On the death of the American conceptual artist John Baldessari

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es remains a paradox – precisely because something was almost always missing in his work, the works of the now late world artist John Baldessari demanded particularly strong attention. If it were not an anachronism with regard to the person born in California in 1931, the deliberately flat-painted amorphous spots – often missing faces or whole figures that were filled with colors within their contours – could often be seen in the twenties by Miro or Arp on Baldessaris Offset raster reproduced collages of existing images may have been painted. Like the packaging artist Christo, Baldessari made these “black holes” even more curious about what was hidden there. These are often accompanied by pop-like, comic-like, snippets of sentences.

Collages as visual homeopathy

Stefan Trinks

But what does Baldessari go beyond well-hung pop art? Above all, that with his photo and video works, collages and photo-montages in a kind of surreal conceptual art, he constantly questions the old medium of painting by emphasizing what is “made” of it, for example by breaking open the constructed space. For him, social criticism has necessarily included changing the way media images are used since the 1970s at the latest.

With this fresh, cheeky approach and his criticism of the art world and modern art, he shaped many “students” like Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles. The montage, which dealt with the missing part and the unspoken, became the most suitable medium and means of expression, since when cutting out and mounting the pictures there is always something that can lead to tremendous side effects in terms of homeopathy.

Listen, what comes from inside? Baldessari's surreal “Beethoven’s Trumpet, Opus 133” can still be seen at Fundacio Joan Miro in Barcelona until February 23, 2020


Although his art often looked futuristic, as if formless aliens had settled in the pictures, he never forgot the look into the past of painting. For the two hundredth anniversary of the Frankfurt Stadel Museum, the artist created a total of sixteen large-format image-text collages in 2015, which explicitly referred to paintings from seven hundred years of art history in the collection. In these Bronzino, Baburen or Cranach collages, there was a text in the old form of the two-part image diptych on one side, which with an apparent description of what was seen was reminiscent of a director’s instruction from Hollywood scripts. The black and white of the writing contrasts the color of the pictures in a sober, Protestant manner.

As surreal as Meret Oppenheim's fur cup: John Baldessari's “Hands and / or Feet (Part One): Monkey Arms / Hands” from 2009.


The medieval “Paradiesgartlein” in Frankfurt by the Upper Rhine master worked particularly well as one of these surreal diptychs: The text begins with a suitcase full of money flying out of the window, right in front of the “Marge” and “Bill” couple in a picnic situation – and nothing more than a sacralized picnic is the little paradise garden with its lost Mary with child and saints in the eternal Eden. The reader delves into the plans of the two to acquire a landscape, the astronomically high price of which, in verbatim speech and typical American Pop-Art manner, complains with a big exclamation mark, while at the same time deciding that in today’s art world one is quick must act. Finally Bill takes up the thread, wants to use the money from the flown suitcase to buy the picture in a gallery.

What sounds as flat as Baldessari’s patchwork in the retelling opens surprising new levels of thought in permanent comparison with the detail of the marble picnic table that has been enlarged from the old panel picture: Around 1410, the small-format “paradise garden” with its lovely, enclosed landscape was certainly not a cheap commissioned work for private individuals , and probably the wife of the house bore one of the first names of the female saints depicted on it. The New World Baldessari simply turns our inset views on a six hundred year old, supposedly religious picture upside down.

John Baldessari in the room he designed in the Frankfurt portico, 2007.


Also because of this accessibility, for a time in the digital upheaval phase of the nineties there was almost no group show on media issues in art in which at least one Baldessari could not be seen. His exhibition biography lists well over a thousand participations in group exhibitions, so that at times the danger of oversaturation and the mere illustration of theses a la “media criticism at first glance, Baldessari to go!” This was somewhat balanced out by the more than two hundred individual shows and most recently also retrospectives that museums dedicated to him.

Showered with prices

Naturally, an artist with more than sixty years of oeuvre has been showered with prizes. While today’s President of the United States threatens to annihilate culture, Baldessari was so significant to Barack Obama that in 2015 he honored him with the National Medal of Arts, the United States government’s highest honor for artists in the country. Baldessari received the Kaiserring of the city of Goslar three years earlier as one of the world’s most important prizes for modern art. It is almost unnecessary to mention that Baldessari participated several times in the Venice Biennale, where in 2009 he received the Golden Lion of the 53rd Biennale for his life’s work.

Now John Baldessari, who died in California at the age of eighty-eight, leaves a last gaping gap – perhaps the adequate metaphor for someone who has chosen the defect as the core of his work.

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