One day 24 years ago, John Baldessari realized he hated being a painter. He loathed it, in fact. When he looked around his studio near San Diego, he shuddered—what he saw was 500 unsold canvasses, a second-rate collection in a hodgepodge of styles from Cezanne to Dada. He stopped painting for four years, devoted himself to developing new techniques, but finally decided that wasn’t enough. The paintings—and the failure they represented—had to be destroyed.
So one sunny afternoon in 1970, he and five friends ripped the canvasses to shreds, carted them off to a crematorium, and in four hours sent his 13-year painting career up in smoke. “There was a lot of doubt and anxiety,” he recalls. “But I breathed a sigh of relief when the crematory door slammed shut. I felt liberated.”
Anyone who ever considered shedding the past and starting over might take heart from Baldessari’s example. Freed of the burden of failure and fueled by a new style called “information as art,” Baldessari’s career has caught fire. A touring retrospective exhibit, at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., until Jan. 6, includes more than 70 of his works, which consist of borrowed photographs and bits of text united to create odd and unsettling contrasts. “He made a breakthrough by using language and photos—culled from the mass culture—to express his personal ideas,” says Richard Koshalek, director of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art where the exhibit was organized. “He shows there are many ways of making art.” While critics cite Baldessari’s influence on a whole generation of young artists—his techniques echo in the work of Jenny Holzer and Robert Longo—collectors fill a waiting list for unique works that sell for $20,000 to $175,000.
Baldessari isn’t the first artist to torch his oeuvre, but few, if any, have risen from their own ashes so brilliantly. In memorial, a book-shaped urn bearing some of the charred remains of his paintings stands on a pedestal at the Hirshhorn. “It’s like a death or a mercy killing,” says Baldessari, 59, a 6’6″ gentle giant with a white beard. Yet the burning, he insists, wasn’t as important as the attitude change it ignited. “I used to follow cultural standards about what was allowable in art,” he says. “Then I decided that I was going to make up my own rules.” After Baldessari gave up painting, he took up conceptual art. He placed colored round paper dots over the faces of subjects in drab old stock photos, adding an air of mystery. His 1987 piece Inventory juxtaposes photos of crammed supermarket shelves with shots of bodies of Holocaust victims stacked like cord-wood. “I saw that these people were considered as items or numbers, and I wanted to make that collision of images,” he explains. ‘There’s a certain electricity when images come together. If it’s just right, you create a new meaning.”
Given his upbringing, it’s no wonder that Baldessari is obsessed with contrasts. His Dutch mother, Hedvig, and his Italian father, Antonio, a salvage dealer, raised Baldessari and his elder sister in National City, Calif., an industrial backwater near Tijuana, Mexico. Already 6’4″ in junior high, Baldessari felt like an outcast since he liked art and wasn’t good at basketball. “An artist was like a social pariah in those years,” says Baldessari, who got an art degree from San Diego State College in 1953 and a master’s in 1957. From that time until 1966, as he filled his studio with unsalable paintings, he taught art at San Diego area public schools and colleges. After flambeing his works, he began teaching in 1970 at CalArts, the Disney-funded experimental college outside L.A. Instead of giving lectures, he turned his classroom into a studio for exploring alternatives to conventional painting. Some Baldessari-inspired students, such as David Salle, won quick success, but the teacher lagged behind. Few U.S. galleries showed his word-and-image collages between 1976 and 1984. Meanwhile his passion for art wore away at his 24-year marriage to Montessorian teacher Carol Wixom. “He’s a very dedicated man,” says Wixom, who was divorced from Baldessari in 1986. “That’s what attracted me to him. But he started devoting more and more time to art and less to me. It was hard to be compatible with that.”
Finally Baldessari’s single-mindedness paid off. As many artists began to use similar techniques, curators and collectors began to buy his work in the mid-’80s. This year’s retrospective cemented his status—without significantly changing his lifestyle. He still lives alone in a Santa Monica art studio, where he is visited by his children, Annamarie, 26, and Tony, 23, both art students. Amid the clutter of works in progress stands ajar of petrified chocolate-chip cookies, baked in 1970 with some ashes from his flame-treated paintings. “One critic,” the artist admits, “suggested that I should burn all of my new work too.” Not likely. Looking around his studio, Baldessari smiles. “I’m happy now with the direction I’ve taken,” he says. “Of course, having some dissatisfaction keeps you working. You always try to get it right until the day you die.”
Michael Small, Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles