Artist John Baldessari died on January 2 at the age of 88, following a decades-long career in which he questioned assumptions about art with an irreverence and embrace of the unexpected.
Although best known for work that decontextualized or obliterated found imagery, such as photographs obscured with colorful dots, Baldessari began as a more traditional painter. By the end of the 1960s, he was shifting from semi-abstract paintings into more conceptual work. In the summer of 1970, he declared this departure with an act of extreme destruction. He brought together all the paintings still in his possession that dated from May 1953—the month he graduated from college—to March 1966. He made some slides of the works, numbering around 100, before they were broken into pieces and hauled to a San Diego mortuary, where they were cremated. The ritualistic act was later titled the “Cremation Project.”
“In part a statement of frustration, in part a gesture of renunciation, this marked a major shift in Baldessari’s art,” art historian Lynne Cooke writes in The Burlington Magazine. Cooke sees Baldessari’s act as “a liberation” from painting—not simply as a medium but as an “arena”—“to a realm of activity that seemingly had no boundaries.” This realm “soon encompassed film, photography, video, books, prints, sculptural objects and installation, and incorporated everything from found to invented visual and verbal imagery, from high art to mass cultural matter,” Cooke writes.
The ashes of the paintings were collected into numbered and signed boxes, with some remains presented that fall in Software: Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art at New York’s Jewish Museum. A memorial plaque with the dates of the charred art commemorated this span of his practice like an epitaph. The exhibition catalogue featured photographs of Baldessari tearing up canvases with his hands alongside the words “a life’s work goes up in flames.”
Art historian Lucy Bradnock also analyzes the impact of the “Cremation Project,” in terms of both Baldessari’s personal artistic evolution and the art-historical context of his work. “On one level, ‘Cremation Project’ marked a stand against the kind of figurative and Pop-inflected painting that had dominated art teaching on the West Coast from the 1940s to the 1960s,” she writes in The Burlington Magazine, adding that “it also marked Baldessari’s transition to artistic maturity.” “But in its theatricality, its humour (Baldessari baked cookies out of the ashes) and its reification of the paintings’ remains, the work also points to the kinds of critical paradoxes that were to characterise the Los Angeles Conceptualism of which Baldessari has long been regarded as a leading proponent.”
Indeed, few artists were as pivotal to the Los Angeles art scene as Baldessari, a role reinforced by his longtime work as a teacher. “In provocative ways, Baldessari sought to undercut the hierarchy, instrumental logic, isolation, and predictability of work,” art historian Robin Kelsey writes in Critical Inquiry. “Within the institution of art education, he sought to create a play community, with the internal rules of its activity a matter of constant negotiation.”
In fact, the dramatic “Cremation Project” may have been partly a solution to Baldessari downsizing his studio for a new teaching job. He had been hired by the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and was moving from his hometown of National City to Los Angeles, which included relocating from a large studio in a former movie theater. As Patrick Pardo and Robert Dean, editors of his catalogue raisonné, stated in a post for the Yale University Press blog, it was “as much practical as therapeutic.”
It was also hardly the only time of change for Baldessari. Soon after the “Cremation Project,” he created the 1971 lithograph “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art” that repeats the phrase over and over, like a school punishment. His work constantly evolved in shape and form, whether he was painting disembodied noses floating in clouds or covering a ceiling with the dizzying lines of the Los Angeles freeways. With wit and a bit of subversion, he played against preconceptions of what art should be while recognizing that it still needed some heart.
“Art can be defined as a believable lie—that’s an idea that has always appealed to me,” Baldessari said in a 2005 interview with art historian Sidra Stich for American Art. “You’re trying to convince somebody of something. Even if it’s the best painting in the world, if you don’t believe it, then it’s just paint and canvas and picture [stretcher] bars.”