John Baldessari: The painter who turned to Conceptual Art returns- updated

Baldessari's Profile with Ear and Nose (Colour) 2006


Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles. He has recently been named a 2010 United States Artists Project artist.

The USA site went live on December 7, 2010

My initial project is to fabricate a 3 foot tall doll house sized sculpture of the collapsed William Livingstone House in Detroit. The project description and a video presentation of the project are at the links provided here:
Please feel free to review the site and to contact others who would be interesting in supporting the program and my project.
thanks so much
Vincent Johnson
Los Angeles, California
cell: 818:430.1604
“I guess I’m a formalist at heart.” John Baldessari, in an interview with Jori Finkel, Art Info magazine, 12/01/2008

Baldessari's Ear Couch


British sculptor Henry Moore's Reclining Figure (1951)

I am overwhelmed at how Baldessari’s recent work soars to new heights of visual excitement. The listless image and text exhibitions by those without a native literary sensibility of the 1970’s – 1990’s are thankfully long gone. Other than for Sophie Calle’s transcendent storytelling, and Lawrence Weiner’s word plays on gallery walls, I have seen few artists from the 1970-1990’s who have the gifts to make word pictures with langauge, and not merely make agitprop statements or something even less rewarding. Art Basel Miami Beach 2002 launched the new market for paintings. This new market clearly has had a major impact upon the art being made today, which is worlds apart from the often sterile and cold Conceptual Art of the 1970’s and 1980’s in New York and the 1990’s in Los Angeles. I visited Baldessari’s retrospective here in Los Angeles. Over 40 years he moved from playing games with language and pictures to formal picture making and pictorial invention. Baldessari’s  most recent work looks like it was influenced by all of 20th century art history, as compared to a small part of it, the part that believed it had successfully found the essence and the truth by stripping away beauty and challenging the desire for it, and had not.

John Baldessari's studio with work displayed for the last time before burning in Cremation Project in 1970

Jackson Pollack in Southern California, 1927. Baldessari was born a suburb of San Diego in 1931.

When we speak about Baldessari destroying his work to make a decisive break with his past, why doesn’t anyone ever bring up the fact that Barney Newman destroyed all of his past, figurative work in 1944, when Newman was 39 years old. Newman continued to destroy works that did not satisfy him throughout his career, despite his non-existent sales until late in his life. San Francisco – Bay Area Figurative painter David Park, hauled all his abstract canvases to the Berkeley dump in 1949.

Art’s soul purpose is to allow others to see into the world as the artist has been privileged to see. There are moments when artists – who see into the world and have a provocative vision of it, are able to share that vision and with their work in more than a handful of occasions.

Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles, 9.20.2010


John Baldessari in his studio (1992), photographed by Sidney B Felsen

Legend has it that John Baldessari has had a studio while teaching post studio art for 30 years. He burned up his paintings to make a decisive break, now his work looks like an Ellsworth Kelly/poetic conceptual art digital mashup. In fact I said to a friend here in LA that Baldessari’s recent collage work that features indented rectangles looks like an Ellsworth Kelly painting fell into it, then the panel was removed but the brilliant digitally enhanced color remained. Then there are the more recent works which feature  long single color strokes on massive photocollaged canvases. Here Baldessari is literally painting over his past and past art, by laying paint and indenting into his own photocollage pictures with blocks of color. The 1960’s European/New York Conceptual Art World he initially aligned himself with – the often sterile and cold, bloodless and separated from the body world of  “image and text” and his sometimes poetic early photomontage, disappear under wild and pronounced bold and amazing blocks and gigantic brushes of digital color.

It is in the latest phase of Baldessari’s career that he reconnects the body of art to the brain of art. The 1950’s European wish to separate the brain from the body, to produce a world of total objectivity, has been vanquished. The absurd narratives from the 1980’s and 1990’s – of “emptying out” pictures of content and narrative, and of the death of the author, are dead. Narrative and poetic art making has returned with a vengeance, with no better exemplar of that transition and transformation than in the works of one Los Angeles based American artist named John Baldessari.

Baldessari's collage and paint recent work entitled Fissures

I visited the Baldessari retrospective on the last day it was open here in Los Angeles.

I read the title cards. No one seems to own much of that dead-to-the eye concept art Baldessari was making. Collectors instead flocked to Baldessari’s ultra-colorful 1920’s collages he’s been making since 2000, and those expensive, poetic, fabricated sculptures, each of which is a total refutation of all he was preaching while teaching at Cal Arts in the 19970’s. I watched a video of him performing an art action of himself spinning in a circle while videotaping himself saying “I’m making art, I’m making art.” I said to myself – no, you are not making art, you are making a boring video of yourself saying you are making art. Clearly Baldessari does not truly feel he was making VISUAL ART” when he made that 1970’s aesthetics free video artwork.

