John Baldessari's Monumental Career
By Dennis Scholl
It is no exaggeration to say 78-year-old John Baldessari is one of the most important living American artists. His current LACMA exhibition, “John Baldessari: Pure Beauty”—which originated at the Tate Modern in London—features more than 150 of the LA-based artist’s pieces and is his most extensive retrospective to date. Noted collector Dennis Scholl spoke with Baldessari about his life as an artist and an educator.
DENNIS SCHOLL: You’re having a major retrospective at LACMA; is there a sense of the prodigal son comes home?
JOHN BALDESSARI: What’s the old phrase about all you have to do is hang around long enough and the recognition eventually comes to you?
How do you describe to the casual viewer what conceptual art is?
Like any basket kind of term, it becomes meaningless after a point. Way back when I started, I got flack from other conceptual artists who said, “He’s not a conceptual artist.” But as time goes on, things change, so I just prefer the term “artist.”
Originally you started teaching as a means to an end. Did you grow to enjoy it, and did it impact your artistic practice?
Students, metaphorically, are vampires. They’ll suck everything from you. So one of the things you have to learn when you teach is to save some energy for yourself. Teaching is valuable for an artist, or for anybody, because you learn how to communicate. You have to look for the light in their eyes and keep trying until you’ve connected. It’s a very important lesson for artists.
You’ve been making art for a long time. Do you find yourself able to maintain that childlike sense of wonderment?
Absolutely. If you don’t have that, you’re not much of an artist. Ideally, it would be like if you could see everything around you as if you were seeing it for the first time. But, of course, that’s not the case. We’re jaded. So as an artist, what you have to do is get people to notice things again.
Do you think your work helps us determine how we view, order and understand the world?
I think so. Everybody has their own idea of what the real world is, but nobody knows. There is no reality, only the weight we give to it.
“John Baldessari: Pure Beauty” is on display at LACMA from June 27 to September 12. 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles; lacma.org
PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFF VESPA/WIREIMAGE.COM (BALDESSARI)