The art world and CalArts mourn the passing of acclaimed conceptual artist John Baldessari on Thursday, Jan. 2, at age 88. After pursuing post-graduate work at the Chouinard Art Institute, John joined CalArts in 1970 as a founding faculty member in the School of Art. He believed in the Institute’s concept of a community of artists coming together to experiment, make new work, create new forms, and bring forth new ideas. His dedication to teaching helped establish the culture of CalArts and forever changed how the arts were taught—not only in Los Angeles, but around the world. John led his renowned CalArts post-studio class in art from 1970 to 1988; his influence on campus is still palpable today, especially in The John Baldessari Building/Studios and classroom, which opened in 2013.
U.S. President Barack Obama presented John with the National Medal of Arts in 2015; he also received the Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale in 2009. He was an innovator and force in conceptual and contemporary art and influenced many artists. His former students at CalArts include David Salle, Tony Oursler, Matt Mullican, Jack Goldstein, Jim Shaw, Mike Kelley, James Welling, Meg Cranston, and Liz Larner, among countless others.
CNN called John “one of America's most influential conceptual artists” and The New York Times described him as “the influential conceptual artist who helped transform Los Angeles into a global art capital through his witty image-making and decades of teaching there.”
After changing the trajectory of his art from painting to collaging and images that included text and often humor, he worked throughout his life from his studios in Venice and Santa Monica. John’s work appeared in galleries across the globe. While a major retrospective of his work, Pure Beauty (2009-10) opened at The Tate Modern in London before traveling to Barcelona, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, John continued to work and innovate in the last decade of his prolific career. Recent exhibitions include a retrospective titled Learning to Read with John Baldessari at Museo Jumex in Mexico City (2017); and unique editions of his work were showcased at Gemini G.E.L. and Mixografia in Los Angeles (2017-2019); and at the Laguna Museum of Art last year. Mai 36 exhibited a series titled Windmills in Zurich, Switzerland (2018); and Marian Goodman presented the Hot & Cold Series, in New York in 2019.
John’s attitude and vision, while far ahead of their time and place, managed to define and transcend both.
Alumna Meg Cranston (Art MFA 86) shared her thoughts Sunday evening:
“We mourn the passing and cherish the memory of our teacher, fellow artist, and friend, John Baldessari. John loved CalArts for all it gave to him. He loved us, his students and his friends. All John ever wanted to do was be an artist, have artist friends and care for his family. His commitment to art and all its beautiful absurdities was total. He suggested I share that optimistic view as I do with you. Cheers to our teacher and our friend. May history remember all John did for art and for us.”
John believed the space of the arts was the last bastion of true democracy. May all of us carry his vision forward, and remember his oft-repeated and well-kept promise to “make no more boring art.”