John Baldessari, the widely influential conceptual artist who helped transform Los Angeles into a global art haven through his work and decades of teaching, passed away on Thursday at his home in Venice, Los Angeles at the age of 88.
Baldessari’s best-known work, a lithograph from 1971 titled “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art”, somewhat predicted his trajectory because it’s rare to find any boring work by him. The title sentence, written in cursive and repeated 17 times fills the canvas from top to bottom, resembling a school whiteboard. It’s certainly amusing, considering how it disparages conceptual art’s text-heavy creations even when it acts as a prime example of one.
Baldessari did not always make art using text, however. Early in his career, he painted landscapes and abstract compositions. But in 1970, frustrated with the state of painting and disgusted by his work, he burned many of these pieces and staged a funeral for them. This was when he began making works that featured text and photographs. “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art” was his first print and in retrospect, acts as a window into his thinking at the time and his developing interest in the field of conceptual art.
Revered by so many of his students as way more than just a teacher, his roster of students during his time at CalArts is star-studded: David Salle, Tony Oursler, Matt Mullican, Jack Goldstein, Jim Shaw, Mike Kelley, James Welling, Meg Cranston, to name a few. He not only loved teaching, but he even made it a central theme in his art. His style derives from a place that isn’t really known to have a style: the classroom. Many of his works feature photographs or text borrowed from difference sources, and carry a lucid look of academic materials, like posters with sans-serif text and jumbo-sized typography.
“A lot of artists in the world were feeling the kind of malaise that Abstract Expressionism was running out of steam,” Baldessari told the painter David Salle, another of his former students, in a 2013 interview. “I thought there was something else. I was always interested in language. I thought, why not? If a painting, by the normal definition of the term, is paint on canvas, why can’t it be painted words on canvas? And then I also had a parallel interest in photography. I would go to the library and read books on photography. I could never figure out why photography and art had separate histories. So I decided to explore both. It could be seen as a next step for me, getting away from painting. That might be fruitful. Later, that was called conceptual art.”