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Funny and intriguing Baldessari and his gecko. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian.
The neighbourhood surrounding John Baldessari's studio in Venice is as eclectic as it is incongruous. Sleek, modernist homes sit next to quaint bungalows, while an old hippy with a surfboard tucked under one arm bikes past a Sotheby's real estate sign hanging in front of a million-dollar home. With his laid-back demeanour, lanky 6ft 7in frame, shaggy mop of white hair, and equally white beard, Baldessari might be mistaken for an ageing California surfer himself, instead of the godfather of conceptual art, as he is often called.
For five decades, Baldessari has been challenging audiences to reconsider the nature of art, not with dry, academic works, but with wit, humour and a captivating visual sense. Eschewing one singular style, his output has ranged from text to video, photography to painting, print to sculpture. He is perhaps best known for his juxtapositions of appropriated images and text, though, which create open-ended mysteries for the viewer. 'I always compare what I do to the work of a mystery writer,' he once said.
John Baldessari is an artist's artist. He is celebrated as one of the most influential living artists today, both as a pioneer in conceptual art and as a teacher for more than three decades. In addition to his language-based paintings and performances of the late 1960s and 1970s, now considered milestones in conceptual art, Baldessari is also known for his use of colourful dot-shaped adhesives to conceal faces in photographs. As an artist who has often expanded his repertoire through painting, printmaking, sculpture, photomontage, video, film and books, Baldessari's work is characterised by humour, wit and an air of insouciance towards tradition.
Baldessari began his career as a painter, working with oils in the abstract expressionist manner that was dominant in America at the time. Many of his early paintings, however, have not survived, because in 1970 he burned the artworks made between 1953 and 1966 in a crematorium. Baldessari conceived the incineration as an artwork in itself, documenting and titling it Cremation Project. After the burning, the artist commemorated the destroyed paintings by having their birth and death dates inscribed on bronze plaques, and baking cookies with their ashes. Cremation Project signalled both his break with abstract expressionism and his increasing experimentation with conceptual art.
Throughout his career, Baldessari has questioned the role of the artist and the meaning of authorship by diminishing authorship and challenging traditional boundaries in art-making. In the late 1960s, he occasionally hired professional sign painters to paint for him, notably Pure Beauty (1966–8), a simple white canvas with its title written across it in black capital letters. Such sign paintings not only emphasise the importance of concept over the artist's touch, but also disconcert the definition of a painting as composed of images by creating paintings composed of signs. In another iconic work, I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art (1971), Baldessari asked students at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, Canada, to write the sentence 'I will not make any more boring art' on the gallery walls of his exhibition. The well-known performance emerged from his lack of finances to travel to Nova Scotia, where the artist had been asked to exhibit. Baldessari, who had been deeply dissatisfied with the limitations of traditional painting, conceived to cover the space that conventionally hangs paintings with sentences in a repeated manner that resembles a punishment. At the same time, however, the artist intended the punishment-performance to be instructive for young students, encouraging them to rebel against tradition.
In the 1980s, Baldessari began using stills from B movies or noir films to create fragmented and ambiguous narratives. For example, the collage Kiss/Panic (1984) consists of ten images of hands holding guns that frame an extreme close-up of a kiss and a scene with a gathering. The guns point away from the central images as if to protect or threaten moments of intimacy by holding them hostage. During this period, Baldessari also began to block out faces, bodies and other parts of photographs with paint, later utilising his famous dots to cover faces as a way of withholding important visual information from the viewer. Confronted with the concealed spaces, the spectator becomes an active participant, using their imagination to complete the missing parts.
Text and image remain central to Baldessari's practice, in which unrelated components are paired to stimulate the viewer's participation in the construction of meaning. OFFICE BUILDING—DAY MAYO Is there a Courbet for sale here? (2017), for instance, depicts the emoji of a green gecko, multiplied in size and printed on canvas, above the question in its title. By juxtaposing elements with no apparent relationship, Baldessari encourages the viewer to search for possible links between them—making associations and speculations, actively constructing meaning in the process. His 'Movie Scripts / Art' series (2014), which pairs excerpts from film scripts with details of art historical images, achieve a similar effect.
