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New York Times Interviews Alumnus John Baldessari

Alumnus John Baldessari
These Days, John Baldessari Cribs From the Masters
Jori Finkel

LOS ANGELES — Having taught many generations of Los Angeles artists, John Baldessari ('58 MFA Fine Arts) proudly displays a few of their creations on the walls of his large studio in Venice. One piece, by Analia Saban, consists of white paper cleverly made to look like a stained gym towel.

Its wry humor is in the Baldessari vein. But fans of this famously off-kilter, boundary-pushing conceptual artist might be more surprised to find hanging above his desk a perfectly balanced still life by a more traditional painter: a serene little image in muted browns and grays by the 20th-century Italian master Giorgio Morandi, showing a fluted vase flanked by jars and boxes.

“It’s the first painting I ever bought,” said Mr. Baldessari, seated at his desk behind a mess of books and papers, wearing rumpled black clothes that highlight the whiteness of his beard. He said he bought it last fall from the David Zwirner Gallery for what he called “an embarrassing amount of money.”

“I find it so beautiful, and I’m always learning things from it,” he added, pointing to two parallel black lines in the puzzle-like composition.

In the 1980s and ’90s, when he was associated with Pictures Generation artists like Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince, Mr. Baldessari specialized in his own puzzle-like photo-based work, which often incorporated fragments from black-and-white film stills (westerns and old romances, most notably). He typically painted over faces, or placed round stickers on them, undercutting Hollywood-style glamour and heroism while leaving his own colorful mark. Later he incorporated snippets of film dialogue, too — enigmatic bits that asked the viewer to fill in large gaps in meaning.

Now 84, Mr. Baldessari has been turning away from film sources and grappling more directly with the history of painting. He is paying tribute to old and modern masters by borrowing details of their works in ways that make his creative ancestors seem especially current. For Mr. Baldessari, who early on hired sign painters instead of picking up the brush himself, this focus on traditional painting seems especially remarkable.

For a series at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt and at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, he borrowed a half-peeled lemon from a 17th-century still life by Jan Davidsz. de Heem and the bare legs of Venus from a 16th-century painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The satire is more direct than ever: He paired each image with film dialogue that touches on art or money, or art as money — targeting the collector-speculators who see only the financial value of art.

His new work in the studio, heading to Marian Goodman in the fall, gives Giotto’s Annunciation and Crucifixion scenes from the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy, a colorful makeover.

“I do believe that art comes from art,” Mr. Baldessari said, toying with a plastic pickle on his desk that yodels, a gift from Damien Hirst. “I think about old art a lot. Giotto is one artist I think about a lot. Goya is another.” He has named dogs after each of them.

“I was going to be an art historian once,” he said. “That was early on, in the early ’70s, when I thought being an artist wasn’t very dignified. I thought being an art historian, I could be called Dr. Baldessari, and that would be better.”


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Photo: Monica Almeida/The New York Times - Image of the artist John Baldessari with new work in his studio in Los Angeles. 


John Baldessari's ('58 MFA Fine Arts) artwork has been featured in more than 200 solo exhibitions and in over 1000 group exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe. His many awards include a 2014 National Medal of Arts, being honored by MOCA at their 2015 Gala, and several honorary degrees including a Doctorate in Fine Arts from Otis College of Art and Design.