Fourteen assignments from John Baldessari

21

Dear Artist,

In 1970, John Baldessari was teaching studio art at Cal Arts, while enduring a crisis of faith in his own semi-abstracts. He took everything he’d ever made to a San Diego mortuary and cremated it, baked the ashes into cookies, stuffed them into a bronze urn shaped like a book, then engraved a plaque with the destroyed paintings’ birth and death dates and the recipe for the cookies. “It was a very public and symbolic act,” he said, “like announcing you’re going on a diet in order to stick to it.” On the verge of 40, John leapt into multi-media, borrowing, hybridizing and re-contextualizing it and carving out what would become his signature: questioning, with irreverent and sardonic wit, the nature of representation and language, and what makes art, art. He did much of it from his own classroom.

Tips For Artists Who Want To Sell, 1966-68 acrylic on canvas 68 1/4 x 56 1/2 x 1 1/2 inches by John Baldessari (1931-2020)

Tips For Artists Who Want To Sell, 1966-68
Acrylic on canvas
68 1/4 x 56 1/2 x 1 1/2 inches
by John Baldessari (1931-2020)

John called his new, experimental class at Cal Arts, “Post Studio” — its purpose to “indicate people not daubing away at canvases or chipping away at stone, that there might be some other kind of class situation.” He handed out assignments typed on cue cards and made videos on a Sony Portapack analog recorder. “When I think I’m teaching, I’m probably not. When I don’t think I’m teaching, I probably am,” said John. Here are his 1970 assignments:

1. Make up an art game. Structure a set of rules with which to play. A physical game is not necessary; more important are the rules and their structure. Do we in life operate by rules? Does all art? Or art rules, like tenant rules or art violations.

2. How can plants be used in art. Problem becomes how can we really get people to look freshly at plants as if they’ve never noticed them before. A few possibilities: 1. Arrange them alphabetically like books on a shelf; 2. Plant them like popsicle trees (as in child art) perpendicular to line of hill; 3. Include object among plants that is camouflaged 4. Color palm tree pink; 5. Photo found growing arrangements; 6. Or a movie on How to Plant a Plant.

I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, 1971 Lithograph 22 3/8 x 29 9/16 inches by John Baldessari

I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, 1971
Lithograph
22 3/8 x 29 9/16 inches
by John Baldessari

3. Pay homage to a movie star, rock musician, etc. in form of a pilgrimage visit. Photograph is required of the two of you with a personalized signed greeting by the culture hero. Or it could be to a famous person’s grave. In this case a photo of you at the grave. Person’s name on the gravestone should be visible. No signature necessary.

4. Defenestrate objects. Photo them in mid-air.

5. One person copies or makes-up random captions. Another person takes photos. Match photos to captions.

6. Disguise an object to look like another object.

7. Make up list of distractions that often occur to you. Recreate on video tape.

Brain/Cloud (With Seascape and Palm Tree), 2009 Inkjet print on Hahnemüle photo rag 308 gsm paper using archival inks 30.75 x 22.75 inches by John Baldessari

Brain/Cloud (With Seascape and Palm Tree), 2009
Inkjet print on Hahnemüle photo rag paper using archival inks
30.75 x 22.75 inches
by John Baldessari

8. Document change, decay, metamorphosis, changes occurring in time. Photograph same thing at various times during the day.

9. By using movie camera to follow actions and by your observations into cassette recorder, document the movements of someone secretly for an entire day. Or have someone follow you.

10. Photograph backs of things, underneaths of things, extreme foreshortenings, uncharacteristic views. Or trace them.

11. Describe the visual verbally and the verbal visually.

12. Scenarios. Do a movie from an existing, stock scenario. Or 1 person write scenario, another shoot movie. Or GRABAG scenario—everyone write 2-3 scenes, drop in box, someone pull out maybe 10 and they are shot in the order drawn out. Or everyone do their version of the grabag scenario.

13. Repaired or patched art. Recycled. Find something broken and discarded. Perhaps in a thrift store. Mend it.

14. Photograph of umbrella and sewing machine on an operating table. That’s Surrealism isn’t it?

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “If an artist calls it art, it’s art.” (John Baldessari)

John Baldessari in his Santa Monica studio in 1986.

John Baldessari in his Santa Monica studio in 1986.

Esoterica: John Baldessari drolly believed that every young artist should know three things: 1. Talent is cheap, 2. You have to be possessed, which you can’t will, and 3. Being at the right place at the right time. “What the artist does is jump-start your mind and make you see something fresh, as if you were a visitor to the moon,” said John. “An artist breathes life back into stereotypes.” John Baldessari, one of America’s greatest art professors and pioneer of American Conceptual art, died at his home and studio in Santa Monica, last week. He was 88.

The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys. 

