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No more boring art!

He was unconventional, highly self-reflective and made sure that conceptual art did not get bored: on the death of the American conceptual artist John Baldessari

Among the representatives of so-called conceptual art, John Baldessari was perhaps the funniest. His entry into the art form, which is generally considered to be very theoretical and intellectual, was theatrical, in 1970 he celebrated his final farewell to painting and the belief in the individual image with the “Cremation Project”, and had a large part of his works burned in a crematorium in San Diego and kept some of the ashes in a book-shaped urn as a memorial. The group of works “National City” had already been created before that, in the years 1966–1968: photographic snapshots of his hometown, mostly taken from the car, against all the rules of successful photo art, imperfect and conceptual, just like the text-photo works that followed and the "Combined Photographs", for which he put together third-party originals from his extensive archive.

One of his most famous works was created one year after the Autodafé: In 1971, Baldessari was commissioned by the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design to design a site-specific work of art. He suggested that students write the sentence “I will not make any more boring art” on the walls of the exhibition rooms. Convinced of the result, he recorded his own version of this work of art on video a short time later; it shows how Baldessari writes down the same sentence over and over, the detention of a naughty student, so to speak, which in the thirty-minute video becomes an exercise in boredom for the viewer.

Just as unconventional and self-reflective is the video “John Baldessari Sings LeWitt” from 1972, in which the artist Sol LeWitt presents the art-theoretical foundations of conceptual art to popular melodies. In this way, a sentence like “Banal ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution” gains new meaning and stimulates contradiction. At the same time, Baldessari's lecture shows his interest in the mediation aspect, which can definitely be understood as an objection to the sometimes hermetic attitude of conceptual art and its apologists.

Baldessari's strategies, used in various media, include fixed rules, which, without ever bothering him, sometimes earned him the charge of formalism. The result of the rules and repetitions is mostly entertaining: A nice example is the 38-part series “Trying to photograph a ball so that it is in the center of the picture”, an experimental arrangement as described in the title, but with the The result is that the red ball is rarely even near the center of the image.

How do you make art?

For Baldessari, anti-perfectionism and the renunciation of conventions went hand in hand with skepticism towards authorities, also with regard to how art is taught: "When I make art, I question how to do it," wrote Baldessari, who was in the 1970s and 1980s Taught students such as James Welling and Mike Kelley at the California Institute of the Arts and taught at the University of California in Los Angeles until 2007. As early as 1968 he wrote in his "Advice for Young Artists": "Whatever you decide, remember to keep it simple and have an idea of ​​what you're getting at." He has taken this to heart as a maxim for his own work.

Intentional blanks and a good deal of irony are part of his engagement with images and text. There is the beautiful Goya series, in which images of banal everyday objects are linked with supposed Goya quotes, which changes the way things are viewed and makes them appear very strange. To the doubt about the appropriate word, Baldessari added the doubt about images. The artist, who was born in National City, California, in 1931, has had great success since the early 1980s at the latest, which has been seen in numerous solo exhibitions and prizes.

Criticism of curators

He also remained skeptical of his exegetes. In the two-volume book “More Than You Wanted to Know about John Baldessari”, published in 2013, for example, he formulated his doubts about curators who portray themselves as artists. As a counter-proposal, Baldessari, who himself has also designed exhibitions at MoMA New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, advocated a documenta curated by artists, in which curators serve as the raw material for the exhibitions. More enjoyable and cryptic are his own works with their complex literary and cinematic references and their aesthetic appeal, which leaves no room for boredom. On January 5th, John Baldessari died at the age of 88.