John Baldessari was born in National City, California, in 1931. He received a BA (1953) and MA (1957) from San Diego State College, continuing his studies at Otis Art Institute (1957–59) and Chouinard Art Institute. Synthesizing photomontage, painting, and language, Baldessari’s deadpan visual juxtapositions equate images with words and illuminate, confound, and challenge meaning. He upended commonly held expectations of how images function, often by drawing the viewer’s attention to minor details, absences, or the spaces between things. By placing colorful dots over faces, obscuring portions of scenes, or juxtaposing stock photographs with quixotic phrases, he injects humor and dissonance into vernacular imagery.
For most of his career, John Baldessari had also been a teacher. While some of the strategies he deployed in his work—experimentation, rule-based systems, and working within and against arbitrarily imposed limits to find new solutions to problems—share similarities with pedagogical methods, they are also intrinsic to his particular world view and philosophy.
Baldessari has received several honorary doctorates, such as from the National University of Ireland, Burren College of Art (2006). He has participated in Documenta (1982, 1978); the Venice Biennale (2003, 1997); and seven Whitney Biennial exhibitions. His work has been shown in more than 120 solo exhibitions and 300 group exhibitions. A major retrospective appeared at Tate Modern, London; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2009–10. John Baldessari was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2007. He lived and worked in Santa Monica, California, where he passed away in January 2020.
“Words are just a way we communicate. Images are a way we communicate. And I couldn’t figure out why they had to be in different baskets.”