Was John Baldessari the 20th Century’s Most Important Art Professor?

Was John Baldessari the 20th Century’s Most Important Art Professor?

John Baldessari, who died last week at age 88, is best remembered as a Conceptualist who inspired countless artists to take up new modes of art-making, whether in the form of absurdist performances or photo-based works about pictures themselves. But one could say that Baldessari’s influence owes the most to a different but related part of his career: his teaching practice. Starting in the early 1970s, Baldessari became one of the first professors at the California Institute of Arts, a school in Santa Clarita that became a locus of artistic experimentation on the West Coast when the art scene there was perceived as less significant than New York’s. Baldessari, famously, taught a class whose name signified a lot: “Post-Studio Art.”

To survey Baldessari’s wide-ranging teaching practice—first at CalArts and later at the University of California, Los Angeles—ARTnews reached out to some of his students and asked about their memories and experiences with the artist as a professor.

Matt Mullican
Graduated in 1974

John’s class was like a laboratory. He would bring us to various places. We went on many field trips. People brought in their work, he brought in his work … Whenever John went to Europe, he would come back with a suitcase full of books, and he would plop it in the front of the center of the room. We devoured it. There was so much money at CalArts at that point that, when any artist from Europe came to New York, he would fly them out to L.A. Lots of artists came through our class, like Rebecca Horn, and there were also locals, like Joan Jonas and Al Ruppersberg.

[We] learned how to talk about work—and thus how to think about it. There was an artist who, in his lecture, said that he never made objects. He showed us quite a long film—maybe a stringing-together of many films—and he was very hifalutin. We were all hanging out after the lecture, having a glass of wine, and before he packed up, Barbara [Bloom, an artist and fellow student] took the film away. He couldn’t find the film, and he was getting extremely nervous. At the appropriate moment, Barbara presented him with his movie, and said, “I thought you didn’t make objects.” She demonstrated the fallacy of what he was saying. This was the way the class was. It was everyone challenging everybody.

John used to pick me up in my last year at school—I lived at home in Santa Monica. He would drive me to school every week; it was very generous, how he did that. He made it very clear that being an artist was no better, nor any worse, than being a plumber or an electrician—that we were not high on our horses. He also was very clear about saying that, if you were an artist, then you were doing the best possible thing anyone could do. All his video pieces were made in the same room as us—we shared the equipment and the space. I didn’t feel that he was somehow in his palace, making high-level work, and that we were working somewhere low. My father was Matt Mullican, and my mother is Luchita Hurtado, so I grew up in a house of art. John was my art father. He was a genius.

Barbara Bloom
Graduated in 1972

In my recollection, there was very little classroom activity. His friends would come from New York or Europe, they’d do some sort of presentation, and then we’d go out to a restaurant or a bar and sit and talk. He was so non-hierarchical. It was possible that, as he got older and became more burnt-out on teaching, the classes became more formal. But at the beginning, there was very little format, very little hierarchy.

I don’t remember that there were any assignments, and I don’t recall that it was ever involved with the production of work. I don’t even remember talking with John about [my art]—that wasn’t the pedagogy. It was more about curiosity. Gilbert & George came and did some kind of presentation. That was mind-boggling to me—the idea that they were living sculptures. This was 1971 or ’72, and they had not been invited to a lot of art schools at that time. It was because they were friends of John’s.

John told jokes—everyone will tell you that. I grew up in Los Angeles, and many of my parents’ friends were comedy writers. I’d say, “Oh god, please don’t subject me to that.” So I would say he was allowed to tell three jokes per conversation, and they better be three good ones, otherwise he’d gone past his quota. He was like a friend. Shortly afterward, I moved to Europe and he called all of his friends there. Wherever I was, he gave me a list of his friends.

[See a slideshow of works by Baldessari.]

Eric Fischl
Graduated in 1972

I never took a class with him, but many of my friends took his class and would talk about it. He was a very influential figure who introduced humor as a creative tool and an expanded arena in which the definition and processes of art-making could be continually redefined. John was always very generous with young artists regardless of whether you shared his aesthetic nihilism. He was a great man, impactful teacher, and an artist who inspired many artists of my generation. He will be missed.