This recent Baldessari collage is the perfect Conceptual Art joke picture.

Baldessari’s work over the past decade looks so similar to the work he distanced himself from for decades. It is astounding to see him allow himself to make old-school formally inventive works, no different from the New York City artists of the last four generations. Baldessari isn’t the only hard-core Conceptual Post Studio Artist who returned to painting. The London and New York based Art&Language performed the same “painting is dead – we’ve killed it with theory – games during the mid-1990’s, after a couple of decades arguing over the evils of master narratives. I remember reading their fabulously well argued dense texts while in grad school in LA in Pasadena. I recall feeling that the true purpose of their texts was a form of “spring cleaning” of the mind.

Art & Language's Paintings 1, No. 7 (1966)

There are a few remarkable and exceptionally poetic, metaphor loaded photomontages that Baldessari produced well before he transitioned into being a formalist painter with his first figure/ground being a photomontage. The rigorous and successful 1984 Baldessari work, Man and Woman With Bridge (a unpoetic title for a most poetic montage) succeeds and rises to the level of poetry because it plays upon and renders existing psychological states and fears. It captures the anxiety and excitement, the danger and the desire that is already present. This picture externalized the sublimated feelings in the eyes of the two persons whose eyes are locked upon one another, as if in a pause – to allow for a moment of contemplation and considered possibilities. It operates in a way similar to the found footage collage films of one of the artists whom I most admire, and whom I showed with in the last exhibition he was in when he was alive. That giant of an artist is Bruce Conner. Marcel Broodthaers was a true poet and language artist from Brussels who had shown his work in his Brussels apartment, who became a giant of Conceptual Art in the Cologne Artworld of the 1960’s and 1970. He did not separate the body from the mind, as exemplified by his painted femur piece of 1965.

Marcel Broodthaers: "Fémur d'homme belge" and "Fémur de la femme francaise" (1964/65), © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2005

Broodthaers collage wall

Marcel Broodthaers: Paul Delvaux in his studio (ca. 1966), © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2005

Marcel Broodthaers, »Section Cinéma«, 1971 – 1972 Fotomontage der Section Cinéma, 1971 | Fotografie | © Estate Marcel Broodthaers; VG Bild-Kunst 2004


Bruce Conner, untitled collage works

Bruce Conner, untitled collage works

Bruce Conner's Cosmic Ray (1961)


Baldessari's Man and Woman With Bridge (1984)

Baldessari's Kiss/Panic

Conversely, in the next picture, PURE BEAUTY, one of Baldessari’s early “”thought paintings” (1966-1968), what we are witness to is the total reliance on a statement about beauty, in which no beauty at all is in evidence. The picture is empty. In fact there is no picture. The particular language is mildly provocative but does not act like literature and produce in the mind a personalized image of beauty. This picture in fact lock out and rejects the beautiful. Yet the way the text of the two words has been painted – in such a lifeless way, shows that this particular painting is also running as far away as possible from Beauty and its concerns, which by 1970 had been the subject of the French line of painting for at least two centuries.

Baldessari's painting "Pure Beauty"


Beethoven's Trumpet by John Baldessari

Ellsworth Kelly at Matthew Marks, 2009

a recent work by Baldessari

Another Ellsworth Kelly painting at Matthew Marks, 2009

I predict that In five years from now – say the year 2015, Baldessri’s flat work will be identical to Ellsworth Kelly, without a hint of conceptual art funereal art ideas over image thinking. At his LACMA retrospective, I also noticed that he found some of his paintings from the 1960’s. I had always been under the impression that he made a clean sweep and total transformation by burning these early “paintings.” Several of the surviving ones are in private collections.

One of the things that most struck me while walking through the LACMA retrospective was how much of sterile concept work was still in Baldessari’s hands after 40 years, and had not been placed into collections, despite his current remarkable reputation as a Photo-Conceptualist. The problem was obvious. Ideas by themselves are not art objects. Just as the idea for a film, a theatrical production or performance, or for a musical presentation is not a fully realized art object. It its the seed of an art object. Art idea schematics that include dead photographs are not art objects. But explosively colorful and artfully arranged photocollages are art objects. It is here – in collage works that hark back the early part of the 20th century, where Baldessari makes full evidence of his extremely rewarding visual sensibility, which in my opinion, he allowed the sterilizing art making concepts from Europe and New York in the 1960’s to choke off his full creative life, until he was fifty years old.

