Laughing At Failure – John Baldessari (1921 – 2020)

Posted: January 7, 2020 in Uncategorized

“Teaching is a mundane pursuit compared with the majesty of making art.”

It is hard to think of another artist who was more beloved than John Baldessari, who died Thursday at 88. Although he was not a household name, he was hugely influential as a professor, and helped establish Los Angeles as the country’s reigning art-school capital. A tall, soft-spoken man with shaggy white hair and a biblical beard, Baldessari was easy to recognize. His champions like to say that he was “much more” than a teacher, but the statement offends, with its implicit suggestion that teaching is a mundane pursuit compared with the majesty of making art.

The truth is that Baldessari not only loved teaching but made it the central theme of his art. As a founder of conceptual art and professor at the California Institute of the Arts (or CalArts), among other places, he seemed at once enamored of art history but alert to the comic absurdity of having his students strive to match the grandeur of the past. His visual style derives from a corner of life that we never even knew had a style — i.e., the classroom. Many of his compositions feature photographs or text borrowed from disparate sources, and have the lucid, unadorned look of educational materials, especially flash cards and posters inscribed with useful information in sans-serif, jumbo-size type.

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