“I will not make any more boring art.” (John Baldessari)


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21 Comments

  1. This Post Studio list from John Baldessari is an eye-opener and brain-teaser. It a New Year’s wakeup call about seeing things anew, ripping away stereotypes, taking risks. It’s brilliant and thank you for publishing it. A keeper for sure.

    • Agree. Agree.Agree.Agree.Agree.Agree.Agree. Agree.

      Couldn’t say it better myself. TY Janice.

      Maybe it holds a key for me to get back into making A R T.

      Then maybe not.

      John B. : R.I.P. (or not, as is your wish and destiny).

  2. Great thoughts and what a great time to be an artist in LA. This is the same time period that Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro started the Feminist Arts program at Cal Arts and created Womanhouse. After 50 years, maybe it is time to return to the Grand Concept and collaborative art.

  3. I was a student at Cal Arts when John was teaching there. An art student in the dorm almost got kicked out because he had slices of an orange rotting on his window sill, which he photographed daily (#8). He had become a little obsessed with the project and it soon grew to other foods in various stages of decay, with spectacular levels of mold growth and an odor that hit you the minute you entered the building. It was art because he said it was art!

  4. Thanks Sara for your post about John Baldessari and acknowledging his passing. His perspective reminds me about the the importance of moving beyond what is familiar, both as the artist and the viewer. I love how he places importance on being curious and irreverent to expectations. This is not necessarily easy to do either as the viewer or the painter. Once we have a structure, framework or process that produces familiar, pleasing and desirable work, it becomes even harder to let go of it and move into a space where unfamiliar perimeters are being explored. Often, our first instinct is that we are looking at a mess! And we might just be. Or it might be revolutionary. I must admit I can be quite inept at being able to determine the difference – either as a painter or a viewer.

    What I do know is that I desire this continued tension between something unknown and something that is derived from years of study and practice. I think possible there comes a point where a predictable highly skilled process can begin to feel like chains and a restriction. I often return to visit Picasso’s life and work if I start to get this feeling. But maybe I will go spend time with with the writing and work of John Baldessari as well.

    But in the meantime, my gallery is expanding and new landscape paintings are getting completed in the winter studio!

  5. This was the most profoundly depressing post I’ve read from you, Sara! My mind just doesn’t work like that. I have to do the art that comes out of my mind and soul and this just isn’t it. But if that means I’m not an artist, then I feel as if I have nowhere to go.

    I get that he was bored with what he was doing and wanted to try new ways of doing and seeing. Well, bravo for all those who can do it. I really mean that. But I would just make myself miserable trying to do his assignments. It would just be a grit my teeth and tough it out. Nothing joyful.

    For me, art is the joy that keeps me going in our current world of the most bestial cruelties, the most venal and self serving exploitation of the weak and vulnerable, and the wholesale destruction of the earth’s treasures. I haven’t time for celebrating more of the same in the name of “art.”

    • Dear Ann,
      Don’t stop or change what brings you benign joy in an often malignant world view. Bless his heart, I’m so glad John had a secure job teaching impressionable, talented, idealistic and often naive students. If he thought his work was trash….then it was. To turn the trash into a public statement was actually his “art”. I’m glad for his statement, because it brought him the notoriety he sought as an artist and helped him to forge a more agreeable and satisfying path….and I’m sure his students benefited by his new-found enthusiasm. LOVE what you do and what you create….treat each work like a precious child even if it is ignored by others. Breathe LIFE into each piece….and RENEWAL will be your REWARD!

    • Well said!
      I have a friend who is always “petitioning me” to just “start” and put paint down . Perhaps with a credit card on partially wet paper. Perhaps with charcoal then add and remove smudges until it maybe looks like something. Then “enjoy” the results. Nope. I love having a concept, then designing the structure, and THEN joyfully adding the paint. Hopefully in the direction I envision, but perhaps the muse and I will execute a happy accident!

  6. I’m impressed with his burning all of his art. I’ve seriously considered doing this myself. I have so much, and I can’t even give it away! Time for a renewal. Thanks for this letter. I’ definitely printing it out for a re-read or two.

  7. I got three plein air pieces in by 730 am this past week, is or isn’t art who cares, it was exhilarating! Thanks for all you share Sara.

  8. Not every time, but often enough to be of note, I find something like John Baldessari’s art lessons just when I’m ready to trash everything I’ve done recently as boring. I really like the funeral he gave his dead art, and the life he injected into the work of his students. At the close of a season, hockey teams often talk of learning to play with desperation; maybe I need to find some of that desperation in my painting too! Or if not desperation, then a certain kind of stubborn intentionality.

    Thank you for this important essay.

  9. I am glad to wake up each day as a NON starving artist. I am able to sell ,heat and eat.
    I have good art team of people who vote with their bucks. I am mercenary and coach artists
    on MAKING MONEY!!!! Cheers!!!!

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http://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Vaughn_Over-the-River-and-Through-the-Woods-wpcf_300x225.jpgOver the River and Through the Woods,
oil on canvas,
30 x 40 inches, 2016

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