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John Baldessari, Conceptual Art Pioneer, Has Died

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now a moment to remember conceptual artist John Baldessari. He died last week at his home in Venice, Calif. Baldessari infused his art with humor and skepticism. As NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, the 88-year-old influenced generations of artists.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: John Baldessari was a soaring figure in the conceptual art world, literally towering at 6-foot-7 with his signature white hair and beard. In 1971, he handwrote the phrase, I will not make any more boring art, in neat cursive, repeated like a schoolroom punishment. He followed that credo ever after in his photo collages, videos, sculptures, installations, paintings and text-based art.

TONY OURSLER: Goat - the greatest of all time conceptual artist. And he looks a little bit like a goat, too.

DEL BARCO: Artist Tony Oursler studied with Baldessari at the California Institute of the Arts in the late 1970s. He says his mentor inspired and influenced generations of young artists.

OURSLER: John was really interested in breaking down any kind of preconceptions that you might have - ideas about composition or painting or what could be art. So he was always kind of looking for new materials and suggesting experimentation. All things were possible with John.

DEL BARCO: Born near the California-Mexico border, Baldessari started out as a painter. Then 50 years ago, he publicly shifted gears with a radical act of art. As he later told NPR, he was getting nowhere with his art, so he gathered his early paintings from 1953 to 1966.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOHN BALDESSARI: I said, well, I'm just going to stop. I have them in my head. I don't really need them. So I decide I'll just destroy them.

DEL BARCO: Baldessari took his paintings to a mortuary and had them cremated. He saved the ashes in boxes and an urn, eventually baking some of them into cookies - all this for a piece he called "The Cremation Project."

From then on, Baldessari worked with photography and video, playing with pop culture images, such as Hollywood headshots. He called himself a collagist, juxtaposing words on top of images. Baldessari did things like place price stickers over faces on stock images. He painted clouds on ceilings, noses on patches of color. That inspired a cameo on an episode of "The Simpsons." He voiced himself, talking to a young Marge Simpson.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

JULIE KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) So you've moved into painting giant schnozes (ph).

BALDESSARI: (As John) Marge, the mouth has had its say. Now it's time to find out what the nose knows.

KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) That's a pull quote if ever I heard one.

BALDESSARI: (As John) Pretty much everything I say is quotable - well, not that.

DEL BARCO: In 2012, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art commissioned a short documentary on Baldessari, narrated by singer Tom Waits. In it, the artist said he'd best be remembered as the guy who puts dots over people's faces.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BALDESSARI: I just had these price stickers I was using for something else in some graphic way, and I put them on all the faces. And I just felt like it leveled the playing field.

TOM WAITS: Baldessari's work was hailed as cool, funny, cerebral, sardonic, provocative.

BALDESSARI: I think it's just my take in the world.

DEL BARCO: To the end, John Baldessari continued inspiring artists and doing what he loved, something he once videotaped himself repeating over and over.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BALDESSARI: I am making art. I am making art. I am making art. I am making art. I am making art.

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMOCK'S "SCATTERING LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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