John Baldessari, (born June 17, 1931, National City, California) is a conceptual artist.
His work often attempts to point out irony in contemporary art theory and practices or reduce it to absurdity. His art has been featured in more than 120 solo exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe.
Early text paintings
Baldessari's early major works were canvas paintings that were empty but for painted statements derived from contemporary art theory. An early attempt of Baldessari's included the hand-painted phrase "Suppose it is true after all? WHAT THEN?" on a heavily worked painted surface. However, this proved personally disappointing because the form and method conflicted with the objective use of language that he preferred to employ. Baldessari decided the solution was to remove his own hand from the construction of the image and to employ a commercial, lifeless style so that the text would impact the viewer without distractions. The words were then physically lettered by sign painters, in an unornamented black font. The first of this series presented the ironic statement "A TWO-DIMENSIONAL SURFACE WITHOUT ANY ARTICULATION IS A DEAD EXPERIENCE." (1967)
Another work, Painting for Kubler, 1967-68, presented the viewer theoretical instructions on how to view it and on the importance of context and continuity with previous works. The seemingly legitimate art concerns were intended by Baldessari to become hollow and ridiculous when presented in such a purely self-referential manner.
Juxtaposing text with images
Related to his early text paintings were his Wrong series, which paired photographic images with lines of text from a book about composition. His photographic California Map Project found physical forms that resembled the letters in "California" geographically near to the very spots on the map that they were printed. In the Binary Code Series, Baldessari used images as information holders by alternating photographs to stand in for the on-off state of binary code; one example alternated photos of a woman holding a cigarette parallel to her mouth and then dropping it away.
Another of Baldessari's series juxtaposed an image of an object such as a glass, or a block of wood, and the phrase "A glass is a glass" or "Wood is wood" combined with "but a cigar is a good smoke" and the image of the artist smoking a cigar. These directly refer to Rene Magritte's The Treachery of Images; the images similarly were used to stand in for the objects described. However, the series also apparently refers to Sigmund Freud's famous attributed observation that "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar", as well as to Rudyard Kipling's "... a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke."
Baldessari has expressed that his interest in language comes from its similarities in structure to games, as both operate by an arbitrary and mandatory system of rules. In this spirit, many of his works are sequences showing attempts at accomplishing an arbitrary goal, such as Throwing 4 Balls in the Air to Get a Square, in which the artist attempted to do just that, photographing the results, and eventually selecting the "best out of 36 tries", with 36 being the determining number just because that is the standard number of shots on a roll of film.
Much of Baldessari's work involves pointing, in which he tells the viewer not only what to look at but how to make selections and comparisons, often simply for the sake of doing so. Baldessari critiques formalist assessments of art in a segment from his video How We Do Art Now, entitled "Examining Three 8d Nails", in which he gives obsessive attention to minute details of the nails, such as how much rust they have, or descriptive qualities such as which appears "cooler, more distant, less important" than the others.
Baldessari's Commissioned Paintings series took the idea of pointing literally, after he read a criticism of conceptual art that claimed it was nothing more than pointing. Beginning with photos of a hand pointing at various objects, Baldessari then hired amateur yet technically adept artists to paint the pictures. He then added a caption "A painting by [painter's name]" to each finished painting. In this instance, he has been likened to a choreographer, directing the action while having no direct hand in it, and these paintings are typically read as questioning the idea of artistic authorship. The amateur artists have been analogized to sign painters in this series, chosen for their pedestrian methods that were indifferent to what was being painted.