CalArts Alumni Magazine

Summerhill for John

Study for One Rented Painting Hung Crookedly, 1971.
Study for One Rented Painting Hung Crookedly, 1971.

I began CalArts just when the Valencia campus opened in the fall of 1971. On the first day of class, School of Art students assembled in a large room with clerestory windows. Dean Paul Brach stood at a podium and brought the gathering to order with these memorable words, “Summerhill is over.” Summerhill, the radically progressive school in England, was on everyone’s mind in the late 1960s and early ’70s. The whole reason I had transferred to CalArts was that I hoped CalArts would be Summerhill.

Brach also mentioned that John Baldessari was on leave and would return in the spring. This announcement passed by me because I didn’t really know who John Baldessari was; I just wanted to go to Summerhill. John was a name on a list of people I might study with. Someone I had heard of was Allan Kaprow. His “happenings” were featured in the publicity CalArts sent out to prospective students. Kaprow’s events reminded me of the poetic pieces of Yoko Ono, whose work I was enamored with. I loved her 1964 artist’s book, Grapefruit, which contained instructions for simple actions such as, “Leave a piece of canvas or finished painting on the floor or in the street.” Ono’s book, reissued in 1970, was a sacred text for me and for many young artists I knew.

James Welling (Art BFA 72, MFA 74)
James Welling (Art BFA 72, MFA 74)
John Baldessari in his studio, 1976.
John Baldessari in his studio, 1976.

I don’t know for sure, but I think John chose the term “Post Studio” for his class because it described the new modalities he was using to make his own work in photography, text, video, and film. The class met in a large windowless room in the basement, across the hall from the graphics lab. The dozen or so students sat on uncomfortable Rowland chairs or lounged on gym mats on the floor. John always started class with a few jokes and ruminations about art. Then we would put up work for critique, and he’d respond with witty, gnomic comments that were always astute and encouraging. John was very protective of his students, and he supported us in any direction we wanted to take.

No sooner had the semester started than John left for exhibitions in Europe. When he returned, he brought to class two suitcases full of art catalogues that we all poured over. John’s career was gaining steam in Europe and New York. And his absences, while painful, were allayed by the new ideas and new artists he enthusiastically shared with us upon his return.

John seemed to bring all his friends who passed through Los Angeles to class to give talks or do studio visits: Bruce Nauman, Alexis Smith, William Wegman, Keith Sonnier, Joan Jonas, Robert Smithson, Hilla Becher, John Knight, Dan Graham, Sol LeWitt, Richard Serra, Pat Steir, and Martha Wilson. Daniel Buren, after speaking about his work, invited the class out to a local bar in Newhall.

Once, Post Studio met in John’s studio in Santa Monica. At this point, John was taking photographs off the TV and we all saw his apparatus, a 35mm camera on a tripod facing a large television set. The camera was outfitted with an automatic timer that allowed it to photograph the television at regular intervals. I was fascinated. John could turn on the TV and camera, drive up to CalArts, teach his class, and return to the studio knowing he made some art during the day.

In John’s catalogue raisonné, many of the photographic works for the period 1971–73 employ two photographic gambits: choosing and framing. See, for example, Choosing (A Game for Two Players) Turnips, or Pier 18: Centering Bouncing Ball (36 Exposures). In these works and others, John was forging an art that was light and to the point. No metaphors, no metaphysics. Clear and simple utterances. I wonder if the conciseness of these works was a response to the rambling and sometimes obscure rationales students applied to their work in Post Studio. However John arrived at these degree zero pieces, his strategies for making photographs were revolutionary. I think it’s safe to say that John viewed all “serious” art photography as little more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. At this point in his life, he approached art as a game. All the better if it were a mindless game.

Pier 18: Centering Bouncing Ball (36 Exposures), 1971.
Pier 18: Centering Bouncing Ball (36 Exposures), 1971.

Choosing (A Game for Two Players): Turnips, 1971–72.
Choosing (A Game for Two Players): Turnips, 1971–72.

Frames from the video I Am Making Art, 1971.

Font, 1987.
Font, 1987.

In a memorable, low-fi video from 1971, I Am Making Art, John stands in the white, cinder-block Post Studio classroom slowly repeating the phrase, “I am making art.” I think of this piece as the lesser-known sibling to his more famous work I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art from the same year. In I Am Making Art, John moves his arms this way and that. “I am making art.” He turns slightly. “I am making art.” He continues making a new gesture between each vocalization. “I am making art.”

