John Baldessari (1931-2020): The Salvage Yard of Absurdity

January 5-6, 2020

John Baldessari (June 17, 1931 – January 2, 2020)

“Remember the old days when you had snow on TV, and people would try to see something in it? I miss that.” — John Baldessari

In the Fall of 1966, I was a sophomore at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, and the financial situation was grim. One of my classmates was the son of the mayor of San Francisco, or so I had heard. I don’t remember ever meeting him. My father was a stock clerk in a pharmacy; and I was hardly a straight A student, so a scholarship was out of the question. I was already $1500 in student loan debt. I had arrived there with the intention of majoring in English, but I began reading contemporary playwrights on my own initiative, and decided that I would switch to theater.

In the spring, 1967, still 19 years old, I attended Southwestern Community College for a semester and took several courses in writing and theater. I remember on one occasion dropping by the art gallery on campus for a student art show. It didn’t impress me. Nevertheless, I still wonder how my ideas about poetry might have been affected if I had signed up for an art class with John Baldessari, who was teaching there at the time. Baldessari had been born in National City, and I had grown up in Imperial Beach. If any two cities in southwestern San Diego represented the bottom of the social hierarchy, NC and IB were fierce competitors for the basement bunkbed. His origins would only have given him more credibility, from my point of view as an impoverished ephebe.

I never met him, though I encountered his work more frequently than anyone would ever have anticipated back when he was working at a community college that truly was little better than that classic put-down of junior colleges: “high schools with ash trays.” In all fairness, the library was better than Imperial Beach’s library or my high school’s library. I first encountered John Berryman’s poetry as I perused its shelves one afternoon, though I found the work too slippery for my still feeble imaginative logic.

There may have been a point of contact (a “degree of separation”) between Baldessari as a young artist and my earliest days as an aspiring writer. I first posted this entry on Sunday, January 5th. The next morning, I woke up thinking about my father, whose first job in the South Bay Area, after he finished serving 20 years in the U.S. Navy, was working in a salvage yard. I remember how hard it was for him to have to work for minimum wage, with a family of six children to feed, and suddenly I wondered if my father worked with (or even for) Baldessari’s father.

(This third link, from ARTFORUM’s October, 1973 print issue, was sent to me, mid-day, Jan. 6th, by Brooks Roddan, and added to this post.)
(This fourth link was sent to me by one of my favorite painters, Marie Thibeault.)

“They keep telling me I have genius, as if that made up for all their incomparable advantages,” D.H. Lawrence is supposed to have once commented. Nobody, as far as I know, was telling John Baldessari that he was a genius when he was in his mid-30s, and teaching at Southwestern Community College. Somehow, he had enough gumption to refuse to quit, which was hardly a refusal on his part, since he didn’t really see any other option.

That he was able to develop as an artist and to inspire so many younger artists to take risks beyond their initial expectations marks him as one of the most indissoluble cultural instigators of post-World War II American art. The growth of Los Angeles into a transmission city of contemporary art is underscored with Baldessari’s influence. His quintessentially subversive impetus, still generating new work in his late 80s, assures that his influence will continue to distract young artists from the trends that yearn to make them conform to notions of a “career” in art.

If Baldessari was “arguably America’s most influential Conceptual artist,” as Christopher Knight claims, then it is Peter Schjeldahl who cites the distinctive ingredient that Baldessari brought to his projects: “a poet of the wrongness that aesthetic devotion visits upon flawed, shaggy, mere individuality. He repeatedly evokes the experience … of feeling devalued by what one loves: just not good enough, unworthy, even fraudulent. This is an embittering experience for many. Baldessari absorbs it with consummate humor.”

But from Baldessari’s point of view, it is not an amorphous sense of humor, a social skill that is primarily useful in deflecting with droll banter the unintended as well as intentional sleights and routine humiliations of daily life. Instead, he seems to have regarded his stoicism as a logical response to the willy-nilly algorithms of contingency.

In an interview early in the past decade, Baldessari rebutted the familiar characterization of his work as humorous. The interviewer prefaced Baldessari’s comment by noting that “since much of his work has a clever, even mischievous quality to it, he’s become known for his humor. That makes him uncomfortable.”

BALDESSARI: “You know it always makes me shudder for some reason because I don’t regard myself as an artist who does humorous work. I have a great sense of the absurd. It’s one of the ways that helps me get through life and understand the world. I’m very serious about that, but for other people they see that as being humorous.”

Perhaps, though, the reaction of “humor” on the part of the audience is simply the classic defense mechanism to that which makes people uncomfortable. If art has the punch lines, Baldessari’s willingness to play the “straight man” with unmitigated sincerity made him stand out fifty years ago as an artist intent on avoiding the slightest compromise with the art market.

As a young artist, Baldessari’s “sense of the absurd” would have developed within a context in which that term has a literary context stretching from Kafka to Beckett, both of whom were extremely popular within artistic circles between 1950 and 1970, the year in which Baldessari burned all of his early paintings and salvaged his artistic isolation in National City. This extreme gesture lingers in a chiasm that is all too familiar to those who experience role reversals in their lives: “I still read about myself and say, who is this person? You can take the boy out of National City, but you can’t take National City out of the boy.”

One aporia that interviewers seem to have overlooked is the social context of National City. At the time that Baldessari was growing up there and working as a young artist, it is not a particularly safe environment. Now it may be the case that Baldessari, at 6 feet, 7 inches, may not have noticed how he was spared the predator intimidations that smaller and less physically agile people experience. In which case, his absurdity has a blind spot. On the other hand, his art is not “safe.” It does not provide a “safe” place for the viewer to find refuge from the degradations of basic needs unrequited. And in that danger zone, his art goes to work to salvage the damages of absurdity.

As a post-script, it is not just coincidence that many poets in Los Angeles employ humor in their work to a far greater degree uthan other poets in this country. If Ed Smith’s poetry, for instance, has re-emerged from neglect, it is largely because readers are beginning to appreciate the Smith’s sense of absurdist humor. For those of you who admire Baldessari’s art, I would recommend “PUNK ROCK IS COOL FOR THE END OF THE WORLD” as the best possible way to experience the marginality that Baldessari would have felt in 1965 National City.

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