The Educator Who Changed How We Think About Art

John Baldessari was the type of artist who made whatever he was doing feel critical and fun. Achieving both weighty and playful qualities within a work of art is not an easy task, but Baldessari made it work. He taught generations of young artists to consider and create art differently, allowing for the expansion of artistic concepts within everyday life. Baldessari is renowned for his seminal work as a contemporary artist, his cameo in The Simpsons and perhaps most significantly, his ability to motivate and inspire artful learning as an educator teaching both high school and art school students. He got his first teaching job at a juvenile detention center, where he realized that the tough attitudes of the students in his program would change when they were engaged in art making. His transition into university teaching set the tone for generations of artists who employed mass media imagery, wit and critical re-framing of everyday life into aesthetic and performative concepts.

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John Baldessari, The Cremation Project, 1970. Via WikiArt

Baldessari’s pedagogical method was deceptively simple, as he described it: “I set out to right all the things wrong with my own art education. But I found that you can’t really teach art, you can just sort of set the stage for it” (Baker, 2003). His breakthrough moment was the creation of one of his landmark conceptual artworks titled The Cremation Project (1970). This performative work of art consisted of the burning of every painting and drawing he previously had made, placing the ashes into an urn, memorializing each artwork with a plaque and baking cookies using some of the ashes as ingredients. His diversion from formalist art was the catalyst for a conceptual approach to art making, where ideas and re-framing of existing imagery became serious materials and methods at the artist’s disposal. Artists who followed his prompts to creatively engage with appropriation, re-cropping and editing of mass media pictures and objects include: Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Jack Goldstein, Mike Kelley and Sherrie Levine.

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John Baldessari, Wrong, 1967. Via WikiArt

Baldessari leveled the playing field for making art and communicating symbolically by exploring myriads of ways for high art to coexist with popular culture. In doing so, he inspired artists and educators to loosen their grip on traditional forms of art making and seek alternative methods and materials to make art with. His approach makes him the antithesis of the renowned modernist teacher Hans Hofmann, who inspired generations of artists like Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler and Jackson Pollock. Hofmann abided by formalist principles and rules, such as his patented ‘push and pull‘ method for creating an illusion of depth and space using an arrangement of abstract forms and color. Baldessari began as a painter exploring similarly formalist concepts, but eschewed that methodology with the creation of the aforementioned The Cremation Project. Being in California instead of New York City also had a likely impact on the way he viewed art and cultural production. He didn’t have a close affinity to the Hofmann-esque New York School that was the dominant force of institutional art and culture throughout the 1950s and 60s. Instead of following rules, he often purposefully broke them, while sardonically acknowledging the fact. His ‘wrong‘ series juxtaposes photographic portraits of people standing directly in front of trees with the caption ‘wrong’ printed underneath. The impetus for this conflation of text and imagery comes from a chapter in a book of photography rules and guidelines, which mentions that positioning a subject that way makes it look as if the tree is growing out of their head. Therefore, according to the photography experts, it is a blatantly wrong and bad photograph. However, with Wrong (1967), Baldessari shifts the negative value and judgement from the photographer to critic/institution/academy. He is suggesting that the very activity of documenting and depicting oneself is an honest and valiant endeavor that benefits personal expression and celebrates life. He stated: “You don’t want anyone to say ‘You can’t do that!’ But you do get a lot of that in New York. One of the healthiest things about California is – ‘Why not?’  (Drew et al, 1981).

Baldessari’s philosophy that art should be informative, flexible and accessible is evident within his work. He utilized text, appropriating quotes from films and found photographs, in order to create open-ended dialogues with his viewers. This method is not so dissimilar from the way that a good writer fills a page with words that a reader can then visualize. Baldessari’s work challenges us to decipher meaning via utilizing our own social and emotional observations and cognition. As an educator and an artist, he was never dogmatic in his opinions and methods about the proper ways to create, interpret and teach art. He merely coached his students and viewers along the way, letting them connect the dots between works of art, mass media imagery, text and personal narratives.

Baldessari was a great teacher because he encouraged playful discovery and critical thinking. He asked more questions than he answered and approached teaching as a creative process that is embedded with humor, transparency and a means to reach people wherever they are at. He opened the door to a type of art education that allows students to feel efficacious for their ideas and helps them realize their creative and artistic ability through informal applications of artistic concepts. You don’t have to be a skilled draughtsman or master painter to be considered an artist. John Baldessari set the stage and pushed the boundaries for individuals and groups to express themselves through a myriad of alternative material and concept-based approaches. In doing so, he changed the course of art and art education.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Baker, Kenneth. “Formalist’s informal education,’ San Francisco Chronicle, 29 Apr. 2003. https://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Formalist-s-informal-education-2619632.php

Tomkins, Calvin. “No More Boring Art,” The New Yorker, 11 Oct. 2010. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/10/18/no-more-boring-art

Tucker, Marcia, Drew, Nancy and Pincus-Witten, Robert. John Baldessari, exhibition catalogue, New York: New Museum, 1981. Accessed on 6 Jan. 2020: https://www.libraries.wright.edu/corescholar_files/flippingbook/john_baldessari/files/assets/common/downloads/John%20Baldessari.pdf

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