John Baldessari, Who Gave Conceptual Art a Dose of Humor, Is Dead at 88


The ashes filled 10 boxes, nine capable of holding an adult, the other infant-size. He folded some of the ashes into cookie dough and displayed the baked goods at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of its groundbreaking 1970 survey of conceptual art, “Information.”

That summer, he moved from San Diego to Santa Monica, Calif., and began teaching a course at CalArts, called “post-studio,” that was not tied to any traditional genre, like painting or drawing. At CalArts Mr. Baldessari started making videos, using one of a couple dozen Sony Portapak analog recording systems owned by the institute. Most were short comic sketches, and several used the tools or trappings of the classroom.

One, perhaps his most well-known, shows Mr. Baldessari’s hand writing on a ruled notebook the same sentence — “I will not make any more boring art” — again and again, as if by way of punishment.

A popular 1972 vignette, “Teaching a Plant the Alphabet,” has him patiently intoning letters and holding up large flash cards in front of a potted plant. The plant does not stir. (“When I think I’m teaching, I’m probably not,” Mr., Baldessari once observed dryly. “When I don’t think I’m teaching, I probably am.”)

Mr. Baldessari turned to photo-collages in the 1980s, working mainly with news photographs and Hollywood movie stills that he bought for 10 cents apiece from a movie bookstore in Burbank. A particularly fruitful line of inquiry opened up one day in 1985 when he started playing around with the kind of round white stickers used for price tags. He stuck them on photographs on top of the faces of public figures he disliked.

This soon evolved into a signature technique — painting white, black or colored dots over faces in photographs as a way to get us to look beyond the obvious. Mr. Baldessari often said that one of his favorite compliments came from Nam June Paik, who also taught at CalArts: “What I like most about your work is what you leave out.”

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