"I think this may be the first art school studios built with funds supplied by artists. It's a nice way of giving back."-John Baldessari
The irony of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) naming its new art studio building in honor of John Baldessari has been lost on no one, least of all Baldessari himself. Go figure that those left-coast radicals who were going to reinvent the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College would name their studio facility after the father of post-studio art. It is fitting that Baldessari, who had stopped painting about five years before CalArts hired him (and who in 1970 would cremate all of his early paintings in his possession), should have the very hallmark of the nineteenth-century academy, the studio, named after him.
At the time of the founding of CalArts, deans, faculty members, and students were drawn en masse to the audacious new art school by the beacon of Walt Disney. Mr. Disney and his company had no idea what they were getting into. Indeed, the very earliest, and most radical and chaotic, years almost brought the school to financial, emotional, and intellectual collapse. Somehow through all of this, Baldessari helped create-class by class, crit by crit, student by student, work by work-the mother of all art schools: one that provided a remarkable, if seemingly undisciplined, answer to the European tradition of the academies and the Bauhaus, and the American tradition embodied by schools like the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts during the time of Thomas Eakins.
Unlike most of the Conceptualists, Baldessari neither purged images nor irony from his work, and those qualities differentiated him markedly from Conceptual artists working both in New York and Europe at that time. This is most evident in the title of one of his works, EVERYTHING IS PURGED FROM THIS PAINTING BUT ART, NO IDEAS HAVE ENTERED THIS WORK (1966). Not long after Baldessari joined CalArts he requested that his class be given a name that was "more in keeping with what I'm thinking about": Post-Studio Art. While he may not have invented post-studio art or even practiced it, he ultimately created a broadly inclusive program that began with a brief history of contemporary art, made consistent use of slides and overhead projectors (this was the pre-PowerPoint era), and provided a constantly replenished supply of books, magazines, journals, and catalogues brought from Europe in "this old, funky suitcase, spray-painted black." As he said, "these students had probably the quickest access to information of any art school in the US, I would wager."
Baldessari understood some very basic principles, including that the school's first priority should be to persuade artists to come meet with the students under any circumstance. The only way to do this would be on the artists' terms, not the institution's. So, when he couldn't convince his old friend Sol LeWitt to come and teach, he arranged for them to meet at a local bar. Baldessari observed, "I . . . was the sort of Cupid between the art world and CalArts. Or the pimp. Or whatever you call it." Moreover, with a liberal allowance of $1,500 for incidentals, he invited artists, almost exclusively from Europe and New York, to break the powerful logjam that Los Angeles was facing at the time: the belief that its artists should work with plastics and that every surface should have a "finish fetish." "When I got to CalArts, I very consciously wanted to provide an alternative for students-so they wouldn't get this idea that art in Los Angeles is only about plastics and light and space, you know. There are other ways to do art," he once remarked. His rearguard invasion of the city changed not only our perception of our own culture, but also the world's perception of Los Angeles.
In the early years of CalArts, one student asked Baldessari about opening a gallery. When the artists Baldessari invited would come from Europe and New York, they would often have their first shows in classroom A402. It became legendary. "I remember Konrad Fischer in Dsseldorf asking, 'What is this Gallery A402? It's the only gallery showing any interesting artists in Los Angeles!'" It was the gift of Baldessari and CalArts: a hybrid, noncommercial, nonprofit exhibition-classroom for artists to show their work in Los Angeles. It makes for a wonderful parallel that the John Baldessari Art Studio Building is not only home to studios and teaching space, but also dedicated exhibition space.
Chance and opportunity, or lack thereof, made Baldessari an unlikely candidate to become arguably the most important artist and teacher to emerge from Los Angeles. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was almost inconceivable to make a living as an artist here, and only the most commercial of artists could find success with their art. Baldessari taught because it was the closest thing to art he could do while making a living. Filled with grace and humor, he considered teaching something he would do for a great deal of his life, so he wanted both to have fun doing it and also to make it as much like what he enjoyed doing as he could: making art.
Initially, CalArts was designed to be cross-disciplinary, a contemporary version of the Bauhaus that would include electronic media, but Baldessari noted that "the architecture just really inhibits that, because it's all corridors and doors and so on." Nevertheless, at CalArts there was an unprecedented level of interaction because "the place was open around the clock" and "had studio space for everyone." Although Baldessari taught a post-studio course and became the model for the post-studio artist, the faculty was very relaxed about people living in the studio. For young artists who had just a little bit of money, their workspace and their living space became one. Indeed, in its early years, the sense of possibility and resources seemed unprecedented. At a time when Sony had just invented Portapaks, all 25 were likely at CalArts. For these artists, and for a new generation of artists including Baldessari, this access to cameras, film, video, and new media made a profound impact on their art.
Indeed, CalArts was instrumental in bringing a new generation of artists to southern California as students. Baldessari's first classes, for example, included Matt Mullican, David Salle, Jim Welling, Jack Goldstein, Mike Kelley, Troy Brauntuch, and Barbara Bloom. But it was Los Angeles in general and Baldessari in particular who kept them here (at least most of them). For the first time, a generation of artists did not see the necessity of moving to New York, and Baldessari's own ability to bypass New York while developing a successful European and Los Angeles-based career became a model.
Although Baldessari is widely credited as being a post-studio artist, by the time I met him in the mid-1970s, he had taken over William Wegman's cavernous studio in Santa Monica, where he had set up tables and covered most of the floor space with neatly organized piles of works, projects, ideas, and raw, unprocessed visual material. They were there to be both drawn and sorted, and while he had not by any means eliminated the studio, he had pulled the practice from the wall and put it onto the table. A postmodern studio was what it had always been for artists-a place to work-but both the materials and the working method had changed.
As far as keeping a studio in Santa Monica, studio rent was cheap, and "he spent most of his non-teaching time in the studio." There was a time not so long ago when it seemed as if his students would be more famous than Baldessari himself and his work as a teacher would supersede his contributions as a visual artist. That has changed in the last 20 years. With retrospectives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tate, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he has come to represent for the broader world that which he always was to the artists of Los Angeles: a lighthouse. Whether you bumped into him in New York or Cologne, he always represented Los Angeles. In fact, the discomfort that he has felt representing Los Angeles so visibly is somehow embodied in a genuine discomfort with having a building named after him.
Although Baldessari left CalArts in the mid-1980s, a time when the school's and his own success were secure, his love of teaching was such that he decided to continue at UCLA. The impact that he and CalArts have had on Los Angeles is without equal; both transformed the paradigm of the importance of the region's art schools, and in turn their growth and success changed the art of the region, the country, and the world. CalArts was the most radical art school in the country-one that brought artists such as Allan Kaprow, Nam June Paik, Judy Chicago, Dick Higgins, and Alison Knowles to teach (the indeterminate and changing nature of the schools were part of the practice of these artists that were associated with Happenings and Fluxus). I don't believe that there is any other major international art city in which the art schools have had such a deep, long, and profound effect, and Baldessari's motto of never treating artists like students but always as artists has become a hallmark for subsequent generations.
Much has been said over the years about Baldessari's dramatic cremation of his canvases, and that the breakthrough, which came after years of struggling to find his own way both through painting and modernism, came only after he had destroyed the architecture on which this system was based. As with his destruction of the painting to reinvent his own language and painting itself, he had to destroy the traditional studio to reinvent it for this new era. Thus, it seems all the more appropriate, even with its ironic implications, that a studio for the twenty-first century should be named after the artist who has done more to reinvent and question the nature of studio and post-studio practices.