That Baldessari turned into a giant of an artist when he was OVER 50 YEARS OLD, because of his escaping the 1960’s European Conceptual Art stranglehold that makes the art of artists like Robert Barry and Joseph Kosuth seen sometimes poetic but largely airless, shows that the power of art can be greater than the power of the great idea. The New York and European artists were bound up and remained bound up in separating the mind from the body, then raised the mind and discarding the body.

Joan MIro in studio

That Baldessari changed course in his 40’s and grew in stature and became a true and historic artist in his 50’s, is of course total contradiction to the current youth movement of today, but completely in line with art of the past. Barnett Newman was in his mid 40’s when he started showing. Newman did not invent his Zip paintings until he was well into his forties. He had sold little work and had little success even in his early 50’s. The creative arc of his career that we know of today is but a handful of years. This is matched by the giant of the Belgian artworld, Marcel Broodthaers career was 12 years long – the last 12 years of his life.

Baldessari's Blockage With Tent and Sword Fight (Green), where again PURE COLOR is now the desired means of Baldessari's studio product.

During the 1950’s, artists in NYC actually brought their canvases to the galleries to consider for a show.


If we look at the career of Barnett Newman, “Barney Newman” we’ll see that Newman’s “Zip” paintings break free of the then stranglehold of Abstract Expressionism, where gesture and notions of figure and ground were the only practical means of discussing or making a contemporary painting in New York City.

in 1946, joined Mark Rothko and Clifford Still in the new Betty Parson’s gallery that opened in September in 1945. Newman allowed his friend Jackson Pollock to meet with Betty Parsons. Pollock joined the Betty Parson’s gallery as his former gallery, Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century, had just closed.

September 1948: The Sidney Janis gallery opens in New York with a year-long show of the paintings of Fernand Leger.This is followed by shows of the work of Mondrian, the Fauves, a show containing works called Brancusi to Duchamp, a Henri Rousseau exhibition, one on French Masters, and another on International Dada, through the year 1953. Though Newman did not travel to Europe until late in his career, he was privileged to have direct contact with European Modernism. He makes it known that it was important to him to have seen the real work as compared to seeing phenomenally great slides of the work.

Barnett Newman, in one of several studios he worked in during his career

Newman’s first vertical stripe – “zip” painting was made in 1948, when he was 43 years old. That painting was called Onement I.

Newman was educated in the field of philosophy. He followed up his concepts in painting by authoring the essay “The Sublime is Now.” It was published in the December 1948 issue of Tiger’s Eye magazine. Newman wrote “I believe that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it.”

1949: Newman signs a letter of protest to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, about it’s distaste for modern art. The letter is published on the front page of the New York Times on May 22, 1949.

Jackson Pollock in LIFE magazine, 1949

1950: Life magazine photographer Nina Leen takes the infamous photograph of The Irascibles.” It was Newman who insisted the artists dress like bankers for the photograph.

The Iracibles: Willem De Kooning; Jackson Pollock; Adolph Gottlieb; Ad Reinhardt; Robert Motherwell; Clyfford Still; James C. Brooks; Hedda Sterne; Jimmy Ernst; Bradley Walker Tomlin; Richard Pousette-Dart; Barnett Newman; Theodoros Stamos; William Baziotes; Mark Rothko

1951: Newman’s Betty Parson’s exhibition is critically beaten down. The gallery sells none of his work.

Following this, he took his work back from Parsons and did not have an exhibition for four years, until 1955. It was only after having a heart attack in 1957 that his critics got off of his back and put him on their shoulders.

Though Newman wrote art reviews and several catalog essays for the Betty Parson’s gallery and for others, he believed that the meaning of a painting was unveiled only upon its inspection, not by discourse upon the work.

Mark Rothko at his 53rd street studio

Pollock reportedly called Newman a “horse’s ass” at an art opening.

New Yorker magazine art critic Harold Rosenberg

Harold Rosenberg (February 2, 1906, New York City – July 11, 1978, New York City) was an American writer, educator, philosopher and art critic. He coined the term Action Painting in 1952 for what was later to be known as abstract expressionism.[1] The term was first employed in Rosenberg’s essay “American Action Painters” published in the December 1952 issue of ARTnews. The essay was reprinted in Rosenberg’s book The Tradition of the New in 1959. The title is itself ambiguous as it both refers to American Action Painters and American Action Painters and reveals Rosenberg’s political agenda which consisted in crediting US as the center of international culture and action painting as the most advanced of its cultural forms. This theme was already developed in a previous article “The Fall of Paris” published in Partisan Review in 1940. from Wikipedia – research and rewrite

