About The Artist
Often associated with Minimalism and Conceptualism—with elements of Surrealism, Pop Art, and Dadaism thrown in for good measure—John Baldessari’s work exceeds these strict parameters, which, in the artist’s own words, can be “a little bit boring.” Ironically, it was boredom that sent Baldessari’s practice flying. Baldessari didn’t start out working in photomontage, the medium for which he is now best known. His early practice focused on painting in a largely gestural style. Frustrated and bored with that what he saw as the tedious constraints of that idiom, Baldessari scrapped it early on in his career, turning his efforts instead to “phototext” works that muddy the distinction between photography and painting, questioning the relationship between visual and verbal language.
“I’ve often thought of myself as a frustrated writer,” Baldessari once conceded. “I consider a word and an image of equal weight, and a lot of my work comes out of that kind of thinking.” The California-based artist, whose practice encompasses just about every possible media—including paintings, film, prints, billboards, artist’s books, performance, photomontage, and installation—has long been wrestling with the so-called “Laocoön debate” that pits images and words against one another. The latter, so the ancient argument goes, are a static and spatial art, while the former purportedly belong to the realm of the dynamic and temporal—a tidy distinction that many theorists and artists have not always found particularly convenient or legitimate. Baldessari clearly belongs to the camp that doesn’t quite see the distinction as clear-cut, repeatedly asserting the arbitrariness of categories in his works and writings.
Over the course of his long career, Baldessari has expressed a deep infatuation with the relationship between semantics and visual language, irreverently toying with and reevaluating the strict verdict that a massive chasm forever separates word and image. His self-referencing, tongue-in-cheek photomontages often incorporate sardonic tidbits of punny text with found and reappropriated images in novel, unexpected ways that impart a delirious spontaneity to the visual elements, and, more often than not, induce a heady dose of cognitive dissonance. The effect is largely due to the unique approach Baldessari takes when placing images and text next to one another in unorthodox and, ultimately, destabilizing, combinations that defy expectations of how these two codes operate, both on their own and together.
Although textual elements have gradually vanished from Baldessari’s work since the early 1970s as he has focused more exclusively on collage, the essential, underlying questions that drove his earlier work remain. His work continues to address the ways in which various visual and verbal codes impart and destabilize, enable and undermine, convey and obscure communication and meaning. “Words and imagery are both magical conveyors of meaning,” he once explained. “Sometimes I think a word can deal with an emotion better, and sometimes I believe an image can say it better. I’m ambivalent about prioritizing an image over a word. I build meaning in my art like a writer builds meaning from putting the right two words together. When you get it just right, it ignites meaning.”
Baldessari’s work has been featured in more than 200 solo exhibitions and in over 1000 group exhibitions in the United States and Europe. He has exhibited nationally and internationally, including a major retrospective in 1990 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and a career-spanning exhibition, John Baldessari: Pure Beauty, opened in 2009 at London’s Tate Modern, traveling from there to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has received honorary degrees from the California College of the Arts, the National University of Ireland, San Diego State University, Otis College of Art and Design, and Parsons School of Design. His awards and honors include the 2014 National Medal of Arts Award, the Americans for the Arts Lifetime Achievement Award, the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, awarded by La Biennale di Venezia and the City of Goslar Kaiserring in 2012. Baldessari continues to work and create art in Venice, California.
Avgikos, Jan. “Stating the Obvious.” John Baldessari: National City. Ed. Hugh M. Davies and Andrea Hales. San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, 1996. 18-21. Print.