In the 1960s, art instructor John Baldessari never sold a painting. Seven years ago one sold for $4.4 million.
Still creating at age 83, Baldessari is possibly the most famous and richest person to have ever taught at Southwestern College.
So much for the myth of the starving artist.
Baldessari was one of those “overnight sensations” that worked hard for years. He made his living an as instructor at SWC and made art in his spare time. His National City studio, an abandoned movie theatre, was brimming with unsold art. Weary of abstract expressionism, he started experimenting with a new series of works.
He called them text paintings.
In 2007 one of Baldessari’s text paintings, “Quality Material,” sold for $4.4 million at Christie’s in New York.
Baldessari is considered one of the world’s most influential living artists. He is revered as the “Godfather of Conceptual Art” and has had more than 200 solo exhibitions and 1,000 group exhibitions. He has created paintings, sculptures, installations, films, videos, books and even an iPhone app. His exhaustive 2010 retrospective exhibition “Pure Beauty” travelled the globe before touching down at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the same museum where the great works of Classical Antiquity reside. There, Baldessari exhibited works that spanned five decades.
Baldessari joined SWC’s faculty to teach art in 1966.
“John had a real talent and that’s why we hired him,” said Bob Matheny, SWC’s founding gallery director. “He was starting to do work that was really new and funny. It was no surprise to me that he eventually became world famous.”
Baldessari was born in National City in 1931. A son of European immigrants, he grew up in a working-class neighborhood. His mother, a nurse, worked hard to pay for art lessons when he requested them. When Baldessari was a teenager and became interested in photography, his father, a hard working jack-of-all-trades, built him a darkroom.
Baldessari attended Sweetwater High School and SDSU, where he graduated with a Master’s in art history.
Prior to joining SWC’s art department, the towering, 6-foot, 7-inch Baldessari had taught art around San Diego. He had also been exhibited around San Diego County, including SWC.
Baldessari had the inaugural exhibition at the SWC gallery in November of 1961 when the college was sharing the campus of Chula Vista High School. In 1964 he exhibited work in “Snap, Crackle, Pop,” a three-person show, and then again in 1965 for Matheny’s invitational exhibition “Polychrome Sculpture.”
Baldessari said SWC’s art department took the liberty of putting on exhibitions and activities that members thought would be fun.
“The president of the college, Chester DeVore, said ‘I don’t care what you guys do, just keep it in the walls of the art department,’” he said.
Baldessari was an advisor to the gallery program and curated one exhibition of Los Angeles painters, titled “Some L.A. Cats.”
His signature style of art emerged in those days.
“Looking back,” he said, “since no one cared what I was doing and I had no audience, I tried things that I would not otherwise try to do as art.”
That freedom led him to create his now-famous and extremely valuable series of text paintings from 1966 to 1968. It was serious shift from work he had previously done. His new works were conceptual, the idea of the work took precedence over any hands-on craftsmanship and even the actual finished product.
Baldessari hired a professional sign painter to paint the text and his instructions were explicit: “Don’t do any beautiful calligraphy. I just want this to be information.”
In 1967 Baldessari implemented “Artist Speakout,” a new program at SWC that produced dynamic panel discussions. “Speakout” was free to the public and many notable artists spoke, including Robert Irwin and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, as well as at least one Hell’s Angel.
That same year Baldessari began working on his National City paintings, a series of black and white photographs enlarged and put on canvas with plain text below them. For this series, Baldessari had taken snapshots from his car window while driving around National City and Chula Vista. Text below each image described where each was taken. One read, “LOOKING EAST ON 4TH AND C / CHULA VISTA, CALIF,” another “ECON-O-WASH / 14TH AND HIGHLAND / NATIONAL CITY CALIF.”
In one photo, taken by his wife, Baldessari is purposely posing in front of a palm tree. It created the illusion of a tree sprouting from his head. Inspired by books on photography for beginners, the painting doubles as the perfect example of how not to take a photograph. Appropriately, the word “WRONG” is spelled out just below the image.
Baldessari’s conceptual art was a world away from what was being done elsewhere by artists who believed conceptualism was supposed to be serious. Baldessari, in his own irreverent way, turned that idea on its head.
Baldessari left SWC after the spring semester of 1968 to teach at UCSD. That October he had his first one-person exhibition in Los Angeles at the Molly Barnes Gallery. It was called “Pure Beauty” and featured his text paintings.
Two years later, Baldessari changed jobs again, this time moving to the California Institute of Art in Valencia, north of Los Angeles. Before he left for Cal Arts, however, Baldessari decided to scorch all paintings he made from May 1953 to March 1966. In an act now known as the “Cremation Project,” he, along with friends and UCSD students, destroyed his paintings before incinerating them in a local mortuary’s crematorium. Ashes were put into a bronze urn in the shape of a book. Some ashes were baked into cookies. Two weeks later, Baldessari published an affidavit about the event in the San Diego Union, formally ending his painterly era and embracing a new direction.
Baldessari taught at Cal Arts for 16 years, and some of his former students also became famous artists, including David Salle, Mike Kelley and Barbara Bloom.
Baldessari went on to teach at UCLA from 1997 to 2007.
Some of Baldessari’s honors and awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement from the Venice Biennale and a membership to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has also been awarded three Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees, including one from his alma mater, SDSU.
Dr. Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, said he first learned about Baldessari’s work as an undergraduate in the 1960s and later met him in the 1970s. They became friends. Davies said part of the reason he moved to San Diego from the East Coast in 1983 was because “Baldessari had blazed that trail” and “made it seem like it was the future.”
“There is no history of art of our time, art of the last 60 years, that doesn’t include Baldessari’s work and its influence,” he said. “John is someone who was able to make conceptual art that was very simple and very philosophically profound, but also had humor.”
In a world of ultra-fast information, Baldessari’s work maintains its ability to command attention, becoming increasingly more relevant to our time because of its directness.
“(Baldessari) can make these very telling, provocative juxtapositions of images that imply a narrative that are just completely disparate,” Davies said. “They provoke a thinking process, almost like surrealists juxtaposing random objects and creating a sort of absurd dialogue.”
These days Baldessari, with his trademark shoulder-length hair and white beard, endures as a vital, even hip artist. He currently has an exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, titled “Movie Scripts/Art.”
He has exhibitions in 2015 at the Marian Goodman Gallery in London, the PKM Gallery in Seoul, Korea and the Staedel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany.
Davies said Baldessari has already secured an important place in the history of 20th century and 21st century art.
“I think it goes very much as a credit to Southwestern that he was on the faculty,” Davies said. “(He) did some amazing exhibitions while he was there.”