There aren’t a tremendous number of contemporary artists who possess a name at least vaguely familiar to the lay public. And even if one’s not instantly capable of placing John Baldessari in place and time, his name means something. That something might be a vague flash of the obtuse artistic pretense most associate with newer art, but that’s better than nothing.
Being born and in California prior to the depression and living through it doesn’t seem to have impacted the man’s work. So, that place and time thing doesn’t really apply to the earliest parts of his life. But being a Californian, attending schools in that state and eventually contriving an academic career in those institutions surely has left an indelible mark on his works.
Placing Baldessari in Berkley during a time when the Beats had to a certain extent been co-opted by popular culture, getting spit into Dragnet and Get Smart, but just before everyone and their neighbor wanted to hop in a bus and drive to Woodstock, accounts for a good deal of the artist’s perspective on his work.
Beginning as a painter and now finding himself most associated with the manipulation of photographed images, Baldessari, for some reason decided to abandon one and focus on the latter. After attending school during the fifties and landing teaching gigs during the sixties, he grew weary of working in paint. And as comment on the vagaries of painting, burned his earliest work, turning the results into what counts as a sort of performance art.
Erasing his earliest work, though, disallows for a wide view of his development and precludes critical statements about his those work. It’s in those concepts that Baldessari becomes more intriguing a figure in post War art than most of what he’s subsequently created. Aware of all that or not, it’s an odd statement of how a creator of work interacts with his audience and the media attempting to cover whatever it deems valuable. And of course, Baldessari saw greater value in his paintings being destroyed than was inherent in them while still in one piece. Awesome.
The time he’s spent after the destruction of his paintings, does find Baldessari not only garnering the most attention he’d appreciated, but also sliding over to comment on culture in a way that his destroyed works may not have.
Removing himself from the specter of total retrospective criticism, though, might be the most stunning achievement of his career.