Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

John Baldessari (American, b. 1931)

Fish and Ram, 1988

Tempera on gelatin silver and chromogenic development prints

109-3/4 x 144-1/4 in. (278.8 x 366.4 cm)

Restricted gift of Gerald S. Elliott; Anne and William J. Hokin by exchange; and National Endowment for the Arts Purchase Grant

John Baldessari was born and educated in Southern California, where he continues to live, work, and—until 1987—teach, primarily at the California Institute of the Arts. The importance of this place on his artistic development is both obvious (the frequent use of Hollywood film and television stills in his mixed-media works) and subtle (he remained relatively untouched by the grandiosity of the New York art world and continued to rely on teaching both as a source of income and inspiration). However, his California residency may also account for the fluctuations in the success of his career.

Baldessari is best known for his photoworks, begun in the 1980s and continued to the present day, in which apparently unrelated film or photo stills are juxtaposed. Linking the images are colored lines that have symbolic or metaphorical associations: flat colored dots block out the faces of those represented, thereby denying the individuality of the subjects. Fish and Ram (1988), for example, consists of six color photographs joined together to form an irregular geometric shape. A red line—the red, according to Baldessari, symbolizes danger or abused power—courses through the images. It begins in a photo of a woman wearing fur that Baldessari has categorized as a typical woman-as-sex-object image, continues through a group of stockbrokers, and becomes a whip in a picture of a man being assaulted. Directly beneath this photo is an image of conformity, soldiers in formation. In contrast to these images suggestive of a violent and constrictive society are two photographs of animals. Although hunted, the fish and the ram, according to Baldessari, are invested with an instinctual wisdom and oppose the image of a rational bureaucratic society run amok.

Having abandoned, and later symbolically cremated his “traditional” paintings from the 1950s and early 1960s. Baldessari moved rapidly towards Conceptual Art, a movement that in 1970 was just beginning to develop in New York and Los Angeles. Some of Baldessari’s earliest Conceptual pieces are texts on canvas which later developed into combinations of text and photographs, either taken by himself or culled from the media. As with other Conceptual artists who also used text or combinations of text and media, such as Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner, there was an underlying political dimension to Baldessari’s work either in the language itself or in the radical questioning of the boundaries of art.

Among Baldessari’s most infamous Conceptual Art gestures are his Commissioned Paintings (1969), for which he hired amateur artists to execute a series of canvases, thereby calling into question the basis of authenticity in art. In 1971 Baldessari staged another notorious event: he assigned a group of his students to write continuously on a gallery wall, “I will not make any more boring art.” His own work developed alongside that of his students in the now famous “Post-Studio Art” course that he taught at CalArts. The no-requirements, no-grades course produced and impressive roster of successful students including David Salle, Barbara Bloom, and Eric Fischl.