Celebrating John Baldessari’s legacy in San Diego

Artist John Baldessari speaking at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.
(File photo)

The National City native, who died early this month, was a force in contemporary art here and around the world


A titan of conceptual art, John Baldessari died at the age of 88 on Jan. 2, and his significance cannot be underestimated in San Diego and the larger contemporary art scene. Born in National City in 1931, his humble beginnings began locally but blossomed in Los Angeles and then the world, as he became a cultural forerunner.

Baldessari was the recipient of numerous awards and honors in both the visual arts and education arenas, including a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1986 and the College Art Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999. His towering height of 6 feet, 7 inches projected a significant presence that complemented his soft-spoken, caring and reflective demeanor.

Critically, Baldessari was thought of as a superb and daring thinker. Kathryn Kanjo, the David C. Copley director and CEO of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD), shares: “One of the most celebrated artists of our time, Baldessari has been recognized as a key figure in contemporary art since the 1960s, imbuing his bright and witty work with a deadpan humor and incisive conceptualism.” President Barack Obama even recognized Baldessari with the National Medal of Art in 2015 signifying his impact on the field.

This renowned, influential artist started his journey in the arts with a bachelor’s and a master’s in art education from San Diego State College (now SDSU), studying there from 1949 to 1957. Once he graduated, he taught in the San Diego school system and continued to teach for close to thirty years at a variety of levels.

Baldessari originally sought out an undergraduate degree in art education because he was convinced that a studio art degree would not allow him to make a living. Earning both a degree and a teaching certificate in the process, he graduated without much of an idea of what it meant to be an artist.

It was not until Baldessari was exposed to the faculty and students at the Otis Art Institute that the visual arts came alive for him. This was a distinct turning point in his artistic identity, as he started to visit galleries, read art magazines, and begin to talk with folks involved in the field.

As an artist, Baldessari experienced a critical moment when visiting a museum in 1965. He was interested in how museum conservators used blank pieces of plaster to fill in the missing parts of Greek vases. This intrigue transferred into Baldessari’s process; he started removing parts of images to see how the absence might impact the message of his own work. In his “Art21” documentary, Baldessari asks the question: “I am always interested in things that we don’t call art, and I say, why not?”

Baldessari was primarily a gestural painter until he made an important statement in 1970. Signifying the end of a chapter, Baldessari and a group of friends collected 123 of his paintings from 1953 to 1966 and delivered them to a local crematorium for incineration. An affidavit by Baldessari was published in The San Diego Union two weeks after the cremation that hinted at the symbolism of the process. 1953 was the year he graduated with his bachelor’s degree, a time the artist claimed he was not obligated to make any more art. 1966 marked the transition from his traditional painting practice to his conceptual and text-based work for which he would become widely known. Both destructive as well as restorative, the “Cremation Project” was therapeutic and practical as Baldessari was about to make another transition to Los Angeles to begin teaching at CalArts.

Lynda Forsha, executive director of Murals of La Jolla, was responsible for curating a large 2011 mural by Baldessari that is still currently on view. She shares: “John Baldessari’s roots in San Diego are deep and lasting. Considered internationally to be one of the most important and influential artists of our time, he also served as a pillar of our local art community. By supporting our artists and arts institutions through his presence at events and by making art for San Diego, he inspired and enlightened us, forever changing how we experience and think about art.”

Murals of La Jolla: John Baldessari's "Brain/Cloud (with Seascape and Palm Tree)"
(Philipp Scholz Ritterman)

After Baldessari moved to Los Angeles, he created a class at CalArts called “Post-Studio Art.” Based on his own work, he was not creating within the confines of a studio, and he wanted a class that reflected these interests. The class was unusual at the time because it did not define itself by a medium, rules or other physical limits upon which the description of classroom instruction typically relies, as he tried to make his teaching mirror his art.

Welton Jones, former arts editor for The San Diego Union, acknowledges the importance of Baldessari and his role in San Diego. “Looking at the history of art in San Diego, it’s extraordinary how few artists were developed and nurtured that rose to height of Baldessari. … He set a standard for following his muse, and he never denied his roots.”

Baldessari continues to be well represented in San Diego museums and their important collections, including the Stuart Collection at the University of California San Diego. Director Mary Beebe recalls persuading the artist to contribute to the collection: “I kept saying, ‘But you’re such an important teacher, and artist, and you grew up here, and have taught here, and I know you can think of something to do.’ He did, and we’re so happy to have this very important work.”

Kanjo captures Baldessari’s importance for MCASD and for San Diego: “His generous and curious nature seemed to fuel both his art and his teaching. At MCASD, we celebrate his deep connections to the region and to our museum even as we mourn his passing.”

Daichendt, dean of the colleges and professor of art history at Point Loma Nazarene University, is a freelance writer.