Painters Barney Newman, Jackson Pollock and sculptor Tony Smith

Harold Rosenberg’s essay “The American Action Painters,” first appeared in
Art News in 1952, and was republished in his 1959 collection of essays, The Tradition of the New.The essay interpreted new American art along broadly existential lines. Painters, Rosenberg wrote, were now treating the canvas as an “arena in which to act..What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” “The American Action Painters” did much to establish Rosenberg’s reputation as a critic, and ultimately brought him an important following among other critics and artists such as Lawrence Alloway, Allan Kaprow, and Robert Goldwater. However, much of his argument contradicted Greenberg’s reading of painting, which saw the formal qualities of the art work as crucial, and understood American painting as an integral part of an unfolding tradition of modern painting stretching back to Manet. It thus laid the basis for a long-standing and oftentimes bitter rivalry between Greenberg and Rosenberg. – The


Artists at the Cedar Tavern in New York City, 1953

1955: Clement Greenberg writes that Newman’s work is “the most direct assault on easel painting so far”

Barnett Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimis

In 1956, Ad Reinhardt’s searing critique of Newman’s romanticism was published, entitled “The Artist in Search of an Academy. Reinhardt described Newman as “the artist-professor and traveling design-saleman, the Art-Digest-philosopher-poet and Bauhaus-exerciser, the avant-garde-huckster-handicraftsman and educational-shop-keeper, the holy roller-explainer-entertainer-in-residence.”

In 1959, Clement Greenberg organized a one person show of paintings by Barnett Newman at the French & Co. gallery in New York City. It was only from the 1959 to 1970, when Barney Newman died of a heart attack in New York City, that Newman received critical praise for his work, though not always.

The major NYC art critic Thomas Hess wrote of Newman’s exhibition in 1959, “he (Barnett Newman” changed in about a year’s time from an outcast or a crank into the father figure of two generations.” Newman was 54 years old at this time. Newman pursued representation of the sublime at all costs. He believes that to engage his zip paintings were akin to meeting a person. He also believed that this experience was entirely metaphysical, and that there was a sort of exchange between the painting and the person that was unique and exalting.

In 1962, Barney Newman turned down an offer to be in a show entitled Geometric Abstraction, at the Whitney Museum, because he did not want his work framed in this way. He did this when there were few museums interested in showing his work, and fewer less who were interested in buying his work.

1962: Art Critic Harold Rosenberg publishes an essay on Barney Newman entitled “Barnett Newman, A Man of Controversy and Spiritual Grandeur.”

October 31 – December 31, 1962: The New Realist’s show, the first major exhibition of American and international Pop Art. The Pop Art movement was traced back to Jean Tingyely and Yves Klein in this show. Rothko, Gottlieb, Guston and Motherwell quit the Sidney Janis gallery in protest.

1964: Newman’s work is included in the seminal LACMA exhibition New York School, The First Generation: Paintings of the 1940’s and 1950’s.

1964: The Newmans visit Europe and major European art cities, including Basel, for the first time.

Newman’s Guggenheim show, the first museum show for his paintings, in 1966, (when he was 61 years old), was victimized by several negative reviews. However, as even bad press can be good press, the reviews helped substantially grow his reputation in the artworld, one that now included late Abstract Expressionism, and brand new Pop Art and Minimalism during the mid-1960’s. During this time the first wave of European Conceptual Art was also in formation and being launched into New York.

Barnett Newman's 1967 Voice of Fire

in 1968, that most political year in America’s subconsciousness, Barney Newman had to leave his 100 Front Street studio in Manhattan, which he has maintained since 1952. He is able to move into a three-story  studio at 35 White street, while retaining his midtown Manhattan studio at Carnegie Hall.

He creates his largest painting, entitled Anna, in 1968. It is named after his mother. It is also the his first canvas that isn’t stretched. Newman has nailed it to a wall in his studio.

At the time of Barney Newman’s death at age 65, in 1970, John Baldessari, born in 1931 of European parents in National City, California, a suburb of San Diego, would have been 39.

Baldessari's quotation painting of a statement by Clement Greenberg

Baldessari may have not moved to New York, but he certainly knew the central arguments surrounding painting during the Clement Greenberg era of Greeenbergian formalism. He also went to New York to seek other Conceptual Artists. I have to wonder what would have been the arc of Baldessari’s career had he moved to New York in 1951, when he was 20 years old. Would he have enrolled into the Art Student’s League? Would he have become a second generation Abstract Expressionist. Would he have become a follower or leader of Minimalism? Would he have become a Pop Artist?

The formalist spirit of the 1940s and 1950’s in New York finally comes to dominate in Baldessari’s work in the form of pure visual pleasure. The visual rises above and conquers the Conceptual Art explanation about thought alone being greater than art.