A dedicated cohort of students, some of whom were not enrolled at CalArts, gathered around John over my three years at CalArts: Dede Bazyk, Jill Ciment, Robert Covington, Ken Feingold, Lisa Koper, Suzanne Kuffler, Chris Langdon, Paul McMahon, Branka Milutinovic, Joshua Mulder, Matt Mullican, Renee Nahum, David Salle, Bart Thrall, and Dave Trout. As the semester went on, we coalesced into a tight group and spoke the language of “post studio art” in photographs, videos, texts, and super 8 films.

One afternoon at the end of that first semester with John, some of the class went across McBean Parkway to make photo pieces. We passed around a camera and took photographs in the undulating chaparral. A little later John, Matt Mullican, and Dave Trout found a tire and dragged it to the top of a small hill. They let it roll, and I photographed it zooming past me. At the end of the afternoon, before we headed back to the classroom, we posed for a photograph under a California live oak. I backed up to include the entire tree and photographed John, Matt, Dave, and Dede Bazyk smiling in the hazy sunlight. We had found Summerhill.

Baldessari (second from left) poses with students under a California live oak during a class
Baldessari (second from left) poses with students under a California live oak during a class excursion across McBean Parkway. The author took the photograph in the spring of 1972.

CalArts established the John Baldessari Memorial Scholarship to highlight his remarkable and enduring legacy by providing financial assistance to talented students in the School of Art. Show your support at calarts.edu/donate.

 

ALL WORKS BY JOHN BALDESSARI © THE ESTATE OF JOHN BALDESSARI


The Space Between Two Cowboys., 2019.
The Space Between Two Cowboys., 2019.

As we mourn the passing of John Baldessari–an important American artist, a most prominent Chouinard alumnus, and a seminal, influential teacher in the CalArts School of Art, we’re collecting memories of John, and invite you to contribute yours

Nat Dean Art, 1972 & 1973-1976

Despite the fact that I was only 17 when I began full time at CalArts, John always treated me and other students as ‘equals’ and that we were all just exploring whatever would come up in the experiment that was CalArts in the beginning; of art, art making and of life. During the period

Ken Feingold, BFA Art 1974, MFA Art 1976

John and I often spoke about what we were reading, and how there never seemed to be enough time to read everything we had set out to read. He once said, “I just hope that Heaven has a big library.” I asked, “What makes you think you’re going to Heaven?”, and he replied, “All artists go to Heaven.”

Amy Lipton Art and Design, 1975-80

I was very sad to hear of the recent passing of John Baldessari, a giant among men, figuratively and literally. I wasn’t a student of John’s while at CalArts – other than by osmosis through the many artist friends that he influenced there at that time and since. I got to know John after I graduated and had the honor and pleasure of working with him in 1987. He curated an early show at my East Village, NYC gallery, with all CalArts artists. We spent time together working on that show titled “2001 1/2” (John’s address in Santa Monica) which included Fariba Hajamadi, Nina R Salerno, Luciano Perna, Meg Cranston, Corey Stein and Alan Irikura. John was a pleasure to work with, sincere, candid, brilliant and always funny. He knew the gallery was then a fledgling endeavor and his curation was a huge boost. It helped put us on the map. When my gallery became more established and changed to Amy Lipton Gallery in SoHo, John often visited our exhibitions and was always up front with his opinions. He particularly loved Sue Williams’ shows and found her dark humor sympatico with his own. John cared deeply about his students and they became his peers after leaving school. He didn’t impose authority, even though he WAS imposing. I treasure that time with him. He will be dearly missed but his work, ideas, character and humor will live on and continue to be influential across the art universe. 

http://gallery.98bowery.com/2018/loughelton-gallery-john-baldessari-2000-1-2-card-1987/?fbclid=IwAR0hE5-x3gYQ8eoEkXLhjFuxgIsiWfSAwq9cvIOFMbIgNG9gEkmgJ4DSX3c

Amy Lipton gallery history

Ward Melnikoff, BFA Art 1985

One of the first things John said to me: “You definitely have all the imagery…..you just gotta learn how to paint.