John Miller
Graduated in 1979

I had come into contact with John Baldessari and requested that he be my mentor. He accepted me, and I started coming to his graduate seminar as an undergraduate. That had a huge impact on me. Early on, he was much more blunt than he was later. He adopted, over the years, a gentler teaching style, but that wasn’t so much the case when I worked with him. He could be brutally honest, and it was not just well-intended but also effective. One of my first meetings with him, I was doing these marker grid drawings that were based on chance patterns and systems of order. I showed the drawings to John, and he said, “Well, I like the way you’re thinking about them, but I don’t see it in the work.” He didn’t sugarcoat what he had to say in the least. As a teacher, he meant the best for me, and looking back, he was absolutely right.

James Welling
Graduated in 1974

John was a presence, a catalyst who brought a wide range of visitors to CalArts. I gained so much from them: William Wegman, Joan Jonas, Michael Asher. As an educator I learned from John that it is not the “teaching” or the “classroom” that is of primary importance to students—or at least to me. What is important is all the in-between moments that pass between teachers and students: the visitors he brought, his simple encouragement in the hallway or in the cafeteria. John had a non-stop interest in what everyone was doing.

B. Wurtz
Graduated in 1980

The myth with his class was that you were going to end up crying afterward—but it was never John who would have caused that, it was one’s fellow students! John sat very benignly at the edge, overseeing everything and clearly being the guiding horse. It was the students who questioned you. I’d made these text pieces that were handwritten. I’d decided that it was a secret how I’d made them—that was part of the work—and the students just gave me shit for that! I didn’t cry afterward, but I was quite upset. (And I later decided it didn’t matter how I’d made them.) The next day I sensed the presentation had gone fairly poorly. John said, “Oh, I thought it was fine.” He was nonjudgmental in many ways.

The great thing was that he didn’t feel art could be taught. What [a teacher] did was expose students to things. We had all these visiting artists, and that was a big part of what he did there. A lot was beyond just the class. John was always very supportive of my work. I remember him saying, as far as making art where you might be getting in over your head—like whether you financially able to do it—”It’s really important to make the art you need to make.” [As an artist] you could figure out how to deal with any issues. That was something I always remembered. It was really helpful to hear.

Tony Oursler
Graduated in 1979

I worked a lot with John doing independent studies. I remember him as a man of few words, but in retrospect, those words were always very insightful, precise—things you would remember for years to come. He even suggested I try projecting a video I shot of birds in a tree which I was trying to persuade to do my bidding. They were tiny black specks moving around in the center of the frame, and I was yelling commands at them. He said, “That would look great projected large.” I remember thinking, “Yes, it would,” but I’d never seen a video projector—they didn’t really exist in 1977. He was always ahead of his time. He would gently break away from all traditional notions and preconceptions regarding the art-making process.

The thing about John was that his teaching melded with his work, which was inherently didactic. In other words, to look at his art is to participate in a thought process. He unlocks visual culture in ways that open new possibilities of understanding. John dredged the oceans of popular culture to construct his works. His reaction to the meaningless onslaught of pictures and information was to look at it as raw material to be transformed. At his last show in New York, John explained that he was taking images from the internet as source material for his art. While discussing his process, he explained that he liked the low-resolution anomalies of the images he downloaded. This statement reminded me of what I love about John’s attitude to the world: what some would see as flaws he would see as possibilities.

Analia Saban
Graduated in 2005

At the UCLA graduate program, most of our classes were one-to-one with our professors. I was going through a tough time trying to figure out what I wanted to do during my studies. One of my professors went as far to say that I wasn’t “graduate material.” A couple days later, on my next meeting with John, he told me that he understood my struggle. “You’re just ambitious.” I was trying to do projects that were too big and kept failing, and he helped me break them down into smaller projects. He would just watch and encourage. He was never dogmatic. Instead of trying to teach you to become a young version of himself, he looked at every student individually and brought out the best in us, always with mutual respect. “There are no students, only young artists” was his motto. His support was instrumental to gain confidence and change the course of my career.

Art was never defined. He always reminded me that as artists we could do whatever we wanted or whatever we could get away with!


What are your thoughts?