In Los Angeles during the mid-1990’s, it was thought that Marcel Duchamp’s conceptual ideas had won over Henri Matisse’s pursuit of beauty, devoid of politics. Now, in the year 2010, it seems that because of the full riot of colors engaged in Baldessari’s work is completely enabling Baldessari’s work to live in the arena of greatness, that the return to VISUAL ART is complete. I am convinced the notion of Artist as Producer is in motion. Fabricated art has not disappeared. Yet there is an interplay at work in the last two decades of the works of Baldessari, that is emblematic of the state of art production in Los Angeles.

3 dimensional Gemini GEL print by Baldessari, 2009

That Baldessari will soon be Eighty years old, at be considered to be making the best art of his life and is considered to be a GIANT IN THE INTERNATIONAL HISTORY OF CONTEMPORARY ART, is remarkable to no end. I am sure Frank Stella is jealous of Baldessari’s current fame.

Willem de Kooning at age 55

What would De Kooning say today about this painting by Baldessari?

GEMINI Gel accordion image set of Baldessari's 2010 3 dimensional prints.

I picked this up over the weekend during my October trip to New York to see art.

This return to the body collects Baldessari to the Surrealists. It shows that a former hard-core Conceptual artist can become both a Pop artist and a 1920’s collage artist and a Surrealist, but not without knowing art history and seeing it live and in person in museums.

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles

The Warrior, photomontage, 1997-2003, by Vincent Johnson, exhibited at Adamski gallery of Contemporary Art, Aachen, Germany

Wound (1997-2003) by Vincent Johnson, exhibited at Adamski gallery of Contemporary Art, Aachen, Germany

Mouthfinger (1997-2003) by Vincent Johnson, exhibited at Adamski gallery of Contemporary Art, Aachen, Germany

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles.

Biography September 2010

Vincent Johnson lives and works in Los Angeles. His work has been exhibited at Las Cienegas Projects, LAXART, the P.S. 1. Museum, the SK Stiftung, Cologne, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Adamski Gallery of Contemporary Art, Aachen, the Sacramento Center for Contemporary Art, 18th Street Arts, Santa Monica and the Boston University Art Gallery. His photographic works engage both significant and neglected historical and contemporary cultural artifacts and is based on intensive research of his subjects. Upcoming is a group show at the Kellogg Museum of Cal Poly Pomona, a one person show in Copenhagen, a one person show at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a one person show at Las Cienegas Projects, Los Angeles.
Johnson received his MFA from Art Center College of Design in 1997. He studied with Mike Kelly, Jack Goldstein, Stephen Prina, Liz Larner, Chris Williams, Mayo Thompson (formerly of Art&Language), and Liz Larner. He is a 2005 Creative Capital Grantee, and was nominated for the Baum: An Emerging American Photographer’s Award in 2004 and for the New Museum of Contemporary Arts Aldrich Art Award in 2007 and for the Art Matters grant in 2008, and in 2009 nominated for Foundation for Contemporary Art Fellowship, Los Angeles. His work has been reviewed in ArtForum, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. Upcoming is a group show at the Kellogg Museum of Cal Poly Pomona, a one person show in Copenhagen, a one person show at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a one person show at Las Cienegas Projects, Los Angeles.

Vincent  Johnson

Artist Statement
Vincent Johnson’s work is a form of sustained cultural mining that explores the depths of his subjects. His photographic works created from 2001-2007 delved into architecture as fantasy, from the vernacular architecture of Los Angeles to that found throughout the American West. He has documented several of the no longer extant commercial vernacular structures in both South Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley that came into existence during the birth of long distance family travel by car. In 2007 he presented a fully fabricated work of sculpture – a 12 foot long six-foot high replica of a 1956 Chrysler Air Raid Siren. This project developed as he was both researching and documenting a former military corridor in the San Fernando Valley that included a retired military airfield. His newest photographic works, all created in 2008 and 2009, are large-scale photographic montages, each of  which confront significant cultural figures and several dramatic signal events of Cold War era Western cultural history, including Television, the launch of Sputnik, the Soviet Space program, American home-based bomb shelter  program, and Vietnam. He is working on large-scale photomontages of the several major American political figures of 1960’s, including Martin Luther King, the Kennedy family, and Malcolm X, as well the representations of both Communism and Capitalism, Hollywood and Los Angeles and many related Cold War era subjects. Johnson’s photomontages can take several months to create as he captures hundreds of images from online sources, before selecting those which most well index a particular historical moment, personage or event. The creative juxtapositions and scale shifts of the found images is what he most relies on to develop his potent and illuminating photographic works.

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