific Irish link. He accepted an invitation to join the inaugural advisory council of the Burren College of Art (BCA) in 1993.
When he first visited, BCA’s president Mary Hawkes-Greene recalls, he was quite smitten by the Burren, remarking: “What a place for an art college, what possibilities!” And, she says, he contributed greatly to the ethos of the college as it developed, with an emphasis on the importance of ideas.
Baldessari was an influential teacher on the west coast of the United States. Many of his students went on to gain prominence – David Salle, Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler among them. Hawkes-Greene quotes him eloquently outlining the nature of art education: “You can’t really teach art, you can just sort of set the stage for it.”
When BCA’s Timothy Emlyn Jones asked about his teaching strategy in an interview, he replied, disarmingly: “Do I have a strategy? I wish I knew. When I thought I was being strategic I wasn’t, and when I thought I wasn’t I probably was.” But, “There is one thing that doesn’t work: didactic teaching.”
He remained a firm friend of BCA and was a visiting artist there several times. In 2006, the college returned the compliment, conferring him with an honorary doctorate from NUI Galway.
Of Danish-Italian parentage, Baldessari grew up in California. Unsure of how he would make his living, and having honed his improvisational skills in his father’s reclamation business, with his sister’s encouragement he gradually honed in on art and began what might have been a thoroughly conventional career as an art teacher, holding various posts in the San Diego educational department, while seriously pursuing his own painting.
In the mid-1960s he began to introduce text as the main component in his painting, rather than images
He clearly made a mark, and was recruited by the head of a new fine art branch of the University of California in San Diego. The experience seemed to introduce him to a whole new world of possibility – and a new circle of artists, writers and innovators. Quite soon he moved on to teach at CalArts, boldly addressing the notion of post-studio art. In fact, by the time he took on the UC job in the late 1960s, Baldessari’s personal work had already taken a radical new direction.
In the mid-1960s he began to introduce text as the main component in his painting, rather than images, using theoretical statements and propositions, usually related to art theory. He soon realised that the nature of the medium – handmade, textured, painted surfaces – did not suit the nature of the message – cool, neutral, theoretical. He withdrew his own expressive, gestural involvement, instead hiring sign-writers to paint his messages in plain typefaces onto the canvases, black on white. This was probably the decisive moment in his becoming a conceptual artist.
A subsequent, celebrated gesture certainly suggests that was the case. In 1970, his Cremation Project, carried out with several volunteers, consisted of the formal cremation, carried out at a crematorium, of all of the paintings he’d made up to the year 1966 and the incorporation of the ashes in – presumably non-edible – cookies. A memorial plaque recording the birth and death of the paintings evokes Brian O’Doherty’s adoption, and the eventual demise and burial, of the persona of Patrick Ireland.
If all that tends to make Baldessari sound like one of the more austere conceptual artists – of which there were several, Joseph Kossuth prominent among them – not necessarily in agreement on the one, true conceptual faith, that would be unfair. When it came to the crunch, however, Baldessari was always more heretic than zealot.
I’m interested in cliched information. I like breathing life into cliches, by which I mean dead language
He didn’t remotely give up on images, incidentally, in the mid-1960s, but they found their way back into his work in the form of distanced, neutral, photographic sources, often manifesting his mischievous, playful streak. One series deliberately and methodically broke the rules enumerated in an amateur photography manual, for example. Equally, he employed painting, if it suited his purposes, but usually by getting other artists to do the actual painting. Acknowledging no boundaries, he also worked in film, books and sculpture – his headline-grabbing Beethoven’s Trumpet is a giant ear trumpet that triggers passages from Beethoven’s string quartets.
In a similar, disruptive vein, he came up with the idea of appropriating source images, usually of groups or crowds, from various contexts, and covering over the faces with colored dots. Initially, he was deliberately blocking out the faces of public figures he didn’t like, but the concept went through many permutations – blocking out faces apart from noses, for example, which famously led to a guest appearance on The Simpsons. Perhaps it is not so surprising, then, that he is probably best known for this simple pictorial, or anti-pictorial, tactic.
Speaking about his own work in the interview with Emlyn Jones, he said, revealingly: “I’m interested in cliched information. I like breathing life into cliches, by which I mean dead language.”
He lived up to that ideal.