John Baldessari, who died last month, was called the godfather of conceptual art. He played a pivotal role in the development of western art in the second half of the 20th century, both in its move away from painting and sculpture and in its relocation from New York to California, and in particular Los Angeles.
After the Second World War the centre of the art world moved from Paris to New York. Artistically it was dominated by abstract art, and in particular abstract expressionism, with the work of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and others.
In the 1950s prominent critics and artists thought that such a move to abstract forms was the modern trend and a dominant American one. By the 1960s however this movement was becoming rather staid and clichéd.
In New York Pop Art emerged, bringing with it a move to blur the distinction between “high” art and commercial art. It related to what was happening on the streets and the radical movements of the time. There was a widespread revolt against the high art world of the gallery.
It was against this background that John Baldessari appeared on the west coast. He was disillusioned with the production of things for the market, in particular with painting — producing artworks which would then be displayed in galleries for the purpose of selling them.
But even as a painter in the 60s his work was cynical about the high pretensions of abstract impressionism; his paintings were of painted text akin to street signs, so that as with Pop Art he was alluding to commercial art. His 1967 output included a work called “Suppose it is true after all? WHAT THEN?” and another titled “A TWO DIMENSIONAL SURFACE WITHOUT ANY ARTICULATION IS A DEAD EXPERIENCE”.
The turning point for his fame and art was in 1970 when he, along with five friends, cremated all his paintings from 1953 to 1966. They called this the Cremation Project. The ashes were then divided into two. One set was baked with cookie dough to make cookies and the other placed in an urn made in the shape of a book, which he later kept on the wall in his studio.
From then on his art consisted of an assortment of photographs, found objects and texts, and all art forms including prints, film, performance — in fact anything and everything, but always with humour and wit.
He became the leading promoter of conceptual art, often poking fun at the preciousness and pretentions of the art world. He had major exhibitions across the world but was always based in the Los Angeles area, so that as abstract impressionism was linked to New York, conceptual art was linked to Los Angles. And just as the centre of the art world had moved from Paris to New York, so it moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s.
But Baldessari was not only influential through his artworks but through his teaching. He taught art in Los Angeles and many of his pupils went on to be the leading artists at the turn of the century. Artists such as Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelly, Barbara Kruger and many others have cited his influence on their work and their approach to art.
On YouTube there is a short film about the life and work of John Baldessari narrated by Tom Waits. It is called A Brief History of John Baldessari; it sums him up in a very Baldessari way. If you don’t know his work there’s no easier way to get an overview.