Llois Jeanne Miller, BFA Art 1972

Warmest alohas for his Laissez faire attitude . Mahalo, Llois Jeanne Miller ‘72

Tim Wolf, Art 1981

I don’t recall taking a class with John Baldessari at CalArts, but 10 minutes with him in my first week there, as a freshman changed the trajectory of my creative life, and perhaps my life. I arrived in 1977 as a freshman in the Theater School, a design major. But in the time between applying to CalArts and being accepted and arriving there from Connecticut, I had been exposed to and begun creating work that was inter-disciplinary, incorporating music, dance, environment and improvisation. I knew CalArts was the place for me, but not the Theater School. Arriving on campus I asked how I might get into the Art School as a performance artist and was told I would have to reapply, and while doing so, spend my freshman year as a theater student. Or, perhaps, if I could find a faculty member to sponsor me into the Art School, that might work as well. I started asking around among the complete strangers I encountered in my first days on campus and at some point a few people said “you need to talk to Baldessari.” And so, on registration day, I tracked down the tall man with the white beard and pleaded my case with documentation of street performances and sound installations I had done that summer. John said, “of course you belong in the art school, I’ll sponsor you.” But he quickly pointed out that the required course of study for freshmen was a foundational curriculum to expose young freshmen to the “post studio” world of art-making. He said I was already post studio. So he called over John Mandell who oversaw the freshman curriculum at that time and convinced him to waive the freshman requirements for me. As a result, in my three years (through 1981) at CalArts, I pursued an interdisciplinary and independent course of study encompassing classes in the Art, Dance, Music and Film schools, as well as Critical Studies. John Baldessari would reappear in my universe, participating along with Laurie Anderson in my annual review during my sophomore year. I am forever grateful for those 10 minutes with a tall man with the white beard. Tim Wolf

John Franklin

In response to The Pool request from alumni to share memories/images from our connection to the passing of my beloved mentor John Baldessari….I have attached 7 jpegs from my 1983 “Anxiety of Influence” exhibition in what I believe was called the L-Shaped Gallery. I received my MFA in Post-Studio Art from CalArts in 1984.

I wanted to give you some background on the making of this installation. Please feel free to use any part of this information or not

I studied Studio Art and received my MFA from CalArts in 1984 and John was my mentor during this time.

While receiving my Bachelors of Science degree in Botany at UNH in 1978 I had started making furniture and then sculpture. After UNH I worked at a sculpture casting foundry for 3 years. This emphasis on materials, technique and craft in the furniture and foundry world left me yearning for more discussion of the ideas behind work that I felt was missing in these environments.

While at the foundry and I started studying conceptual art and painting became aware of CalArts and particularly about John Baldessari and his work.

At CalArts I was in a totally new environment, which emphasized Marxist/Feminist ideas and where much of the artwork being made was text and photo, based. Critiques of student work was often brutal and where for the first time I heard many critical theories along with important names of sociologists, philosophers, theoreticians, such as Husserl, Wittgenstein, Barthes, Derida, Baudrillard to name only a few and much of their thought was barely comprehensible to me. We watched the films of Tarkovsky, Fassbender and Goddard.

I thought Wittgenstein was brilliant and when his quotes are taken out of context, I thought quite funny, at least very thought provoking. I love Goddard’s films. I quoted these two in this installation.

At CalArts critical dialogue was invigorating for me and acted to be an influence on my work. I had as reading in perhaps Michael Asher’s class, “The Anxiety of Influence” by Harold Bloom, which speaks of the anxiety of always being under the shadow of “precursors” as Bloom named them, in other words certain giants that towered over the art historical landscape. John Baldessari was sort of that kind of person for me.

I spoke with John about this, needless to say he had a different take on the precursor relationship than me, but John helped me greatly in the conceptualization and execution of the work.

John supplied the photograph of himself and the name of the photo studio that blew up his photos into poster sized artwork.

With limited and selective understanding of the 1982 CalArts dialect of critical theory I elected to make a text and photo base artwork directly about the issues I was personally struggling with but do it in an appropriate format considering the CalArts landscape. I also chose to quote two new names that had been influential to my own thought and my own practice, Wittgenstein and Goddard.

I went to the Norton Simon museum with some Dutch Boy color chips (a house paint company that no longer exists) and found what was the closest color to the eye of that Rembrandt self portrait, a foolhardy endeavor, as there were many colors in the eyes! Chipmunk was the color I selected.

With the end wall painted this color, I cut John into 2 Zips as a quotation and homage to Barnet Newman, an early hero of mine. The dot pattern was so large that only at a distance could one make out John. If one is viewing the panels up close, the image of John dissolved into indecipherable collections of black and white dots and squares thus a comment on losing perspective of something when too close.

It may be obvious but in case not I wanted to mention that there was a bit of self deprecating humor involved with his installation. John Baldessari was not a hero. Johns was very lovable and accessible. John was just the kind of art historical figure who made work that really spoke to me, I surely admired him and honored him while simultaneously confront head and attempting to transcend what may seem to be a monolithic reputation that a precursor can often present to a young artist, namely me!.

The Jean-Luc Godard quote ends the show with a reference to mortality and fame.

Thank you for this opportunity to share something of my love for John and appreciation for how he influenced my work….and how he continued to support me and many others after we left CalArts!!

John Franklin picture in front of photo of John Baldessari, included to his show The Anxiety of Influence.