UCLA art professor John Baldessari, a conceptual artist with a famously dry wit, who excelled across mediums and whose influence is seen all over the Los Angeles art world, died Jan. 2 at his home in Venice. He was 88.
“In a world in which kindness and magnanimity are often in short supply, John Baldessari stood out as a model of generosity, both as a colleague and as a teacher,” said a statement representing the faculty of the UCLA art department. “John was a giver. He was intellectually rigorous, critical, and kind. He encouraged his students long after they graduated, providing practical advice and real-world support and influencing multiple generations of artists. UCLA’s Department of Art was incredibly fortunate to have John on our faculty. His presence had a profound and lasting impact upon our program.”
Baldessari, whose five-decade retrospective of work, “Pure Beauty,” exhibited at the Tate Modern in London, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, taught at UCLA from 1996 to 2007.
Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight called Baldessari “arguably America’s most influential Conceptual artist” in his review of the show.
Baldessari was born on June 17, 1931, in National City, California, a border city between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, to two immigrant parents.
According The New York Times obituary:
Baldessari’s father was a salvage dealer, and the family grew its own fruits and vegetables, raised chickens and rabbits, and practiced composting waste. Mr. Baldessari often cited his childhood as a reason he had a hard time throwing anything away.
“It’s hard for me to throw anything away without thinking about how it can become part of some work I’m doing,” he said in a 2008 interview. “I just stare at something and say: Why isn’t that art? Why couldn’t that be art?”
Baldessari earned his bachelor’s in art education and a master’s in art at San Diego State College (now San Diego State University). He gravitated toward teaching right away. He taught art in junior high school, community college before joining the UC San Diego faculty. Baldessari even taught teens at a camp for juvenile delinquents run by the California Youth Authority.
In 1970, he took his paintings to a San Diego funeral home and cremated them as bold gesture signaling his evolution as an artist into a broad spectrum of mediums that would include his famous text paintings.
Among the many honors Baldessari received:
- lifetime achievement award from the Americans for the Arts in 2005
- elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2008
- Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement from the Venice Biennale in 2009
- National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in 2014
“His ambitious work combines photography, painting, and text to push the boundaries of image, making him one of the most influential conceptual artists of our time,” the citation for the medal read.
Two of Baldessari’s pieces are part of the art collection at the Luskin Conference Center: “Face with Nose and Ear” and “‘Cliche’ Japanese (Yellow).”
Prior to teaching at UCLA, Baldessari was a professor at the California Institute of the Arts from 1970 to 1988, and before that at UC San Diego. Among his former students are renowned contemporary artists: David Salle, Tony Oursler, Matt Mullican, Mike Kelley, Meg Cranston, Liz Larner, Barbara Bloom and Analia Saban.
Baldessari is survived by his daughter, Annamarie; his son, Tony, and his sister, Betty Sokol.