Meet the Season 5 Artist: John Baldessari

The above video is excerpted from the Season 5 episode Systems, premiering on Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 10pm (ET) on PBS (check local listings). Systems features four artists — John Baldessari, Kimsooja, Allan McCollum, and Julie Mehretu — who invent new grammars and logics, finding comfort in some systems while rebelling against others in today’s supercharged, information-based society.

Who is John Baldessari and what does he have to say about systems?

John Baldessari was born in National City, California in 1931; he lives and works in Venice, California. Synthesizing photomontage, painting, and language, Baldessari’s deadpan visual juxtapositions equate images with words and illuminate, confound, and challenge meaning. He upends commonly held expectations of how images function, often by drawing the viewer’s attention to minor details, absences, or the spaces between things. By placing colorful dots over faces, obscuring portions of scenes, or juxtaposing stock photographs with quixotic phrases, he injects humor and dissonance into vernacular imagery. For most of his career John Baldessari has also been a teacher. While some of the strategies he deploys in his work—experimentation, rule-based systems, and working within and against arbitrarily imposed limits to find new solutions to problems—share similarities with pedagogical methods, they are also intrinsic to his particular world view and philosophy.

On the subject of systems in art, Baldessari talk about the liberating potential of systems (in the forthcoming Season 5 book):

Usually, I seem to start I think my emergence in the art world was linked with conceptual art, minimal art, but I never quite totally subscribed to it. I thought it was a little boring. But there were a lot of things I did want to shed, and one of them was being tasteful. The idea of using systems, which was in a lot of that work, appealed to me where I could let this taste emerge as I worked. Because, you know, it’s sort of like toilet paper on your shoe.

What’s a system? I think my idea is this: not so much structure that it’s inhibiting or that there’s no wiggle room, but not so loose that it could be anything. It’s like a corral around your idea, a corral that you can move—but not too much. And it’s that limited movement that promotes creativity. Did I just say something profound?

What happens in Baldessari’s segment in Systems this October?

“I’m always interested in things that we don’t call art, and I say why not?” asks John Baldessari. Filmed in his Venice, California studio, the artist consults with his assistant on a color-coded group of maquettes for Raised Eyebrows / Furrowed Foreheads (2008), a series of photographic bas-reliefs. “One of the reasons I gave up painting is because it’s all about being tasteful,” he explains, “I just decided to be very systematic about it and use the color wheel.” Throughout a segment that features over fifty pieces, including works in the inaugural exhibition of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA (2008), Baldessari assails conventional wisdom about art and meaning. “Words are just a way we communicate. Images are a way we communicate,” he asserts, “I couldn’t figure out why they had to be in different baskets.” In the installation Brick Bldg, Lg Windows w/ Xlent Views, Partially Furnished, Renowned Architect (2009) at Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld, Germany, Baldessari humorously reconfigures an entire brick building by noted architect Mies van der Rohe. “Aesthetically, I always look for the weak link in the chain,” he says, comparing his method to “a corral around your idea…limited movement that promotes creativity.”

John Baldessaei "<u>Two Person Fight</u> (One Orange): With Spectator," 2004. Three dimensional digital archival print with acrylic paint on sintra, dibon and gatorfoam panels, 84 x 79 inches. © John Baldessari, courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York.

John Baldessari "Two Person Fight (One Orange): With Spectator," 2004. Three dimensional digital archival print with acrylic paint on sintra, dibon and gatorfoam panels, 84 x 79 inches. © John Baldessari, courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York.

What else has Baldessari done?

John Baldessari received a BA (1953) and MA (1957) from San Diego State College, continuing his studies at Otis Art Institute (1957-59) and Chouinard Art Institute. Baldessari has received several honorary doctorates, the most recent from the National University of Ireland, Burren College of Art (2006).  He has participated in Documenta (1982, 1978); the Venice Biennale (2009, 2003, 1997); and seven Whitney Biennials, most recently in 2008. His work has been shown in more than 120 solo exhibitions and 300 group exhibitions. A major retrospective will appear at the Tate Modern, London; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2009-10. John Baldessari was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2007.

Where can I see more of Baldessari’s work between now and the Art21 premiere this October?

John Baldessari is represented by Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris. His work can be seen in the exhibition John Baldessari: A Print Retrospective from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and his Family Foundation at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco—Legion of Honor in San Francisco through November 8; at Marian Goodman Gallery in Paris, from September to October; and at the Tate Modern in London where a major retrospective titled John Baldessari: Pure Beauty is on view October 13th, 2009 until January 10th, 2010.

What’s your take on Baldessari’s inclusion in Season 5?

Tell us what you think by leaving a comment below!