Baldessari studied art and literature at San Diego State University, where he received his MA in art history in 1957, and completed further post-graduate work at Otis Art Institute, Chouinard Art Institute and the University of California, Berkeley. Since first teaching art in his native National City in 1959, he taught for more than three decades at junior colleges, community colleges and universities. Between 1970 and 1988 he held his celebrated Post-Studio Art classes at CalArts, which encouraged young artists to experiment outside traditional painting and sculpture. Among his first students were Barbara Bloom, Troy Brauntuch, Matt Mullican, David Salle and James Welling, who are now some of the most prominent artists of their generation. Baldessari returned to teaching in 1996 at the University of California, Los Angeles and continued to teach until 2007, further contributing to contemporary art by influencing a younger generation of artists.
Baldessari's work has been exhibited extensively in the US and Europe; the artist's biography on his website reveals that he has held more than 200 solo exhibitions and over 1000 group exhibitions. Recent solo exhibitions include Learning to Read with John Baldessari at Museo Jumex, Mexico City (2017); John Baldessari, the inaugural show of Sprüth Magers in Los Angeles (2016); and John Baldessari: Pure Beauty (2009), a major retrospective organised by Tate Modern that travelled to Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2010. In 2009 Baldessari was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 53rd Venice Biennale. The artist lives and works in California.
Sprüth Magers has exhibited John Baldessari for almost three decades, and is pleased to present his second solo show at the Los Angeles gallery. The exhibition features twenty-seven works from Baldessari's new series of large- scale paintings based on the ubiquitous Emojis.
John Baldessari's name is synonymous with the art scene in his native West coast. His career as a highly influential artist and venerated teacher has spanned over fifty years and includes a diverse oeuvre of painting, photography, sculpture and video. From his earliest text paintings in the late 1960s to his more recent storyboard paintings, Baldessari has always reveled in the playful dislocation between text and image, expanded here in this most recent body of work. Created earlier this year, the Emoji paintings focus on the increasingly complex ways in which we exchange and interpret information in everyday life. Emojis' are a pictograph-specific keyboard that features glyphs in categories such as 'smileys and people', 'animals and nature', 'food and drink', 'objects', and 'flags'. They are increasingly used as a form of electronic communication, but their equivocal nature means that issues of context and cultural specificity often complicate their interpretation by recipients - it is this theme that the artist explores in his paintings.
Inkjet prints of animal Emojis such as a tiger or pig dominate large canvases that are painted over in acrylic. Below each picture plane, typed snippets of dialogue from movies appear to caption the icons, although it is difficult to find any connection between them. In one work, a gecko appears above what seems to be an extract from a theatrical text. The scene description is 'OFFICE BUILDING - DAY' in which a character named 'MAYO' asks 'Is there a Courbet for sale here?' This disjunctive composition activates a wry and thought-provoking combination of visual and written language that allows alternative narratives and interpretations to flourish in the viewers' imagination. By focusing on the plurality of potential meanings that underpin contemporary forms of communication, Baldessari's new series of paintings interrogate both the ambiguity, and cultural-specificity, of the Emoji with pictures that are as un- singular and indefinable in meaning as the icons themselves.
John Baldessari (1931, National City, California) lives and works in Santa Monica, California. His works were part of the 47th (1997) and 53rd (2009) Venice Biennials, the Carnegie International (1985-86), the Whitney Biennial (1983), as well as documenta V (1972) and VII (1982). In 2005, an extensive, two-part retrospective was dedicated to the artist at the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien and at the Kunsthaus Graz. His large retrospective Pure Beauty opened 2009 at the Tate Modern in London, and subsequently was on view at the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2010, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2010, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2010/2011. Recently the artist has presented his works in solo exhibitions at the Fondazione Prada, Milan, 2010, the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2011, and the Städel Museum, Frankfurt, 2015/16. From November 2017–April 2018 the Museo Jumex in Mexico City presents the exhibition Learning to Read with John Baldessari, a major survey on the artists work.
The Exhibition is Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery.
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